Monday, October 13, 2014

On John Henry Newman and doctrine and development

This process, whether it be longer or shorter in point of time, by which the aspects of an idea are brought into consistency and form, I call its development, being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start. [John Henry Cardinal Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, p. 29]

But the whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development. As the Revelation proceeds, it is ever new, yet ever old. St. John, who completes it, declares that he writes no "new commandments unto his brethren," but an old commandment which they "had from the beginning" And then he adds, "A new commandments I write unto you." The same test of development is suggested in our Lord's words on the Mount, as has already been noticed, "Think not that I am come to destroy the Law and the Prophets; I am come to destroy, but to fulfill." He does not reverse, but perfect, what has gone before. ... If then the prophetic sentences have had that development which has really been given them, first by succeeding revelations, and then by the event, it is probably antecedently that those those doctrinal, political, ritual, and ethical sentences, which have the same structure, should admit the same expansion. Such are, "This is My Body," or "Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church," or "The meek shall inherit the earth," and "Suffer little children to come unto Me," or "The pure in heart shall see God." (Ibid., pp. 48-9)

John Henry Newman is perhaps the most famous person associated with the the 19th century Oxford Movement or Tractarianisn, its adherents also known as Pusseyites after its prominent member Edward Bouverie Pussey. As a reaction to Enlightenment changes and the growing pluralism in Britain, the Oxford Movement began as an attempt to reform the Church of England and England itself along apostolic lines, and it ended with the conversion of Newman into Roman Catholicism and the creation of the Anglo-Catholic party within the Church of England.

The Oxford Movement stands at the cusp of Modernity. Even as it reacted against certain aspects of Modernity, it also assimilated other aspects of Modernity in it, since Modernity is the air in which Europeans of that time breathed. The reason for my interest in this movement is that of the issue of adaptation to change. How do people react to change when it arrives? If we as Reformed (and small "e" evangelical) reject the Solo Scriptura of Primitivism, then we need to look at past conflicts and how different peoples have struggled with the issue of change, even Liberals who did not begin with the intention to destroy Christianity but had desired to "save" it.

Liberalism or Progressivism destroys the Christian faith. On the opposite extreme are the Restorationists or Primitivists who want to go back to the "pure" times of the early Church, as if that were possible! As the book The American Quest for the Primitive Church, edited by Richard Hughes, shows, the restorationist/ primitivist ideal is an illusion since every single restorationist movement tend to baptize certain aspects of their times as being true to the early church, when they are probably not. In our times, we see this in the "Organic Church" of Frank Viola which baptized anti-institutionalism and communitarianism as being part of the "early Church." Every restorationist movement disagrees with the next one, and so we see that positing some form of eternalism is flawed. So on the one hand it seems, eternalism is unworkable. On the other hand, the idea of development as posited by Liberalism is not where we want to go, for a "development" that results in a denial of the Faith is not Christian.

Newman, besides his controversial Tract 90 on the topic of Justification, wrote and published a treatise on the development of dogma, which I have just read. However we might disagree with Newman, his arguments warrant examination, and it is this idea of development that I would like to look at. Of course, it is to be noted here that Newman's idea of development seemed to be codified in some form in Vatican II, which means that it is certainly relevant for interacting with contemporary Roman Catholicism as well.

Before Newman, there wasn't much thought within Christendom and Roman Catholicism concerning the philosophy of time and history. Tradition in Tridentine Roman Catholicism was accepted on the partim-partim model (Part of revelation is in the Scriptures, another part of it is in Sacred Tradition). Newman however proposed a different way of looking at doctrines. Scripture and Tradition are like the seed and the tree. Scripture provides the source material (seed), which is then developed into various dogmas by the [Roman Catholic] Church. Tradition is the artifact of history, an artifact of the progress of time as Christian doctrine develops. Thus, one does not have to find any particular doctrine in Scripture. Rather, according to Newman, one merely has to prove that this doctrine can be derived from a teaching found in Scripture. Therefore along this train of thought, the need for continual repentance of sin is the seed for the doctrine of penance, and the doctrine of transubstantiation is found in seed form in the doctrine of Christ's presence in the Supper.

