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John Henry Newman – Lessons for Today

Category Articles
Date September 7, 2010

Later this month (September 2010) it is expected that John Henry Newman (1801-90) who was made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church in 1879, will be ‘beatified’ by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to England. That is, Newman will be officially ‘the Blessed…’ and on his way to sainthood, Roman style. This must be a bit of a kick in the teeth for the Church of England, elevating the reputation of the man who defected from their fold and influenced others to do so, at a time when the Pope has already promised a welcome to any who want to leave the Anglican priesthood. Many would say, on the other hand, that Newman revived much that was missing in Anglicanism and in the High Church movement left behind a permanent legacy that has enriched her.

What was Newman all about?

He professed evangelical conversion at the age of 16, under the influence of works by William Romaine and Thomas Scott (author of The Force of Truth).1Apologia Pro Via Sua (1864) that at his conversion he came ‘under the influences of a definite creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured’. Was this a definition of a conversion which while intellectual may not have been spiritual?

By the early 1820s Newman could truly be called evangelical in his outlook. During the next decade however influential men led him away from this. He came to accept the doctrine of baptismal regeneration; faith came to be seen more as a matter of reason and psychology than a supernatural gift; he was encouraged in the use of logic and reason (in itself of course no bad thing!) and he came to a lower view of the infallibility of Scripture and crucially to subordinating the authority of Scripture to that of the church.

It needs to be remembered too that the 1820s-30s was a period of challenge to the monopoly of public life enjoyed for centuries by the Anglican church. In 1828 the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed allowing nonconformists to hold public office. In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Roman Catholics to sit in parliament. In 1832 the Reform Act gave many people the vote, including of course large numbers of non-conformists. In 1836 a theologian of liberal views was appointed to a professorship at Oxford by Lord Melbourne’s Whig government, a professor who argued for the abolition of the religious test (subscription to the 39 Articles) for admission to Oxford. All around therefore there was an atmosphere of challenge to long established certainties. Change was in the air.

It was the quest for authority, or perhaps for its subjective reflection, religious certainty, that can be seen as the guiding thread in Newman’s life at this time. The key period in his development was 1833-45. In July 1833 Newman returned from a tour of the Mediterranean with his friend Hurrell Froude and heard John Keble’s Oxford Assize sermon ‘National Apostasy’. Keble was remonstrating with the government over its interference in the Irish church (abolishing bishoprics, distributing salaries among the lower clergy, etc.) and for Newman in retrospect this was the start of the Oxford Movement. At least, it was the catalyst for action. The first of 90 ‘Tracts for the Times’ (hence ‘Tractarians’) appeared, of which Newman wrote 27 between 1833 and 1841.

The central issue was – authority: where does ultimate authority in the church and over the church reside? Without too much difficulty he rejected the State (the Erastianism of the Elizabethan settlement), the Bible (represented by Evangelicals) and reason (represented by liberal theology). The great struggle in Newman’s mind was between the Anglican Church and the Church of Rome. In the early years he rejected Rome vehemently (perhaps, dimly or even consciously aware of the pull within himself, ‘he did protest too much’) and sought to defend the Church of England as the Via Media, a truly Catholic Church between the extremes of Romanism and Protestantism. The crumbling of this shaky intellectual construct of the Via Media and the removal of objections to Rome, guided by certain constants in his thinking and personality, is the story of Newman’s development over the next twelve years. In 1833 however nothing appeared further from Newman’s mind than conversion to Rome. The crusade of the Oxford Movement was to save the Anglican Church from Erastians and ‘Libertines’, from the control of parliament now containing RCs and dissenters, and from theological liberals.

With regard to Erastianism, Newman was at least prepared to consider disestablishment as early as 1833 in defence of the spiritual authority of the church. Yet there was a positive thrust from the Tractarians: ‘Our main doctrine is the Apostolical Succession and the exclusive privilege of Bishops and Priests to consecrate the bread and the wine’. The rule of the church by a spiritual hereditary monarchy tracing descent from the apostles, and the exclusive role of the priesthood in administering the sacraments, were the central themes of Newman’s early tracts.

As to theological liberalism, he defined it as

the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

The trouble is, for Newman this in practice meant the Divine Word as taught by the church. The issue was – which church? Newman confessed he had begun to drift to liberalism in 1827 when he noticed his preference for intellectual over moral excellence, in the intense atmosphere of Oriel College. After 1841, the (largely justified) fear of the triumph of liberalism at Oxford helped to propel him more quickly into the arms of Rome as his doubts about that communion dissolved. But he always implacably opposed such tenets as ‘a man need not believe more than he can understand or what is not congenial to him’. Human reason had no claim to final authority in the church.

