Cardinal John Henry Newman and the development of doctrine

Cardinal John Henry Newman and the development of doctrine

Fr Peter Waters

Cardinal John Henry Newman has been described as the "absent Council Father" of Vatican II, after a comment made by an American archbishop at that time. Whatever the validity of this assertion, it seems that the sense of a development of Christian doctrine which was proposed by Newman in his celebrated Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was influential, not only in the framing of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, but also in the way in which it has been interpreted since the time of the Council.

What is actually meant by doctrinal development is still somewhat elusive. As a theory, it is used by some to justify a vast array of diversions from time-honoured positions and as a means of validating claims that have no clear source in the Church’s tradition nor in the evidences of its sacred Scriptures. For example, the proposal that women ought be ordained to the priesthood is sometimes presented as a natural, albeit belated, development within the Church, now that society has fresher and clearer insights into the nature of gender and the true potential and equality of women. The whole question of inclusive language in the liturgy and the sacred Scriptures is another such example.

Original intention

Nonetheless, a fresh reading of the relevant texts leads to the conclusion that the notion of doctrinal development and all its attendant ramifications needs to be understood accurately, that is, in the sense it was intended initially and in which its application was originally invoked.

That Newman relied on the criterion of St Vincent of Lerins is clearly evident. At the same time, it must be noted that he moved away from the Vincentian Canon in favour of his own method of converging evidence and this has led to a fudging of its meaning, and, in some instances, a misapplication of the principle to some theological issues.

Vincent, a priest-monk of Lerins, the island monastery founded by St Honoratus circa 400AD near Cannes on the French Riviera, is a quite important figure in the history of doctrine. Among his writings, theological notebooks entitled Commonitoria were completed in c. 434, during the pontificate of Sixtus III and the episcopacy of St Cyril of Alexandria. St Augustine had died four years before, and the Council of Ephesus had convened in 431.

Vincent develops the notion that faith is based on the authority of Divine Law, which must be understood and interpreted in the light of the tradition of the Church. Beginning with the Scriptures, the source of all true doctrine, he proposes that, since they are construed variously by a host of different interpreters, there must be a necessary guide that distinguishes between the various interpretations.

The solution would be to examine the different interpretations in the light of the Church’s teaching. However, in the event that the Church might not yet have enunciated a decision, consequent to the conclusions of some universal council, the principles of ecumenicity, antiquity and agreement are to be invoked. In other words, the reliable standard for orthodoxy must be what has been believed in the Church everywhere, always and by all.

Vincent’s doctrinal principle does not exclude progress and development; but it does exclude change. That which produces something new may not be condoned but what is clearly derivative from the early faith of the Church may be developed. To illustrate his point, he uses an analogy from the world of nature, comparing doctrinal development with organic growth:

"But perhaps someone is saying: ‘Will there then be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ?’ Certainly there is, and the greatest. For who is there so envious towards men and so exceedingly hateful towards God, that he would try to inhibit progress? But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself: by change, something is transformed from one thing into another.

"It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily as much in individuals as in the group, as much in one man as in the whole Church, and this gradually according to age and the times; and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion."

However, Vincent does not envisage development in the later sense that Newman proposed. The former is at pains to insist that later amplification does not presuppose structural change or addition. He indicates that development is a progress in understanding of the datum of Scripture, that is, of what is already within the tradition in embryo and which is nurtured and brought to maturity or clarification of expression.

Bridging the gap ...

John Henry Newman constructed a distinctive methodology and coined a novel epistemological expression, the "illative sense" to convey his resolution of the philosophical problem of bridging the gap between probability and certainty. He suggests that with respect to religious faith, the simple and the unlettered have the advantage over the mere intellectual, if the latter does not qualify his explicit reasonings with the right moral disposition and with the realisation that faith involves the whole individual and is never a matter of logic alone. Clearness of statement or even of thought is very often not essential at all for the recognition of a great truth:

"Thus the ignorant but inspired man may arrive at truths which only a logician could analyse or demonstrate." In similar manner, says Newman, "consider the preternatural sagacity with which a great general knows what his friends and enemies are about, and what will be the final result, and where, of their combined movements." Such a general is acting not merely on conscious reasoning but also "by the combination of many uncatalogued experiences floating in [his] memory, of many reflections, variously produced, felt rather than capable of statement."

This ability of the mind – using memories, probabilities, associations, testimonies and impressions, in order to reason and conclude and believe spontaneously with success, but without the aid of explicit analysis – is what Newman calls the illative sense.

He notes that there are two dangers in exercising this sense: superstition and eccentricity. But superstition is held in check, Newman suggests, by the moral element in the act of faith, that is, holiness, obedience, and the sense of duty will safeguard faith from becoming mere superstition. In his argument, two lines of thought emerge. Firstly, that individual reason transcends logic, and secondly, that corporate reason, for instance as in the Church, or the State, transcends the individual. As they mutually correct each other, they further the evolution of thought.

Newman realised, as did Vincent of Lerins before him, that the evidences of faith are various, that the mystery of Christian Relation originating in the Incarnation and culminating in the death and resurrection of the Word made flesh, is contingent on its historical expression. Consequently, by postulating an inductive or illative sense as an instrument capable of being employed in treating these questions, Newman sought to provide a new method which he believed theology needed.

