Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lonergan and Newman on the development of doctrine.

At the FIDES QUAERENS INTELLECTUM BLOG, a discussion concerning the development of doctrine (DD) as espoused by Bernard Lonergan in the book The Way To Nicea (a translation of the first part of Lonergan’s De Deo Trino by Conn O’Donovan), with John Henry Newman’s theory of DD has been taking place during the last few days. Yesterday, I received a request from Iohannes (John) to type up page 13 from the book; I am responding to that request, with this new thread, typing up not only page 13, but a also a portion of page 14, and adding some of my own reflections on the material.

From Lonergan’s pen we read:

In the first place, within ante-Nicene movement we have to recognize two distinct, though related, developments. There is no doubt that those early Christian centuries produced a development in trinitarian and christological doctrine, but this doctrinal development contained within it another, more profound development: the development of the very notion of dogma. But this latter development was implicit not explicit; the question was not sharply defined, methodically investigated and unambiguously answered. Yet somehow the question was both asked and answered within the process of development which, if it had not taken place, we could not now describe. Investigating that process now from our perspective, we can identify and isolate both the question and the answer in a way that the ante-Nicene authors themselves neither did nor could have done. For those early Christian writers, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, paved the way for the definition of dogma, without really knowing what they were doing. This is hardly surprising, since it is a feature of every significant advance in the field of intellect that it must first be accomplished before it can be reflected on, examined in detail, and accurately explained.

Secondly, there is an important distinction to be made between the type of doctrinal development that leads from obscurity to clarity, and the quite different type that leads from one kind of clarity to another. The emergence of the very notion of dogma, grounded in the word of God as true, was a movement from obscurity to clarity; on the other hand, the doctrine of the Christian Church concerning Jesus Christ advanced not from obscurity to clarity, but from one kind of clarity to another. What Mark, Paul, and John thought about Christ was neither confused nor obscure, but quite clear and distinct; yet their teaching acquired a new kind of clarity and distinctness through the definition of Nicea. But further dogmas had to follow, and then the historical investigation of dogmas, before the fact and the nature of dogmatic development itself could be clearly established.[7]

7. For this reason the question of dogmatic development is a much more recent one. Athanasius neither wanted nor intended to bring about dogmatic development; on the contrary, in his profession of faith he would have preferred to use only the words of scripture, if “the malice of the Arians” had not rendered necessary another mode of speech. Cf. De decretis niciaenae synodi, 32; AW II, 28, 1ff. ; MG 25, 473D-476A.

Thirdly, we can now see how we have to go about investigating the ante-Nicene development. For we have to deal not with one, but with two distinct developments, and not with two developments of the same type, since one is from obscurity to clarity, the other from one kind of clarity to another. (Bernard Lonergan, The Way To Nicea, trans. by Conn O’Donovan, pp. 13, 14.)

[In the above quotation, one can discern an implementation of Hegelian dialectic: thesis-statements about Jesus Christ in the Scriptures; antithesis-development of the very notion of dogma; synthesis-Trinitarian doctrine (i.e the Nicene Creed).]

Newman too affirmed a certain sense of “clarity” concerning the Scriptural witness of the person of Jesus Christ, as attested in the writings of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers and “heretics”. In his Introduction of An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine he points out that there was a consensus among the CFs concerning the clear affirmations about Jesus Christ as found in the Scriptures; but then is quick to point out that:

The Catholic Truth in question is made up of a number of separate propositions [as clearly testified within the Scriptures], each of which, if maintained to the exclusion of the rest, is a heresy. In order to prove that all [ANY] the Ante-nicene writers taught the dogma of the Holy Trinity, it is not enough to prove that each still had gone far enough to be only a heretic—not enough to prove that one has held that the Son is God, (for so did the Sabellian, so did the Macedonian), or another that the Father is not the Son, (for so did the Arian), and another that the Son is equal to the Father, (for so did the Tritheist), and another that there is but One God, (for so did the Unitarian)…(John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame Press 1989 ed., pp. 14, 15.)

Newman also wrote:

You have made a collection of passages from the Fathers, as witnesses in behalf of your doctrine that the whole Christian faith is contained in Scripture, as if, in your sense of the words, Catholics contradicted you here. And you refer to my Notes on St. Athanasius as contributing passages to your list; But, after all, neither you, nor I in my Notes, affirm any doctrine which Rome denies. Those Notes also make frequent reference to a traditional teaching, which (be the faith ever so contained in Scripture), still is necessary as a Regula Fidei, for showing us that it is contained there; vid. Pp. 283-431; and this tradition, I know, you uphold as fully as I do in the Notes in question. In consequence, you allow that there is a two-fold rule, Scripture and Tradition; and this is all that Catholics say. How, then do Anglicans differ from Rome here? I believe the difference is merely one of words…(John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans In Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. 2, pp. 11, 12.)

