Denis Bradley: Thoughts on "A Preliminary Response"

In his "Preliminary Response" (The Wheel, Blog, 28 February 2018) to Professor David Ford's "Open Letter on Homosexuality" (Orthodoxy in Dialogue, 8 November 2017) Mr. Gregory Tucker raises (without using the term) the issue of the "development of doctrine." That, to be sure, is a neuralgic term for the Orthodox theologians who regard it as instantiating a fundamental error, even perhaps the seminal heresy, sustaining the other deviations from "The Tradition" which they perceive in Western Christian belief, praxis, and theology. Professor Ford might well concur with the Reverend Professor Andrew Louth who contends that the idea of doctrinal development is not "a valid category for Orthodox theology," an astonishingly ironic assertion given the honoree of the Festschrift wherein Louth's remark is published [1].

Here I can only make the bald counter-assertion: too bad for that kind of Orthodox theology. Without employing a valid category of doctrinal development, it is unable to offer a critically reflexive understanding of its own doctrinal history, even though that is a sine qua non for any serious intellectual encounter with secular Modernity and—more importantly, for Orthodoxy's own mission and integrity—with other Christian churches. Of course, neither encounter may be a desideratum for those faithful, learned or not, who champion an idealized, ahistorical, and self-sufficient Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, let me bolster my contentious assertion by appealing, in good medieval fashion, to the eminent authority whom evidently Prof. Louth and presumably also Prof. Ford and Mr. Tucker each recognize, Professor Jaroslav Pelikan: "... the development of Christian doctrine, by its very nature as thought but churchly thought, is bound simultaneously to each of the particular cultural situations within which men have reflected on the Christian message and to the successions within which these men have stood" [2].

Although that programmatic statement was published while he was yet a committed Lutheran, Pelikan did not repudiate the category of "the development of doctrine" after his 1998 reception into the Orthodox Church in America. Five years after his chrismation, in the first chapter of Credo [3], Pelikan aligned Gregory of Nazianzus's "highly original theory of doctrinal development" (p. 27)—that is, Gregory's "interpretation of the progressive history of revelation" (ibid.)—with his own explanation of how the first seven ecumenical councils progressively determined "the historical course that orthodoxy has taken" (p. 22). "Progressive," I hardly need emphasize, is the key word.

Pelikan, who was always looking over his shoulder at Harnack, was arguably the better practitioner of Dogmengeschicte because he attempted to attend not only to "the history of erudite theology" (Development of Christian Doctrine, p. 47) but also to "the common life of the Church" (p. 44). In fact, Pelikan primarily focused on the doctrine that the Church "believed, taught, and confessed" (p. 46) in any given historical period, attempting to contextualize that doctrine without homogenizing the differences or ignoring the continuities between and within the periods under consideration.  

It was, certainly, developing "churchly thought," deconstructed in its heterogeneous detail, rather than the "very nature" of thought that preoccupied Pelikan. Consistent with that project, he tried to eschew any explicit "theological or philosophical apriorism" (p.48). Yet, Pelikan forthrightly acknowledged that historical research, no matter how detailed or comprehensive, cannot answer the "tough questions in the development of Christian doctrine" (p. 53). Therein lies the crux of Pelikan’s multi-volume History and the exchange between Mr. Tucker and Prof. Ford. Pelikan’s  encyclopedic consideration of authoritatively promulgated or creedal churchly thought provides numerous and indubitable examples of "the development of doctrine." But it does not and cannot by itself adequately justify (through simple induction from particular cases) the legitimacy, much less ground the intellectual necessity, of that category. To do that, one needs (in the famous phrase of the Jesuit theologian, and philosopher, Bernard Lonergan) "thoroughly to understand what it is to understand."

To understand thoroughly the valid category of “doctrinal change” one needs to think a lot about the “very nature” of thought. In other words, the theologian needs a rationally articulated cognitional theory that explains how doctrinal development, one allowing for continuity within change, is not only de facto historically possible but intellectually necessary. This is a philosophical task that few Orthodox theologians recognize and, even fewer, attempt or believe should be attempted. SED CONTRA: Just acknowledging the latter would be salutary for current and future Orthodox theology. One can find in the history of church doctrine as much “development” as one is intellectually prepared to look for and allow.

