Irenaeus and Doctrinal Development – The Catholics Debate

There is a debate of interest going on in the blogosphere, and once I get a grip on it, I might contribute my thoughts on Irenaeus. This debate interests me for several reasons:

I will not post the entire debate, but snippets. I hope that you click the links and read them.

Start here:

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.

Then you notice the comment thread and read this:

Prior to Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure is more like it. That happens all the time. St. Irenaeus’s chiliastic view needs to be corrected by the Alexandrian tradition; St. Justin Martyr’s subordinationism, by the ecumenical councils.

Then go here:

When I last devoted a post to an Orthodox take on DD, I did so in response to several of my Orthodox readers who recommended an essay by Fr. Andrew Louth entitled “Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?”, written for the recent Pelikan festschrift. Unsurprisingly, Louth’s answer was “no.” But in my post, I analyzed Louth’s arguments and concluded that he was conceding substantively what he was rejecting verbally—i.e., that authentic DD has occurred in a sense now recognized not only by the Catholic Church but, I maintain, by some Orthodox thinkers such as Pelikan himself. I had been prepared to reach such an odd conclusion by the blowback I had got, privately and publicly, from criticizing the well-known Orthodox pastor Fr. Patrick Reardon for rejecting DD. Eventually I felt obliged to concede that Reardon, and perhaps some other Orthodox thinkers, are willing to admit “authentic DD” in some meaty sense of that term. But I also had to recognize that other Orthodox thinkers, such as Louth and Behr, deny that they themselves do. In this respect, the dissensus within Orthodoxy reminds me of its dissensus on other matters, such as ecclesiology. But it is not for me to criticize Orthodoxy for such dissensus; after all, in the Catholic Church we have the Magisterium, which rightly exists to minimize doctrinal dissensus and does so de jure, but often does not de facto. My aim is far narrower and more useful: to criticize arguments against the possibility of authentic DD, so that the parties on all sides might become more able and willing to get clear with each other about what the fact of authentic DD actually consists in.

Also, check out this link. Further, from the above post,

Here’s the nub of Behr’s argument:

If tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture, then it cannot change — and this means, it can neither grow nor develop. A tradition with a potential for growth ultimately undermines the Gospel itself — it leaves open the possibility for further revelation, and therefore the Gospel would no longer be sure and certain. If our faith is one and the same as that of the apostles, then, as Irenaeus claimed, it is equally immune from improvement by articulate or speculative thinkers as well as from diminution by inarticulate believers (Against the Heresies, 1.10.2). We must take seriously the famous saying of St. Vincent of Lerins: “We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all” (Commonitorium, 2).

From an Orthodox perspective, there simply is, therefore, no such thing as dogmatic development. What there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith — responding, each time, to a particular context, a particular controversy etc. But it is one and the same faith that has been believed from the beginning — the continuity of the correct interpretation of Scripture. And for this reason, the Councils, as Fr. John Meyendorff pointed out , never formally endorsed any aspect of theology as dogma which is not a direct (and correct) interpretation of the history of God described in Scripture: only those aspects were defined as dogma which pertain directly to the Gospel. So, for instance, the only aspect pertaining to the Virgin Mary that was ever recognized as dogma is that she is Theotokos — “Mother of God” — for she gave birth to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ — it is something which pertains to the Incarnation, rather than to Mary herself. Whilst individual theologians have speculated about other aspects concerning the Virgin herself, and her glorification, items not directly pertaining to the Gospel of Christ’s work of salvation, such as the Assumption and the Immaculate conception, have never been held to have the status of dogma in the Orthodox Church.

Nest, this post,

In just this respect, Irenaeus was the first major contributor to what I call “meta-doctrine,” i.e. the development of doctrine about doctrine. As far as we know, he was the first theologian to argue explicitly that the “true doctrine,” the orthodox faith, was that which was received, held and professed publicly and in common by the communion of churches led by those who enjoyed a publicly verifiable apostolic succession. Given that kind of succession, the only reasonable conclusion was that there was no esoteric “tradition” or “knowledge” or “Scriptures” whose import was contrary to that claimed by the official leaders of the Church. And that is just what we would expect if, as the Catholic Church has always insisted, divine revelation was given publicly to all for the salvation of all.

Then you have this post:

I’m struck by how scandalized John is by the Catholic Church’s developed understanding of her own teaching authority. And let us make no mistake: the claims of Rome have been a scandal to many for over a millennium. For some, the scandal has only been exacerbated by the assertion of the ecumenically-minded Second Vatican Council that “…the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum §10). As a Catholic, I imagine the scandal to be rather similar to that which Peter afforded many educated Jews of his time. But I must now address Ioannes.

And finally,

To deny that dogma is demonstrable from scripture would seem to betray a lack of confidence itself an anomaly to the great tradition. As I have told you before, I consider the word ‘deduction’ problematic because of its connotations, not because I find it ridiculous to speak of teachings which follow of necessity from scripture. When heretics challenged the claim that the orthodox doctrines were those of the apostles, the fathers refuted them by showing whence their doctrines came. When heretics read their own teachings into scripture, the fathers pointed out how those teachings made scripture incoherent. Orthodoxy to them was inevitable. It cannot be avoided if we are to keep the whole picture as painted by the apostles intact. Yet on your view it seems orthodoxy can be avoided, or at least dodged on the field in which the battles used to be waged. The fathers’ scriptural arguments did not establish their teachings but merely suggested a probability in their favor. Since this probability or reasonableness is subjectively evaluated, the heretics could disagree and appeal to their different interpretative standards. And so it was to no real end for St Irenaeus to “revert,” as he does in the latter part of book three of AH, “to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God.” Indeed, not only is scriptural proof unnecessary, but the attempt to provide it would be futile. In that court Irenaeus could never make his case sure beyond a reasonable doubt. The meaning of scripture is conditioned not on its own inherent intelligibility but on who does the interpreting. Thus Irenaeus wasted his time offering exegetical arguments–which is a shame, since he could have used that time to make more explicit the teaching authority whose proper place in his argument he failed to grasp, not elucidating it sufficiently. He did not realize that the charism which resides in the objective tradition does not only operate through the bishops but in fact resides in them, too, much as it would reside later in Pio Nono, enabling him to say, as the story goes (and se non è vero, è ben trovato), ‘I am the tradition’. Irenaeus the bishop should have anticipated that stroke of logic, throwing out the future pope’s slogan against his opponents, who would have been left manifestly jostling around in the realm of opinion, confined therein by the incarnated charismatic authority which both guarded and, more than that, as its uniquely capable interpreter, was part of the deposit of faith.

Although this may be just a deposit of material for myself, I encourage you to read the thoughts of Doctrinal Development and weigh the theory against Scripture. Are we allowed to develop doctrine beyond that of the Apostles or to use non-biblical concepts in doctrine?

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