Unfortunately, there is hardly anything such as a new thought these days. I have been reflecting upon the parallels between the “Creation and Evolution” debate in biological science and the “Development of Doctrine” debate in dogmatic theology. It seems to me that Newman and Darwin (roughly contemporaries) introduced remarkably similar ideas into their relative fields of study.
To put it simply, where Darwin proposed a theory of the organic development of species rather than a pristine and unchanging state from the first beginnings until now, Newman proposed an theory of the organic development of doctrine rather than a pristine and unchanging set of doctrines from the very beginning of the apostolic age until the present day.
Of course I am not the first to think of such a thing. A quick websearch threw up these comments by a certain Sr Mary Scullion from 15 years ago:
This is a real opportunity for us to reflect on the life of John Henry Newman and what his life might say to us today. …Remember He lived around the same time as Darwin who was proposing the evolution of man and here Newman was asking the Church to consider the evolution of dogma. Both of these men were offering very radical positions of thought for their day.
More than one hundred years ago, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, stated that if the Scripture message is to be understood in an age other than that in which it was written,, in a different place and time, the message has to develop, evolve, and grow in history. Development and natural growth were contemplated by the Divine Author, Newman argues. “The whole Bible is written on the principle of development. As revelation proceeds, it is ever new, yet ever old.”
In a memorable passage he opens the door to biblical exploration and discovery: “To the end of our lives and to the end of the church, the biblical message must remain an unexplored and unsubdued land, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no development of doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be asserted that it is not in Scripture. Everything our Savior did and said in the New Testament is characterized by simplicity and mystery, which are evidence of revelation, in germ, to be developed; a divine truth subject of investigation and interpretation.”
Vince Donovan reflects further on the writings of Cardinal Newman stating: “…Newman’s original discovery, which we have not yet fully appreciated or accepted, is the place of history in doctrinal thinkingof the true evolution of dogma. We must face the implications of his disturbing thought for our time.” (Vince Donovan in The Church in the Midst of Creation)
Now I have no knowledge of either Sr Mary or Vince Donovan, but what they say accords with my own thinking in this area.
Nevertheless, I believe there are questions that are thrown up when comparing Newman’s theory to Darwin’s.
First: At first glance it would appear that, in Newman, history is to the development of doctrine what, in Darwin, environmental context is to the development of the species. Is this correct and is it helpful?
Second: the question of teleology. Whereas Darwin’s theory insists that the development of species is completely random and affected only by the chances of environment and survival, Newman would most assuredly have found a definite Spirit-directed “forward” impulse toward the goal of “all Truth” (John 16:13). Is this teleological difference in the two theories a fundamental distinction?
Third: Is there not perhaps some relationship between the form of Newman’s theory which the Church has chosen to accept and the form of Darwin’s theory which it has felt free to endorse: namely, a doctrine of evolution which sees even the contingent developments as directed by the omniscient, omnipotent will of the Creator?
It seems to me that there is something in the “Sola Scriptura sine Traditio” attitude toward dogma which smacks of Creationism. On the other hand, a “liberal” attitude to the development of dogma (which might, for instance, be said to include the “ordination” of women or the allowance of homosexual “marriage”) seems to have more in common with that sort of theory of biological evolution that sees the present environmental context as totally determinative of the outcome. Whereas a sober attitude to the the devolopment of dogma would appear to require:
- a direct continuity with the Origin (the “deposit of faith” and the Will of Christ)
- a clear belief in the teleological goal of “All Truth”
- a firm confidence that at every stage the dogmatic pronouncments of the Church in response to historical circumstances have been led unerringly along the direction between the Origin and the Goal by means of the Spirit-given charism of the infallible magisterium.