Examining Newman’s “Development” Theory

On November 1, 2016, during the Solemnity of All Saints, Pope Francis further steered the Catholic ship towards New Age spirituality. In his speech, he called for the need “to confront the troubles and anxieties of our age with the spirit and love of Jesus” and since new situations require “fresh spiritual energy,” modern Christians need a new identity card. With that, he added six “new beatitudes for saints of a new age” to those taught by Jesus. One of them says:

Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others discover him.

Seeing God in every person is straight out of New Age paganism. The downward spiral path Catholicism descends to each day is not shocking. When a truth is being sacrificed for a lie, a time will soon come when there are no more truths left. In case you are wondering how effortlessly the pope could officially import Hinduism into his system, Newman’s development of doctrine theory provided the ground.

This development hypothesis was introduced by John Henry Newman, a former Anglican who embraced Catholicism, in his 1845 work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It stipulates that over the centuries, Catholic doctrines have become more detailed and explicit even though their essence or substance remained the same. That is, their doctrines evolve and develop – based on situations and the wisdom of Rome – like an acorn seed grows into a tree. This is a crucial aspect of modern Catholic apologetics and it needs to be deconstructed.

Before Cardinal Newman embraced Catholicism, he had written some works attacking it, so when he converted and made his work on development public, not everyone was excited. In fact, some Catholics received his book with suspicion and dismissed his theory as a threat to Catholic orthodoxy. Although his hypothesis was crafted to explain the huge disparity between early church beliefs and Roman Catholicism, it could also justify a departure from Catholic doctrines to modernist ideas.

This resulted in a controversy which made Pope Pius X issue an encyclical on September 4, 1907, to condemn “evolutionary” principles that may alter Rome’s dogmas. At the risk of losing their position, Rome’s clergy were made to swear an Oath Against Modernism:

“I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously.”

Eventually, Newman’s hypothesis won the day among Rome’s hierarchy, and it became a ground for changing some doctrines at the Vatican II council. From then on, the theology of the early church fathers became subordinate to those of the Scholastics and theirs became subordinate to post-Vatican II theology. Now, Catholics no longer had the insurmountable problem of trying to prove everything they believed and practiced came directly from the apostles. They could just invoke the “development” magic word and whittle Protestant criticisms.

It also divided Catholicism into 3 main camps:
(1) the Magisterium, Pope and scholars of Rome who embraced Newman’s theory,
(2) the popular, Internet Catholic apologists (largely former Protestants) who embrace this theory but disagree with the liberal scholarship of Rome’s magisterium
(3) the “Rad Trads” – various groups of Catholics who regard Newman as a closet heretic, Vatican II as a deviation from orthodoxy and the popes from that point on as anti-popes.

But does Newman’s hypothesis really stand up to Biblical, historical, logical scrutiny and doctrinal purity? Let’s see.

1. Biblical scrutiny

A certain Catholic apologist appealed to six Bible passages as support:

a) Matthew 5:17 – This speaks of Jesus fulfilling (Gr: plero) the law and prophets. To parallel this fulfillment with development of unbiblical ideas centuries after Christ or after the Bible’s completion is outrageous.

b) Matthew 13:31-32 – This is a parable likening the kingdom of heaven to a tree springing up from a mustard seed. The illustration of the kingdom in vs 24-30 was also being repeated here. Nothing is said about doctrine.

c) John 14:26 – Here, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will teach us and bring to our remembrance all that He taught. Do the Marian dogmas, purgatory or papal infallibility fall into this category? No.

d) John 16:13 – The Holy Spirit guides us to the truth. To assume Rome speaks by the Holy Spirit is circular reasoning since many of their “truths” contradict, distort and displace the plain teaching of the Bible. God is not the author of confusion.

e) 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 – This speaks of the things of the Spirit being revealed to the believer. In contrast to the cultic grid that whatever issues from Rome is from the Holy Spirit, these passages speak of each believer being personally led by the Holy Spirit to judge all things. This is private judgement and it grates against Catholicism.

f) Galatians 4:4 – speaks of the fullness of time when God sent forth Jesus. This appointed time is in line with Biblical prophecies (Is. 7:14, 9:6 etc). None of the proof text presented in support of this 19th century theory stands up on closer examination.

2. Historical scrutiny

Many Catholics fondly quote Newman: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” This implies that Catholic dogmas – though unknown in the early church – exist in “seed form” at that period, unlike Protestants who can’t trace back their doctrines in history. But when one factors the lack of historical evidence for the papacy, Marian, indulgences, purgatory etc., this narrative wears thin. Even Newman made some detours on the historical argument:

“Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it” (An Essay, 9).

In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
“No Catholic doctrine could be fully proved (or, for that matter, disproved) by historical evidence -‘in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.’ Indeed, anyone ‘who believes the dogma of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic.”

