Biblical Doctrines
& Doctrinal Development

The role of the Church when defining doctrine is often misunderstood by it’s critics as an arbitrary process of introducing “new” doctrine as though there is ongoing “revelation” by the Holy Spirit.  This misunderstanding leads many to make the assertion that the moment when the Church formally defines a doctrine is also the moment when the doctrine was “first introduced” in history.  The truth is that the role of the Church is to protect revealed truth as it was first given to the Apostles by Christ.  It is not possible, nor necessary, for the Church to predict every question or erroneous teaching that may arise throughout the course of history.  Rather, Christ gave the Church the ability to deal with questions on matters of the faith by giving the Church the authority to “bind and loose.”  Historically, the Church has most commonly applied this authority in reaction to heretical movements.  The Church’s response to heresy entails clarifying and further defining the original deposit of faith as it has been understood throughout history since it was first handed down by the Apostles.  This clarification is then declared doctrine in order to deter any further misunderstanding or erroneous teaching on the subject.

Non-Catholic Christians often employ the use of Scripture to define their doctrines of belief.  Scripture is certainly an important and indispensable aid in defining doctrine and doctrine should never contradict Scripture.  There are at least three criteria that are critical to show that a doctrine has a solid Biblical foundation:

  1. it’s Biblical context (both within the text itself and it’s coherence with the Bible as a whole),
  2. it’s historical context (the time and place in which the text was written),
  3. how it was understood by those who first received it.

Although these criteria are important in defining doctrines, they often lead to two other important questions:

  1. How explicit does something have to be in Scripture before it can be called doctrine?
  2. Where does Scripture tell us what is absolutely essential for us to believe as Christians?

The teaching that all doctrine must be explicitly described in the Bible is itself not found in the Bible.  The fact is that not all doctrines essential to Christian faith are found explicitly in the Bible.  Some doctrines can only be reasoned implicitly from Scripture and were only explicitly defined centuries after the books of the Bible were written.  Examples of this include the natures of Christ and the Trinity.  The Bible implicitly indicates that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but Christ’s divine nature was only formally defined centuries later at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.  Here, they employed the use of the term “homoousios” to show that Christ was “the same substance” as the Father in reaction to the Arian heresy.  This definition further contains the implicit teaching of two wills, because if Christ is fully human, he must have a human will, and if he is fully divine, he must have a divine will.  Neither the Bible nor the writings of the earliest Church Fathers explicitly state that Christ has a human will distinct from his divine will, but it can be reasoned implicitly from their writings.  This doctrine of two wills, however, was only explicitly defined at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 A.D. and was once again a reaction to a heresy, this time Monothelitism.

Because doctrines are not always explicit within Scripture, it becomes necessary to not only defend the doctrine, but also at times the development of the doctrine.  History has shown that the development of doctrine occurs in all religions, denominations, and theological traditions.  As theologians ponder their religion, they often develop a deeper understanding and thus offer more well structured explanations of their beliefs. The development of doctrine is a necessary and logical process in the life of the Church.  The growth of doctrines in their richness and complexity represents the Church’s own growth in maturity and understanding.  This growth in understanding often leads theologians to introduce new words to describe the ideas that they are trying to convey.  Examples of this include the words: “Trinity”, “Incarnation”, “Rapture”, “Hypostatic Union” (The union of Christ’s Human & Divine natures within one person), “Homoousios” (The shared essence of the Father & Son), “Christianity”, “Purgatory”, “Bible”, and “Biblical Canon”.  None of these words are found in Scripture, but Christians have used them to convey ideas.  However, as one outgrows the teachings that are found explicitly in Scripture, one must be careful not to introduce corruption into the message of the Gospel.

All Christians agree that it is essential to hold the correct doctrines (i.e. teachings) handed down by Christ and his Apostles, but disagree on what those doctrines are and which ones are essential. Nearly all denominations claim that their teachings are rooted in the Bible, yet -due to disagreements of interpretation on the meanings of certain key verses- numerous conflicting teachings exist between denominations. The past two centuries alone has seen the creation of nearly 40,000 denominations. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his famous work “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, identified seven “notes” that would characterize authentic doctrinal developments, but would be lacking in doctrinal corruptions.  By looking at the historical origins of doctrines and testing them for these “notes”, it becomes possible to determine what are true Doctrinal Developments and what are Doctrinal Corruptions.

