Are Catholic & Orthodox Developments Legitimate? Can Doctrine Develop?

In a previous article, I showed that Scripture and the early church both agreed that all doctrine had been revealed to the apostles. Is it still possible for a church to further define the faith in a council or some other authoritative pronouncement? This article will address the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views.

Does the Church Have Continued Authority Over Doctrine?

The Roman Catholic Church claims that they have stayed true to the original apostolic deposit, but they also believe that there was room within that deposit for doctrines to be further clarified, defined, or developed. They believe that their doctrinal developments are actually infallible. In other words, they claim the same level of authority over Christian doctrine that the original apostolic doctrines had.

Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t typically accept that doctrine can develop. However, they do agree with the Roman Catholics that further authoritative statements can be made about the faith in certain circumstances—specifically in an ecumenical council.

Of course, the idea of doctrinal development, or the idea that further authoritative statements are possible, can only be true if that idea itself originated from someone who had authority to define Christian doctrine. Did it originate from Jesus and the apostles?

No. As Scripture and the witness of the early church shows (see my aforementioned post), Christians for the first several hundred years believed that Christian doctrine had all been previously revealed. Church leaders had authority, but not the authority to make definitive statements about the faith. There is therefore no reason to think that these ideas originated from Jesus or the apostles.

Did these ideas maybe originate from someone who got their authority from Jesus or the apostles? Since apostolic succession did not pass on apostolic authority, no one besides Jesus and the apostles has authority to define the faith. Thus, the answer is no. The idea of doctrinal development has no authority, nor does the idea that further authoritative statements can be made on Christian doctrine. We should accept the belief of the earliest Christians—that the apostles knew and taught all Christian doctrine.

What must we conclude? The doctrine of continued doctrinal authority is itself an addition to the faith. It is therefore outside the bounds of Christianity. However, I will continue to evaluate several aspects of this view.

Doctrinal Development—Some Philosophical Objections

It’s a little hard to pin down what Roman Catholics believe about doctrinal development. However, it seems to be something like this: No new doctrines can be revealed, but truths about previous doctrines can stated more clearly—and these truths are not speculations, but are binding all Christians.

Note that a clarification or definition makes something more precise. That is, it shows what the boundaries of a certain term or doctrine is—what is true and what is false. If Roman Catholic clarifications and definitions are within the apostolic deposit, then they are not extending the boundaries in any direction. Either they are stating clearly where the actual boundaries have always been, or they are actually shrinking the boundaries, making something false that could be true before. Both possibilities lead to issues.

If a clarification or definition is stating clearly where the actual boundaries have always been, then it’s simply a restatement of the original belief. Thus, anyone who comes before the clarification or definition and does hold to that belief never needed the clarification or definition to make him be in the right. And anyone who comes before and does not hold to that belief is in the wrong. However, typically Roman Catholics hold that those who appeared before something was deemed heretical are not themselves heretics. But if the church is merely stating clearly where the actual boundary has always been, these Christians held to beliefs that weren’t within the apostolic deposit. So how are they not heretics?

Or did we just not know what the apostolic deposit said until the church made its clarification later? But then, to whom was the apostolic deposit left, if not to those earlier Christians who didn’t have this clarification? Is the apostolic deposit something that was only partially given? Or was it given but not understood? Yet both are indicated to be false by Scripture.

On the other hand, if a clarification or definition is shrinking the boundaries of a term or a doctrine, then it is a change. Once something was true that now is not true. Therefore, there has been a change in the material of the apostolic deposit.

I would also ask the question, “How are further clarifications, definitions, or developments not additions to the faith, since they add content to the faith?” They are propositions that weren’t part of the original faith.

Some Catholic & Orthodox Views Are Alterations, Not Developments

Whether or not some doctrines are developments is of comparatively small importance, however—a much larger problem faces Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is, that there are at least three points on which the Roman Catholic Church has changed in ways that are demonstrably inconsistent with the apostolic deposit.

Even if one could still hold to the view that Christian doctrine can change, but just not substantially, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have altered some aspects of the faith. Doctrines that were held to be true by the apostles and their followers were later jettisoned, and doctrines that the apostles and their followers were unaware of were later added. Here are three examples:

These changes are not in continuity with the apostolic faith, but are instead alterations. In themselves, they demonstrate that neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Eastern Orthodox Church is the apostolic church. In another article, I showed that alterations of this sort are not surprising, given the influence of the Roman Empire on the church, beginning in the 300s.

How Important Are the Councils?

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church hold that church councils, in some cases, can have authority on a similar level as Scripture. Each church also gives significant weight to the writings of certain church fathers, especially to those who taught during the era of the seven ecumenical councils. Do councils and church fathers have authority?

Scripture clearly shows that Jesus and the apostles gave certain forms of authority to churches. But no one else was given authority to define the faith, even through apostolic succession. Therefore, if a church ever teaches something beyond what the apostles gave us, that teaching cannot define the faith. In fact, often their teachings have often not even been correct.

So have the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches taught non-apostolic teachings as definitive? In short, yes. They have held numerous church councils that further developed Christian doctrine or altered Christian practice—one of these so-called infallible decisions demanded the veneration of icons, a practice that was rejected by the apostolic church.

Not everything that was decided was wrong, and some decisions, like the Nicene creed, were helpful. However, no matter how helpful some of them might have been, these decisions were wrongly claimed to be definitive pronouncements.

