I have always been fascinated by the topic of the development of Christian doctrine. Not long ago, I wrote a post about the New Testament foundations for this concept. But typically when one speaks of the “development of doctrine,” he is referring to its development throughout church history after the end of public revelation. But what about before the death of the last apostle? Is there development of doctrine within the New Testament? Michael Liccione over at Sacramentum Vitae addresses this question:
To some theologians–mostly modern biblical theologians–the answer is obviously yes. See, e.g., the late Raymond E. Brown’s Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine, a fairly middle-of-the-road view of the matter by a pre-eminent Catholic scholar. To others, the answer is equally obviously no. In their view, the New Testament records divine revelation, so that even if revelation itself was progressive during the time recorded in the NT, the very category of development of doctrine is simply inapplicable to the Bible. Rather than rehash that impasse, though, I’d suggest this: assuming that the Bible records, in written form, the unfolding of the definitive events of divine revelation to humanity, the pattern of that unfolding tells us a lot about how we, as church and as individuals, come to understand it more fully over time. And the means by which the Church comes to state her understanding achieved over time just is development of doctrine.
Personally, I have always been more skeptical of claims of development within the NT than I am of claims outside it. I have a number of reasons for this:
1) The time frame. Within the NT, we have a time frame at most of about 60-70 years. Usually when one speaks of the development of doctrine, he is discussing centuries, not decades. As Pope Benedict has pointed out, it is a false assumption to say that what comes later always must be more developed than what comes before, especially regarding such short time frames. Was St. Clement of Rome more developed than St. Paul? Was St. Ignatius of Antioch more developed than St. John the Apostle? Within a century you often have lights who shine much brighter than their contemporaries, and of whom it takes a long time to digest and understand fully.
2) Document dating. As much as biblical scholars state confidently the dating of the NT documents, the truth is that we really don’t know exactly when they were written. We can make educated guesses, but we can’t know with absolute assurance the order in which they were written. So how can we know how they developed? In fact, most scholars assume doctrinal development to establish dates, which means we have a circular argument: “Document A came after document B because it is more developed, and we know that development occurred because document A came after document B.” Not exactly a strong foundation for this theory.
3) Inspiration. Unique among all Christian documents, the writings of the New Testament are inspired by the Holy Spirit. This does not automatically preclude the concept of development within the texts, but it should give one pause. All of Salvation History does show a slow revealing of God’s revelation, but in the case of the New Testament, we are talking about a special, condensed time of public revelation in which the Word revealed himself to the apostles and the apostles then preached that Word to the world.
With all the above being said, I’m not totally against any idea of doctrinal development within the New Testament. But I would hesitate to put too much importance on any theory that was completely dependent upon NT development.