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John Henry Cardinal Newman: The Anglican Theologian who Swam the Tiber

John Henry Cardinal Newman: The Anglican theologian who swam the Tiber

By Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott

VOL Note: The following article is being posted because of recent accusations made about the personal life of Cardinal Newman. Also the five points offered by Dr. McDermott about what Protestants can learn from Newman at the conclusion of this article make this article worth the read. This chapter is excerpted from Dr. McDermott’s forthcoming book, “The Great Theologians for Beginners” (InterVarsity Press).

For John Henry Newman (1801-90), religion is all about “dogma,” those doctrines which must be believed: “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion.” Any religion, he thought, that did not put belief at its core does not deserve the name of religion. Religion is about what is outside the human self, not some sentiment inside the person.

I know no other religion [than what is founded on dogma]; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. As well can there be filial love without the fact of a father, as devotion without the fact of a Supreme Being.

Newman has been called “England’s outstanding theologian, and Catholicism’s--at least besides Leo XIII--most significant personality in the last [nineteenth] century.” His leadership of the Oxford movement in the Church of England from 1833 to 1841 “swayed England as she had not been swayed religiously for many years.” When this high-church Anglican Oxford professor--who had been at one time an evangelical and then a liberal for a short time--at last converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, all England was shocked.

Outrageous charges followed him: he had been a Jesuit in disguise all along; shortly after his conversion he bitterly repented and would give anything to return to Protestantism; he had lost his Christian faith entirely and was now an infidel hiding in Paris; he was really in Birmingham supervising torture cells for Protestant maidens.
None of these were true. In fact he went on to produce some of the most influential and important theological works of the nineteenth century. When Newman was 78 years old, Pope Leo XIII recognized his achievement by appointing him a cardinal of the Catholic Church.

A young evangelical and then liberal

Newman grew up in the Church of England when its children learned at their mothers’ breasts about the Catholic Queen, Bloody Mary, who had burned three hundred Protestant martyrs at the stake during the English Reformation. “From my boyhood,” Newman recalled, “I considered . . . that St. Gregory I about A.D. 600 was the first Pope that was Antichrist.”

Then, at age fifteen, when he fell seriously ill at boarding school, Newman experienced an evangelical conversion. He became conscious of “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” Even in his old age he remembered this as a definite experience that changed him forever: “It is difficult [for me] to realise [sic] or imagine the identity of the boy before or after August 1816. . . . I can look back at the end of seventy years as if on another person.”

In his early twenties Newman started to “[drift] in the direction of the Liberalism of the day.” He wrote in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his religious autobiography, that “I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral.” Later in his life he defined liberalism as being in principle against any dogma: it is the idea there are no religious truths that we can know for sure, so one religious belief is as good as another, and all must therefore be tolerated.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. And this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Newman was a liberal for a time, but not in his personal habits. He refused to go the way of the “two-bottle orthodox,” who prided themselves on drinking two bottles of port a day as a protest against “puritans” who were orthodox in belief and ascetic in their personal lives.

The conversion that shook England

Martin Luther and John Henry Newman both took trips to Rome and were scandalized by the laxity of the Roman church. Newman was especially revolted by the Italian penchant for spitting everywhere, by both men and women, even by a priest at the altar “in the most sacred part of the service.” Yet Newman was also impressed by the sincerity and intelligence of young men studying for the priesthood, thinking he saw in them “a deep substratum of true Christianity.”

During this period Newman’s brother Francis had become a Unitarian after serving as an unofficial evangelical missionary to Baghdad. Perhaps in reaction to this devastating personal blow, Newman began to see in Protestantism an emphasis on feeling that seemed similar to liberalism’s romantic tendencies: “[Protestants] substitute faith for Christ.” Their doctrine of justification by faith points to inner experience rather than to Christ outside themselves: “To look at Christ is to be justified by faith; to think of being justified by faith is to look from Christ and to fall from grace.”

