The Deposit of Faith and the development of doctrine

Philip Trower explores what we mean by
“development of doctrine”
There are certain words or terms in the Church’s vocabulary for explaining her beliefs
and practices which I have always found especially enlightening, and perhaps more
than any others, those which I have given as the title of this article; the deposit of faith and
the development of doctrine.
Together they wonderfully encapsulate the whole process by which the Christian
revelation was given to the world and over the centuries came to be formulated and
explained in the way it has by its authorised guardian, the one holy Catholic and apostolic
As every well-instructed Catholic knows, divine revelation ended with the death of the
last apostle St John, and this, in its implicit form, is what ‘the deposit of faith’ means. I
specially like it because it has such a satisfyingly solid, definite sound. It is the totality
of natural and supernatural truths and facts about the nature, history and destiny of
humankind and our relationship with God which was given by Our Lord into the care
of the apostles along with a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them and their
successors expound it. It included of course the Old Testament, then all that would
eventually find its way into the New, together with what was handed on by word of mouth,
now known as Tradition, Our Lord himself being the focal point and fulfilment of it all. He
is the Good News, which is what essentially it is all about.
However, as received by the apostles, the
components were not systematically organised. I
hope the analogy is not irreverent, but it was as
though Our Lord had left them with an immense
heap of jewels, some individual gems, others
already made into crowns, coronets, bracelets,
brooches and so on with instructions to label and
arrange them.
The classifying, labelling and arranging is what has come to be called the development
of doctrine. The development does not increase the deposit. It does not add to revelation.
What develops is our understanding of the deposit’s meaning.
The discovery of this fact by Blessed John Henry Newman played a major role in
bringing him into the Church since it answered Anglican accusations that Rome had
added doctrines to the deposit of faith which had initially no part in it. I think one can say
that before Newman the existence of development was recognised as a reality without
being formally explained or analysed. His book on the subject accounts for the place it
has in Catholic thinking today.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
As the CCC puts it: “even if the Revelation
is already complete, it has not been made
fully explicit; it remains for Christian faith
gradually to grasp its full significance over the
course of the centuries.” (64) Thanks to the
assistance of the Holy Spirit this comes about
in the three ways listed under point 94 of the
CCC: “through the contemplation and study
of believers who ponder these things in their hearts”; through “theological research;” and
“from the preaching of those who have received, along with the right of succession in the
episcopate, the sure charism of truth.”
It is interesting here I think that the authors of the catechism put the totality of believers,
the priestly people as a whole, first. The entire Church over the course of the centuries
is infallible, not just the Pope or Pope and Bishops in particular circumstances. Here
a useful dialogue tool with non-Catholic Christians, I think, is the famous saying of the
5th century St Vincent of Lerins; “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.” We
can safely believe as divinely guaranteed “what has always been believed everywhere
by everybody.” St Vincent seems not to have been so good on development , if he was
conscious of the idea at all. He took issue with St Augustine over his teaching about grace
seeing it as an addition to what had always been believed always and everywhere.
If one wants to explain development to Catholics who are not familiar with it or other
Christians --- i.e. how understanding grows without the meaning changing or being added
to -- it seems to me the key word is ‘implicit’. Or rather there are two key words; ‘implicit’
and ‘explicit’. What was previously ‘implicit’ or hidden in a teaching or statement becomes
‘explicit’. Both words derive from the analogy of a pleated robe or dress. What is hidden
in the folds is there but not seen until the folds are opened out.
This can be explained in modern terms by the analogy of a couple sending each other
text messages. He has had to go abroad on business. After a few days he unexpectedly
texts her as follows. “So sorry, darling, I won’t be back till Tuesday the 12th. Headquarters
want me to sort things out in Abu Dhabi.” This is what he says explicitly.
But when his wife receives the message --- in addition, possibly, to saying ‘Blast!’---
she can decipher a whole lot of other information which necessarily follows from her
knowledge of the plans they have both made for the coming two weeks and which will
now have to be altered. All this is implicit or hidden in the folds of the message. She must
cancel her husband’s appointment to see the doctor on such and such a day. He won’t be
able to take their son to watch the foot ball match as planned, and so on. Her husband
knows all this. But it isn’t necessary to spell it out. It is there implicitly.
Doctrine: The Trinity
Coming back to the Church and the faith, perhaps the best example of the development
or bringing to light of the explicit meaning of one of Our Lord’s teachings is the history
of the development of the doctrine or dogma of the Blessed Trinity which did not reach
its form as we now have it until the 7th or 8th century. The best account, The Origins of
the Dogma of the Trinity by the famous French late 19th early 20th century scholar P.Jules
Lebreton, is now well over a hundred years old, but it is none the less good for that.
The doctrine of the Trinity is all there
implicitly in everything Our Lord said
about the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit as recorded in New Testament or
handed down orally. But it was several
centuries before certainty was reached on
every point including those we now take
for granted.
For instance even after the Council of Nicaea there were still doubts in the eastern
Roman empire as to whether the Holy Spirit was to be regarded as God in the same
sense as the Father and the Son. These doubts were finally put to rest by the Council of
Constantinople in 381. As for the filioque clause in the Creed stating that the Holy Spirit
proceeds from the Son as well as the Father it came to be inserted by Spanish Catholics
at the Council of Toledo in 589 A.D. From Spain its inclusion spread westwards and was
eventually endorsed by Rome. It is still not accepted by the oriental churches no longer
in union with Rome.
Strangely enough, most of our Protestant brothers and sisters, who theoretically believe
in the Bible alone, owe their belief in the Blessed Trinity as they now profess it to the work
of Catholics in the first four centuries. This is a useful point if you are in discussion with ‘Bible alone’ Christians. I use it (sweetened by a cup of coffee) when they call at my door
in the hope of converting me to their Bible alone viewpoint.
It is also important to remember when in dialogue with Christians of other denominations
that, as I mentioned earler, development is a work of the whole Church, not just of clerics
and theologians. It is not something ‘imposed’ on the Church by the hierarchy without
reference to the lesser clergy or laity. It is a work of the entire people of God, reflecting on
what they have been taught over the centuries or what they have learned through their
personal prayer life and endeavours to be ‘Imitations of Christ.’
So there we have it. This is how what was or is implicit
in the deposit of faith committed by Our Lord to the
apostles and their successors came over the centuries
to be developed or drawn out from between the folds
and made explicit without any addition to or change of
fundamental meaning. There is only deeper or fuller
understanding. But none of this would have been
possible unless Our Lord had left his Church with some
means of determining what in the last resort is to be
believed when there are or have been differences of
Common sense
As far as other Christians today are concerned there can be better more charitable
relations, as thank God there now are, and good works undertaken together. But surely
it is a matter of common sense, confirmed by history, that there can be no unity of belief,
implicit or explicit, without a living voice binding on all to say Yes or No, when somebody
comes up with a new explanation of what some aspect of the original deposit means.



Philip Trower is the author of several books including Turmoil and Truth and A Danger to the State,
an historical novel.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2018