When one speaks of doctrinal development within Orthodoxy, it goes against the popular sensibility amongst Orthodox themselves: “We are the unchanging one Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church!”

Many, falsely, believe that when walks into any Orthodox liturgy it is essentially unchanged in its prayers, sounds, and even visual elements. This misconception is especially true in the West, where the “foreign” element within Orthodoxy makes it appear not only remote geographically, but chronologically.

However, a surface level reading of history would disallow for such a line of thought. The Liturgy has been constantly changed and updated, creeds have been added, and new saints teach doctrines with increased clarification—something that in time often need its own clarifications from future saints.

On the other hand, one look no further than the councils themselves which would seem to contradict this. Conciliar fathers assert that no one has “ever heard” of this or that heresy and that the teaching of the Council itself “is the teaching of the Fathers.” Nicea II goes as far as to assert that icon veneration is not only Apostolic, but there still existed an icon painted by Saint Luke himself. These examples demonstrate for us what scholars have recognized.

According to Phil Booth, “[O]rthodoxy was understood to mean the supposedly changeless tradition that had found classic expression in the great church fathers of earlier centuries.” (The Acts of the Lateran Synod of 649, Introduction, p. 94)

How does one account for this internal schizophrenia? Do Orthodox believe in doctrinal development or don’t they? As one shall see, in the words of Booth, “The ‘development’ of doctrine was alien [to the conciliar fathers], but there was always scope for ‘clarification.'” (Ibid.) The fathers always understood this clarification to be of a terminological nature, not a syllogistic advance in doctrines themselves.

The Newmanian Path. Some, like Booth, may criticize the fathers for not being honest about how drastic the “theological advance[s]” were. And so, this would require a more methodical theory of doctrinal development.

Perhaps the most thoughtful and drawn out meditation on the issue of doctrinal development was from a Roman Catholic, Cardinal John Henry Newman. To sum up his epistemology of doctrinal development in a nutshell, even though Newman sees deveopment as an organic and providential process, for all practical intents and purposes development can be accomplished (or perceived as legitimate) as long as one takes the Apostolic deposit of faith and follows the rule of inference, with all logical consequences derived from the deposit of faith being acceptable. No one can accuse such a method of being irrational, because it is by definition rational. Furthermore, the saints employ the rule of inference all the time. It would seem that one would have an uphill battle in opposing Newman in his view.

Not surprisingly, Newman has supporters among both the Uniates (such as Father Christaan Kappes) and the Orthodox (though not without his critics, such as Father Andrew Louth). Father Daniel Lattier is particularly the most explicit of these defenders of Newman’s thought, having written numerous articles on the topic (perhaps the most popular being “The Orthodox Rejection of Doctrinal Development” and his doctrinal dissertation “John Henry Newman and Georges Florovksy: An Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue on the Development of Doctrine.”

Though Lattier is particularly thoughtful just as Newman was, he has presuppositions that merit critique. He presumes that because Newman and Father Georges Florovsky (who Lattier uses as a representative of Orthodox epistemic thought) have similar categories of thought that (1) the similarities must mean that both men mean the same thing when they employ the same words and concepts and (2) that because one presupposes (1) then the Orthodox Church must logically have the same epistemology as it pertains to doctrinal development as John Henry Newman. This is admittedly a very tight nutshell, akin to the one Newman was put in, but for the sake of charity and brevity let’s just accept this as a basic take on Lattier’s research.

Now, let’s assess these presuppositions. First, (1) would have to actually be true. I will permit those more well read in Florovsky as well as Newman to comment on this, but one can read Lattimer’s many published works on this topic to evaluate his case. This article is not a critique of his thesis, so there will be no critique of the first presupposition.

But, even with (1) being true, (2) would have to be true as well. However, the fact is that Newman applied his epistemology very differently than any canonized Orthodox saint (which would be the Orthodox bar for theology, this is a presupposition of mine) would mean that it would not be possible for the epistemology of the Orthodox and Newman to be the same.

The employment of an epistemology reveals more of its contents than how it is described in mere words. And so, one can bypass the wrangling over words when comparing thinkers by simply evaluating how those same thinkers applied their words. This is a surefire way of determining what a thinker really meant when he employed this or that word.

