Method for determining the essentials

Continuing with my last post, I want to clear up the kind of methodology I think needs to be used to determine what the apostles teach are essential doctrine for the church.

The first step in this kind of study would, I think obviously, be simple gathering of data. The kind of data needed for this essay would be statements that explicitly say some belief is required for salvation, or that denial of some belief puts one outside of Christ. Obviously all that needs to be done at this stage is simple reading.

The next step, however, is a bit more complicated. Obviously language functions in a system of meaningful signs, and understanding those signs implies being able to explain their meaning. Thus any statements we find in the previous step must be understood: we have to be able to explain what they mean beyond simply repeating the words. Implicit in this step is deduction: we deduce the meaning already implied in whatever statements we discovered in the first step, so we have a fuller understanding of what they already exclude.

What needs to be noted here is that this kind of deduction is elucidating a kind of “implicit meaning” which is significantly distinct from the kind of “implicit meaning” that theories of the development of doctrine articulated by Cardinal Newman teach is present in the words of the apostles. For Newman, later Magisterial teaching only must be present in the early church in “seed form”, which functionally speaking means “there must be something analogous to the later teaching in the earlier teaching.” But obviously analogy is a much weaker connection than deduction, since everything is analogous in one way or another to everything else, and thus this method of reasoning can be used to establish that any teaching was “present in seed form” in another teaching. Thus (for example), the early church had bishops, and Papal infallibility is analogous to Episcopal authority (in that it is authority exercised by an officer of the church), therefore Papal infallibility existed in “seed form” in the early church.

Deduction, on the other hand, traces out things that necessarily follow from other things. Again, it is this latter kind of reasoning that needs to be applied to the statements of the apostles, because only this kind of reasoning does not add to what the apostles were teaching. We have to be careful not to slip from deduction into analogizing, or else we might slip from doing historical analysis into pontificating ourselves.