The Development of Christian Doctrine in History

THE PROGRESS OF DOGMA. By James Orr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952. 365 pages. $3.00.

DE ONTWIKKELING VAN HET DOGMA IN DE ROOMS KATHOLIEKE THEOLOGIE. By G.E. Meuleman. Kampen, The Netherlands: J.H. Kok, 1951. 166 pages.

Both of these books deal with the progress of dogma. Orr gives a history of dogma from the Protestant standpoint while Meuleman discusses the current Roman Catholic theories concerning the possibility and actuality of dogma’s progress. Orr’s volume is a reprint of his Elliot lectures delivered in 1897. The other is Dr. Meuleman’s doctoral dissertation submitted at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1951.



The republication of Orr’s Elliot lectures is a tribute to their inherent value and the publisher’s ingenuity. At the same time it is a sad reminder that contemporary scholars have not supplied the buying public with fresh and up-to-date works in this fIeld. The theological scene has greatly changed in the fifty-five years since Orr’s book was written. Orr’s running apologetic is aimed at Schleiennacher, Ritschl and Harnack while today Barth and Brunner need primary attention.

The history of dogma which Orr describes is interestingly and clearly done. Layman and theologian alike will be stimulated in reading it. In addition to giving a summary of the progress of dogma through his own day, Orr uses his material in illustration of an apologetic thesis. This gives the book double interest and value.

The history of dogma which Orr sketches is fitted into an apologetic framework. The author believed that in the midst of the confusion of his age one needed “some way of bringing theological doctrines to a higher test than the individual judgment.” Although final appeal must always be made to Scripture, the most divergent systems claim its support. Orr desired a criterion which would lift us above the uncertainties and fallibilities of the individual judgment of Scripture. He admits that no absolute criterion can be found but suggests that the nearest probable approach is by way of appeal to “the rigorous, impartial” one might almost say, if sufficient time is given, the practically unerring verdict of history.” Adapting Schiller’s motto, Orr affirms that “the history of dogma is the judgment of dogma.” One thing I am absolutely persuaded of, he says, “that, whatever imperfections inhere in our existing creeds, no phase of doctrine which the Church has with full deliberation rejected—which, on each occasion of its reappearance, it has persisted in rejecting—need raise its head now with any hope of permanent acceptance…Its clock never goes back. It never returns upon itself to take up as part of its creed what it has formally, and with full consciousness, rejected at some bygone stage” (p. 17). Therefore Orr does not consider the history of dogma a fatuous and illusory matter. A true law and logic underlies its progress. It is claimed that this law of the history of dogma is the same law as that which applies to the system of dogmatics. The temporal and the logical order correspond so that the history of doctrine is theology “writ large.” One should not be surprised, then, to find the similarity between the textbook in dogmatics and the one containing the history of dogma.

Orr points out how theological prolegommena was the main interest in the uneasy second century. Theology proper held the stage in the controversies of the third and fourth centuries; anthropology in the fifth; Christrology not until the seventh. Throughout the Middle the center of discussion while the Reformation period was chiefly interested in the subjective atonement. In the period following the sixteenth century rediscussion and refinement of issues takes place, while eschatology waits [or its systematic discussion in the twentieth century.

Little need be said of the history Orr sketches, although he is at h is best when dealing with the early church. Our chief interest is the success or failure of his apologetic use of this material. Anyone who has struggled for an adequate explanation of the differences in interpreting Scripture, can appreciate Orr’s desire to rise above the individual judgment. He rightly points out that no Protestant can be satisfied with the Roman Catholic solution. It can hardly be said that Orr has succeeded, however, in his objective. The work is interesting for its attempt rather than for its success. It will readily be admitted, it seems to me, thai one faces the same kind of subjectivity in interpreting history. At the outset Orr has set aside Roman Catholicism because it has not been true to Scripture. Furthermore his method can not settle the differences of interpretation within the Protestant churches. In Orr’s day the theological situation may not have been as complex as it is today. Today modernism brings the old heresies into the church. The church generally confesses the Apostle’s Creed but its original meaning has been abandoned. It becomes increasingly clear that the intellectual confrontation by the Gospel will have to be made at the beginning of the discussion. History is not infallible. It too must be tested by Scripture. It is from Scripture that one must determine whether the church today maintains the biblical doctrine. It is a sad fact that the segment which retains the essentials of the Christian Gospel seems to grow smaller while the rejecters increase.

