Saint Vincent of Lerins posed the following question in the fifth century: “Can there be progress in the religion of the Church of Christ?” Today, we can phrase the question in the following way: How is the precious deposit of faith guarded and transmitted through time? How can we speak of a “development of doctrine?”
Can there be progress in the religion of the Church of Christ?
Here is how the ancient author answered the question: “Certainly, and the progress can be very great indeed. Who, in fact, could have such little faith in men and be so demanding of God as to try to deny it? Yet only on the condition that it truly involves progress in the faith and not a change. It is characteristic of every kind of progress that it develops intrinsically, while change implies a passage from one given thing to some different thing. Thus it is necessary that in everything – in every individual and in the entire Church – understanding, knowledge, and wisdom grow and progress intensely through the ages and from generation to generation. Now this progress must take place according to its proper nature and in the same sense according to the same dogmas and the same thought.”
To explain his thinking, Saint Vincent of Lerins uses an image from biology: “The religious life of the soul imitates the way the body grows, whose parts, even though they develop and mature through the years, always remain the same. There is a big difference between youth and maturity. But the young also become old. An individual may change in stature and aspect over time, but always remains one and the same in nature and in person. The parts of newborns are tiny and those of adolescents large, but they remain the same parts. They have the same number in both babies and adults. And if there are some that appear only at a more mature age, they were already existent potentially in the embryonic stage. So at older stages there is nothing more than there was, at least seminally, in the infant stage. There is no doubt about it. This is the rule of any authentic progress, and this is the normal and harmonious way of growing.”
He concludes: “And so it is good that the teachings of the Christian religion also follow these laws of growth in order that they may be strengthened through the years, develop according to their own timeline, and deepen from generation to generation.”1