jQuery Slider

You are here

John Henry Newman: A Tortured Mind Who Attempted to Straddle Two Worlds

John Henry Newman: A Tortured Mind Who Attempted to Straddle Two Worlds

By Chuck Collins
September 8, 2023

John Henry Newman joined the Roman Catholic Church September 9, 1845. It was the upstanding thing to do for someone who could no longer subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the teachings of historic Anglicanism.

Newman famously published Tract 90 in 1841, "Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-nine Articles." This last tract in the series was an attack on the high status of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Church of England's history and common consensual theology, and their universally accepted Protestant interpretation.

He attempted to show that those who "aim at being catholic in heart and doctrine" can in good faith subscribe to Anglican's confessional statement, but this required a tortured bending of their literal and grammatical sense. For example, Article 21 states that general councils "may err and sometimes have erred" - but Newman qualified this to say that this applied only to councils called by princes, not councils called "in the name of Christ."

Likewise, Article 22 rejects the Romish doctrines of purgatory, worshipping and adoring images and relics, and praying to saints with "no warrant of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God." Newman was in a rush to interpret the Articles "in the most Catholic sense they will admit." The Protestant strategy to attack Tract 90 was simple: bring it to the attention of as many people as possible. Charles Golightly, Oxford's gadfly for Protestantism, wrote "Strictures on No. 90" addressing each of Newman's claims one-by-one (170 pages!), finally calling Newman an "apologist" of the Church of Rome.

John Henry Newman was the most influential leader of the 1830s-40s Oxford Movement (also called the Tractarian Movement) that attempted to redefine the core beliefs of the Church of England. Anglicanism was founded on the 16th century Edwardian and Elizabethan ideals of the historic formularies that uphold the supremacy of Holy Scripture, justification by grace through faith alone, universal priesthood (of all believers), and an understanding of "real presence" as Christ's spiritual presence located in the hearts and affections of those who receive the grace of the sacraments by faith. The Oxford divines challenged each of these with their own pre-Reformation ideas. In fact, Newman and many others in the movement ended up leaving the Church of England for Rome, leaving in their wake the ruins of a mishmashed self-identity that is constantly in search for new ways to define itself (E.g., the three-legged stool, lex orandi lex credendi, three-streams, instruments of unity, etc).

According to Newman, the Oxford Movement was launched by a sermon in 1833 ("National Apostasy") in which John Keble fussed at the nation for not being more like the prophet Samuel. This was followed by a series of 90 "Tracts for the Times" (1833-1841), 27 of which were written by Newman himself.

The Oxford Movement was occupied with certain understandings: apostolic succession (by this they primarily meant the tactile succession of ordained leaders traceable back to St. Peter, not the succession of apostolic teaching - 2 Tim 2:2), the antiquity of the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons as the essence (esse) of the church rather for the well being of the church (bene esse), revival of the practice of sacramental confession, a view of the sacraments as automatic conveyers of divine grace (whether there is faith or not), the duel authority of the Bible and the church (making tradition the interpreter of Holy Scripture and virtually equal in authority), and a call to holy living (Laudian Arminianism).

They defended the rise of moralism in the church from the Reformation and Pauline understanding of "imputed righteousness" (Christ's own righteousness given to sinners as a free gift) to "infused righteousness" (sinners incrementally becoming innately righteous, and eventually worthy enough of salvation) - what Newman called in a sermon the "holiness necessary for future blessedness."

After his Thirty-Nine Articles faux pas, he lived another forty-eight years in retreat as a monk and professional academic. On October 13, 2019, with England's Prince Charles looking on as a special guest, Pope Francis canonized (sainted) Cardinal John Henry Newman in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican, Rome. To become a saint in Roman Catholicism two authenticated miracles, have to be attributed to prayers made to them after their death. I'm not sure who would pray to John Henry Newman for a miracle, but apparently at least two did.

Anglicans today either tread water in the big sea of competing and conflicting ideas, or we find solid ground in the Edwardian and Elizabethan Settlement (Reformation Anglicanism) that sees its foundation as Holy Scripture that is supported and explicated by the church fathers and Anglican formularies. When the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference) were forming, they recognized the historic formularies in their original and plain meaning as the foundation on which this church is built. Without this foundation, the church that stands for nothing will fall for anything.

"The Tractarians came to challenge, then shatter the doctrinal consensus of the earlier High Church Anglicanism, seeming to dissolve the Church of England into its constituent parts as never before. . . The Tractarians in the 1840s may have posed the greatest threat to the church's equilibrium by explaining away the Articles [of Religion]. . .They provocatively forced churchmen to take sides and to adopt a more rigid dogmatic position."
-- Peter B. Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857
"We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief."
-- ACNA "Constitution and Canons" Sent from my iPad

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top