Friday, December 21, 2007

On Continuity Of Principles

The entire second half (aka "Part II") of John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is devoted to distinguishing between doctrinal Developments and Corruptions. This follows Part I, which readily established that Christians believe in a multitude of 'developed' doctrines. To make the development/corruption distinction, Newman creates seven "Notes", and spends the second half of the book giving them flesh. His second Note, that "There is no corruption if it retains... the same principles," I find profound.

Principles lie deep in an entity's psyche. They are it's First Things, and make for a better test of heresy than does doctrine. "The life of doctrines may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody. (Ch. V, Sec. 2(1))" Unlike doctrines, which are concrete and specific, and which grow over time, principles are abstract and permanent.

This section of Newman's may seem largely academic, but I wonder if it contains a new way of articulating that which divides Western Christianity (new for me, that is). A Protestant and a Catholic will have one heck of a time trying to discuss the doctrine of papal infallibility, for instance, as they do not agree in principle. The conversation is fruitless until it turns to debate principles.

The same can said of intra-Protestant discource, for that matter. A major principle of my Reformed denomination is "Covenant", with many doctrines flowing therefrom. To stay "Reformed", varied developments are allowed, so long as the Principle of "Covenant" remains intact. Some Baptists accept and others reject Calvinism, all while remaining Baptist, because their unifying principle is credo-baptism.

Consider what makes one "Evangelical". With the swelling of liberalism within mainline denominations, those who did not abandon faith in the Gospel became united. The doctrines of baptism, predestination, and continuing revelation fell as secondary doctrinal victims to the great principle of faith in the Bible's truth. Some will even extend this titular courtesy to Roman Catholics! It became our defining feature.

For proper Ecumenicity, does it not seem fair to say that we must articulate the underlying principles of our beliefs before we can challenge one another on our doctrines and their development?

[UPDATE: See here for a term paper written by blogger Danny Garland Jr. (of Franciscan University of Steubenville) applying Newman's seven Notes to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.]


joseph said...

Yes. That is what must be done. I think that is exactly what Pope Benedict XVI is trying to say to all Christian confessions. We must be honest about the prinicples of our doctrines first. Of course, this cannot be done without the honest discussion of where those doctrines had their origin.

Bryan at Principium Unitatis typcially has excellent discourse in this regard, in my opinion.

Thos said...

Joseph, thanks. You and I probably couldn't recommend Bryan's efforts at honest ecumenical dialogue enough. He has real integrity that I hope I can emulate.

Note: Danny just posted a graduate paper involving Newman's approach that I mentioned in this post (on papal infallibility). I recommend it here:

Peace in Christ,