In spite of our desire to find some criterion which is objective, we shall not be able to get beyond Scripture which is the God-given, absolute standard. History must also be judged by it. The history of dogma can be of assistance to us in this matter only if we see how throughout the ages men have wrestled with the Scriptures. Their activity can be beneficial for us if we examine it in the light of the Word. In reality this is what Orr has done, though he has not given an account of it. His basic presuppositions determined what he rejected and what he considered homogeneous in the progress. It is the starting point that is essential….Then the presuppositions have been unmasked and acknowledged, then the progress of dogma will be a help to us in discovering further truth.

Criticism must also be brought against Orr’s use of the second century theologians. It is because of his own conception of the nature and function of apologetics that he can use them as he does. He does not sufficiently criticize their syncretism. One can of course sympathize with their tremendous problems, but in the final analysis they too must be judged in the light of Scripture. And then they and Orr will be found wanting because they allow a prolegommena which must itself be the “forecourt of theology” where “canonics, the ideas of religion and revelation, and the historicity of the Christian facts” must first be established. Orr praises the second century apologists for “uniting Christianity with the best and truest thinking of the ancient world on God, the soul, virtue and the life to come.” (p. 54). It is exactly that syncretism which is their greatest weakness. We can rejoice that Reformed apologetics has made progress since Orr’s time.

Although Orr does not accept description of origins, he admits the legitimacy of evolution beyond that. Even the progress of dogma is called an evolution in which there is a “survival of the fIttest.” Other points of interest are Orr’s undue appreciation of Kant, and certain Ritschlian inspired thoughts. He says the Calvinist must not emphasize the sovereignty of God but rather the love of God. He also opposes the covenant idea and thinks an emphasis upon the Kingdom of God would be better.

It is instructive to look back at Orr’s prophetic insight into our times. Said he…fifty years ago: “There are, indeed, not wanting signs that we are on the eve of new conflicts in which new solvents will be applied to Christian doctrines, and which may prove anxious and testing to many who do not realize that Christian faith in every age must be a battle. That battle will have to be fought, if I mistake not, in the first instance, round the fortress of the worth and authority of Holy Scripture. A doctrine of Scripture adapted to the needs of the hour in harmonizing the demands at once of science and of faith is perhaps the most clamant want at present in theology.” (p. 352). Unfortunately we have not yet met that need which Orr so clearly saw already a half-century ago.

Neither did he expect our age to make any overwhelmingly brilliant discoveries in theology “for the lines of essential doctrine are by this time well and surely established.” “I look to the twentieth century to be an era of Christian Ethic even more than of Christian theology.” Perhaps it has become both. It did indeed begin to be simply a matter of ethic until two world wars broke the spell of the social gospel. And now new solvents are being applied to Christian theology both here and abroad. In all of this the Reformed world will have to raise its voice not only by improving its theology but also in making’ it applicable to our age. We have not yet written the book on Scripture. Nor have we taken an active part in the eschatological discussions which so characterize this age. Orr was correct in predicting that eschatology would be the center of discussion today, but he was not able to see that many would no longer refer it to the final locus of the system of theology as he understood it. Here too, there is great need for the sons of the reformers to face the questions of our day in the full light of the infallible Word. May the republication of this voice from before the turn of the century awaken us to what we so sorely need in the latter half of the twentieth!

The question of the possibility of the progress of dogma is the central issue for the Roman Catholic theologian. Dogma is generally defined as a revealed truth which the church sets forth as the object of faith. Since revelation is usually conceived of as a deposit completed before the death of the apostles, how can there be both identity and progress? It is with the Roman Catholic solutions to this fascinating but involved problem that Dr. Meuleman directs our attention.

C.E. Meuleman took his seminary training at Kampen and his graduate work at the Free University of Amsterdam. The book under review is Meuleman’s doctoral dissertation written under the guiding hand of Prof. Berkouwer, well known to Torch and Trumpet readers. It was the reviewer’s privilege to be present at the public defense of the thesis.

The book is a scholarly piece of work, well deserving the high honors with which Dr. Meuleman was graduated. The author divides his thesis into three parts. In the first section he sketches the main theories of the progress of dogma which have arisen within the Roman Catholic church since 1820. The second section describes the background of these theories. A final section submits the whole to a critical evaluation from a Protestant point of view.

For many readers the most valuable section will be the first in which the various theories are described. Anyone who believes that all thinking behind the Roman curtain is uniform, will soon learn otherwise. Meuleman summarizes the views of Newman and the Tubingers, the modernists, the dialecticals and the theologicals.

