"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Development of doctrine, Fr. Louth, and ecumenism

Ever since, for good reasons of his own, Fr. Al Kimel sharply restricted comments at Pontifications, this site has taken on much of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and debate that used to occur there. At any rate, the pertinent posts of mine garner far more comments than those on any other themes. Two issues stand out: in what sense is there such a thing as authentic development of doctrine ('DD' for short); and whether those distinctively Catholic doctrines which have developed over time are compatible with what both sides profess in common, thus meeting what is rightly assumed to be a necessary condition of authenticity. The two are obviously related. Here I want to discuss the first, leaving the second to subsequent posts.

Since Catholicism takes for granted that there is such a thing as authentic DD, the question is really whether Orthodoxy can also accept the idea. Notice that I did not pose the issue as whether there is such a thing as DD simpliciter. I take for granted that there is, or has been, in each of the three major Christian traditions. So did the late, great Jaroslav Pelikan, convert from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, among whose works I've found profitable are Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena; and his five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. To my knowledge, Pelikan never disputed the very idea of authentic DD after his conversion to Orthodoxy; and certain Orthodox thinkers in America today, such as Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon and Prof. David Hart, also accept authentic DD in some sense.

As I've implied, a burning question is which instances of DD are "authentic." But that obviously raises the still more basic question what criteria, if any, beyond compatibility with what both sides profess in common, a developed doctrine must meet to count as authentic. With my own church and most of my interlocutors here, I further take for granted that the revelation in Jesus Christ is complete and definitive, so that no instance of DD can count as authentic if it adds in substance to the deposit of faith "delivered once-for-all to the saints" (Jude 1:3). So the question gets narrowed still further: how can DD can be authentic without constituting addition to said deposit? If a common answer to that question can be reached, we have a basis for ecumenical dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy primarily, and between both and some branches of Protestantism secondarily.

A major if not the primary obstacle to reaching a common answer is a view, held by most Orthodox and conservative Protestants as well, that distinctively Catholic developments are incompatible with the substance of that faith of the Apostles which all parties claim to profess. My own and their faith commitments aside, I don't find that view plausible. For it has one of two implausible consequences: (a) the Catholic Church is simply unaware that her distinctives are incompatible with the faith the parties profess in common; or (b) Catholicism cannot be said to profess the substance of the faith.

Given the rich intellectual history of Catholicism, (a) is simply incredible on its face. Given the undisputed premise that there was a common faith in the first millennium, identical in substance with that of the Apostles, (b) entails that Catholicism since then is at best a perversion of that faith and, as such, is inspired by a spirit other than the Holy Spirit. The monks of Mt. Athos, and other Orthodox who refuse to recognize the validity of Catholic baptism or the Pope as the canonical bishop of Rome, take essentially that position, as have a good many conservative Protestants. When, in college, I was deciding between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, (b) was the key claim for me to consider.

In the end I rejected (b) because I found too much in Catholicism intellectually and spiritually—especially, but not limited to, the lives and work of her saints—to find (b) plausible. That is why I remained Catholic; and if I weren't Catholic, it would be because I believe (b). But not all the relevant non-Catholic parties seem to believe it; and it is with the Orthodox and Protestants who do not that ecumenical dialogue is possible. For reasons I lack time to rehearse, I restrict myself to the Orthodox among them. Since people such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamum, as well as the Orthodox co-authors of the 2003 SCOBA statement, are among them, I proceed on the assumption that such dialogue is useful.

As per the recommendation of several of my Orthodox interlocutors, I have carefully read a paper by Orthodox priest and ex-Anglican Andrew Louth, written for the recent Pelikan festschrift and entitled "Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?" (I could post the PDF for thirty days at XDrive, but I'm not sure that wouldn't be a copyright violation. Jonathan Prejean, please advise.) Erudite and relatively moderate, Louth's article shall serve as my focus for the rest of this post. Of course I welcome other suggestions for study, and am confident I'll get a bibliography in response.

Louth states the problem thus (page 47):

On occasions when, one might have thought, it would be of value to employ such a notion, it is striking that Orthodox theologians do not do so. A couple of examples spring to mind—the doctrine of icons and the distinction between essence and energies in the Godhead. It would seem obvious to an historian that neither the eighth-century doctrine of the necessity of making and venerating icons nor the fourteenth-century Palamite distinction between essence and energies can really be found in the fourth-century Fathers—especially, in both cases, Basil the Great—to whom appeal is generally made, yet I know of no Orthodox theologian who calls on the category of authentic development to justify the later doctrine. Development does not seem to be perceived as an available category for Orthodox theology.

Thus, what would seem obvious to the historian is, at the very least, far from obvious to the theologian. Why?