[Luther] found Christians in bondage to their works and observances; he released them by his doctrine of faith; and he left them in bondage to their feelings. . . . For outward signs of grace he substituted inward; for reverence towards the Church contemplation of self. And . . . whereas he preached against reliance on self, he introduced it in a more subtle shape; whereas he professed to make the written word all in all, he sacrificed it in its length and breadth to the doctrine which he had wrested from a few texts.

Newman thought evangelicals were the worst, for instead of preaching Christ, they preached conversion. They directed attention “to the heart itself, not to anything external to us, whether creeds, actions, or ritual.” This was “really a specious form of trusting man rather than God,” and so “in its nature Rationalistic.”

Newman also thought evangelicals were wrong to think of conversion as being instantaneous. He denied that “there is some clearly marked date at which he began to seek God,” and insisted that one’s change of heart is always “a slow work.” But, as Michael McClymond notes, Newman had a difficult time interpreting what seemed to be St. Paul’s sudden conversion.

The long march toward Rome began when Newman decided, at the age of 27, to read in systematic fashion all 200 volumes of the writings of the Fathers of the early church. His favorites became Athanasius and Chrysostom, but in Ignatius of Antioch (2nd century AD) the Oxford theologian was surprised to see “the whole system of Catholic doctrine . . . at least in outline.”

As an Anglican, he had always assumed that Canterbury had the faith of the apostles, and Rome the faith of catholicity (most Christians around the world by the time of the Reformation). But as he proceeded through the Fathers, he began to conclude that Rome had both apostolicity and catholicity.

The turning point came in the summer of 1839 (he was 38), when it suddenly dawned on him that the early heretics shared characteristics of Anglicans like himself, and the orthodox Fathers thought like Rome. “I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite [heretics who said Jesus had only a divine nature, and no human nature].”

Yet he still had problems with Rome. For one thing, the history of the popes, with its immoralities and political maneuverings, was a stumbling block. But, he told himself, these things didn’t stop Caiaphas or Balaam from speaking the truth.

Then there was the emerging claim to papal infallibility, which was not yet declared dogma but was on its way to being so. Newman was disturbed. After all, St. Peter was not infallible at Antioch when St. Paul disagreed with him; nor was Liberius, the bishop of Rome, when he excommunicated Athanasius. Newman reassured himself, however, that “remedies spring up naturally in the Church, as in nature, if we wait for them.”

Newman finally decided the issue by an appeal to authority and his own fear of God. He resolved that his era’s crisis of belief required a strong force to bind the church together—Protestantism’s appeal to the private conscience produced only a cacophony of differing opinions. He also feared for his own salvation: “The simple question is, Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? Am I in safety, were I to die tonight?”

The theology professor told himself that, after all, Rome had better answers to questions about life after death. Purgatory, with its implication of innumerable degrees of grace and sanctity among the saved, made more sense of the near-infinite variations among human beings. Besides, Protestant comparisons of Roman practice with Protestant theology were like comparing apples and oranges.

Protestants ought to compare Catholic theology with their own theology, and Catholic practice with Protestant practices. If apples were compared with apples, Newman surmised, Rome would come out ahead.

In the end, Newman had begun “with feeling, . . . flirted with intellect, . . . [and] ultimately submitted his will to the will of God as interpreted first by his bishop and then by the Pope.” On the rainy morning of October 9, 1845, he confessed to Father Dominic, a Passionist priest, and was received into the Catholic Church.

Reason and faith, preaching, and problems in the church

Before we get into Newman’s most significant legacy, let us look quickly at some of his distinctive teachings. The first is his singular approach to the perennial question of how reason relates to faith. We must start, he said, by seeing that the “popular” or “secular” view of reason is faulty.

It presumes true knowledge comes only from sense experience and logic, and that therefore reason is opposed to faith. But Newman argued this is a superficial approach, for it fails to realize that all reasoning must take for granted some things that cannot be proved—such as the uniformity of nature. We often assume that the laws of nature have always worked the way they do now, and that they always work the same way even when we are not looking. But we can’t prove either.