There are today two main lines of thought within the Roman Catholic communion in regard to the progress of dogma. The more prevalent view is the scholastic which is called “dialectical” because it maintains that the legitimacy of the progress of dogma can be demonstrated by logical reasoning. On the other hand, the “theological” school of thought maintains that the identity between present day dogma and the original deposit of revelation can be maintained only in faith: its proof is theological rather than logical.

This theological emphasis is interesting because of its recent origin and its apparent rejection by the pope. It is most prominent in French Catholicism, especially in the Jesuit faculty of Lyon-Fourviere (H. de Lubac, Taymans, Bouillard; Dancelou). This school of thought, has been influenced by Newman and the Tubingers, (and especially the German, Karl Adam,)

The Tubingers (Mohler, Staudenmaier, J. Kuhn) had been influenced by German philosophy and protestant theology. ‘Writing before the official declaration of papal infallibility, they maintained that the development of dogma was a supernatural process directed by the Holy Spirit. Its legitimacy was a matter of faith faith in the infallibility of the church’s doctrinal authority. Newman even held that identity referred not only to the original deposit of revelation but also to the knowledge of it. In contrast to the static conception of tradition held by the scholastics, the Tubingers and Newman emphasized the dynamic, developing element in tradition. The Church applies the given revelation to new situation and that constitutes the progress of dogma. Reason can check this progress and to a limited degree feel its homogeneity, but it is basically and fundamentally a matter of faith.

Influenced by this earlier movement, the theological group (Blondet H. de Lubac, F. Taymans. Dragnet, Charlier) today stresses the supernatural character of the development of dogma. This school has made progress since 1930 when there was a renewed interest in the works of Augustine. Although Thomas and Aristotle are not rejected, there is an increased appreciation for Augustine and Plato. It will be interesting to follow the further development of this influential movement.

The main school of thought remains the scholastic or dialectical. The Vatican Council had declared that although progress of dogma was possible, this progress did not deliver anything substantially new. The problem to be faced was how to define the progress and establish its boundaries. A solution in the direction of the Tubingers and Newman was definitely rejected. It is generally held that progress is not a stereotype repetition of previous preaching, but rather a clarifying re-publication which not only goes back to tradition but becomes itself a part of it.

The Roman Catholic dialecticals hold that the original deposit of revelation was complete in apostolic times, and that there is a positive logical connection which can be demonstrated between the various stages of development. But even within the so-called dialectical school, Meuleman traces two distinct branclles. They differ as to the relation of the virtual-implicit revelation to dogma. One group (Franzelin, Schultes, Garrigou-Lagrange) restricts the progress of dogma to formal revelation. For them the progress of dogma is really subjective; it it a growth of the knowledge of revelation, but not of the revelation itself. Our knowledge of revelation will never exceed the knowledge which the apostles possessed. But the knowledge which they possessed explicitly was not recorded with the same clarity. Thus the development of dogma is the increased knowledge which results from an unfolding of that which was implicitly revealed.

The other group (Gardeil, MarinSola, Tuyaerts) maintains that even the virtual-implicit revelation becomes dogma. Not the development of theology, hut the development of dogma is considered a supernatural process. Marin-Sola, for example, declares that the reasoning by which a dogma was deduced may be in error, but the dogma as declared by the Church is infallible. In this way he has attempted to bring the merely natural into the realm of infallible dogma.

In the second main section Meuleman discusses the background of these various theories. He points out that these strikingly different theories really involve a basic difference as to the nature of tradition and revelation and their respective relations to the church. The nature and method of the discipline of theology is also involved.

In his critical evaluation, Meuleman finds both the dialectical and the theological theories inadequate. He does not approve of the method of reasoning which the dialecticals employ. And the theologicals have not maintained the essential difference between the fundamental apostolic deposit and the preaching that goes on continuously from the church. Both groups of theories allow dogmas to be declared which the Protestant cannot view as Biblical. Therefore Meuleman concludes that Roman Catholic theology has not found a solution to the question of the progress of dogma which does justice to the proper requirement that the church may teach nothing else but what the apostles have revealed.

The main body of the dissertation is followed by a brief summary in French and an extensive bibliography. Dr. Meuleman is to be congratulated for his excellent work, and we shall expect to hear more from him· in the future. The dissertation is also a tribute to the Free University which exerts a tremendous influence upon a Reformed scholarship which is productive and timely.