Development of Doctrine

In Protestant arguments against Catholicism, one of the main issues brought up is the “invention” of doctrines later on (i.e. “Catholics invented transubstantiation in 1215.”) This line of argumentation seems to stem from the doctrine of sola scriptura and the belief that God wrote down everything He wanted us to know at the beginning and for all time (even though that’s not explicitly taught in the Bible either).

But the issue goes a bit deeper than that and I think an example from politics will help bring clarity.

Two hundred years ago, people didn’t advocate a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage between one man and one woman. Everyone “knew” what marriage was so there was no need to define it in a specific law. Homosexuality and same-sex marriages were not on anyone’s mind.

Today we now have people advocating laws specifically defining what marriage is. There has been a “development” that needs to be addressed. When we all agreed and there was no argument, there was no need to create any laws. It was only because people started disagreeing about the issue that laws must then be definitively declared.

So it seems with Christian doctrine.

For example, the Trinity was taught even though not explicitly defined in writing. There is not an explicit teaching in the Bible, either. And those passages where the doctrine can be extrapolated still do not define it the way the Nicene Creed does. But the doctrine was being taught, even though it was not dogmatically defined. (I believe the first time the word “Trinity” is used in writing is by Theophilus of Antioch in the late-100s, who mentioned it in passing as if everyone already knew it.)

It was not until the early 300s that the doctrine came under attack by the Arians (followers of Arius) who claimed Jesus was a created being. Arius found Scriptural confirmation in passages such as John 14:28 where Jesus says “the Father is greater than I” and Colossians 1:15 where Paul calls Jesus “the first-born of all creation.”

Once the doctrine came under doubt, and people started following Arius, the doctrine of the Trinity had to be defined explicitly and for all time. So that’s what the Church did at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Church did not “invent” the doctrine; they specifically defined a doctrine that was always believed and passed down from the Apostles.


The same seems true for “transubstantiation.” (Ironically, and also a problem for Protestants, this doctrine has better explicit Biblical support than the Trinity, such as John 6:41-58 and I Corinthians 10:16-17. It also seems to have more blatant support from the pre-Nicene Church than the Trinity.)

Ignatius of Anticoch, from Wikipedia

Ignatius of Anticoch, from Wikipedia

Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of John the Beloved and was possibly martyred before John. In 106 he wrote a couple of guidelines to spot heretics.

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans)

Justin Martyr in the 150s wrote:

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr, from Wikpedia

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (The First Apology, chapter 66)

Irenaeus of Lyon, in the 180s wrote against the gnostics who believed that flesh is evil and only the spiritual is good. Irenaeus wrote this:

Irenaeus of Lyon, from Wikipedia

Irenaeus of Lyon, from Wikipedia

But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which flesh is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? (Against Heresies, Volume 5, chapter 2)

Athanasius wrote in the 300s:

You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup of wine and placing them on a table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Sermon to the Newly Baptized; quoted from “Crossing the Tiber” by Stephen Ray)

Even if one rejects the doctrine, it seems fairly obvious that transubstantiation was not “invented” in 1215. It had extremely early acceptance. Due to later disagreements and bad theologies (probably the Albigensians), it was specifically defined in an official council, just like the Trinity was at Nicaea.

When you think about historical context, even the first major break in Christendom in 1054 wasn’t even over transubstantiation. That schism even happened long before this doctrine became seriously questioned. So who is “inventing” doctrines; those who accept transubstantiation or those who reject it?

Hopefully, the political analogy and the history lesson will help clarify the idea of development of doctrine. It’s not that things were invented, but rather clarified and set down as official.

(Needless to say, there needs to be an authoritative Church in place to do this and make official pronouncements that are binding on all. The Catholic Church claims to be this entity.)


Disclaimer – This blog post is just that: a blog post with my personal thoughts. I am not a Catholic apologist or theologian. What I say here is not official doctrine of the Catholic Church. I am still learning and am susceptible to error. Don’t take anything here as Gospel. Don’t be stupid. Do your own research and learn for yourself what the Church teaches.

Catholics: if my understanding of Catholic doctrine needs adjustment, please point out my error.