For those who embrace the NT as the word of God, one should be able to ascertain that the issue is NOT over whether or not there are “clear” teachings/statements concerning the person of Jesus Christ within the pages of the Scriptures (there are many), but rather, whether or not the clarity is such to bring the reader to the doctrine of the Trinity apart from development/tradition (it never has).

Grace and peace,



Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Thanks for transcribing this passage and for your comments. I hope, too, that you had a happy Christmas.

There are two main issues I would raise for now.

First, regarding the dialectic, I would differ about its nature. You have written that in Lonergan's account

one can discern an implementation of Hegelian dialectic: thesis-statements about Jesus Christ in the Scriptures; antithesis-development of the very notion of dogma; synthesis-Trinitarian doctrine (i.e the Nicene Creed).

This early passage, however, is not where Lonergan highlights the role of dialectic in development. Dialectic is certainly prominent in his theory (as shown in the book's subtitle), but the explanation and concrete application do not come till page 49.

In that context, a Hegelian dialectic would be of this sort: Subordinationism as Thesis, Modalism as Antithesis, Nicaea as Synthesis.

But this is not what Lonergan proposes. The dialectic is not between two heresies, with orthodoxy the synthesis between them. Rather, it is a tension that occurs and reoccurs within the thought of a series of individual theologians. Lonergan explains, for example, how contradictions within their beliefs gave rise to a dialectic in both Tertullian and, a little later, Origen. In Tertullian's case, the dialectic was like this:

Thesis: "he held that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and that both are God"

Antithesis: "he also held that the Son was temporal; he made a distinction between the whole divine substance, on the one hand, and a derived portion of it, on the other; and he had the Father commanding what was to be done, and the Son doing what was commanded"

Lonergan maintains that there is a dialectic because "the latter assertions contradict the basic thesis." This dialectic was never resolved in Tertullian. The categories he was using (resembling those of the Stoics?) were inadequate to the task.

Something similar happens with Origen. He has the same basic thesis as Tertullian, but he in turn explains the divinity of the Son using the Platonic category of participation. At the end of the chapter on Origen, Lonergan remarks that this is problematic because if the Son is divine only by participation, then he must needs be a creature (though he cautions that this, while a necessary implication of Origen's theology, should not be confused with a conclusion Origen actually drew).

Lonergan does not appear to see Hegelian synthesis as the way to resolving the dialectic. The way to resolution is (1) for the dialectic to become explicit, (2) "then one side of the contradiction can be clearly affirmed and the other denied." The dialectic is eliminated as the incorrect thesis is repudiated, leaving orthodoxy as the residual.

Lonergan says that "the dialectic process itself is grasped, not in any single author, considered apart, but in a whole series of authors, coming one after the other, each in his own way trying to resolve the basic contradiction, until at last it is in fact totally eliminated."

Heresy is important because it forces the Church to become conscious of the dialectic with which it is dealing. It makes the contradiction explicit. The Church then picks between the two alternatives. The heretics take one side, the Church the other.

This worked out in practice when the Arians brought things to a head by forcing the Church to say whether Christ was the Creator or a creature. The matter was thus recast using categories different from those of Tertullian and Origen. Nicaea, as Lonergan has it, was not a via media between two heretical opinions. It was the clarification of the Church's teaching by the clear repudiation of an erroneous understanding of who Christ is.

Second, you have written that the issue is NOT over whether or not there are “clear” teachings/statements concerning the person of Jesus Christ within the pages of the Scriptures (there are many), but rather, whether or not the clarity is such to bring the reader to the doctrine of the Trinity apart from development/tradition (it never has).

I agree with this in outline. The problem is, what do we mean by the doctrine of the Trinity? Do we mean the substance of the doctrine or the accidental terms in which it was expressed?

Scripture by itself will never bring one to the Nicene doctrinal formulas. The reason is that the terms used by Nicaea and later orthodoxy do not have meaning apart from the context in which they arose. 'Consubstantial' by itself lacks any definite theological import. There is an arbitrariness to the doctrinal usage, since the Church as it were stripped out the philosophical meanings of its vocabulary and reinvested it with Christian content and context. Thus, according to Athansius, the meaning of 'homoousios' is precisely this: eadem de Filio quae de Patre dicuntur excepto Patris nomine. It's the same with other words in orthodox teaching, like 'person'. Lonergan elsewhere writes:

For Augustine, persona or substantia was an undefined, heuristic concept. He pointed out that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three. He asked, Three what? He remarked that there are not three Gods, three Fathers, three Sons, three Spirits. He answered that there are three persons or substances, where "person" or "substance" just means what there are three of in the Trinity.

