Aquinas vs. Newman on doctrinal development

In discussing whether the articles of faith “creverint secundum temporum successionem,” Thomas considers the following objection:

Sicut per apostolos ad nos fides Christi pervenit, ita etiam in veteri testamento per priores patres ad posteriores devenit cognitio fidei, secundum illud Deut. XXXII, interroga patrem tuum et annuntiabit tibi. Sed apostoli plenissime fuerunt instructi de mysteriis, acceperunt enim, sicut tempore prius, ita et ceteris abundantius, ut dicit Glossa, super illud Rom. VIII, nos ipsi primitias spiritus habentes. Ergo videtur quod cognitio credibilium non creverit per temporum successionem (ST II-II.1.7.4).

It seems to me that this objection principally concerns the knowledge possessed by OT saints. The apostles, Thomas takes it as given, were “fully instructed in the mysteries,” indeed more so than we, as the Gloss teaches.[1] But if those who are earlier have a greater knowledge of the mysteries than those who are later, wouldn’t that mean that the OT saints would also have a greater knowledge of them than we do? As I read him, Thomas defuses this objection by distinguishing the situation of the apostles from that of the OT saints:

Dicendum quod ultima consummatio gratiae facta est per Christum, unde et tempus eius dicitur tempus plenitudinis, ad Gal. IV. Et ideo illi qui fuerunt propinquiores Christo vel ante, sicut Ioannes Baptista, vel post, sicut apostoli, plenius mysteria fidei cognoverunt. Quia et circa statum hominis hoc videmus, quod perfectio est in iuventute, et tanto habet homo perfectiorem statum vel ante vel post, quanto est iuventuti propinquior (Ibid., ad 4).

Rather than taking priority in time always indicating a greater measure of knowledge, Thomas insists that knowledge of the “mysteria fidei” increases in proportion to one’s proximity to Christ. Thus, it was appropriate that the articles of faith grew in number as Christ’s advent approached (cf. also II-II.1.7.ad 2), so that those who were nearer to the Lord’s incarnation might have a clearer knowledge of him than those who preceded them. But the process of gradual unfolding ceases with the incarnation of Christ, since “tempus eius dicitur tempus plenitudinis.” Those who were nearest Christ “plenius mysteria fidei cognoverunt” than we do, just as a mature adult knows more than the same person as an infant or a senile old man.[2]

But if the Apostles did know the articles of faith more fully than we do, that raises the question of why they wouldn’t have just delivered everything they knew explicitly and at a blow. Why leave so much implicit in the deposit? Thomas deals with this question later in the Question, arguing that the articles of faith explicitly set forth for the church’s assent increase in time insofar as the succession of heresies requires an unprecedented emphasis on a particular dimension of that deposit:

In omnibus symbolis eadem fidei veritas docetur. Sed ibi oportet populum diligentius instrui de fidei veritate ubi errores insurgunt, ne fides simplicium per haereticos corrumpatur. Et haec fuit causa quare necesse fuit edere plura symbola. Quae in nullo alio differunt nisi quod in uno plenius explicantur quae in alio continentur implicite, secundum quod exigebat haereticorum instantia (II-II.1.9.ad 2).

It seems to me, then, that Aquinas maintains that the whole of Christian doctrine was delivered to the apostles, who (by virtue of gratuitous grace, surely) knew it more fully than any since. But that whole body of truth was not given public formulation all at once; rather, the Church brings distinct aspects of it to the fore as prompted by the rise of novel heresies. As regards its public presentation of the articles, the Church’s store of doctrine does increase with time then, notwithstanding the fact that individual theologians’ grasp of the whole body of doctrine can no longer hope to approach that of Paul or Peter. They lived in a Golden Age, we in an Age of Iron.

If that’s all exegetically right, then Thomas’s account of doctrinal development is quite different from Newman’s. In particular, it seems to me that Newman would reject Thomas’s epistemological version of the principle of propinquity; as Newman saw it, it takes time for the entailments of and interconnections among any complex body of ideas to disclose themselves, and the history of this understanding with respect to the articles of faith is the development of Christian doctrine down to the present: “From the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though {30} communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation” (Development, Intro., 21). Given that, there’s no reason to think that Paul would have had a more privileged knowledge than we of the two wills of Christ, the double procession of the Spirit, or papal infallibility ex cathedra: those were implicitly entailed by commitments he explicitly held, but it’s unlikely that he could have explicitly formulated them.

[1] It seems pretty clear to me that Thomas intends a discursive form of knowledge here: what increases are “articuli fidei” (II-II.1.7.1), in which the apostles were “instructi,” so that they had a greater “cognitio credibilium” than we do (II-II.1.7.4).

[2] He adduces what I take to be the principle underlying this conviction in his discussion of the Virgin Mary’s sanctification: “quanto aliquid magis appropinquat principio in quolibet genere, tanto magis participat effectum illius principii… Beata autem virgo Maria propinquissima Christo fuit secundum humanitatem, quia ex ea accepit humanam naturam. Et ideo prae ceteris maiorem debuit a Christo plenitudinem gratiae obtinere” (ST III.27.5.c.).

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This entry was posted in Creeds, Ecclesiology, John Henry Newman, Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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