Staniloae’s Elucidation of Orthodox Doctrinal Development. On this note, one’s mind must immediately rush to Father Dumitru Staniloae (who will probably be canonized soon) and his article “The Orthodox Conception of Doctrinal Development.”

Staniloae begins the article simply speaking of Theosis and how man makes spiritual progress by becoming more like Christ. (p. 652-657) The liturgical and prayer life of the Church is part of this Theosis as well as the fabric of divine revelation itself. Hence, the epistemology of doctrinal development begins with spiritual experience and not merely the words that describe a doctrine.

Staniloae’s overall point is that the Theosis happening in man is itself a divine revelation. One’s spiritual ascent is in effect progressive revelation. Between p. 657-658, Staniloae uses the preceding to expound the idea that Christ is also active in human history, up until the present, preparing mankind for the summation of history itself. There is a surprising amount of optimism conveyed, but perhaps this is colored by his own improving situation as only a few years previously he was released from prison (due to religious persecution).

After this long introduction, Staniloae writes, “the Orthodox conception of the development of doctrine follows.” (p. 658) From this, he does not mean “as follows,” but that doctrinal development naturally follows from the idea that Christ is at work saving individuals and directing human history towards its fulfillment. The preceding offers the context for his more straightforward teachings on doctrinal development.

Staniloae explains that because “[t]he fullness of the mystery of redemption” is “lived continuously in the Church” it “is a reality which cannot be fully expressed by words, metaphors or formulas. For this reason new expressions are justified.” (emphasis added, p. 658) Though Christ “aids men to go always further in the way of spirituality…to grasp and express the work which the Spirit of Christ carries out in them and in history,” (p. 658) this does not mean that men are developing new doctrines. They are elaborating upon and better explaining doctrines that are already there.

This is different than Newman, who, for example, was comfortable with conceding that the cult of the saints was something new to the Christian experience, but justified by applying the rule of inference to Apostolic doctrines. Staniloae would never say this. One can already perceive that try as one may to equate the identical words and similar categories of thought that Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians use, this does not make their ways of thinking the same. The proof is in the application of those same words.

According to Staniloae, the development of doctrine exists in each time as men experience the same grace of God anew, grasping the same realities in new ways applicable to new times. “Thus Tradition not only means ‘a living memory’ constantly relived by the Church, but also a tension and a constant self-transcendence towards the eschatological goal.” (emphasis added, p. 659)

For all practical intents and purposes, this works itself out in ideas being explained in new ways, not new ideas. “This is inevitably reflected in an enrichment of language, which constantly becomes diversified and more delicate, and thus capable of expressing always more subtly the mystery” of Christ, writes Staniloae. “Hence comes the justification and the necessity for employing new words, metaphors, and formulas to express the mystery.” (emphasis added, p. 659)

Yet, mankind “is advancing towards ever higher degrees of realization of what it is to be human…these higher degrees of realization give to man the possibility of grasping and expressing more.” (p. 659) Does this mean that Staniloae is veering into Newmanian doctrinal evolution?

Not exactly. Staniloae speaks of “higher degrees of realization” as mere terminological clarifications, “new expressions by which certain aspects insufficiently realized before are grasped.” (p. 659) “If one uses new expressions, one throws new light onto the content expressed.” (p. 660) It is specifically these that “represent what Vincent of Lerins calls a profressus in idem” and “which St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks, who maintains that only he who makes progress remains steadfast for he remains in the same line, while he who is not constantly progressing falls into dullness.” (p. 659)

In other words, as mankind goes through time, he gets better at describing the faith because our collective understanding increases. Hence, Saint Athanasius knew more about the nuances of Christology due to having lived through the Council of Nicea than Saint Justin Martyr. Going down the line, Saint Maximus had an even greater fullness of the faith than Athanasius and Saint Gregory Palamas than Maximus. Those who have the Orthodox faith today are standing on the shoulders of giants, who they themselves are standing on other giants’ shoulders.

