Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Development of Doctrine II: Adventures in Neology with John Henry Newman

The Council of Trent (1545-1563), which defined Roman Catholicism as a discrete confession, distinct both from the medieval catholicism that preceded it and from the Lutheran and Reformed confessions which it responded to, for nearly four hundred years, until John Henry Newman's neology* prevailed at Vatican II (1962-65).
(*Neology: literally a new doctrine or theology; historically it usually refers to certain German philosophers and theologians of the 18th century Aufklärung (the German Enlightenment) who attempted to reconcile Christian revelation with the new historical and scientific knowledge of the time, so as to preserve the possibility of faith among the educated classes.)

"Now the chief truths which Christians ought to hold are those which the holy Apostles, the leaders and teachers of the faith, inspired by the Holy Ghost' have divided into the twelve Articles of the Creed. For having received a command from the Lord to go forth into the whole world, as His ambassadors, and preach the Gospel to every creature, they thought it advisable to draw up a formula of Christian faith, that all might think and speak the same thing, and that among those whom they should have called to the unity of the faith no schisms would exist, but that they should be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment." Catechism of the Council of Trent (aka 'The Roman Catechism,' 1566)

"The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the Same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein-keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand..." Decree of the Council of Trent on Holy Scripture (April, 1566)

"St. Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it..."John Henry Newman, Sermon on 'The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine'(1843)

"If Christianity is a fact, and impresses an idea of itself on our minds and is a subject-matter of exercises of the reason, that idea will in course of time expand into a multitude of ideas, and aspects of ideas, connected and harmonious with one another, and in themselves determinate and immutable, as is the objective fact itself which is thus represented...the more claim an idea has to be considered living, the more various will be its aspects...and the more complicated and subtle will be its issues, and the longer and more eventful will be its course...keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful..." John Henry Newman, 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine' (1845)

The historic pulpit of St Mary's Church, Oxford, from which Newman first ventured to propound his novel thesis of doctrinal development before the world in the form of a long sermon ostensibly on Luke 2:19 (of one and a half hour's duration by his own account!) in 1843, in which he cited the Virgin Mary as the exemplar of how the church was to ponder the truths of the Christian faith in her heart and bring forth new things. Almost exactly a hundred years earlier John Wesley had inaugurated the Evangelical revival in the Church of England by preaching his famous sermons on 'Salvation by Faith' and 'Scriptural Christianity' from the same pulpit. In 1833 John Keble had preached a sermon on 'National Apostasy' at St Mary's, protesting parliamentary interference in the church's internal life, an event which Newman himself marked as inaugurating the 'Oxford Movement', which rejected the doctrinal heritage of the Reformation and would change the face of Anglicanism profoundly.

Newman’s now seminal ‘Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine’, published in 1845, was widely read in Britain and abroad, and drew reactions from theologians across the ecclesiastical spectrum: Roman Catholics, Anglicans of high and low churchmanship, Presbyterians and Baptists. The majority of these reactions were critical. A modern editor of a 1974 edition of Newman’s essay, writing under the influence of the post-Vatican II veneration of Newman, could refer Newman’s essay as the most important theological treatise by an Englishman since William of Occam, but Newman’s more sober contemporaries were less appreciative. Indeed, the affront that Newman’s essay caused led some to regard him as a fellow traveller with the German neologists, and perhaps even an infidel.

