The Thought of John Henry Newman: An Overview

Catholicity (vs. Evangelicalism and Liberalism)

Portrait of young Newman

Newman distrusted the Evangelical experience, in part because he had had one himself. In the summer of 1816 at age fifteen, Newman underwent an Evangelical-style conversion, and for the next eight-years was influenced by Evangelical, and in particular Calvinistic, thought. He came to reject this understanding, putting more emphasis on the daily transformation of parishioners rather than sudden conversion. Evangelicalism, he came to believe, promoted unhealthy emotional obsessions rather than gradual transformative habits and virtues. Justifying faith must be nurtured by real, consistent works. Feelings are intended by God to cause us to act, not to be a way of assessing our spiritual state. A firm determined calmness is more important than violent swings of emotion because they later makes the self rather than God the center of one's spiritual search. Positive self-knowledge is good, but it must arise out of habits of living and responding, which are often difficult to establish especially if one begins life with forming sinful habits in the opposite direction. Self-deception can arise as often from the confession of sin as from the denial of it, for we substitute an emotional confession for real repentance and amendment of life. Justification in Newman's thinking not only declares someone righteous it works to make them so. Its very popularity in early Victorian England for Newman was a potential sign of Evangelicalism's deceptive possibilities, attracting followers to an emotional experience without the hard way of the cross. Newman recognized that Evangelicalism in the eighteenth century had begun with strong theological moorings and often produced people of real moral character, but he came to believe (rightly or wrongly) that Evangelicalism had devolved into a 'religion of the heart" with less and less solid doctrinal definition. In that sense, Evangelicalism was not unlike the Liberalism he distrusted even more.

Newman rejected Liberalism as an ecclesial, political, and pedagogical movement, though he had been briefly under its sway his first few years at Oriel College.  He saw it as subjecting the truths of divine revelation to human judgment, thereby violating a basic truth--that humans cannot sit in judgment on God. He did not reject the liberal cast of mind--one open to truth, expansive in its generosity and willing to engage a broad range of ideas. He rejected its refusal to acknowledge sources of authority beyond its own pledge to a method of mind. Liberalism, he charged, was not only closed to revelation, it was also closed to conscience, wisdom, tradition, history, and ethical truth. In this sense, Liberalism was the natural extension of Francis Bacon's beliefs that distrusted tradition as an authoritative source. It placed in high esteem the claim of John Locke that all beliefs must have complete independent demonstration as the only legitimate reason for believing anything. Newman held that such a stance while good at raising doubts, made it impossible to raise children. Liberalism cannot pass along a culture that forms and shapes its adherents. Thus, Liberalism was not only a threat to the Established Church, but also to the national polis and to the family. Nothing like the common good can continue in a system based on individual self-will and doubt as the only arbiter of truth. Reason, he held, is more expansive than such a limited definition offers. The key problem was that Liberalism often continued to use the language of Christian faith, but it increasingly emptied it of its content, promoting a tepid version of Caryle's "natural supernaturalism," where all people have it within their power to be saved by their own efforts and to be accepted by a God who makes no specific claims. Grace, as a category, essentially ceases to exist as nature becomes semi-fallen or unfallen in truth, if not in rhetoric. 

Newman's role in the Oxford Movement, as well as his later conversion to Roman Catholicism, represents his career-long commitment to oppose the Evangelical and Liberal trends as both human-centered and cut off from Mother Church and from the tradition of doctrine. Tractarianism as a movement was dedicated to the proposition that the Anglican Church is a true element (or "branch") of the Catholic Church, and that therefore, the key elements of Anglican identity were at least framed in a flexible enough way under Henry VIII to allow for their Catholic expression. The Oxford Movement, thus, supported a more central role for the Eucharist in worship, believed in apostolic succession, had a stronger emphasis on the church year, vestments, and confession, held a more Catholic view of justification and the sacraments, as well as an openness to a modified doctrine of purgatory and of prayers to the saints. Eventually, of course, Newman came to believe that the "branch theory" was untenable, and he made the move to Rome in 1845.

Development of Doctrine

Newman's 1845 An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine further clarified his influential notion that the revelation of God is bound to the tradition of the Christian Church, that it is both understood and elaborated within the liturgical life of the people. Doctrines often begin as seeds which are unpacked and expanded in further generations of faithful practice and piety. The apostolic leadership of the Church, Newman holds, is authorized by Christ to teach and rule in his name, but this rule is one that recognizes what is already taking place in the faithful. Newman, therefore, rejects the more Protestant position of scriptural authority as being somehow separate from the Church which holds the deposit of scripture itself. Orthodox belief is made more clear in each age as the Church encounters heretical, heterodoxical beliefs (e.g. Arianism, Docetism), forcing her to further explain the seed of belief that has always been held by all everywhere. Newman argued that a consecutive continuity could be seen in the growth and changes of doctrines over the centuries. This kind of growth and formulation were for Newman a sign of the Holy Spirit's continued presence within the Church, as well as the natural way the human mind encounters great ideas. What is initially apprehended, over time will be further comprehended. This suggests that a pope or church council could impart the right idea in a germinative way and still not foresee its future elaboration.  Yet Newman also had to account for the opposite possibility, that of a corruption of the truth over progressive generations. Eventually, Newman came to believe that this had happened in Protestantism, including in Anglicanism. 

