Hallmarks of development
Development of Christian doctrine over long periods of time is fact. Therefore, it must be understood as part of that heavenly gift which is Revelation itself; the unfolding and understanding of salvation history over millennia. Concerning Revelation, Cardinal Newman argues that “He who gave it virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption” as the developments unfold; “or, in other words, that that intellectual action through successive generations . . . must, so far forth as it can claim to have been put in charge of the Revelation, be in its determinations infallible.” John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame Series in the Great Books) (1994) [Kindle iOS version], Retrieved from Amazon.com at 92 / 1559.
Fittingly, today is Pentecost Sunday, my first as a Catholic Christian:
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. John 16:13*
The doctrines of the Catholic Church have certain characteristics lending weight and credibility, urging the diligent student to pause and consider. As Cardinal Newman explains, doctrines of the Church are traced to high antiquity, yet carry promise for today (93 / 1572). The Faith has that ring of truth sounding from precise, yet gradual, formation over time (93 / 1572). The Catholic doctrines are ordered harmoniously (93 / 1573). And so it should be, since the “doctrines are necessarily developments of one [divine gift], and, if so, are of necessity consistent with each other, or form a whole.” (96 / 1609). As soon as the student graduates beyond anti-Catholic prejudices, pamphlets and authors, allowing the Church to testify on Her on behalf, one discovers something solid and substantial. The antiquity, precision, gradualism and harmony “dispose the imagination most forcibly towards the belief that a teaching so consistent with itself, so well balanced, so young and so old, not obsolete after so many centuries, but vigorous and progressive still, is the very development contemplated in the Divine Scheme.” (93 / 1573).
Greater than the sum of its parts
One might accept the whole of the Divine Scheme; the entire heavenly gift of Revelation. But by what authority do we begin negating, thus enfeebling, and amputating, thus mutilating, the faith once delivered? (94 / 1586). By what authority do I receive some, or even most, of the Gift but reject what well may be as integral as the part I accepted? I had long accepted part of the Revelation on the authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ. By the twenty-first century, I had realized there is no good ground to reject the whole of the Revelation. Cafeteria-style Christianity is not a valid option. If part matters, the whole even more.
Sixteenth-century heresies underlying Protestantism lack antiquity, precision, gradualism and harmony. Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura was a novelty, springing to mind when his back was to the wall. What else could he say to support his recent formula, sola fide? Antiquity was not on his side. Heretics rely on private interpretation of Scripture for new teachings. Thus began 500 years of negations and denials. Luther threw open the barn door, releasing a hundred horses onto a hundred hills. What started with neither antiquity, precision nor gradualism, likewise lacks harmony. In five short centuries, a hundred grazing horses became a stampede of thousands, running in as many directions.
As Cardinal Newman discovered, “[i]n early times the heretical doctrines were confessedly barren and short-lived, and could not stand their ground against Catholicism.” (94 / 1591). Heresies since the sixteenth-century also lack staying power. They run on the fuel of truths inherited from the Catholic faith; for all truth is God’s truth. In my own experience, I was blessed to be part of Christian traditions steeped in the Scriptures, and so blessed with abundant truth.
However, I’m convinced Protestant and non-denominational sects do not run long on their peculiar denials and formulas. On one extreme are mainline Protestant denominations, caught in the drift of subjectivity and apparent unbelief; reduced to shells of what they were. At the other extreme, believers within tightly-wound traditions, nearly gnostic, reassure each other they’re all saved, for they “know that they know”. Between each extreme, in fertile fields of truth sown with error, ten thousand horses are running out of steam.
Nicaea, knights & now
Cardinal Newman raises the strong presumption, “that, if there must be and are in fact developments in Christianity, the doctrines propounded by successive Popes and Councils, through so many ages, are they.” (96 / 1605). Presumptions carry the day, absent sufficient evidence to the contrary. The student of Church history, messy as it is, will discover that “the Roman Catholic communion of this day is the successor and representative of the Medieval Church, [and] that the Medieval Church is the legitimate heir of the Nicene”. (97 / 1626). By what authority do I separate from the Church that gave us the Nicene Creed in the late-fourth century? Indeed, the Council of Nicaea predates even the Church’s canonization of the New Testament, not completed until the first decade of the fifth century. Further, Newman urges, “all parties will agree that, of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers”. (97 / 1628).
Only one question
My own experience and study led to the conclusion I was on a little island cut off from historic Christianity. If Saint Athanasius or Saint Ambrose ever came from the grave and found themselves at the little Baptist congregation of my childhood, or the Calvinistic assembly of my adulthood, they would have only one question: What is the way to some small chapel where Mass is said?
ONE LORD. ONE FAITH. ONE BAPTISM.
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27
*New American Bible Revised Edition