The answer is best provided by contrast. Partly under Newman's influence, the Second Vatican Council said (Dei Verbum §8; emphasis added):

...the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16)

By contrast, Louth approvingly quotes a "young Romanian friend" of his (p. 60; emphasis added):

Like Christ's Apostles and their immediate heirs, martyred in the first three centuries, the Christian theologians of the fourth century were not in search of a doctrine, but in search of truth. To spread the Gospel to the Gentiles meant for St. Paul to present the image of Christ in different cultural idioms, which despite their peculiarity were meant to preserve the universality of a unique proclamation. This explains why the elements of the Christian doctrine of God stemmed from the earliest times of the Church and could acquire new connotations even one thousand years after Nicaea...The profound dogmatic elaborations of the fourth century, on the side of the orthodox theologians, did not somewhere further on to a deeper level of understanding. Given their relative flexibility regarding the language, the champions of orthodoxy in the fourth century only provided new means of conceptualization of what is essentially encapsulated in the proclamation of Christ's lordship and divinity..."Development of doctrine," within and beyond the fourth century, represents not the evolution from a primitive stage (of the primitive Church) toward more recent and more intelligent levels of understanding, but the spontaneous process of unfolding of what is already given in the apostolic and unsurpassable confession of Christ as "God and Lord."

Ostensibly, the central contrast between Vatican II's view and the one being proposed by the Romanian is that the former posits an evolutionary "growth in understanding" whereas the latter, denying that kind of growth, posits only a "spontaneous process of unfolding of what is already given." Louth proposes taking the latter "a step further":

...we cannot expect to surpass the Fathers because it is as Fathers in the faith that we reverence them. This might lead to a deeper reflection, if we consider what they thought theology to be....The central theological task, as the Fathers see it, is to interpret the writings of the theologoi, that is, the Scriptures, in the light of the mystery of Christ. It is a task that cannot be surpassed; it remains for us all the touchstone of any authentic "theology" in our sense. There is no development beyond seeking, again and again, to deepen our understanding of the Scriptures in the light of the mystery of Christ (p. 61).

And from this, Louth concludes:

...though the notion of development is bound up with way of historical understanding from which we Orthodox have plenty to learn, the idea of development itself is not an acceptable category in Orthodox theology....

Historical methods, I repeat, have much to offer theology, especially perhaps Orthodox theology. What such methods implement, however, is not the tracing of some upward curve of development but rather the preserving of access in the present to the great theologians of the past. Historical theology is, if you like, a way of refreshing, or revitalizing, the memory of the Church. It prevents our paying too much attention to the clamoring voices of our contemporaries, and enables us to hear the voices of the great witnesses of the past, those to whom we owe our faith, our Fathers in the faith.

Again, emphasis is added.

I find the above puzzling to say the least. Louth insists that development of doctrine is "not an acceptable category in Orthodox theology," so that, presumably, authentic development would not be either. In context, it is clearly a Newmanesque account of development, using predominantly organic metaphors, that is being rejected; yet even on that account, authentic development consists not in addition to the deposit of faith but rather in ever-greater articulation and understanding of what is already given in the deposit. And in the same article, Louth allows that there have been "new connotations" and "new conceptualizations" until at least the 14th century, signifying the "spontaneous unfolding of what was already given"—a metaphor of growth quite similar to Newman's—and that we can "deepen our understanding" of the theologoi, i.e. the Scriptures. Presumably, the new connotations and conceptualizations Louth approves did, and would, help deepen that understanding. How, then, is what Louth allows different from what he rejects?

Apparently, he conceives the difference thus. From the Newmanesque account, adopted in essentials by Vatican II, it follows the Church over the centuries comes to understand the faith better than the Fathers, which consequence is unacceptable; whereas on the account Louth prefers, all the admittedly "new" connotations and conceptualizations that have arisen, and that presumably have enabled us to "deepen our understanding" of the Scriptures, serve at most to "revitalize" the Church's collective memory of what the Fathers taught. Thus the new connotations and conceptualizations put forth by the Fathers revitalized the Church's memory of what the Apostles taught, and historical theology today would enable us to revitalize our memory of what the "unsurpassable" Fathers taught. Hence, if there were such a thing as DD, which there isn't, it would consist in recovery not progress.

The problem with that argument is its false dichotomy between recovery and progress. If, as is granted all around, authentic DD does not consist in addition to the truth contained in the deposit of faith, then it can consist only in new articulation of the material, as distinct from formal, content of the truth fully given in the faith-once-delivered. New articulations that are authentic thus served, and would serve, as the recovery and revitalization of which Louth speaks. And that is what "deepens our understanding of the Scriptures," something whose possibility and desirability both the Fathers and Louth take for granted. In achieving that, we do not "surpass" Scripture and the Fathers in the sense of discovering more truth than they together did. We surpass them when, taking Scripture and their interpretations of it as points of departure, we formalize the same material content they did, but in ways that exhibit it ever more fully. Now unless that augmented the Church's understanding in ways in which mere repetition of canonical and patristic writings would not, there would be no point in doing it. But there's always been such a point. And that, as far as I can tell, is just the kind of authentic DD that Newman and Vatican II advocate.

It's a shame that Louth and some of his colleagues seem so averse to that. There's enough in what he's willing to allow, it seems to me, to comprise what the Catholic Church would consider authentic DD that does not constitute addition to the deposit of faith. I would prefer not to think that he and others reject the idea of authentic DD all the same merely because the Catholic Church affirms it.
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