He offers several ways of helping decide whether the doctrinal evolution in question is a true development or a derivation: 1) preservation of type, meaning the later form has the same essential characteristics as the earlier form; 2) continuity of principles, in other words, the underlying philosophical foundations stay the same; 3) power of assimilation, the more life it takes on and is able to guard itself against attacks;  4) logical sequence, in retrospect one can see the unfolding development as orderly and rational; 5) anticipation of its future, that is, earlier expressions of the doctrine prepare the way for later, fuller developments; 6) conservative actions upon the past, meaning the later expression tends to preserve important understandings and key elements of the earlier, less precise understanding; and 7) chronic vigor, that is simple longevity (though Newman admits this note by itself isn't enough). Derivations, by contrast, distort essential element of belief, offer counter-principles, tend to need ever increasing adjustments to prop them up, appear irrational and disorderly in retrospect, violate earlier beliefs in fundamentally harmful ways, and can come-and-go quickly as some heretical fashions are wont to do.

Patristic Theology

Therefore, the patristic period of Christianity (2nd-5th centuries) were for Newman the central source for recovering what he saw as an authentic Christian belief and practice. He held that at its heart patristic Christianity was a religion of the Incarnation, that Christ came to "deify" temporal humanity with eternal existence and that the incarnation would have taken place even if the fall of humanity had not, though doubtlessly in a categorically different way. In the same way, the resurrection and ascension took on great importance as the promise of human nature being exalted to the heavenly state--Christ paving the way, as it were, to the direct apprehension of the glory of God. Pentecost, then, becomes the personal presence of Jesus, via the Holy Spirit, in the individual Christian's life. This presence can only be entered into in a concrete, tangible way by a constant reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The rhythm of the Church Year--with its move from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Holy Week to Easter teaches the believer the necessity of expectation and gift, the value of mourning for sin and meditating on Christ's sacrifice, and the joy of reflecting on his conquering death and sin.

A Spirituality of Obedience

Newman was particularly suspicious of a view of justification that stressed imputed righteousness rather than the imparted righteousness that comes with the slow work of sanctification and grace. Belief and practice, faith and works, must always be balanced in Newman's spirituality. The Scriptures as a source of belief and understanding were central to Newman's Christianity from an early-age, and even after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he continued to stress the absolute importance of a faith shaped by biblical study and reflection. A system of belief, however, that has not been truly grasped by a person in inward realization, as well as in an outward change, is not real faith in Newman's thinking. Therefore, he also stressed the transformative, yet ultimately mysterious power of the sacramental life. Newman was convinced that the work of the Holy Spirit was mostly through the indirect means of reason, emotions, and conscience. The hard work of obedience is a constant call to holiness, a refusal to glamorize sin in any way, or to try and please self without displeasing God. A holy life is a habitual one, one trained in the personal mortification of the spiritual disciplines. It works out of dependence upon Jesus because it is at the weakest point of temptation that the true test lies for each person. This difficulty shouldn't, however, be a cause for despair. Consistency over time gives the heart a measure of assured faith and works as a buttress against doubt.

Conscience and Authority

Newman held that the leadership of the Church should consult the laity, not by deferring to them, but by listening to them and taking seriously their views and understanding. The laity, the faithful, are the voice of the living tradition of the Church. Certainly, popular treatises should not be expected to have the exactness of theological documents, but nonetheless they represent a real witness to the Church's piety. The people function as kind of mirror for the leadership to see itself. In church history, a number of times the bishops were swayed by heresy, while the laity held to orthodoxy. This should serve as a warning to church leaders who would deny the laity any role in doctrinal formulation. The consent and consensus of the faithful act as both the voice of the Holy Spirit and as a kind of instinct in the mystical body of Christ. Nonetheless, the laity need the study of church dogma to instruct them.

Conscience is binding for Newman; it must be obeyed. As a Roman Catholic, he famously said that a person must obey conscience before Pope.  He held this not because he denied the authority of the papacy, but because he saw in conscience a more basic principle at the heart of human action and understanding.  Conscience is what opens one to listen to authority at all. In his The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), he called conscience, "the aboriginal vicar of Christ." Conscience is something formed inwardly, intuitively, and over time, and therefore, not wisely gone against. The pure in heart have an innocence and peace about them because they follow the dictates of their conscience, while the hypocrite is always living in bad faith. A conscience consistently followed is, for Newman, a sign of a faithful child of the Church. Still, in no way did Newman consider conscience an airtight source of truth. It could as easily deceive the person as spur on to good deeds. A conscience has to be formed with a true desire for the good and holy, not with self-justification and denial, else the conscience becomes warped and decidedly dangerous in its denials.