Newman argued for the principle of development by appeal to the progressive nature of revelation in the Scriptures themselves. Now, it is certainly to be admitted that there is a progression in revelation within the pages of Scripture. But agreeing with a progression of redemptive revelation is far from agreeing with Newman's theory of doctrinal development. Scripture according to its own witness is a close canon. As Hebrew 1:1 states, the finality of revelation is in Christ, and thus in the Scriptures as the Logos Engraphon (Inscripturated Word) which corresponds to the Logos Ensarkos (Incarnate Word). Viewed canonically, the closing words of Revelations 22:18-9 wraps up the Scriptures as a whole. The Canon of Scripture is closed; there is to be neither addition nor subtraction from it. Since it is closed, revelation has been completed in the 66 books of the Bible. The progression of revelation therefore is limited to the main theater of redemptive-history, not after it. Revelation is complete, the Canon is closed, and therefore appeal to the progressive nature of revelation WITHIN redemptive history proves nothing whatsoever regarding whether there is any kind of development of doctrine within the history of the Church. In point of fact, the finality of revelation and the Canon is prima facie proof that Newman is wrong.

That said, we should acknowledge some form of development, but it is a development in understanding rather than a development of doctrines. The Church grows in her understanding of the Truth. In this light, there is similarity between Newman and what seems to be the right view in our understanding of how the Church grows in understanding the truth, at least as it pertains to the development of Trinitarian thought. The difference, and the key difference, is that for us, we have a fixed deposit of doctrine, whereas for Newman, since development pertains to doctrines themselves he argued for fixed principles rather than fixed doctrines. For us, the Trinity is something implied in Scripture; for Newman, the Trinity is the developed doctrine from facts and principles in Scripture.

The divergence is only made evident when we move from the Trinitarian controversies into the Medieval and later periods. Here, the Protestant argument is that there was a departure from the Faith by segments within the Medieval Church, while Newman of course denied such a departure. We claim evidence for the departure based upon appeal to Scripture, and it is in Newman's response to the Protestant stance that we see the major problem with his view.

The Protestant's development of understanding compared with Newman's development of doctrine look very similar on the surface in its reaction to changes in the early church, but once we reach the Medieval period where we throw allegations of corruption, the difference are revealed. Newman in response to this posits seven notes to differentiate legitimate development from corruption. First, there is the preservation of type. Second, there is a continuity of principles. Third, developments have the power of assimilation of opposing ideas, while corruptions decay and disappear. Fourth, it flows from the previous thought through logical sequence. Fifth, the previous thought anticipates its future development. Sixth, the development has a conservative action upon its past. Seventh, developments have chronic vigor which is to say that it persists through time. (Ibid., pp. 124-148).

All of these sound reasonable on the surface, but do they actually work? We note here in passing that these notes are not arrived from a study of Scripture but rather through reason. Newman it seems loves [the philosopher Joseph] Butler's analogies, and he arrives at these notes through the use of analogies. We note here the first note: preservation of type. Now, how does one even know whether the "type" has been preserved? It seems here that Newman is rationalistically categorizing the type of both the previous and the "developed" iteration of Christian doctrine, and thus by virtue of casting the categories, he can prove or disprove as he wishes what a "preservation of type" looks like. For example, he castigates Calvinism as being of the principle of Private Judgment, and thus Unitarianism is its proper development (Ibid., pp. 126, 130), a charge which is simply laughable. Now just because Newman cannot understand and misrepresents the principle of Sola Scriptura, as if every person's autonomous reading of the Scriptures is key, should not give him the right to misrepresent Calvinism. Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is supreme in its authority, not that every man can come up with his own interpretation as he wishes. In the case of the supposed "preservation of type" from Calvinism to Unitarianism therefore, we see how this first note is basically a self-serving device since the categorization of types is arbitrary and can prove just about any relation between anything that has some resemblance to each other.