Of the Bible, much of Newman’s language sounds thoroughly evangelical. How much the ‘definite creed’ received into his intellect at conversion included the doctrines of the Reformers is unclear. He certainly rejected the doctrines of predestination and final perseverance. In 1838 he published ‘Lectures on Justification’ in which he tried to apply the Via Media principle to that doctrine. Opposing both Rome’s ‘justification by obedience’ and the Reformation’s ‘justification by faith alone’ he saw justification as the beginning of the operation of the indwelling power of God, the sacred presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘Justification comes through the sacraments; is received by faith; consists in God’s inward presence; and lives in obedience’. Via Media indeed! Or intolerable muddle.

In these as well as in baptismal regeneration, his sacramentalism, and the ‘Real Presence’ in the eucharist, he is far from mainstream Protestantism, but it was in heart as much as in intellect that Newman departed from evangelicalism. Emotional religion, syllogistic gospel preaching and the exercise of what he would call unfettered personal judgement were anathema to him. The spirit of lawlessness, he said, came into the world with the Reformation.

In his quest for authority in religion Newman was given direction by his studies of the Early Fathers. In 1833 his ‘The Arians of the Fourth Century’ was published. In these years Newman’s aim was to prove that the Church of England was the only church in England ‘which has a right to be quite sure that she has the Lord’s body to give his people.’ His doctrine of Apostolic Succession was derived from his study of the early church, but of course he is already departing radically from historic Anglicanism. He is defending basically Roman doctrines under the guise of Anglicanism. The tension was always going to be too great to endure. Newman’s Via Media was different from Hooker’s 16th century idea of a ‘golden mediocrity’ as a medium between Rome and the Puritans. But still Newman wanted to prove if possible that Anglicanism was the true church in England, and Apostolic Succession was its prerogative and its key to authority.

It was, ironically, his study of the church fathers (a favourite source for the Oxford Movement – E.B. Pusey was once described as a man ‘with one foot in heaven and the other in the third century’) that triggered the collapse of the Via Media and his move to Rome. In 1839 he studied the Monophysite controversy of the 5th century and saw the orthodox position (that in Christ there are two natures and one person) at one extreme, and the Eutychian monophysite position on the other (one, divine, nature) at the other and a moderate Monophysite position mediating between the two. He suddenly saw himself as that ‘moderating position’. He read further in the Arian controversy and saw himself now as a semi-Arian, mediating between the Arians (represented by Protestants, he said) and the Orthodox (the Roman church) and decided now that in this controversy too the truth lay with what he had considered the ‘extreme party’. The Via Media was crumbling. He also read a phrase of Augustine: ‘The whole Christian world is assured of truth when she [Rome] makes a judgement’. ‘The church of Rome will be found right after all’ was the admission that entered his mind.

Such are the feeble intellectual rationalisations that satisfy even brilliant minds when the heart is already committed. In 1845 he described the Via Media as ‘the great theory, which is so specious to look upon, so difficult to prove and so hopeless to work’. By the late 1830s his heart was soil well prepared, going back at least a decade, for the seed of specious rational justifications. He gave form precedence over substance; sentiment governed reason and eclipsed revelation. Rightly has the Oxford Movement been called, at least in part, the religious flowering of the Romantic movement of the early 19th century.

Newman’s path to Rome was marked by doubts, unsettledness and some absurdities. His devotion to his friend Hurrell Froude led to his publishing in 1838 ‘Froude’s Remains’, memoirs which in their asceticism and expressions of hatred of the Reformation offended both good taste and Protestants. How much there was deliberate duplicity in Newman is a matter for debate though certainly in some members of the Oxford Movement, there was an intention to ‘proselytise in an underhand way’ (Froude). Yet in 1841 came Tract 90, an attempt by Newman to keep in the Church of England supporters of the Oxford Movement who were drifting towards Rome, by establishing that the 39 Articles could be interpreted harmoniously with the early church and the Council of Trent. Clearly the tensions with the church’s doctrinal standards were being felt. This tract arouses sympathy with those who see him as dishonest and disingenuous. ‘It is odd’, says Owen Chadwick, ‘that so Protestant a document [as the 39 Articles] should be accused of making it possible for English clergy to believe all the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church’. Chadwick charges Newman’s ‘interpretations’ with ‘evasion of the plain meaning’.

Meanwhile there were positive reasons for the enormous influence Newman and his friends had. First, was Newman’s preaching. From 1828-43 he was vicar of the University church of St Mary’s, Oxford. His preaching was intense, earnest and compelling; his themes holiness, the reality of the eternal, the awareness of the awefulness of God. Religion entailed moral improvement; Scripture was unsystematic because it was not a doctrinal handbook but intensely practical. Holiness and growth – his evangelical maxims shone through, but it seems without the evangelical gospel to establish them.

