So I decided to nerd it up over the weekend and read A Commonitory by Vincent of Lérins in full, written circa 434. In it, I came across a very interesting section on the development of doctrine. Below are a few excerpts from the chapter.
Chapter XXIII – On Development in Religious Knowledge
But some one will say, perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning. The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. (p. 54-55)
In like manner, it behoves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits. (p. 56)
Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practiced negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils,—this, and nothing else,—she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name. (p. 59)
Considering how early Vincent lived and wrote—only four years after the death of St. Augustine—I was admittedly somewhat surprised by such a developed theory on development of doctrine. This description of development of doctrine given by Vincent resembles very closely the sort of case made by various other Catholics I respect.
Development means an acorn develops into an oak tree; it does not mean that the acorn evolves into an elephant. Development is a natural growth, not a genetic modification. Development means becoming more itself, not transmogrifying into something else.
G.K. Chesterton said,
There seems to be a queer ignorance, not only about the technical, but the natural meaning of the word Development. The critics of Catholic theology seem to suppose that it is not so much an evolution as an evasion; that it is at best an adaptation. They fancy that its very success is the success of surrender. But that is not the natural meaning of the word Development. When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less. Development is the expansion of all the possibilities and implications of a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out.
(St. Thomas Aquinas, chapter 1, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100331h.html)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of centuries. – paragraph 66
And for any who wants to get really deep into the subject, there is the very dense book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman. There are cheap copies around, but you can buy a nice hardcover copy here. Or read it online here.
In addition, Bishop Robert Barron has a couple of resources regarding John Henry Newman and the development of doctrine.
This one summarizes a couple of Newman’s arguments. It’s a great introduction to the topic before diving into the depths of Newman’s book.
In this one, Bishop Barron speaks about the book, which his Word on Fire ministry has released as a classic edition.