Of course, this is the only way one can be Catholic or remain one – by blind “faith” in Rome’s authority, not by being deep in history. The main difference between the Catholic and the Protestant view of history is that while the latter appeals to history to show that many of the dogma foisted on Catholics today were made out of the cloth, the former reads back their modern dogmas into church history. This is revisionism and until a Catholic takes this blinder off, he/she can’t consistently approach history.

Interestingly, Newman noted this Catholic “doublethink” before his conversion:

“I am but showing how Romanists reconcile their abstract reference for Antiquity with their Romanism – with their creed and their notion of the Church’s infallibility in declaring it; how small their success is, and how great their unfairness is another question…they extol the Fathers as a whole, and disparage them individually; they call them one by one Doctors of the Church, yet they explain them away one by one their arguments, judgements, and testimony. They refuse to combine their separate and coincident statements; they take each by himself, and settle with the first before they go to the next” (Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, 1838, 70-71).

This is an argument Newman never succeeded in refuting. When we point out to Catholics one or two church fathers who disagree with what Rome now says they must believe, they quickly dismiss them as “individually fallible.” They use denial as a shield to protect their minds from the reality that history is Rome’s enemy.

When Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception (1854) and Papal Infallibility (1870) which lacked historical precedents as dogmas, Catholic scholars began to dig into their bag of tricks to see how they could reconcile them with the prevalent concept that all Catholic doctrines were complete from the apostles. This was why Newman’s theory became a necessity. History was too dangerous to behold.

Since ancient Catholicity is determined by modern Romanism, whatever direction the pope today blows is where Catholics must follow. Perhaps in the next few years when Mary will be made co-redeemer or co-equal with the Trinity, then it would become so obvious that the margin of faith in Rome is too wide after all.

3. Logical scrutiny

Up until the 17th century, Rome claimed that all her doctrines came unchanged from the apostles. So the Catholic church just sprang up like Athena from Zeus’ skull! In the 19th century however, Darwinian theories became popular and Newman’s theory was in tune with the philosophical spirit of that time. When he suggested that the deposit of faith left by Christ had evolved into the 19th century church, it was a shift from the Athenian to the Darwinian view of church history.

But if the logic here is valid for Catholicism, it must also be valid for Protestantism. If the Latin church developed into Roman Catholicism, we can also say that it further developed into Protestantism. Unless Catholics want to tell us that there is a fixed direction that development must always follow.

The development theory is predicated on the argument that several doctrines in the Bible underwent development e.g. the afterlife, the Messiah, Trinity, the Holy Spirit as a Divine Person, equality of Jews and Gentiles and the Deity of Christ. But it’s theologically invalid to parallel the canonical progression of revelation with extra-canonical development of doctrine. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article V elucidates the Evangelical position:
We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive. We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings” (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Inter-Varsity Press, 476).

Dr William Witt, an Anglican scholar, points out that Newman commits a fallacy of equivocation or ambiguity by not distinguishing between two different kinds of development. The first type of development adds nothing to the original content of faith, but rather brings out its necessary implications (e.g the Deity of Christ, Trinity) which is what took place at the councils of Nicea, Chalcedon etc. The second type is the new development that does not proceed from the articulation of Biblical teaching e.g Marian dogmas, papacy, penance. The first is legitimate while the second is illegitimate.

Newman gave a sort of disclaimer: “the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered.” (An Essay, 121)

Since the popes and councils have contradicted themselves and still do. Newman’s hypothesis is irreversibly shattered into pieces.

4. Doctrinal purity

Another chief flaw of Newman’s theory is how provides a cover for doctrinal errors and corruptions. The proponent himself said that the Montanist and Novatian heresies were “raw materials” for the church and conceded to Catholicism’s adoption of pagan worship:

“The use of temples, and these dedicated to the particular saints and ornamented on occasions … incense, lamps and candles, votive offerings on recovery from illness, holy water; asylums, holy days and seasons, images at a later date, processions, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure … are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church” (An Essay, 373).

On pg. 355 he says: “feeling also that these usages had originally come from primitive revelations and from the instinct of nature…were moreover possessed of the very archetypes, of which paganism attempted the shadows; the rulers of the Church from early times were prepared should the occasion arise, to adopt, to imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace as well as the philosophy of the educated class.”

Rehashing the same excuse, Karl Keating wrote in Catholicism and Fundamentalism: “We should expect true religion to be fulfillment of, but not a complete contradiction of, mankind’s earlier stabs at religious truth…on the positive side, ancient religions were remote preparations for Christ’s coming…”

With “development” on her sleeve, Rome has no qualms adopting pagan or cultic religions today. This is why Pope Francis peddles New Age doctrines like a hustler and no whimper is raised from all the Internet Catholic apologists. But God warned His people “be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way” (Deut. 12:30-31).

The Christian Faith has been “once for all delivered” to us and it’s our duty to contend against any attempt of false teachers to re-tailor, add to or subtract from it (Jude 3). The word translated “delivered” in this verse is what Greek grammarians call an aorist passive participle indicting an act was completed in the past with no continuing element. This leaves no room for a new faith or body of truth from a pope, organization or guru. God and His Word do not change.

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