Since you have brought up Hanson, it may be good to note something Fr Behr has said:

Can one really claim a permanent status for an explanation articulated for the first time, as Hanson claims, in the fourth century? Are the fourth-century figures even as fixated with the articulation anyway? It is noteworthy that the terms hypostasis and ousia do not appear in the Creed of Constantinople, while the formula "three hypostases and one ousia" appears in the pages of the Cappadocians only a few times. As I have suggested already, Trinitarian theology, let alone Nicene orthodoxy, cannot be reduced to this formula. Hanson's conclusion seems to have substituted the explanation for that which it is explaining, as if the theoretical edifice elaborated in the fourth century is itself the permanent point of reference in which the human spirit finds rest.

Lonergan makes a similar observation when at the end of one of the chapters he notes that Athanasius, while knowing the terminology about ousia and hypostasis, did not get caught up in logomachy--he would simply ask people what they meant by their terms, in order to make sure it was not heretical.

To make an end of this rambling on my part, if the question is whether Scripture is clear enough "to bring the reader to the [substance of the] doctrine of the Trinity apart from development/tradition," I think it indeed is, but in this sense: when the Nicene formula is presented, and its terms explained, we can see for ourselves that it is correct, even independently the Church's say-so. The tradition is public, and is amenable to investigation by all, with no one set up as a privileged interpreter (someone who can see more in principle than others can see). Thus St Athanasius defended Nicaea and knew it was right, not because a duly constituted ecumenical council had promulgated it, but because he could look at what Nicaea said side by side with what was taught in Scripture, and could see the correspondence between them. He saw for himself the truth of the Church's doctrine. Hence he stood up for it, even when he faced opposition from others in the Church.

God bless,


David Waltz said...

Hi John,

Would like to thank you up front for your lucid and insightful response; and, as always, I sincerely appreciate your charity.

Now, I agree, in substance, with your assessment that Lonergan’s “explanation and concrete application do not come till page 49” (actually begins in the latter part of page 48). However, I started my analysis of his dialectic much earlier for two important reasons: first, I wanted to bring to the fore certain commonalities between Lonergran and Newman; and second, I believe the earlier dialectic needed to be noted, for I am convinced that Lonergan’s final assessment of Tertullian is flawed. As you pointed out, Lonergan maintains that Tertullian’s theology was contradictory, and as such, needed resolution. However, I cannot concur with this premise, and for a number of reasons that would take pages to properly elucidate. Earlier this week, I came across a blog that delineates one of the reasons why I disagree with Lonergran. Since Edgar’s thread, Lonergan on Tertullian, does such an excellent job in addressing one of those reasons, I shall at this time do no more than recommend that you read his reflections.

As for Behr and Hanson, I need to brush up a bit on both authors before I respond. In the meantime, didn’t Kepha and yourself participate with Dr. Liccione on Behr’s DD reflections (or lack thereof) ? If so, perhaps you could supply a brief summary here…

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...


Thanks very much for your kind answer.

I looked over Edgar Foster's thread on Tertullian, and while impressed at the seriousness with which he engages the subject, am left wondering just what would be the import of "God" considered as a term predicating relative identity. It is easier to see how color can function in this way than how deity can. For if the Father and the Son are God, then, should they both be God only in a relativized sortal sense, there would seem to be two gods; while if the Father is God in an absolute sense, and the Son relatively, then the Son's divinity is apparently different only in degree from that implied in the relative usage in the Old Testament ('ye are gods'). Tertullian would seem to place Christ on a higher plane than that of the OT usage, but yet lower than the Father. I think this is where Lonergan would say Tertullian's explanation is incoherent, for (besides the relative) the OT provides us with an absolute idea of God as the Creator distinct from the creation. If Christ is God, then he is either so in the full sense as Creator, or else relatively as an exalted creature. There is no way to be fully God while yet a creature; the spheres do not thus overlap. But maybe I'm not getting it? Perhaps somebody else can try putting the concepts together.

Over the summer Kepha and I indeed took part in a discussion with Dr. Liccione about Fr. Behr and development. In the early fall we explored the matter again at greater length. From my perspective the major issue in play was threefold: what can the Magisterium know, how can it know it, and how does this compare to what can be known and verified independently by other informed persons. My last post was on September 30th. It has links to Kepha's summary of the discussion up to that point, as well as a link to Dr. Liccione's last post in a series at Perennis.

Sorry to throw so much at you at once. There's no need to rush in responding. I will be occupied myself over the coming days, and may regrettably not be able to comment as much as I'd like. But I always enjoy seeing your thoughts.

God bless,


David Waltz said...

Hi John,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you; one of my daughters and her family showed up Friday and spent the weekend...

Thanks much for the links; after I get 'caught up' on my readings, I will try and go through the material...

Grace and peace,