In fact, he said, all reasoning really works by “antecedent probability.” Because we trust the person who is giving us new knowledge (“I trust you because I have seen you in action, and you have never deceived me”), we give him the benefit of the doubt up front (antecedent), and presume that what he tells us is probably true. Any one piece of evidence given for a conclusion is weak; but when all the weak evidences are put together, the collection becomes strong. “The best illustration . . . is that of a cable which is made up of a number of separate threads, each feeble, yet together as sufficient as an iron rod.”

So all reasoning is based upon “first principles” that cannot be proved. Another way of saying this is that all reasoning is based on faith. Even that of the atheist—he cannot prove his first principle, that there is no God. So his thinking is based on faith.

Reason as it actually works in human experience—as opposed to so-called scientific reasoning we learn in science textbooks—is ad hoc and unsystematic. Newman compares it to the movements of a rock climber.

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another. . . . And such mainly is the way in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason,--[sic]not by rule, but by an inward faculty. [emph. added]

For Newman, then, the line between reason and faith is blurred. All reasoning uses faith at some points, and religious faith is a kind of reasoning. It sees first principles in the conscience, which is the most common way God speaks to human beings, and moves from one point of knowledge to another by a variety of means, all of which use the faculty of reason.

Conscience was the basis for Newman’s faith in God: “If I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence . . .without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a . . . being in my conscience.” Listening to conscience was also the surest way to gain knowledge of God: “I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so [long as] he began on what came to hand, and in faith.”

For Newman, faith is the acceptance of testimony by those who had first-hand experience—the apostles and Fathers of the Church. Faith is not just intellectual but also moral. This means a proper moral state of the heart is the means to gaining Truth. We protect faith not primarily with the mind, but with a rightly disposed heart. We keep faith from abuse not by theological investigation first of all, but by the right preparation of heart. This is why Newman said philosophers should seek Truth “on their knees.”

Newman is rightly famous for his preaching. Some have observed that his sermons were the best of his day. He also had advice for preachers. They should preach for holiness and not comfort. “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and a trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.” Newman followed his own advice. He admitted his sermons induced “fear” and “depression,” but they were meant to do so, for “we need a continual Ash-Wednesday.” Not only do Christians need more repentance, but they tend not to listen very well. So preachers should focus on only one point in each sermon, and need not fear repetition: “People need the same thing being said a hundred times over in order to hear it.”

Newman is also known for his comforting advice about the problems in Christian churches. Every age of Christians seems to bemoan the low state of the churches, and Newman’s was no exception. But he had some valuable insights. To those who lamented the bad morals and religious ignorance of people in the pews, Newman said they should not be surprised, for Christ usually calls the poor, sinful and ignorant. To those who despaired their leaders’ failures, Newman pointed out this wasn’t the first time. During the Arian crisis, it was the laity not the bishops who held to the truth that Jesus was fully God.

The bishops failed.

To those who are scandalized by corruption in the church, Newman retorted that corruption is inseparable from a living church. “Things that do not admit of abuse have very little life in them.” Corruption in the church goes all the way back to the Twelve—think of Judas Iscariot. It is bound up with the very idea of Christianity, and is “almost a dogma.” In other words, its dogma of original sin predicts there will always be corruption.

The development of doctrine

Newman’s “most influential and seminal, and indeed controversial, work” was his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845; rev. edn. 1878), which stipulated that the Holy Spirit leads the church in its growing understanding of biblical revelation. It argued that all major post-biblical developments in Catholic doctrine were “hidden . . . in the Church’s bosom from the first.” The New Testament authors did not write everything they knew of the Gospel, but in fact concealed many teachings in the form of parables and symbols that required further explanation later on. It took the Church hundreds of years to explicate the meaning of the most important biblical truths, many of which were not spelled out explicitly in the Bible.

