The Church

Hello… NEWMAN. The Proper Assessment of Church History

John Henry Newman was a British churchman, a sometime member of the Oxford Tractarian movement. The movement was an attempt at course correction in the Anglican church at a time when it was moving left. They saw a recovery of tradition and traditionalism in worship as the way forward. Newman was one who didn’t stop there, however, but went on to join the Roman Catholic Church, and was eventually named a cardinal.

Newman’s intellect and wide learning are evident. He was not a theological dilettante. So formidable was he that many still look to his views for guidance. Among his more famous aphorisms is “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” From this stance, Newman took all sorts of cues, which allowed him to justify a move to Rome. Newman’s phrase is another way of saying we must go to a time prior to the Reformation, to the earlier church, to see the state of doctrine and practice, and from this, we learn how believers of today should order the church.

Behind this is the assumption that what happened is what should have happened, and that the historical church has developed as it should have. In short, it makes history prescriptive rather than descriptive. Newman reasons that “It is a first strong point that, in an idea such as Christianity, developments cannot but be, and those surely divine, because it is divine; a second that, if so, they are those very ones which exist, because there are no others; and a third point is the fact that they are found just there, where true developments ought to be found – namely, in the historic seats of Apostolical teaching and in the authoritative homes of immemorial tradition.”[1]

The logic Newman follows cannot support his claims.  If we see developments in doctrine, we should expect this. His argument is circular: we see developments, and if we see them, they must be true, because only true developments are to be expected in such a thing as Christianity. To paraphrase him, “whatever is, is right, because it is.” Newman offers no explanation as to why we should expect developments.  Paul affirmed that he had delivered over to the Ephesians the whole counsel of God, and Tertullian vociferously objected to the suggestion that the apostles had held anything back in their teaching. Contrary to what Newman suggests, there is every indication that development in doctrine is decidedly not to be expected. Now, perhaps it is just two terms for the same thing, but development is really the wrong word to us. We understand the truth from Scripture, we expound the truth, but these truths must be present in Scripture, and if present, are not developments.

Newman makes a further claim that apostolic succession guarantees the truth of these developments. But Church councils were repeatedly called to deal with doctrinal developments that others saw as heterodox.  These developments occurred within the Church and in many cases, it was legitimately consecrated bishops that were the originators of such heresy. Paul of Samosata, Photinus of Sirmium, Eunomius of Cyzicus, Acacius of Caeseara, Nestorius of Constantinople—all of these men were condemned for heresy, yet were part of the Church hierarchy, and in some cases, bishops of “the historic seats of Apostolical teaching and in the authoritative homes of immemorial tradition.”

Other claims Newman makes for doctrinal development are worth examining:

“If development must be, then, whereas Revelation is a heavenly gift, He who gave it virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption, in all such development as comes upon it by the necessity of its nature, or, in other words, that that intellectual action through successive generations, which is the organ of development, must, so far forth as it can claim to have been put in charge of the Revelation, be in its determinations infallible.”[2]

Newman again makes the claim that if Christianity is divine, its continuation in an uncorrupted form is guaranteed. But he also makes sweeping assumptions that the “intellectual action of successive generations” is the way this development is passed on uncorrupted and that (apparently) the Roman Catholic Church has been put in charge of Revelation. Moreover, he conflates revelation in Scripture with later opinions of it. This is unsurprising in a paradigm where Scripture and tradition are viewed equally. But as Gregg Allison has pointed out, “any two-source authority structure is inherently unstable because when the two authorities conflict, one inevitably rises to be the ultimate authority and the other cedes authority to it.”[3]

If the Roman Church holds sway over revelation, whatever it pronounces is infallible. On the last point, it is notable that Newman was an opponent of the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility. If he himself viewed all developments within the church as both infallible and the necessary outcome of the original deposit, he should have greeted it unhesitatingly. He did not live by his own principles.

Perhaps the most surprising claim Newman makes is for an All-Or-Nothing embrace of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Speaking of the necessary link between such things as baptism to confirmation, penance to purgatory and indulgences, the Real Presence with eucharistic adoration, he says “These doctrines are members of one family, and suggestive, or correlative, or confirmatory, or illustrative of each other. One furnishes evidence to another, and all to each of them; if this is proved, that becomes probable; if this and that are both probable, but for different reasons, each adds to the other its own probability.”[4]

Newman believes doctrines which suggest one another, are correlative, or illustrative and probable should carry weight in what the Christian must believe. This is a very different thing than grounding one’s beliefs in Scripture. Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls (upon whose work I have relied for some of this analysis) summarize what Newman asks of his readers. “Newman insists that one must accept all these claims or none of them, that they are connected by nothing less than ‘stern logical necessity.’ Probability has miraculously been transformed into logical necessity, though to all appearances his actual argument rests entirely on various probability judgments and alleged connections between different doctrines, many of which are highly contestable. Whoever accepts any part must beware, for before realizing what is happening, that person may be led inexorably to accept the whole.”[5]

In fact, Roman Catholics of today have largely ignored Newman’s logic and pick and choose what they want to believe. Surveys in recent years demonstrate what Thomas Bergler observes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[6]

When we assess doctrinal truth claims, then, we are all faced with the same question: Will we ground our beliefs in Scripture as the highest authority, or will we admit history and practice to have a normative role in what should be? The witness of church history is a reflection of how prior ages interpreted the truth. But it elevates hermeneutics to the status of revelation if we say this history is authoritative. As Newman’s own life shows, those who say they are submitting themselves to the church can’t escape an inevitable parsing of the evidence of what is true and right. Newman should have followed his own advice and gone back even earlier, to the apostolic faith evidenced not by later history, but in the New Testament documents.


[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, (Kindle Edition, 2011), location 1697.

[2] Newman, location 1321.

[3] Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014),90.

[4] Newman, location 1326.

[5] Kenneth J. Collins, Jerry L. Walls, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapis, Baker Academic, 2017), 55.

[6] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenalization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

1 thought on “Hello… NEWMAN. The Proper Assessment of Church History”

  1. The book of Acts is the history of the church that God established with Peter preaching its first sermon and clearly instructing the lost on how to come to a saving relationship with God through Christ in Acts, chapter 2.
    This is what the church has strayed so far from and must return.

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