Blessed John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.” (Jn. 16:12-13)
History exposing Protestantism’s unproven and unprovable assumptions is not enough. To diagnose is not to cure. Fair-minded believers born in the twentieth century are not responsible for the revolt of the sixteenth. I had honest questions about those peculiar doctrines that distinguish the Catholic Church. John Henry Newman helped me to see long-assumed, never-proven assumptions that underlie Protestantism. Then he helped me see the cure. The light of history humbles Catholics, and completely unseats Protestants.
Liar, lunatic or Lord
Born in 1801, Newman was twenty-four when ordained a priest in the Anglican communion. By 1845, after undertaking to prove the legitimacy of Anglicanism, this holy scholar and theologian entered the Roman Catholic Church. Newman, who lived to see most of the nineteenth century, died in 1890 a cardinal in the Catholic Church. Recall C.S. Lewis’ Liar, Lunatic or Lord-trilemna. Non-Catholics face a similar trilemna with the exclusive claims of the Catholic Church. You might lover Her, or hate what you think She is, but indifference toward Rome is not a valid option. When Newman became convinced the Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ, and his own communion was in schism, this Anglican divine relinquished his livelihood and submitted to the authority of the one, holy apostolic church. Rejection is an option. And submission. Indifference is not a legitimate option.
Hidden in the Church’s bosom
Cardinal Newman’s seminal work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, provides a framework for understanding “that 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.’” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman, J. H. C. (1994), Notre Dame Series in the Great Books, xvii / Kindle iOS version at 168). Newman treats the Church Age as a body of evidence to be considered, not ignored. Newman’s work “offers a ‘view’ of the course of doctrinal development in the early Church and invites the reader to recognize certain patterns which it traces in the historical phenomena.” (xxi / 227). He set out to justify the Anglican communion by an intense study of history. The study, however, led Newman into the Catholic Church, whose doctrines are not aberrations, or accretions or superstitions. Rather, what the Church “implicitly believed becomes explicitly professed, as the mind of the Church develops the ‘ideas, which it has hitherto held implicitly and without subjecting them to its reflecting and reasoning powers.’” (xxiii / 265).
Exploding ahistorical narratives
Many seem to believe “that Christianity does not fall within the province of history,—that it is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else[.]” (4 / 346). Recently, in speaking about the weight I perceived in the witness of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (The Wheat of God), a Protestant friend basically replied that the Apostolic Father’s interpretation of Scripture was no more or less valid than his or mine. On one hand, I could not believe my ears. On the other, I realize we grew up with an impression (formed who knows how) that the ancient, visible Church became corrupt and apostate (nobody can say when). I discovered that idea, built upon unexamined assumptions, withers in the light of history. With windows flung open, the relentless light of facts exposes ahistorical narratives; narratives necessary for the perpetuation of Protestantism.
What did the Apostolic Fathers know, anyway?
Laying aside unexamined assumptions, the defender of Protestantism must admit the most “natural hypotheses”, at least until presenting evidence to the contrary: “the society of Christians, which the Apostles left on earth, were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion, argues a real continuity of doctrine[.]” (5 / 361). Reason does not permit the assumption that, with the passing of Saint John the Evangelist, the Church immediately careened into the ditch, hopelessly corrupting what had just been handed to them by those who walked with the Lord. Didn’t many of those same witnesses testify with their own blood? Then why can’t they be trusted as truthful witnesses? Have I resisted temptation to the point of shedding blood? Ever? Do I know anyone who has? What makes a sixteenth-century exegete (or my friend, or me) more competent than an Apostolic Father?
Who’s got the burden of proof?
To be fair, the assumption should be that “the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth [centuries], . . . is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.” (5 / 366). The burden of proof is on the Protesters to bring forward evidence to the contrary. To hold these unexamined, unproven assumptions is to presuppose what is unnatural and unlikely. Unnatural, unlikely presuppositions are doubly unwarranted and unfair in the face of the great promises of Christ concerning the Spirit of truth and the triumph of the Church over the gates of Hell. The Protestant’s comfort in doubting the claims of the Catholic Church should not be mistaken for evidence of his own tradition. Feelings don’t make firm foundations. And, “to be just able to doubt is no warrant for disbelieving.” (6 / 371).
Healthy infants grow and develop
In my Protestant world, there was an imagined ideal: re-creating that original New Testament church. In my studies, I came to see it differently. Imagine an adult wishing he were always an infant. A healthy baby grows and matures. He develops. The man who truly wishes to be a perpetual infant is not well. There was an infant church in Acts 2. It grew and matured and developed. There is no going back. In our defense, the in-grained assumption of an apostate church from antiquity until 1517 left us no choice. Convinced the Bible is true, what else could we do? We had our Bibles, so it was only natural to have a Bible-church.