Did the Church therefore know more than Christ and the apostles? Only in the way that later scholars of Aristotle knew more than Aristotle: “A learned Aristotelian is one who can answer any whatever [sic] philosophical questions in the way that Aristotle would have answered them. . . In one respect he knows more than Aristotle; because, in new emergencies after the time of Aristotle, he can and does answer what Aristotle would have answered, but for the want of opportunity did not.” All new doctrines the church proclaimed in the centuries after the apostles were in the Bible in germ form. It took controversy and the guidance of the Spirit to discern the meaning of revelation for these new problems.

But the Apostles would not be surprised by any of these new developments: “I wish to hold that there is nothing which the Church has defined or shall define but what an Apostle, if asked, would have been fully able to answer or would have answered, as the Church has answered, the one answering by inspiration, the other from its gift of infallibility.”

The gist of this proposal is that the principle of “antecedent probability” suggests that God would watch over his own work, and direct and ratify those developments which faithfully explicated what he had revealed. Thus the Church, like its Lord, “increased in wisdom” (Lk 2:52). Like the human mind, which “cannot reflect upon [a great idea] except piecemeal,” the Church must develop a great idea given in biblical revelation by a series of tests and conflicts.

Whatever the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. . . In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. [emph. added]

Newman found evidence for development in the Bible itself. At the most obvious level, the Old Testament hides under veils and mysteries what is later developed in much more clarity in the New Testament. Even in the Old Testament itself one can see development. For example, in Genesis God tells Abraham enigmatically that in him all nations would be blessed, but only in the prophets do we read at length about the expansion of the covenant prophesied for the Gentiles. Moses first tells Pharaoh he wants to take his people into the desert for three days to sacrifice to his God, and does not intimate his plans to leave Egypt for good. This illustrates God’s pattern—he “works out gradually what He has determined absolutely.”

There are plenty of other examples.

St. John declares he writes “no new commandment,” but an old one they had “from the beginning.” Then he adds, “A new commandment I give you” (1 John 2:7-8). The old is old and yet also new because it has received new development in Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Don’t think I have come to destroy the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to destroy them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5: 17-19). Newman comments, “He does not reverse, but perfect, what has gone before.” Jesus’ perfection of the Law is a further development of the Law.

Then there is the idea of sacrifice. Newman says it was commanded first by Moses. Next Samuel says that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Then Hosea adds, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” Isaiah says the sacrifice of incense is an abomination to God. Malachi predicts the messianic age will see the “pure sacrifice” of wheat flour. Finally, Jesus speaks of worshipping “in spirit and in truth.” When the Church began to offer corporate worship, says Newman, “sacrifice was not removed, but truth and spirit [were] added.” The concept and practice of sacrifice underwent profound development.

Newman saw the same development in the apostolic church. At its beginning on Pentecost, Peter had still to learn that he could baptize Cornelius. Even then, more light would come from Paul’s epistles. Many other doctrines would be developed as new light was shed through the later books of the New Testament. Even after the closure of the New Testament, doctrines continued to develop.
No one doctrine can be named which starts complete at first, and gains nothing afterwards from the investigations of faith and the attacks of heresy. The Church went forth from the old world in haste, as the Israelites from Egypt “with their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.”

Newman says this follows from the principle of the Incarnation, which is the very heart of the Good News. Just as the Word became flesh, the words of God become flesh in developed ideas as church history progresses. For example, original sin is not stated in those words in the New Testament, and is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds, but it has been adopted by all the western churches. The practice of penance, Newman taught, is not shown explicitly in the Bible. But it is a necessary consequence of baptism, since there must be a way to receive public forgiveness and readmission to the visible church after public sin (against baptismal promises).

So too for later ages in church history. In the third and fourth centuries the Church came to stand for the statement that the Son of God was homoousios (of the same being) with the Father. This was not stated in the New Testament, but was a clear development of what was revealed there. In the first three centuries, the church finally agreed on the Trinity, another unbiblical word that nevertheless fittingly summed up the apostolic witness about God. In the age of Augustine, the church came eventually to agree on the classic doctrines of sin and grace, which again were logical developments of all that Scripture revealed on those subjects.