De facto, is there doctrinal development in the history of the Orthodox Church? Certainly, there is if one finds at all persuasive the five volumes of Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Christian Doctrine. As Pelikan makes clear in the preface to his first volume, all five volumes are about doctrinal developments.  Supposing that, unlike Prof. Louth, one is persuaded.  There still remains the requirement to explain the what and how of doctrinal development. Metaphors, however, can never do the heavy lifting required by theory.  Theory requires differentiating the various objective strata in the data and the rational subject’s intellectual operations whereby the data is so differentiated. For a reflexive intelligence that cannot remain satisfied by any culture's commonsensical metaphors, whether archaic or current, ineluctable second and third order reflexive questions arise. 

On the one hand, can the historical doctrinal development that came to be accepted as normative in the Orthodox Church be subsumed under some permanent set of ecclesiastically fixed criteria of legitimacy? If so, do these ecclesiastically fixed criteria coherently allow for the kind of development that Mr. Tucker seems inclined to propose? Or do they show that Mr. Tucker is advocating, as his critics would surely insist, a revolution not a development? On the other hand, are these allegedly fixed historical criteria, if they themselves are subjected to historical-critical examination, in urgent need of "development?" If so, on what basis will they be developed?  

Those are some of the very tough modern questions that are prompted, albeit in quite different ways, by both Prof. Ford's "Open Letter" and Mr. Tucker's "Preliminary Response." The two documents, however, do not fit into the same genre; the two authors, consequently, are talking at cross-purposes. Prof. Ford's "Open Letter," in tone more like a classical diatribe than an apologia, is an impassioned but rationally underwhelming moral admonition. While I do not want to disparage or dismiss Prof. Ford’s personal or ecclesial concerns, his “Open Letter” conveys a certain agitatio—right on not just below its surface. To Mr. Tucker's credit, his "Preliminary Response" does not mount a moralistic counterattack on Prof. Ford, to whom he does not attribute any phobias.  Rather, he attempts to delineate the underlying conceptual issues, and does so with the admirably energetic verve of a younger scholar keen to ply his craft. But Mr. Tucker’s Response is a miscellany not a systematic counter-position. Essaying the latter, I admit, is an onus that few senior academics, myself included, would eagerly undertake or could competently complete. Let me, nonetheless, impersonate a putatively benign, retired professor who, while mercifully out of the ecclesiastical and academic fray, continues to dispense unasked for advice. 

In that persona, I would here caution Mr. Tucker that in dealing with so centrally important and complex a topic as "doctrinal development," his own reliance on a commonsensical metaphor (apostolic tradition as yeast and theology as bread) is more obfuscatory and misleading than it is explanatory. By breaking down sugar, yeast produces carbon dioxide which causes the bread dough to rise. Fermentation is an automatic, involuntary chemical reaction; doctrinal change is a result of free human decisions. Even Newman's now classic and initially more plausible metaphor of "organic growth," as Pelikan was wont to point out, is quite unsatisfactory. It does not accurately describe but rather obscures the manifold and often conflicting historical causes of doctrinal development, an always willfully human and sometimes fitful business which rarely if ever unfolds in the homogeneous and, again, involuntary fashion of a growing and budding plant.  Conciliar history makes both fermentation and budding implausible metaphors.

I would add to Pelikan's observation that Newman’s organic metaphor does not illumine the actual intellectual acts motivating the rational subjects propounding such changes. However devoutly one attributes doctrinal change to divine grace and guidance, it should never be conceived as merely objective, external, or somehow occurring “out there” in the Church. To the extent that a doctrine has an intelligible content, it can only occur—not despite but in correlation with the historian’s catena of external prompts—in the thinking minds of believers trying to articulate better what it is they should believe. That intellectual or subjective side of doctrinal development is what contemporary Orthodox theology needs to ponder with greater assiduity.

Archpriest Denis J. M. Bradley is Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

[1] Andrew Louth, “Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology,” in Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday, ed. Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 57.

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969), 46. 

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, "Continuity and Change in Creeds and Confessions," in Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003): 7–34.