Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thoughts on doctrinal development

I like studying doctrinal history, and understanding how, when, and why, different Christian doctrines and ideas have changed over time. As a result I have formed some opinions about the validity of various doctrines based on their origins and history.

I am occasionally bemused when someone expresses the view that it's not legitimate to draw opinions on a doctrine from a study of its origins and history, and that "doctrinal development" is perfectly allowable.

I tend to side with the following view:
"the Gospel is never different from what it was before. Hence, if at any time someone says that the faith includes something which yesterday was not said to be of the faith, it is always heterodoxy, which is any doctrine different from orthodoxy. There is no difficulty about recognising false doctrine: there is no argument about it: it is recognised at once, whenever it appears, merely because it is new." (Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Premiere Instruction pastorale 27)



Blogger Abigail said...

Wouldn't things like gay marriage and women's ordination be examples of "something which yesterday was not said to be of the faith," though?

Also, I think that to some extent real theological development is necessary as our philosophical understandings of the world develop. Our understandings of God are far less anthropomorphic than what parts of the Old Testament present. We reject communal or inherited guilt, ritual purity, and other assumptions about morality present in much of the Bible. Our understanding of the relationship between the natural and supernatural realms is drastically different from that of first century Christians. And what becomes of Adam, first of sinners, through whom death entered the world, in light of our evolutionary history?

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, the problem with your quote is that it is falsified by your own research. You have demonstrated that the gospel as generally understood in the 20th century was not the same as what was generally understood in the 2nd century. So "the Gospel is never different from what it was before" is false. This undermines your basis for promoting the 2nd century version of the gospel, which is necessarily different from yesterday's version. On what basis do you prefer the old, but not necessarily original (1st century), version to the most recent one?

Blogger Sophist said...

Disagree. Firstly the gospel is different from age to age as understanding of it varies. The intended meaning perhaps does not change, but the grammarians of ages past, present, and no doubt the future, put different understanding to each word.

Is Paul's address brothers, or is it siblings? (What are anyway the implications of using the male gender in those days, and how are they different from now? A lot of grammarians believe that the male gender encompassed also the female gender in those writings, be in an old Indo-European thing or an influence from Hebrew.)

What does Paul mean anyway by the words malakoí, or arsenokoîtai? A lot of people believe them to mean men who practice homosexuality, other people say that this is an interpretation of the words themselves which is unnecessary, and so on.

Secondly, the religion does develop. The Bible itself developed over many centuries, which explains the high number of (what at least appears to be) contradictions. Perhaps the gospel does not change, but there is then another gospel to be added, and if not a gospel then a degree or an agreement, which perhaps contradicts the gospel, but is all the same an article of the faith.

Finally, understanding of religion is never something fixed. People do not need a clear definition of what is right, and if they did then there wouldn't be so many varieties of Christianity, and varieties of orthodoxy.

Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

Time to convert to orthodoxy, perhaps?

Blogger Andrew said...

Of course people's understandings of the gospel have changed! The point of the quote is to say that the original gospel itself does not change, and so if anyone changes the gospel they are heretics. The implication is that the churches of today, having severely departed from the gospel, are largely heretics.

I have no problem with things that aren't part of the essentials of Christianity changing. Indeed, in some cases I think they ought to change. However, it's when the core concepts of Christianity start changing that I get concerned. I agree that there was real theological change throughout the biblical period, and think the core parts of the religion did change and that Christianity is essentially a different religion to the Judaism of 800BC as a result. My concern is that the 'Christianity' of today is likewise essentially a different religion to early Christianity due to drastic changes to core elements.

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, then, Andrew, how do you discover what was the original gospel from which people have departed? Many learned theologians have argued that the 2nd century version was already very different from the original, and that they have recovered and returned to something like the original. How am I to evaluate such claims? Is it safe to assume that oldest implies closest to the original?


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