The Reformation gave us new understandings of how we are saved (the doctrine of salvation), the period of Protestant orthodoxy showed us in a new way what it means for the Bible to be inspired, and the last two centuries have shown Christians in fresh ways what it means to be church. In each period, by discussion and argument against heresy, the worldwide church came to new agreement and insight. Doctrine developed as the Holy Spirit opened up deeper understanding of the blinding revelation of Jesus Christ. Newman says more is to come in every age.

Newman argued that God has used this process of development to incorporate even pagan elements into Christian practice, but only after Christianizing them--just as Aaron’s rod swallowed the rods of Egypt’s sorcerers, but kept its own identity, incorporating them into itself. So, for example, most Christians in Newman’s day enjoyed holy days and seasons, used a ring in marriage, venerated images in church, and sang the Kyrie Eleison. Yet all these things, said Newman, were originally pagan. God used the process of development to take up what was useful in them and fill them with new Christian meaning.

There were other practices accepted by most Christians, especially evangelicals, which nevertheless were not taught explicitly in the Bible: the lawfulness of bearing arms, the duty of public worship, the substitution of the first for the seventh day as the Christian Sabbath, infant baptism, and the Protestant idea of sola scriptura (the Bible alone as a rule for faith and practice). Newman’s point was that conservative Christians, who claim to base their faith on the “Bible alone,” actually believe and practice things that are not taught by the Bible but which are consequences by development of what is revealed there.

Newman anticipated objections to his theory. First, it sounded like he was saying the church got new revelation. No, he replied, “the Church does not know more than the Apostles knew.” It simply draws out, bit by bit, what the Apostles meant in their inspired descriptions of that blinding revelation.

And it is no wonder it takes thousands of years to draw out its meaning. For it is the revelation of the infinite God, and so “it cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.”

Another objection was that he was uncritical.

Was he implying that all development is good and true, and ignoring the hosts of so-called developments that in reality are heresies? Not at all, Newman said. First of all, that is why there is a supreme authority in Rome, to distinguish true from false developments. Protestants don’t have this, and so go on forever fighting one another over doctrine without final resolution. Second, Newman worked out a sophisticated set of seven “notes” of faithful development—it must correspond to its rudiments; it shows a continuity of principle; it assimilates and absorbs; it is a logical result of original teaching; it can be seen in earlier anticipations; it conserves orthodox teaching from the past; and it shows energy and permanence. In short, a faithful development is one which truly develops from what is in the biblical vision, and does not conflict with “the whole counsel of God.”

The disciplina arcani

We have mentioned in passing that in Newman’s view of the history of God’s revealing himself to human beings, God often speaks at first in mysterious and cryptic ways. Old Testament prophecies, for example, were sometimes difficult or impossible to understand when they were first given, and became clear only when Jesus came to fulfill them. Jesus himself often spoke in parables, purposely hiding their meanings from the multitudes, and revealing those meanings only to his disciples. He told his disciples not to throw the pearls of his teachings before swine, for the pigs would trample them.

Newman said the early church took this very seriously. Beginning in the fourth century AD, they elaborated what they had been practicing since the beginning--the disciplina arcani, or “method of keeping sacred things secret.” Early Fathers said they refused to share the higher truths of the faith, such as justification and Eucharist and Trinity and atonement, to pagans and even seekers. Instead, inquirers were directed to the moral teachings of the Law, and told they must prepare themselves morally to be able to hear and understand higher truths. Moral obedience was a means to faith. Only after seekers proved themselves by these means, did the church give them more instruction.

In fact, it was typically only after a year or more of church classes that would-be converts were permitted to observe the communion rite, and only after further instruction and baptism (sometimes after three years) could they take holy communion.

Newman explains that ever since “the Creator clothed Adam, concealment is in some sense the necessity of our fall.” He noted that Paul said nothing of justification to the Athenians on Mars Hill and only the Law and Messiah’s resurrection to Agrippa—nothing of grace. In other words, Paul and the apostles concealed the higher truths from unbelievers, and shared them only when disciples had progressed to a place where they were ready to listen. This was a way in which the apostles followed God’s pattern in history—not sharing all truth at once but only a bit at a time, as people were ready to hear.

