Home Page


Philip Trower Home Page

The Deposit of Faith and The Development of Doctrine

by Philip Trower

There are certain words or terms in the Church's vocabulary for explaining her beliefs and practices which I have always found specially 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 Church. Although in the 1960s, '70s and '80s there was a lot of talk about an 'on-going revelation' (God was continually revealing new truths) this idea has not been accepted by the Church. 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.

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.

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 ot 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 douobts 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 opinion.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission. www.thewandererpress.com

Copyright © Philip Trower 2014

Version: 9th May 2015

Home Page


Philip Trower Home Page