Personal relationships were also key. Newman, Keble, Pusey, Froude and others were devoted friends and strengthened each other. Community became important; in 1843 Newman moved to found what was virtually an Anglican monastery at Littlemore in the Midlands.

A constant in Newman’s thought was the inadequacy of the intellect for attaining to and appropriating religious truth.

The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impression, facts . . . history . . . Persons influence us . . . Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal . . . life is for action. If we insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith.

Religious truth could only be received in the context of worship and prayer.

Newman was committed to the importance of cumulative arguments and of acting on the basis of probabilities, and of the impossibility and needlessness of careful investigation into all the grounds of faith. Yet he was committed to dogma. ‘From the age of fifteen dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion; I know of no other religion’. Evangelicals were wrong to allow unfettered personal judgement (or at least tend towards it). Rome was wrong, he said, for adding too much to the faith, tending to a scholastic completeness in theology. Creeds were important but were at best the ‘best memorials’ (a photo, we may say) of a best friend, not the real thing. They were always liable to spiritless formalism. Freedom from symbols and articles was the highest state of Christian communion. At no time did Newman advocate mysticism that dispensed with rational formulations, except as an ideal. He held dogma to be essential. The issue he had to address, however, as we all do, is: what is the authoritative source of our beliefs?

In 1837 in ‘Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church’ he argued for a distinction between the ‘Episcopal Tradition’ which all Christians are to believe, and the ‘Prophetical Tradition ‘ embodying the whole system of theological thought and reflection in a church – prayer books, worship, patristic teaching – to be received in love, confidence and trust but not imposed as Rome imposes it. The Tractarians were very keen, naturally enough, on the ‘ambience’ of worship – visible decoration in the church etc. – as the catholic faith is learned in worship and devotion, not in arguments, learning and sermons.

Yet the Episcopal Tradition and at least the outlines of the Prophetical Tradition came from ‘the Church’, and at least once Newman described her as ‘infallible’. His path was heading towards Rome and after 1841 it was all one way. In 1843 he retracted all the ‘hard things’ he had spoken against Rome in the previous decade. He also resigned as vicar of St Mary’s. By 1845 people were waiting for Newman to announce his conversion to Rome. First however he wished to complete a kind of intellectual autobiography, and perhaps the most enduring theological legacy he has left: ‘Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine’. It is, more than anything else he wrote, the intellectual apologia for his decision to convert.

‘To live is to change’ he wrote; he had moved from evangelicalism via a brief flirtation with liberalism, to neo-High churchmanship and now to Rome. The purpose of the essay was modest; not to prove the truth of Roman Catholicism but to remove an objection to it, the formal objection that there were apparent differences between the doctrines of Rome and both Scripture and the early church. His proposal was that the doctrines of the early church and also of Scripture could justify the creed of the Council of Trent. Christian history is the unfolding in different contexts of the original (and unchanging) Christian idea. Not all change is true development – otherwise Protestantism and liberalism could be defended by it. Seven criteria had to be satisfied for a ‘true’ development: it must preserve the ‘type’ of early Christianity; must show a continuity with it; must show power to assimilate new ideas; must flow logically from the apostolic faith etc. Newman’s model is of the church as an organism, and true development is an expression of life which will survive; a false development will die. (Sounds a bit like natural selection?) His theory would be disproved if it could be shown that in essential matters the church contradicted itself. (But note: self-contradiction is the measure of the church’s failure; not that she is ‘wrong’ with reference to an outside authority such as an infallible Word.)

And so the church never changes but always changes.

How do we distinguish this from the Protestant experience that we do gain new insights into God’s Truth? For example, the doctrines of the atonement and of justification were never as well developed in the early centuries as they were after the Reformation. We may use words like ‘making explicit’ or ‘new illuminations’ on the Word etc. But Newman could have used these words too. The real distinction is that our authority for doctrine is the Scripture. Newman’s authority was the church. We say the Scriptures can never be wrong though our interpretations may be. Newman would say the Church has never been wrong – on essentials at least – a dogma in itself which allows the Roman Church to be a chameleon, differing in different circumstances to the point of deception, and holding truths contradictory to Scripture because her Tradition is at least equal to (and in practice superior to) the Bible.

It is documented that in the preparatory papers for the all important Vatican II council in the 1960s, no theologian’s name appeared more frequently than Newman’s. He showed the way for the Roman church to adjust to the modern age, enabling her to both change and be infallible with intellectual justification – a kind of ‘postmodernism’.