Universal revelation

Even those who are familiar with Newman’s theology often do not know that the theologian was fascinated by other religions and wrote prolifically about them. His interest in them was connected with his theory of development of doctrine, for he noted how God used non-Christian thinkers to help Christians think through the meaning of Jesus Christ. For example, Christians in the first four centuries AD used Greek philosophy to help develop the doctrine of the Trinity that all Christians now accept.

Newman also pointed to Moses, who was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Ac 7:22), and was perhaps influenced by some of that wisdom.

Unbelievers have accused Moses of borrowing his law from the Egyptians or other Pagans; and elaborate comparisons have been instituted, on the part of believers also, by way of proving it; though even if proved, and so far as proved, it would show nothing more than this,--[sic] that God, who gave His law to Israel absolutely and openly, had already given some portions of it to the heathen.

In this brief quote Newman refers to “universal revelation.” By this he meant a global diffusion of divine truth, scattered unequally around the world in all time and all places. He said the church is the ordinary channel of this revelation, and has the fullest access to it through the Bible (which he called the “unadulterated and complete revelation”) and sacraments. But by what Newman called “traditionary religion” God has spoken to human beings outside of Christianity and Judaism, never leaving himself without a witness but in every nation accepting those who feared and obeyed him.

The witness can be found in four places: philosophy, natural religion and conscience, the arts, and other religions. Newman was especially influenced by Clement of Alexandria, who proposed that God taught the Greeks through Greek philosophy. Therefore for Newman, “The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets, for ‘thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given.’” If Palestine had been the seat and foundation of supernatural truth, “Attica [ancient Greece] was chosen by Providence as the home and center of intellectual excellence.” Newman thought God had inspired Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Homer and Euripides.

Natural religion was the second channel through which God disseminates truth. By natural religion he meant what we can know about God through nature and conscience. Conscience, Newman said, teaches us not only that God exists but also that our supreme judge is holy, just and powerful.

The third and fourth channels for universal revelation are poetry and art and music, on the one hand, and world religions, on the other. “There is nothing unreasonable in the notion that there may have been heathen poets and sages . . . in a certain extent divinely illuminated, and organs through whom religious and moral truth was conveyed to their countrymen.”

In fact, he added, there is something “true and divinely revealed” in every religion around the globe, though those truths and revelations are mixed and sometimes overwhelmed by “impieties” inspired by the “corrupt will and understanding of men.” Most teach “the power and presence of an invisible God, of His moral law and governance, of the obligation of duty, and the certainty of a just judgment, and of reward and punishment, as eventually dispensed to individuals.” Some of them also teach Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, washing, Divine Word, Incarnation, angels, demons, new birth, and sacramental virtue.

According to Newman, at certain times God gave truth to his church through paganism, and the Holy Spirit guided the church to collect these truths but then purify them by sifting them through the sieve of biblical revelation.

As Adam gave names to the animals around him, so the Church from the first looked around the earth noting and visiting the doctrines she found. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and then passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land.

Then to the merchants of Tyre, the wisdom of the East, luxury of Sheba, Babylon, the schools of Greece, sitting in the midst of the doctors [Latin for “teachers”], both listening and asking questions, claiming to herself what they said rightly, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and gradually, by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. In this way she has sucked the milk of the Gentiles and sucked the breasts of kings.

Newman said God has always acted by the principle of “addition.” He does not destroy pagan wisdom but adds what is necessary to purify and complete it. He “does not begin anew but uses the existing system.” God does not undo the past but fulfills and perfects it. Therefore a pagan religious mind, “sincerely attached to some form of heathenism . . . would be drawn off from error into truth, not by losing what it had, but by gaining what it had not, not by being unclothed, but by being ‘clothed upon.’ . . . True conversion is ever of a positive, not a negative character.”