Who Gets to Decide Which Councils & Books Are Authoritative?

There have been multiple councils in history that haven’t been considered to be authoritative. So what are the criteria for determining which are and which aren’t? It doesn’t always seem to be clear.

Eastern Orthodox have said that their church decides which councils and Scriptures were definitive. But how does it do so?

Is it by the next council? Then who decides whether that council is definitive? Is it by the general consensus of later Christians? But that seems like a glorified (and highly risky) form of bandwagon. After all, the consensus of earlier Christians has disagreed, and how do we know that the consensus of Christians a millenium from now won’t have changed again?

Objection: the Jerusalem Council

One argument for the idea that a church can make continued doctrinal decisions is the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch, where they had been teaching what the church has always taught since then—that Gentile Christians don’t need to follow the Law of Moses. However, some men from Judea (the region around Jerusalem) came to Antioch and began to teach the opposite. What happened then?

And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (Acts 15:2 ESV)

Why did these men not listen to Paul and Barnabas, who had authority to spread the gospel? Since these men came from the area where Christianity had been founded, it would have seemed to new Christians that they would know what was true. So, to settle the issue, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to see what the apostles and these men’s church leaders would say (although they already knew what the truth was).

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:4-5)

So it turned out that this incorrect teaching was arising from “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees,” which was a faction of Jewish belief in that day. The church at Jerusalem wasn’t all teaching correctly. The apostles and elders discussed this issue at a meeting:

And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Paul and Barnabas then agreed with Peter, and James the brother of Jesus (who was not an apostle, but bishop of Jerusalem) proposed to send a letter clarifying that Gentiles didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses. The letter read

The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

So what happened during this incident? The Gentile believers had been taught two different things. Paul and Barnabas taught them the apostolic doctrine, which Peter agreed with (it also seems that the other apostles agreed with it as well, from the way Acts recounts the story). Yet some people from Judea who seemed to have authority taught a different doctrine.

It seemed best to go to Jerusalem to settle the issue, since that was the area where the problem arose, and there were apostles there. When Paul and Silas arrived, it became clear that there were people dividing the church on this issue. So the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, along with the apostles, discussed the issue. They came to a consensus on it and wrote a letter that reflected that census.

Was any doctrine decided at this council? No, because the doctrine was already known. Note that the letter specified that the men from Judea weren’t sent out by the church. However, the church in Jerusalem was divided on this issue and was causing problems for other churches, so they needed to deal with it.

One could say that clarification of doctrine occurred at this council, since it seemed that even the apostles hadn’t been explicitly teaching that Gentiles didn’t need to obey the Law of Moses. Does this mean that doctrine can develop up until today? No, because the apostles were present; thus, this provides no evidence that doctrine can develop beyond the apostles’ lifetime. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all the truth, and this may have been one of the times that this happened. Note that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is not evidence that ecumenical councils can make definitive decisions. That council isn’t comparable to the ecumenical councils, because there were apostles present helping to make the decision; thus giving it apostolic authority. No indication is given that future councils could have such authority. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches seem not to even accept the decisions of that council as binding. The Roman Catholic Church allows for the consumption of blood, which that council teaches against. There seems to be disagreement among Eastern Orthodox as to whether that prohibition still applies or is contextual, and in some Eastern Orthodox cultures, such foods as blood sausage are common and don’t seem to be actively discouraged. So it’s not a good example for them to use as an infallible council, since they themselves don’t fully accept it as one.

In the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles and elders described their decision by saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Doesn’t that mean that church leaders continue to make conciliar decisions by being led by the Holy Spirit? No, because apostolic succession of ordination is false. The Holy Spirit still leads Christians, but he has made clear through Scripture and the witness of the early church that all authoritative Christian doctrine was revealed to the apostles.

Further Objections

Here are a few further objections a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian might put forward.

  • If we can’t trust the councils and those church fathers who were considered saints, what can we trust? Well, the men Jesus authorized to teach the faith—the apostles.
  • We wouldn’t understand the Trinity or the atonement if we couldn’t continue to learn new things from the revealed text of Scripture. Isn’t this a legitimate development? There’s plenty enough teaching about the Trinity and the atonement in Scripture. Further teaching has been helpful, but not necessary for understanding the faith.


I’ve offered multiple lines of argumentation against the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claim to having continued authority over Christian doctrine. I conclude that any church councils or later teachings can only offer a helpful perspective on the original faith; they cannot be considered infallible definitions of or pronouncements on the faith. Church leaders have the authority to teach and, in so doing, to help their people better understand the faith; however, their clarifications do not have the authority to define Christian doctrine or practice—that authority only belongs to the apostolic doctrines.

2 thoughts on “Are Catholic & Orthodox Developments Legitimate? Can Doctrine Develop?”

  1. Hi Lynn,
    I have no idea why you think Orthodox don’t take the prohibitions of the Council of Jerusalem seriously. Here are two posts that say just the opposite.
    A few peasants breaking a rule doesn’t prove anything. I’m not sure how ‘common’ it is.
    I’ve been to many Serbian, Greek and Antiochian festivals and never seen ‘blood sausage’ served – and I’ve been doing it for 50 years.

    1. Thanks for this information. I’ll research this a bit further. I’ve been going off what people have said in multiple places online, but mainly they have been individual Orthodox rather than Orthodox leaders, so I may need to correct some statements I made.

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