In other words, explaining the Orthodox faith today would be impossible without Palamas, because he has increased our collective understanding, just as each saint before and afterwards has done. This allows each generation to “reply to new questions raised by the human spirit” (p. 660) as the collective experience of the Church is always confronting mankind’s new experiences. One cannot simply revert to an earlier point, such as “the pre-Nicene Church” or some alleged far-removed golden age, in search of a “purer doctrine.” Rather, it is up into the present that doctrine is constantly being refined, as struggles throughout history bear fruits, just as Job’s trials brought him into a fuller awareness of the reality of God.

Is this some sort of “Orthodox sounding work around” to do as Newman does and simply pretend that it is different? Staniloae lays down some ground rules for what doctrinal development cannot do. For one, “new words and expressions must not drive out those which were valid at the beginning.” (p. 660) This is a criteria which one cannot apply to legalistically due to the evolving meaning of the term “hypostasis” between the 4th and 5th century ecumenical councils. Staniloae also cautions that “new expressions” must “not contradict the initial formulas” to meet “the criterion of their acceptability.” (p. 660) Hence, the standard Patristic method of weighing a disputed doctrine against the canonical teachings of the past would be completely consistent with this view.

He also critiques a view of development that depends squarely upon logical conclusions as per the rule of inference. “[T]he scholastic way of expressing the Christian mystery,” writes Staniloae invoking his earlier discussion about Theosis, “[is] below the level of that of the early Church…beneath the level of the spiritual relations existing amongst the faithful.” (p. 661) In other words, proper doctrinal development is properly lived out in human experience with “liberty and choice…play[ing] an important role” as opposed to “an uninterrupted development of Christian doctrine comparable to the growth of a plant from its seed,” (p. 661) a not-so subtle critique of a popular explanation of the Roman Catholic “seed theory” view, an expression ascribed to Newman himself. He likewise criticizes the Protestant Reformation as being excessively “individualistic” as his earlier Theosis-argument was contingent not only upon mere personal revelations from God bringing doctrine into greater light, but the collective progress of mankind in a historically providential way. (p. 661)

Conclusion. And so, just as Newman and Lattier were put into nutshells, for the sake of simplicity let’s do the same with Staniloae. In short, doctrinal development may properly contain new words, creeds, and ways of practicing the religion—but not new meanings, new dogmas, and new practices.

Development is not a more complete understanding of revelation in the sense that the saint of today has more grace so as to have an even more increased personal experience of God than the saint of the past. If this were so, one would have more profound Theosis now than then, which is surely not the case. Rather, it is a more well-rounded understanding. What is precisely “rounded” is “the faith given once and for all by the saints” (Jude 1:3) around the nooks and crannies of continuous human experience within the Church throughout history. The rounding experience is superintended by God, safeguarded by the synergistic cooperation of Christians with His grace as these same Christians encounter new challenges in different times.

Here is an example that illustrates the preceding: Saint John taught, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” (1 John 5:7) Yet, the Nicene Creed might not immediately make sense to Him.

This is not because he did not know the one true God in three Persons—he is an Apostle, he knew God far better than anyone reading this. However, it would be anachronistic to shape even an Apostle’s understanding and personal revelation to a historically-conditioned episode that occurred 250 years later built upon the precedent of his own and subsequent teachings. The debate over ousia and the hypostases was something that only makes sense after events occur which require these words, with their meanings, to be used for a specific purpose.

So, while Saint John knew the doctrine of the Holy Trinity better than scatterbrained moderns do, he would need to be “brought up to speed” to know precisely what it is everyone is arguing about now. This is of course surely theoretical, because in heaven God has purified him with wisdom and he is keenly aware of the doctrinal development of the Church since his bodily death.

In closing, because human experience does not exist in a historical vacuum, there is no regression or “return to form,” even though a natural (though sinful, cf Ecc 7:10) yearning for nostalgia may encourage an attempt at this. Rather, the Orthodox are called to preserve the same faith as it always was, in the condition they have found it (which is historically conditioned), and to pass the tradition along preserved against the heresies of their own time. This process will never end until history comes to its end with the second coming of Christ.