Click Here for the 7 Notes of Doctrinal Development:

Doctrinal Development
in the Early Church:

Early Church Heresies:

For a list and brief explanation of early Church heresies, click here.

Early Church Councils:

  • 50 A.D. Synod of Jerusalem (Acts Ch. 15.):
    Considered prototype and forerunner of later councils.
    The council decided that Gentile converts were not
    obligated to keep Mosaic fasts or circumcision after following the advice of Peter.
  • 251 A.D. Council of Carthage:
    After the persecution of Emperor Decius & martyrdom of Pope Fabian, arguments
    ensued about whether the lapsi, (Apostates who renounced their faith) could be
    readmitted to the Church. The newly elected Pope Cornelius felt they could be,
    but Novatian disagreed and set himself up as antipope. Cyprian of Carthage
    wrote that Novatian was negating the church’s power to give absolution and the
    Bishops at the Council of Carthage agreed, leading to the Novatian heresy.
  • 325 A.D. The First Council of Nicaea (1st Ecumenical Council):
    Convened by Emperor Constantine due to concerns over civil unrest caused by
    Arianism. Constantine did not cast an official vote and instead deferred to the
    decision of the Bishops. They voted overwhelmingly to condemn Arianism
    and declared that Christ is “homoousios with the Father”
    (same substance with the Father), and adopted the Nicene Creed.
  • 381 A.D. The First Council of Constantinople (2nd Ecumenical Council):
    The Council reaffirmed repudiation of Arianism after Emperor Constantius II
    gave his support to Arianism. The council also condemned Macedonianism,
    which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and modified the Nicene Creed.
  • 382 A.D. Council of Rome:
    Under Pope Damasus I, the Council formally defined the canon of the Bible.
  • 411 A.D. Synod of Carthage (also called Conference of Carthage)
    Condemned Donatism; heresy named after Bishop Donatus, who taught that clergy
    must be faultless for their sacraments to be valid & was opposed by St. Augustine.
  • 431 A.D. The Council of Ephesus (3rd Ecumenical Council):
    Convened to resolve the controversy caused by Nestorius, who put forth
    that the Virgin Mary may be called Christotokos, “Christ-bearer” instead of
    Theotokos, “God-bearer”. The Council condemned Nestorianism and
    proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (“God-bearer”, “Mother of God”)
    in order to uphold both Christ’s Human and Divine natures in one person.
    This led to the Nestorian Schism and split from the Church of the East.
  • 451 A.D. The Council of Chalcedon (4th Ecumenical Council):
    Convened to resolve the Monophysite controversy, a reaction to Nestorianism,
    that taught that Christ had a single divine nature (as opposed to two separate
    natures). After reading the Tome of Pope Leo I, the Council condemned
    Monophysitism and defined the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures.
    This led to the Chalcedonian Schism and split from Oriental Orthodox Church.
  • 553 A.D. The Second Council of Constantinople (5th Ecumenical Council):
    Attempting to reconcile the Chalcedonian Schism, the Council repudiated
    the ‘Three Chapters’ as Nestorian and further denounced Nestorianism.
    Ultimately gave rise to the monothelite heresy (another attempt at compromise).
  • 680 A.D. The Third Council of Constantinople (6th Ecumenical Council):
    Condemned monothelitism as heretical, which taught that Christ had two natures,
    but only one will (divine). Defined Christ as having human and divine wills.
  • 787 A.D. The Second Council of Nicaea (7th Ecumenical Council):
    Restored the veneration of icons, (had been banned by Emperor Constantine V).
    Condemned iconoclasm as heretical. This is the last council accepted by the
    Eastern Orthodox Church, which split away after the Great Schism in 1054 AD.