Newman, then, would advise the Christian missionary that she should not assume all pagan beliefs and practices are corrupt, or that all pagans will be damned, but will aim to recover and then reverse “the essential principles of [pagan] belief.”

Now that we have gotten this far, please don’t mistake what Newman is saying here. He is not saying that a pagan will be saved as a pagan. As I understand him, he is saying that God has mysteriously been leading some pagans on a long pilgrimage to his Triune self, even while they are pagans. If they are headed toward him, they will at some point recognize that Jesus is Lord of the cosmos and has saved them by his death and resurrection. Newman’s point is that God uses nature and conscience and limited truths within their religions to lead some (not all!) pagans to the gospel, at some time and in some way God alone knows. This is all part of his massive and mysterious plan to gradually unfold, by progressive development, his people’s understanding of himself.

What we can learn

1. Protestant readers of this book won’t be able to accept Newman’s conclusion that God has given Rome authority to judge disputes about doctrine. But they may, and should, see that there has been an indisputable development of doctrine over time. The worldwide body of Christians does indeed agree on doctrines such as Trinity and original sin which are not named as such in the Bible. Protestants should therefore consider the possibility that God’s Spirit has indeed been guiding the Church in its understanding of what Scripture and Jesus Christ mean. This means, further, that we should listen to Athanasius, Augustine and many of the other great theologians as we read the Bible, and not think we can make complete sense of the Bible without their help.

2. Evangelicals and Lutherans especially can learn from the disciplina arcani. Too often we have thrown pearls before swine in our evangelism and Christian education. Lutherans have forgotten that law must come before gospel if gospel is to be understood, and evangelicals have sometimes pronounced people saved before time has proven the solidity of conversion. We Christians generally have been too willing to blabber the mysteries of the faith to anyone we can get to listen, forgetting that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God . . .and is not able to understand them” (1 Cor 2:14). We have both said too much (when we explain the intricacies of atonement and justification to unbelievers) and too little (reducing the gospel and all the Bible to justification by faith).

3. Newman helps free us from the false presumptions of the scientific Enlightenment, such as the idea that the only kind of reason is that which uses sensory experience and testing in a science lab. Newman takes us back to the conclusions of most of the world’s great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who agreed that reason can tell us there is a God who is all-powerful and holy, and will judge us. He also shows us that even the reason of modern science is based on faith, thus refuting the modern proverb that reason is opposed to faith.

4. The Oxford don would force many conservative Christians today to check the object of their trust. Are they trusting in Christ or their conversion? The Savior or their own experience? Too often we are more focused on a theology of salvation than on the One who saved us.

5. Newman has some helpful advice for preachers. He warns them not to preach a majority of sermons on comfort. Most of us need to be called to holiness—a call which tends to afflict us when we are comfortable. Because we tend to be complacent and lazy, preachers who only preach comfort for the afflicted will leave us unholy.

A reading selection

Great questions exist in the subject-matter of which Scripture treats, which Scripture does not solve; questions too so real, so practical, that they must be answered, and, unless we suppose a new revelation, answered by means of the revelation which we have, that is, by development. Such is the question of the Canon of Scripture and its inspiration: that is, whether Christianity depends upon a written document such as Judaism;--if so, on what writings and how many;--whether that document is self-interpreting, or requires a comment, and whether any authoritative comment or commentator is provided;--whether the revelation and the document are commensurate, or the one outruns the other;--all these questions surely find no solution on the surface of Scripture, nor indeed under the surface in the case of most men, however long and diligent might be their study of it. Nor were these difficulties settled by authority, as far as we know, at the commencement of the religion; yet surely it is quite conceivable that an Apostle might have dissipated them all in a few words, had Divine Wisdom thought fit. But in matter of fact the decision has been left to time, to the slow process of thought, to the influence of mind upon mind, the issues of controversy, and the growth of opinion.

For further reading

Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before The University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843 , ed. Mary Katherine Tillman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
Stanley L. Jaki, Newman’s Challenge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

---The Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott teaches Religion and Philosophy at Roanoke College in Roanoke, VA.

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