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Distinctive Tests Between Development and Corruption

In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wrote An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In this essay, he spends a chapter on how one distinguishes between the development of a thing from its corruption. He gives seven “notes” (think here of Aristotelian Logic and the Porphyrian Tree, where a note is the intelligible aspect or element that makes up the thing considered) by which we can comprehend whether the thing considered is a development or its corruption. Here are Newman’s seven notes for distinguishing between a true development of a thing and the corruption of the same thing.

  1. Preservation of Idea (or Type) — “That the essential idea or type which a philosophical or political system represents must continue under all its developments, and that its loss is tantamount to the corruption of the system . . . .” “The first test, then, of a faithful or legitimate development is its preservation of the essential idea of the doctrine or polity which it represents.”

  2. Continuity of Principles — “Thus the continuity or alteration of the principles on which an idea has developed is a second mark of discrimination between a true development and a corruption.”

  3. Power of Assimilation — “A new element of order and composition has come among them; and its life is proved by this capacity of expansion, without disarrangement or dissolution. An eclectic, conservative, assimilating, healing, moulding process, a unitive power, is of the essence, and a third test, of a faithful development.”

  4. Early Anticipation — “Another evidence, then, of the faithfulness of an ultimate development is its definite anticipation at an early period in the history of the idea to which it belongs.”

  5. Logical Sequence — “Though it is a matter of accident in what order or degree developments of a common idea will show themselves in this or that place, particular minds or communities taking different courses, yet on a large field they will on the whole be gradual and orderly, nay, in logical sequence.” . . . “And so in the same way, such intellectual processes, as are carried on silently and spontaneously in the mind of a party or school, of necessity come to light at a later date, and then present themselves not without an intelligible order. Then logic has its function, not of discovery, but of propagation; analogy, the nature of the case, antecedent probability, application of principles, congruity, expedience, are some of the methods of proof on which the development is continued from mind to mind and established in the faith of the community.” 

  6. Preservative Additions — “As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to prejudice, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.” . . . “And thus a sixth test of a true development is its being an addition which is conservative of what has gone before it.”

  7. Chronic Vigor or Continuance — “Since the corruption of an idea, as far as the appearance goes, is a sort of accident or affection of its development, being the end of a course, and a transition-state leading to a crisis, it is, as has been observed, a brief and rapid process. While ideas live in men’s minds, they are ever enlarging into fuller development; they will not be stationary in their corruption any more than before it; and dissolution is that further state to which corruption tends. Corruption cannot, therefore, be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development.” . . . “Thus, while a corruption is distinguished from decay by its energetic action, it is distinguished from a development by its transitory character. And thus we have a seventh and final test of a development.”

quotations from John Henry Newman,

An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 57—93.

Now everyone knows that the historic liturgy of the church did not come down from God on golden tablets as we have it in its current form. It developed over time. It evolved, so to speak. Things were added or dropped off as time moved forward. But we must not fall victim to that equivocation of terms common among men. This equivocation happens when we think since there is development—since there is change and evolution—that must mean change is essential to it, that evolution is necessary, that development is its nature. This is further complicated when the impetus of those additions or subtractions are thought to have arisen at the whim of the people and their needs, so that part of the essence of the church’s worship and her liturgy is to evolve and change in order to fit the times and the needs, that is, the desires of the people. In other words, the liturgy must be changed at will according ours.

That, however, is not what is meant by the development of the liturgy (See Alcuin Reed, The Organic Development of the Liturgy). These developments that happened weren’t a change from one type of worship into another, but they were a filling out and embellishing of what was already there. Development, in this way, isn’t just change, but a growing of the thing. The nascent corn plant isn’t changing from one thing into another, but growing into and filling out what is already in the plant. The same of the human being. It is organic. The liturgy is no different. The question that is raised by this is: how do you tell the difference?

While Newman here is not discussing the liturgy, but rather doctrine (we might say the articulation of that doctrine), perhaps his seven notes would be helpful in examining the idea of the liturgy and how we might distinguish true development of the liturgy from its corruption in our current debates. As Gerald Ellard, SJ, so succinctly stated:

Every single period in the Church’s history has contributed to enrich these rites, and the twentieth century will want to go on making its contribution, too, all in orderly and proper fashion, sentire cum Ecclesia, agere cum Ecclesia. In putting its hand to the task the twentieth century will be guided by that cognate law traced by the great Cardinal Newman for appraising dogmatic growth: “There is no violent break with the past, development must be true to, and consonant with, its own immediate background.” So whatever study and prudent zeal may prompt twentieth century Catholics to contribute to the Eucharistic heritage of the ages, they will carefully avoid casting overboard any value a previous age brought with it.

—Alcuin Reed, The Organic Development of the Litury, 113.