Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
In the 19th century Cardinal John Henry Newman showed how heresy had played an important role in the development of church doctrine. Throughout our history people have “floated” ideas that made sense to them and appealed to others, and caught the Church off guard. “We never thought of that!” they might have said, “but it doesn’t feel right.”
In the second and third centuries, for instance, the Church struggled to say who Jesus was. A man like God? God with the appearance of a man? The Nestorians said he was two persons, Jesus of Nazareth and the Son of God. Jesus was “possessed” by the Son of God, like diabolical possession but different. Jesus obediently did whatever the Son of God wanted, even to the point of death. But, they said, God didn’t die on Calvary.
That didn’t sit right with the many bishops. They knew in their inspired bones that if the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth is not God, we are not saved; and if we’re not saved we can pack up this whole enterprise and fall back into idolatry. In fact, those Christians who bought this reasonable explanation were lapsing into another form of idolatry. It’s plausibility made it suspicious. Mysteries cannot be so easily explained.
The doctrine of incarnation developed out of the controversy. The word does not appear in scripture but helps to clarify the mystery without explaining it.
Newman showed how our beliefs develop organically through our prayers, customs and beliefs. If the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not obvious in the scriptures, neither does it contradict our scriptures; and it has developed throughout the centuries until we are persuaded and sure of it. As we recite our rosaries, visit her shrines, and confidently ask for her intercession we are sure that Mary enjoyed an extraordinary grace.
I find the seed of Newman’s teaching in the above words from Saint Matthew, “not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. Our faith grows as the Bible's letters and parts of letters mature, flourish, and bear ripe fruit. We grow with them as we study these doctrines, wrapping our minds around these sacred words. We become People of God as we celebrate these mysteries.