So Newman made his intellectual reconciliation with Rome, where his heart had been for some time. The Via Media always existed only on paper, and was now torn to shreds. His quest for religious certainty had taken him to Rome and he was received in on 9th October 1845.


1. There is no via media between the gospel church and Rome. There is the Whore and there is the Bride of Christ. There are the followers of the beast and there is the flock of God. Anglicanism may or may not be an exercise in ‘golden mediocrity’ but eventually it will have to decide. So will all professing Christians. In this sense, Newman was more honest than his colleagues who remained within Anglicanism. Yet their influence, and his, continued, in bringing Romanism within the bounds of Anglicanism – and who knows, in taking a lot of Anglicanism back to Rome?

2. Once we depart from the authority of Scripture we end in rationalistic atheism or in Rome. Without the Scriptures, human authority becomes essential, as it was to Newman, in defining dogma.

3. Along with a rejection of Scripture’s authority in the church will come a growth in emphasis on the aesthetic, the ambient, the experiential in worship. We have in recent years seen an increase within evangelicalism in the importance of the external, and of ‘atmosphere’ in worship. But it is the Spirit who teaches the Word, not an atmosphere of worship.

4. Preaching – even popular preaching – even when biblical themes are preached – is not enough. It must be preaching that is submitted to Scripture’s authority and adopting Scripture’s priorities – preaching the purpose of Scripture: Christ and reconciliation with God through him.

5. Elements of the church on earth and professing Christians may be right on many things, as Newman and the Roman church are. We resonate with Newman’s rejection of the rationalism of liberal theology, for example, and the spiritless aridity of formal, intellectual worship. Yet these same people will be dreadfully and terminally wrong when they reject God’s counsel for humanity, his way of reconciliation, the gospel. We need not only to be right about certain aspects of God, but gladly acquiesce in his self-revelation to us and about how he has ordained that we enter into covenant with him.

6. Sadly Newman’s career is a vivid testimony to the power of religious pride. We do not put ourselves above him in this. We are all guilty of it and prone to it. Once we think we can do better than the Bible in revealing God’s way to Man we go astray. It is pride, fostered by Satan, that leads to that. May God keep us humble. True humility is not measured by words of self-deprecation, but in a real submission to the Lord and his Word.

7. The present resurgence of Roman Catholicism will not be halted by problems over child abuse etc. It will continue to be powerful, and continue to seduce souls who think they want God but in fact are running from him. It will continue to be the greatest refuge for those who love the appearance of godliness, but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5).

8. Conversions must be weighed. Newman’s turned out to be, almost certainly, merely intellectual. May God preserve us from such. May we know the power of godliness within, renewed hearts as well as convinced minds, from which genuine repentance, evangelical humility and new life flow.

9. The Reformation is not over. The formal principle of the Reformation (sola Scriptura) and the material principle (justification by faith alone) were prime targets of Newman and his crew. They are under attack today – and among professing evangelicals too. The issues for which the Reformers fought will be central as long as there is a church on earth.

10. In the direction in which the heart is set, the mind will surely follow, then assent, then justify, then proclaim. The heart is the fountain of life; guard it. The heart must be renewed; once error grips it, the mind is helpless to halt the descent to apostasy.

11. A journey of spiritual darkness can be disguised in the most religious and pious language. ‘. . . for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.’ (2 Cor. 11:14, 15) And this does not mean there is always deliberate hypocrisy on the part of these ‘servants’!

12. In his very fair and gracious ‘Appreciation’ of Newman, Alexander Whyte comments thus on Newman’s recantation of the ‘hard things’ he had spoken against Rome:

Now there was a far more significant step than that which Newman ought to have taken in 1890. But it was a step which alas he died without having taken. He ought to have laid his honoured head in the dust for all the slings and scoffs he had ever uttered in the pride of his heart at men whose shoe-latchet, he should have said, he was unworthy to unloose. The shoe-latchet of men such as Luther, and Calvin, and the Anglican Reformers, as well as Bunyan, and Newton, and Wesley, and many more men of God, whose only offence against Newman and his sectarian and intolerant school had been that they were determined to preach no other gospel than the gospel of a sinner’s free justification before God by faith on the Son of God, and on him and his work alone . . . I am not Newman’s judge; but if I were, I would say of him, in the language of his own Church, that he died unrepentant and unabsolved of the sin of having despised, and of having taught others to despise, some of the best ministers of Christ this world has ever seen.


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      Later this month (September 2010) it is expected that John Henry Newman (1801-90) who was made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church in 1879, will be ‘beatified’ by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to England. That is, Newman will be officially ‘the Blessed…’ and on his way to sainthood, Roman style. This must […]

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