The same criticism can be leveled at the second note of "continuity of principles." We should reject any "criterion" of development where the enemy basically smuggles their own categories as if they were brute facts. Here, we reject also the fifth note of anticipation of its future, since how one determines "anticipation" is clearly subjective. Thus, Protestantism using the note of "anticipation" can claim similarly to be the development of the early church.

The third note of assimilation is laughable, because when one worldview assimilates others it is clearly syncretism, not true development. This feeds into the seventh note of chronic vigor, since whether one worldview dominate has more to do with the political-social climate than with spirituality It is a strange reading of providence indeed when one thinks the truth depends on the actions of humans. Furthermore, practically how does one differentiate between different religions, different sects, which have "chronic vigor." Surely Newman and Roman Catholicism wouldn't countenance Eastern Orthodox as a development based upon their "chronic vigor" despite harsh persecution by Islam.

The fourth note of logical sequence seems valid in the sense that what validly follows from the premises partake of the truth value(s) of the premises. However, it is one thing to state logical sequences, another to prove it. When we look at what Newman means by "logical sequence," we note that it has little to do with the actual process of logical reasoning and instead of any form of reasoning both deduction and induction, and what to him seems logical. It is for example illogical to argue for purgatory from Scripture, but for Newman he thinks that is logical. It is of course too much to expect an actual logical proof from Newman in such a brief section, yet its brevity shows that the idea of "logical sequence" has little to do with actual logic and more to do with the mere act of reasoning per se.

Last but not least, the sixth note on conservative action upon its past sounds laudable, except that the past itself is subject to reinterpretation in Roman Catholicism. Thus, we have the idea that Peter is the first pope of Rome, even though we have no record of Peter ministering in Rome. And just what kind of "conservative action" upon its past is this when Rome sided with the innovative Jesuits against the French Jansenists who were following the teaching of Augustine concerning grace? The fact of the matter is that Rome spins the past, then claims that her version of the past shows that she is conservative and in continuity with her past. So this note is unworkable since Rome reorders the pieces to suit her.

But let us just use the "notes" advocated by Newman for the sake of argument. How does Rome reconcile the "conservative action upon its past" note from Vatican I to Vatican II. How does one accept as truth the statements against Modernism and Socialism hurled by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, and the teachings of Roman Catholicism at Vatican II and beyond? How does one reconcile the idea that there is no salvation outside the Roman Church and that heretics and infidels will go to hell promulgated at the Council of Florence, with Vatican II's teaching of Jews and Muslims being in the plan of salvation and that Protestants are no more heretics but "separated brethren"? Whither these changes? Inclusivism is overwhelmingly rejected by Rome and Protestants and Christianity down through the ages, except for Origen whose views were condemned as heresy, so upon what basis can Vatican II's changes be seen as a "development" in light of Newman's notes?

Now, most of the changes postdate Newman, so Newman cannot be held accountable for that. But these should show that contemporary Rome cannot claim real development of Christian doctrine if Newman's seven notes are consistently applied.

The progress of time and change is something of importance. Despite his many errors, Newman is probably the first one to wrestle with the issue of change, at least on the Roman Catholic side. His work on the topic therefore is interesting and could help us know how better to interact with time and deal with changes in society when they come


Larry said...

Love this. Just started re-reading that volume as well. I think Google books has an electronic version too.

How would you answer Newman's contention that Protestants must believe that the apostles left very little genuine Christianity behind? Here's how I might. They left behind the Scriptures, which were not widely known, as judged by the writings of the post-apostolic fathers. But what God was doing is not to circumscribed by the writings of the post apostolic fathers and not the Scriptures, which are universally agreed to be apostolic age.

PuritanReformed said...


Newman's contemporaries were a sorry and sad bunch. The via media Anglicans were the ones Newman rejected when he discussed Vincent of Lerins' canon (everywhere, always, by all). Many of them were moving towards some form of Modernism. The Evangelicals were the ones Newman had in mind when he said they didn't know anything about history. So Newman's contention is a sad indictment of the terrible state of Christianity in early 19th century England. But it is not applicable otherwise.