Epistemology (Theory of Assent)

Newman has been called a skeptic about skepticism. He rejected the position of Locke that belief is only warranted on the basis of either self-evident propositions or on logical or scientific demonstration. He felt to do so would be to limit all knowledge to nothing but inference.  Newman held that Truth is far larger and more multi-faceted than any single mind can comprehend. The human mind itself exists in a flow of knowledge that is constantly changing. All human science, theory, and language is inherently limited in what it can approximate. Human thought dwells within certain circles of understanding that always have an interpretive element to them. While the human mind needs discipline in its thinking, real thought works with a much larger palette than that of formal logic. Chronological thinking, for example, is another way one can access aspects of the organization of truth.  For Newman, systematic thinking that attempted synchronic thinking alone inevitably was lost to the evolving nature of human thought. Likewise, focusing on the part over against the whole can lead to intellectual blindness, just as a lack of humility leads to loss of truth. 

In Newman's view, faith and reason are not airtight categories of knowing separate from one another but two interdependent modes of understanding. They share much in common. All reason has a measure of assumption, presumption, and prejudice. Indeed, thought cannot proceed without it. All knowledge, including that of faith, is personal knowledge. Unbelief is as much founded on presuppositions as is belief. As a result, doubt is really a  tendency to believe in the counter-proposition and, therefore, is itself a kind of assent. Faith, on the other hand, is not a blind leap; it, too, is an act of the mind and has evidence derived from hope and desire. It begins with a trust and acceptance of things based on previously received grounds, much as one might believe that Alaska exists or that the newspaper is generally trustworthy in its reporting of events. So much of what we believe, we believe without complete proof. We trust our senses, our memory, and our day-to-day sources of information until we have reason to do otherwise. The habit of faith arises out of a prolonged involvement with its object of trust. Preparation of heart is, then, necessary to judge and to receive truth. Faith is implicit reason that is guarded from error more by a devout worship than by simple mental acuity. 

What, then, is the structure of reasoning and faith? We begin not by reasoning but by apprehending the object, which then gains our assent. We only later begin to unpack the implied details of what we have given our assent to. We often believe what we cannot understand and what we cannot exhaustively comprehend or prove. Conviction is something we all grow into over time. Concrete reasonings are not ultimate tests but they are sufficient tests in practical reasoning. Newman divides forms of assent into two types: notional assent, which includes profession, credence, opinion, presumption, and speculation; and real assent, which is imaginative certainty given to what we experience in the real world. Beliefs in what the Church teaches are forms of assent both notional and real. Thus, we gain certitude--a state of mind--all the time by directing ourselves towards particular truths, and this lived involvement with the object of our assent gives our certitude a quality of irreversibility. We all have an illative sense, a faculty of theoretical reasoning that judges the validity of inferences in much that same way that our prudence (prudentiaphronesis) judges life practically. This theoretical faculty includes a sense of judging what authorities we can give our trust to. All good reason, if you will, is based on some measure of faith, and all true faith has some measure of rationality in it.

University Education

To not teach theology is to admit a fundamental aspect of human knowledge, and universities who omit it are not true universities, that is institutions seeking to explore all learning. All knowledge "forms one circle," Newman insisted. Academic disciplines are each an abstracted view of fields of knowledge. They inevitable have a partial view based on the limits of their disciplinary tools. Theology is the science of all sciences, but it still only one aspect of learning. (Keep in mind Newman uses the word "science" (scientia) in the classic sense of an organized approach to knowledge involving secondary causes of any sort). He believed that the inductive methods of natural science (or physical theology as he called it) and the deductive methods of theology were not finally at odds with one another.

Liberal learning is not the same as professional vocational training. Instead, it is education intended to cultivate a certain type of knower, a particular cast of person with refined habits of thinking and perceiving. But this has its limits. A university is designed to cultivate a person of sympathy and of polish, "a gentleman," not a person of faith and true religion. The virtues in question are mostly intellectual rather than moral, though the overlap is obvious. Within this understanding, Newman wanted to avoid education that encouraged only "viewness," a person with much information but no faculties by which to organize or truly understand facts and subjects. In this sense, Newman held a version of the nature and grace hierarchy of much Catholic culture. Nature achieves certain things, but must have grace to go any further. The university trains a person to be able to understand, critique, and apply any area of learning. It cannot impart grace. Newman held to a very nineteenth-century notion of civilization as a certain kind of (very Eurocentric) cultivated life; thus, the study of literature as expressed in the classics was seen by him as an expression of this culture. He understood that this training could as easily lead to pride and sensuality as it could humility and charity. Thus, he held up the idea of the Christian humanist scholar whose faith informs and corrects his learning.