As outlandish as these accusations may seem today, when Newman is presented as an exemplar of Roman Catholic orthodoxy (and is, tellingly, a figure highly regarded by both liberal and conservative Roman Catholics) it serves us well to remember that for much of his life as a Catholic Newman was held in suspicion as one whose sympathies lay with the liberal wing of the church. Furthermore, outside his own circle of Anglo-Catholic converts, it was among Catholic modernists that his theory was to receive its most unabashedly positive reception. Not that Newman was a modernist; he was too conventionally devout to be such. But as the siren song of Rome dashed his idiosyncratic version of Anglicanism on the rocks at Littlemore, he was clearly struggling with the same question that would later lead to the rise of modernism in the Roman church, namely the difficulty a historically conscious modern person had defending, let alone submitting in good conscience to, Rome’s a-historical claims about herself as they were then presented (the decrees of Trent and the Roman Catechism still defined Roman Catholicism in the 19th century, and would do so for more than a hundred years to come, with the official addition of Papal Infallibility and the Marian dogmas). This struggle indeed led Newman to sail close to the winds of neology blowing from Continental theology - it cannot be gainsaid that Newman’s ‘Essay’ contains many thoughts which struck his contemporaries as very novel indeed. In fact, even seventy years later, some of the propositions Newman puts forward in the ‘Essay’, for example his opinion that revelation did not cease with the death of the last apostle, were condemned by the Papacy as belonging to the modernist heresy [Cf. Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907) & 'Lamentabile: Errors of the Modernists (1907)]. This reveals just how radical Newman's proposal of development was; in fact, it would be over a hundred years before Roman Catholicism caught up with the subtle mind of John Henry Newman, an interesting development in itself which we hope to explore in a further post.

But first, to the heart of Newman’s thesis, which begins with the curious contention that Christianity is essentially an Idea, which, like all ideas, admits of development, whereby various aspects of the original idea are “brought into consistency and form…being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field”. The idea “not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it”. What is the process, then, by which Christianity has developed? Newman, quoting himself, opines that “the mind which is habituated to the thought of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, naturally turns with a devout curiosity to the contemplation of the object of its adoration, and begins to form statements concerning it, before it knows whither, or how far, it will be carried. One proposition necessarily leads to another, and a second to a third; then some limitation is required; and the combination of these opposites occasions some fresh evolutions from the original idea, which indeed can never be said to be entirely exhausted. This process is its development, and results in a series, or rather body, of dogmatic statements, till what was an impression on the Imagination has become a system or creed in the Reason.”

As examples, Newman suggests that the Roman Catholic doctrine and system of penance is a development from the doctrine of baptism which has led to a historically new doctrine, and furthermore elaborates that the historic episcopate is a political development, the doctrine of the Theotokos a logical development, the determination of the date of our Lord's birth date a historical development, the Eucharist a moral development, and the Athanasian Creed a metaphysical development of the simple, original ‘Idea’ of Christianity, which is the Incarnation. All of these Christian truths are evidence of the evolution – yes, as we saw above, Newman uses the word – and modification – he doesn’t shy away from that term either - of the simple, original Christian idea as the Christian mind has contemplated it in the light of new and challenging contexts (the parallels with Darwin’s soon to be published theory of biological evolution, whereby the morphology of species is modified through interaction with new environments, are obvious). Newman also suggests that Roman Catholic Marian piety is a legitimate development of the confession of the early church that Mary was the Theotokos. At the time of publication of Newman’s essay, the papal definition of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, a belief already widely held and observed as a holy day, was only 9 years away. We don’t know if the Pope was emboldened towards promulgating this dogma by Newman’s thesis...as convoluted and flawed as it is, we think probably not.

As mentioned above, publication of Newman’s essay caused considerable affront. Protestants were offended that a figure who was educated by and had so obviously benefited personally from the Protestant Anglican establishment had resorted to such obvious special pleading to defend the absolutist claims of Rome (remember, there were political as well as religious dimensions to the claims of Rome - every English child knew the story of Guy Fawkes and looked forward to burning his effigy every 5th November, even if only for the accompanying fireworks display!). Meanwhile, Roman Catholics were uneasy that Newman appeared to cede too much to traditional Protestant criticisms by apparently acknowledging that distinctive Roman doctrines could only be drawn indirectly from the apostolic deposit of faith. But, as unpromising as the reception of his published essay was to be, the exercise of writing down his notion of development, which he had first publicly outlined from the pulpit of St Mary’s, Oxford in 1843, had enabled Newman to reconcile, at least in his own mind, the obvious differences in doctrine and life between the Roman church of his time and the early church as he knew it from his historical research. To the Protestant charge that the early church knew nothing of penance, purgatory and the purity of Mary from original sin, Newman could respond that all these doctrines, along with other distinctive Roman doctrines and the practices which flowed from them, were developments of the original deposit of faith, which met Newman’s own proposed seven criteria for legitimacy. Hypothetically, Newman speculated, if St Ambrose of Milan were alive today he would certainly be a Roman Catholic!