Missing without a trace
To my surprise, history paints a different picture. I discovered that those ancient and primitive churches looked nothing like our Protestant communities. Indeed, if anything like our Protestantism ever existed in antiquity, time swept it from the pages of history. There is no evidence of an ancient Christian community taking their Bibles (which they did not even have), crafting their own statement of faith, coming up with a name and making a go of it. Frighteningly, the closest we come to that are the break-away heretical groups. Duly answered by the Catholic Church, those heretics of antiquity have gone the way of the Hittites and Girgashites.
On the contrary, as soon as the New Testament canon was closed, the young-but-growing church begins looking more and more Catholic. It never resembles Protestantism – at all. From the beginning of the post-apostolic age, we see real Sacraments, not sixteenth-century negations. Shortly after the death of Saint John the Evangelist, we see extra-Biblical references to the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The Wheat of God. Both teacher and student alike take that reality for granted, as having been taught. The True Light Enlightens Everyone. The Church of history, both before and after the Council of Nicaea, looked nothing like the Baptist or Presbyterian communities of my past.
Mountains cast into the sea
As boggling or intimidating or messy as we find history, one thing is certain; “whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.” (7 / 392). That conclusion coincides with my experience in Protestantism. We proceeded as if twenty centuries of facts, a veritable mountain, did not exist. We proceeded as if Charles Haddon Spurgeon prayed, “Be lifted up, mountain of history, and be thrown into the sea.” How could it be? Our faith was delivered in an age of writing and records. Didn’t God, in the fulness of time, send His Son born of a woman, born under the law? Wasn’t our Lord crucified in a given year under a named Roman governor? And none of these things happened in a corner. Then why did my faith traditions so consistently ignore the facts of history? Cardinal Newman helps face the first difficulty head-on, then offers the thoughtful believer an understanding of the development of Christian doctrine.
A dozen missing centuries
There is no reason to ignore “twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicaea and Trent” (8 / 399). If one is determined to believe the worst things about the Catholic Church, as I once did, at least avoid being an unjust judge, as I was. Lord, have mercy on unjust judges. Like me. Consider the evidence without relying on anti-Catholic sources. I relied on anti-Catholic literature and it took decades to come out of the hole. I’ve since discovered the same truth as so many others: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” (8 / 399). Again, “if such a system of [Protestant] doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that ‘when they rose in the morning’ her true seed ‘were all dead corpses’—Nay dead and buried—and without gravestone.” (8 / 405).
After the flood
Cardinal Newman challenges the Protestant to take whatever of his doctrines that define his tradition, doctrines of “self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of [sola Scriptura]; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless.” (8 / 412).
History exposes the myth that the early Church resembled, in doctrine and government, our best Protestant efforts. But being a myth-buster does not answer fair questions. The thoughtful Protestant, raised in a “Bible-alone” culture, has legitimate questions about Catholic doctrines and practices. Thankfully, Christianity has not abandoned the province of argument. The Church has at Her disposal the faith once delivered, together with a Teaching Magisterium. The Church enjoys an uninterrupted string of twenty centuries filled with facts and philosophy, reason and natural law. Let the believer, once his head stops spinning, bring his questions and objections. Only let him come with humility. Let him come recognizing he might be wrong. The faith might be more like a gift to be received than a Rubik’s cube to be solved. Indeed, he might discover that the biggest obstacle to the Catholic Church turns out to be the exact medicine prescribed for his sick soul.
The true and good and beautiful
Cardinal Newman offers a Theory of Development of Doctrine. There is nothing easy about his writings. However, his theory is needed “to solve what has now become a necessary and an anxious problem. For [five] hundred years the documents and the facts of Christianity have been exposed to a jealous scrutiny; works have been judged spurious which once were received without a question; facts have been discarded or modified which were once first principles in argument; new facts and new principles have been brought to light; philosophical views and polemical discussions of various tendencies have been maintained with more or less success.” (30 / 698). Resist the urge to retreat. Retreat seems the easy course, but it’s not.
I write because I discovered what is true and good and beautiful. Don’t mistake that as pie-in-the-sky naiveté. I don’t pretend to have found a church where everybody does everything right all the time. I am talking about something else. However messy Church history has been and however poorly Catholics have behaved, there is wonder and awe when a long-time, Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ discovers that His objective and knowable and visible Church remains on the earth to the present day. Cardinal Newman helped in that discovery.
Our Lord’s great High Priestly prayer to the Father for unity (John 17) is yet unfulfilled. One thing is sure. One thing allows no doubt. The Father will answer the prayer of His Son. I write that you become part of that answered prayer, sooner rather than later.
More about Newman’s Essay, later.