John Henry Cardinal Newman helped me see that was me. He helped me see through centuries-old, anti-Catholic error and prejudice. And so Cardinal Newman helped me enter the Catholic Church. In this post and ones to follow, I hope to introduce this remarkable man and what he taught me. I came from anti-Catholic traditions, first Baptist then Reformed Presbyterian. I dove in and drank deeply. My own consumption and regurgitation of anti-Catholic errors took root in the soil of ignorance.
As a lawyer, I earn a living defending civil lawsuits. In any case, I can take the facts and law and argue either side; plaintiff or defendant’s. I can do the same with Scripture, arguing the Catholic position or the (many) Protestant positions, using the same Scriptures. However, I do not believe that is how we receive the faith. I am convinced that is not what our Lord intended when He promised to send the Spirit of truth. One who wants to follow Jesus is not relegated to serving as judge and jury, as if the truth is on trial. The disciple of Christ is not reduced to “jury duty”, listening to arguments and deciding the faith based on the best argument, the smoothest tongue, the sharpest dressed, most clever, most charismatic, etc.
By what authority did I believe my decision was merely between two positions? By what authority did I choose between the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and some version of Protestantism (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) on the other? If Rome were wrong in 1517, such that Luther must right the ship, don’t I foolishly throw my lot in with (pick your favorite Reformer) without doing my due diligence? If Rome were wrong in 1517, what reason do I have to believe the truth is not buried in one of the heresies and sects put down by the Catholic Church through the ages: Adoptionism, Antinomianism, Apollinarism, Arabici, Arianism, Audianism, Circumcellions, Docetism, Ebionites, Euchites, Gnosticism, Luciferians, Macedonians, Marcionism, Melchisedechians, Mellennialism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism (Eutychianism), Monothelitism, Montanism, Nestorianism, Patripassianism, Pelagianism, Psilanthropism, Sabellianism, Semi-pelagianism or Valentinians? If the Church of Jesus Christ ran into the ditch (nobody will really say when, where or how), what ground do I have to assume the Catholic Church was right and all those heresies were wrong? Before we jump in with Lutheranism, Methodism or new-hip-churchism, had I fairly ruled out Monophysitism? If Rome were irreparably wrong in the sixteenth century, and nobody knows when that happened, how do I know our Christology is correct? If I conclude the Catholic Church was apostate in the sixteenth century, was She right in the fifth century when Eutyches of Constantinople was wrong? After two-thousand years, in the cafeteria-line of truth, how do I know what is edible and what is poison?
Some of these heresies had longer shelf-lives than others. Some heresies might be easier to spot and dismiss out of hand. If my Protestant tradition took for granted the Catholic Church’s victories over these heresies, by what authority did I assume as true Luther, Calvin or Zwingli’s victory over the Catholic Church? And if the Protestants or Anglicans discovered the true religion by certain denials and rejection of authority, it is fair to ask, “Where is Lutheranism, Presbyterianism and Anglicanism today?” Have not all mainline Protestant sects gone the same way over the cliff of liberalism and subjectivism, ultimately denying truths of the faith? My most recent tradition, the Presbyterian Church in America was born in 1973, spun off from “the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern) in opposition to the long-developing theological liberalism which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.” (https://pcanet.org/about-the-pca-2-3/). When the faith is two-thousand years old, something is wrong when I am older than my own “church”. Why have all these Protestant traditions run out of steam and withered on the vine? Why must a small number continually break off to start again? Sadly, the autonomous Baptists might have the imperfect formula for perpetuity: multiplication by division.
It’s not easy living almost fifty years, and realizing I spent most of my life in heresy. As my blog attests, I owe much to C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century Anglican priest, is another who corrected my errors. Newman helped me understand and categorize those doctrines that are peculiarly Catholic. Newman’s help came to me through his Apologia Sua Vita (A Defense of One’s Life) and his epic contribution to the Christian world, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
Newman set out to justify the Anglican communion as legitimate. His quest led him into the Catholic Church. “By the end of 1844 Newman was practically certain that the Church of England, far from being a branch of the Catholic Church, was in fact in schism and that the Roman Catholic Church was identical with the Catholic Church of the Fathers. There was only one obstacle to acting on this belief, as he explains in the Apologia: ‘My difficulty was this: I had been deceived greatly once; how could I be sure that I was not deceived a second time? I thought myself right then; how was I to be certain that I was right now?’” Newman, J. H. C., An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Sixth Ed. (1994), forward by Ian Kerr at page xix (Kindle iOS version). Newman’s “first act on his conversion was to offer his Work for revision to the proper authorities; but the offer was declined on the ground that it was written and partly printed before he was a Catholic, and that it would come before the reader in a more persuasive form, if he read it as the author wrote it.” (Id. at xi).
As a Protestant with some interest in Church history and theology, I had some understanding that the doctrines of the faith were forged through time as heresies arose in the church. Doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, taken for granted by our history-ignoring traditions, took hundreds of years to crystalize. With the proliferation of heretics and alternative “churches” with Scripture-based private interpretations, the Catholic Church defined the faith we take for granted. Newman helped me see that the Catholic Church that defeated Arians and Pelagians and the like, is the same Church that articulated doctrines against which Reformers protested in the sixteenth century. As Newman explained, “the ‘articles of faith’ which ‘are necessary to secure the Church’s purity, according to the rise of successive heresies and error,’ were ‘all hidden, as it were, in the Church’s bosom from the first, and brought out into form according to the occasion.’“ (Id. at xvii).
In the weeks (maybe months?) ahead, I hope to bring to this blog some of what I learned from Cardinal Newman. For Christianity is an objective fact in the world; it “has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history. Its genius and character, its doctrines, precepts, and objects cannot be treated as matters of private opinion or deduction[.]” (Id. at 334-335). Since Christianity’s “sound has gone out into all lands,” and its “words unto the ends of the world[,]” we have much to learn from peering into history. (Id. at 343). History is to Protestantism what sunlight is to your old sofa. Keep it in the dimly lit den, and you never notice it. Find it in the front yard during a move, and the bright light of day exposes the tired old thing for what it is.