A somewhat idealised portrait of Newman during the period of semi-monastic retreat at Littlemore which he largely devoted to composing his 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine'. Newman is pictured here with his close companion - even in death they shared a grave - and fellow convert to Romanism, Ambrose St. John. Newman tasked St. John and his other acolytes at Littlemore with composing lives of the English saints. Modern day homosexual activists within and without the Roman church have claimed that Newman's friendship with St. John is evidence that he was a homosexual. Personally I am not convinced, although undoubtedly this friendship compensated somewhat for Newman's lack of a marriage partner. However, I can't fail to note what a contrast Newman's effete personality, his dissembling ways (Tract 90!) and his various all-male domains present to Luther's stout-hearted, guileless character and his lively domestic household at Wittenberg!

By publishing his essay, Newman intended to provide not just an apologia for his looming conversion (which took place on October 9, 1845), but a persuasive towards conversion to Rome directed to others. Thousands since have been thus persuaded, and many more “cradle Catholics” have found in Newman’s theory a justification for remaining Catholic because it – and his theology as a whole – has enabled them to become “intellectually fulfilled modern Roman Catholics”. But, ironically, these gains have been made only at the cost of introducing the principles of subjectivism and rationalism into the heart of Catholic theology. I say this is ironic because, as anyone who has studied Newman’s own ‘development’ knows, it was his horror at how Protestantism had supposedly introduced first subjectivism and then rationalism into Christianity that set Newman on the path to Rome in the first place. Mutatis mutandis, with reference to Newman's Essay, we might well turn his own words, from his "Tract for the Times Number 73: On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion’ back upon himself: “To Rationalise in matters of revelation is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed…to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them and then to garble, gloss and colour them…and twist them… in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them.”

Just how Newman was guilty of doing this I shall explore in an upcoming post, which will review contemporary responses to Newman from within Anglicanism and also offer a criticism of our own. Further, apropos Newman and the Oxford Movement's rejection of the Reformation, I will consider in yet another post how Newman misread and maligned Luther, re-writing Anglican theology and history in the process.

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Many thanks to those who've contacted me on and off the blog to express their interest in this series. I apologise for the delay in publishing this second post - the southern hemisphere winter has brought influenza and asthma to the old manse, which, after catching-up with pastoral duties, has not left me with much energy for blogging.

4 comments:

Terry Maher said...

The irony you note really lies at the heart of the whole problem. Indeed his "Catholicism" -- and Catholicism itself as redefined at Vatican II -- reeks of the same subjectivism of which he complained in Protestantism of any kind including his own, or rather, the several kinds he tried on. But it is precisely the RCC as an institution that prevents them from seeing it -- if that is the RCC and the RCC is doing it, then it ain't subjective!!

Whereas, it is, just with an intermediary buffer, the RCC, stuck in there so it doesn't look like it is.

In this way he constructs a Protestantism seemingly -- seemingly -- without the factor he finds unacceptable in Protestantism itself.

A Protestant church with a pope at the top, as my dad, a 1941 convert to the RCC, said of the Newmanian post Vatican II RCC that was so much like the Protestantism he thought he left behind for something better.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Your father was an astute man, Terry.

Terry Maher said...

I am amazed at the lack of comments. But, I would not chalk the lack of comments up to lack of interest, but rather that you have nailed things right to the wall -- or church door, if you will -- and I look forward to your future posts on the matter.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Terry,
I guess an inconvenient truth is often ignored, in the hope that it will go away.
Next post should be up Monday, d.v.