Examples of Doctrinal Development in Eastern Orthodoxy

In an effort to develop common ground between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I have decided to briefly discuss the concept of doctrinal development and its existence in Eastern Orthodoxy. Some in Orthodoxy object to the concept of doctrinal development, as evident by the work of Fr. Daniel Lattier, an Orthodox priest and theologian, who lists the following examples: “Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Thomas Hopko, John Behr,and Andrew Louth.” Acknowledging the great contributions of these authors to Orthodoxy, I still contend doctrinal development, properly understood, is inherent in Eastern Orthodoxy. I would even go so far as to say it is part of several Eastern Orthodox dogmatic teachings. Before these claims can be substantiated, it is important to first define what is meant by development in relation to doctrine.

What is Doctrinal Development?

Much ink has been spilled on what constitutes authentic development. For a thorough treatment of the subject, St. John Henry Newman’s monumental essay entitled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine should be consulted. For our treatment of the subject, I’ll restrict to the following quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which says:

There are truths which are necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historical relationship; while other truths evince a logical connection that expresses a stage in the maturation of understanding of revelation which the Church is called to undertake. The fact that these doctrines may not be proposed as formally revealed, insofar as they add to the data of faith elements that are not revealed or which are not yet expressly recognized as such, in no way diminishes their definitive character, which is required at least by their intrinsic connection with revealed truth. Moreover, it cannot be excluded that at a certain point in dogmatic development, the understanding of the realities and the words of the deposit of faith can progress in the life of the Church, and the Magisterium may proclaim some of these doctrines as also dogmas of divine and catholic faith.

In other words, some teachings are not directly revealed by God but may be logically or historically connected to teachings that are revealed as such. These teachings are no less definitive, though they may be described as dogmatic developments. One example the CDF gives is the illicitness of euthanasia. There is no place in Scripture that euthanasia is explicitly condemned, but it is a logical development of Scripture’s prohibition of murdering the innocent.

Examples of Orthodox Developments

Are there examples where the Orthodox have also used this kind of development in their doctrinal teachings? Yes, for example, the doctrine of the Theotokos is a doctrinal development, as defined above. How so? This doctrine says that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek) but is there any place Scripture explicitly states Mary is the Mother of God? No, but this does not mean it is not a legitimate dogma. In fact, it is the logical development of Mary being the mother of Jesus and Jesus being a divine person, which are both taught in Scripture.

Does Orthodoxy have any other examples of doctrinal development? Yes. The veneration of icons is most definitely a doctrinal development. There is no place in Scripture that teaches one should venerate icons, but there are many passages that would seemingly discourage such a teaching. However, the doctrine is a legitimate logical development of concepts that are in Scripture, namely the incarnation, the worship of Christ, the communion and intercession of the Saints and God’s use of matter in communicating grace.

Objections

Some who reject the material sufficiency of Scripture may object and say there can be things revealed by God that are partly in Scripture and partly in Tradition. This view of revelation accounts for the doctrine of the Theotokos and the veneration of icons without the need to adopt the concept of doctrinal development. Though it is not my wish to address the material sufficiency vs. partim-partim debate[1] in any depth here, I will make the following comments.

The objection made above is a fair one, and while it may escape the charge of doctrinal development, it poses even greater problems as a good case can be made for the material sufficiency of Scripture in the patristic era. One example is St. Vincent of Lerins who states:

Here perhaps, someone may ask: Since the canon of the Scripture is complete and more than sufficient in itself, why is it necessary to add to it the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation? – Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith 2 (A.D. 434)

This objection also presents other problems as the veneration of icons is not well attested in the patristic era. Instances of Christian art may be found, but the explicit veneration of saints through the artwork is poorly attested. Some may say relics were venerated in the early church and that is true, but to deduce from this that icon veneration was also permitted would be another example of a logical development of doctrine. It is possible at this juncture that one would say icon veneration was practiced in the early church but it is simply not described in any extant documents today. This presents an even greater problem as it is an argument from silence and if accepted allows Mormons and Muslims to make similar claims about revelation. For these reasons, it would seem the partim-partim objection does not suffice to discredit the claim that Orthodox have instances of doctrinal development.


[1] The term comes from the Council of Trent’s draft for the decree De canonicis Scripturis, which originally expressed the partim-partim view, as it read: “partim contineri in libris scriptis, partim sine scripto traditionibus.” See Concilium Tridentinum: diariorum, actorum, epistularum, tractatum, edited by the Societas Goerresiana (Freiburg in Breisgau: B. Herder, 1901) 5.31.

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