Totalitarian claims

At the same time, and from an opposite point of view, he could confront the totalitarian claims of scientists, who contended that everything true may be demonstrated; of liberals, who reduced all proof to logical proof, and of rationalists, who needed intellectual conversion. Thus, it is important to see the modus operandi of Newman in order to try to appreciate his tackling of the question of development.

The illative sense, then, as the "power of judging about truth and error in concrete matters" naturally impinges on any discussion of development of doctrine. Its nature and operation are best summarised by Newman himself:

"I have spoken of the illative sense in four respects – a mental exercise, as it is found in fact, as to the process it uses, and as to its function and scope. First, as an exercise of the mind, it is one and the same in all concrete matters, though employed in them in different measures ... Secondly, it is in fact attached to definite subject-matters, so that a given individual may possess it in one department of thought, for instance, history, and not in another, for instance, philosophy.

"Thirdly, it proceeds, in coming to its conclusion, always in the same way, by a method of reasoning which I have considered as analogous to that mathematical calculus of modem times, which has so wonderfully extended the limits of abstract science. Fourthly, in no class of concrete reasonings, whether in experimental science, historical research, or theology, is there any ultimate test of truth and error in our inferences besides the trustworthiness of the illative sense that gives them its sanction."

The 1845 composition, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, marked a new stage in the development of Newman’s own thought. Since 1833 he had made an extensive study of the Alexandrian Church, and through this, had secured the understanding that Christianity possessed dogmatic, hierarchical, sacramental and theological principles. He came to the realisation only too clearly that the Fathers, especially St Athanasius, were already teaching, defending and proclaiming the Gospel in new formulae of doctrine. They were engaged in theology in the service of the Gospel and under the guidance of ecclesiastical direction. Furthermore, on his own testimony, Newman conceived himself a dogmatist:

"I have changed in many things: in this I have not. From the age of fifteen dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. As well, can there be filial love without the fact of a Father, as devotion without the fact of Supreme Being? What I held in 1816, I held in 1833, and I hold in 1864. Please God I shall hold it to the end."

In the last of the Oxford University Sermons of 1843 Newman argues that doctrinal formulation seems to be part of the inner life and dynamism of Christian faith and experience. It is the very curiosity of the believer's spirit that leads him to demand the ordering and defending of the body of explicit formulations derived from this developmental process. But dogmas so formulated do not go beyond the original idea. They cannot say more than is implied in the core of Revelation, the original idea, considered in its completeness, without the risk of heresy. These expressions, according to Newman, are never equal to the original idea. Catholic dogmas are symbols of a Divine Fact, which, far from being contained by propositions, would not be exhausted or fathomed by a thousand. In this way, Newman proposes a permanence within growth, and identity within development.

In the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman expanded the hypothesis he had been slowly establishing. There we find three important categories:

1. developments to be expected;

2. an infallible developing authority to be expected;

3. the existing developments of doctrine, the probable fulfilment of that expectation:

  • Newman noted that the whole Bible is developmental in its message and moves from beginning to end in an increasing and growing revelation. For him, this was a powerful analogy, so much so that he could conclude that Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate and true developments, "developments contemplated by its Divine Author".
  • Given the divine donation of revelation, whereby God communicates himself to man, in whose possession it does not and cannot cease to be divine truth, the appointment of a divinely appointed principle of preservation within revelation itself, is implied. Newman identified this principle of preservation in development as the infallibility of the Church.
  • The fact of Catholicism is accepted universally by those within as well as those outside the Christian fold. It is a fact with well-developed features, presenting itself as a coherently structured organism, which demands either total rejection or complete acceptance. Newman concluded that modern Catholicism is both one with the ancient Church of Alexandria and the genuine heir to the Church of St Ambrose.

There are authors who strongly contend that Newman does not offer a highly developed hypothesis of doctrinal development so much as the clearly stated fact of development in doctrine. The fact of development makes no pretensions to explain the process of doctrinal development in itself. It is simply a theory alternative to the prevailing theories of immutability. The eminent Newman scholar, Fr Ian Ker, suggests that it would hardly be possible for Newman to have a systematic theory of development, since he does not regard the actual doctrinal developments which have taken place as being in any way systematic:

"The development - of an idea (like Christianity) is not like an investigation worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but it is carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as its instruments, and depends upon them, while it uses them."

Divine truth

For Newman, the theory of development dovetails with the antecedent probability that there will be growth and development in divine truth communicated to this world. He contends that it is the best theory, being the "simplest, the most natural, the most persuasive." It is clear that he is not attempting to explain the process of doctrinal development. His aim was to solve a problem, that posed by the apparent discontinuity between the Church of the apostles and contemporary Roman Catholicism.

The Essay was not written to prove the truth of Catholicism, but to answer an objection against Catholicism. It set out to establish that the Church of Pope Pius IX could not be shown to be unreasonable because of development beyond the Church of the Fathers. Newman compared the first six centuries of the Church’s life to the then contemporary Church and concluded that the Catholic Church emerged unscathed. It was for him the authentic re-composition of an original New Testament idea into fresh consistency and form.

Invoking the principle of doctrinal development, especially with an appeal to a philosopher theologian of the stature of John Henry Newman, in order to substantiate challenges to the Church’s common understanding of itself, is limited to the very precision of the illative sense espoused by Newman and his conceptual framework for the nature of development.

This is the edited text of Fr Peter Waters’ lecture at the Caroline Chisholm Library. Fr Waters is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Kyneton, in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

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