Reflections on Christian revelation and doctrine

The Thought of John Henry Newman

The latest in a series of occasional articles about Cardinal John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman’s reflections on revelation and doctrine are among his most lasting contributions to Christian thought. It has often been remarked that the Second Vatican Council was the fruit of Newman’s labors in understanding the church’s role in the development, defense, and transmission of religious doctrines.

Newman viewed the Christian community as emulating the Lukan description of Mary, reflecting on God’s role and deeds in her life and “pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). His last Oxford sermon on the Feast of the Purification of Mary, Feb. 2, 1843, refers to the Blessed Mother as the “pattern of Faith, both in the reception and the study of Divine Truth” (Oxford University Sermons, 313).  Analogous to her reflection on the salvific actions of God, the content of revelation, once communicated, is subject to the investigation of human mental powers.

This wresting and reflection shed new light on the immutable truths of the divine Word given to humanity for the liberation from sin and salvation of the entire person. As Cardinal Dulles points out in his treatment of Newman’s views of doctrine, “dogmatic statements of the creed do not enlarge upon the Christian idea, but only express aspects of it.  Thus, the ‘Catholic dogmas are, after all, but symbols of a Divine fact, which, far from being compassed by those very propositions, would not be exhausted, nor fathomed, by a thousand’” (Newman, 72).

In the mold of the great mystics, Newman views the abandonment of self to the divine mystery as exploding the boundaries of propositional limitations.

Newman’s classic text on the subject of doctrine is entitled the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In it, Newman navigates the course between the Scylla of religious fundamentalism, which would negate the impact of history upon the teachings of the church, seeing them as statements dropped from heaven unsullied by the human condition, and the Charybdis of contentless relativism, which views the teachings as unceasingly shifting in every era, mere self-projections of the environs just happening to exist at that moment.

Dulles argues, “The Essay is not a brief for a kind of dogmatic Darwinism. From the very outset, Newman opposes the ‘transformist’ view that Christianity is ever in flux and accommodates itself to the times” (Newman, 74). Rather the faith of the apostles perdures. However, it does from time to time have to be articulated in new ways in order to reach men and women of every historical period, culture and background.

The question remains as to how one can tell the difference between organic development and any rank growth of corruption or distortion of revelation. In the Essay, Newman gives seven tests, or “notes,” for distinguishing whether the new developments remain in accord with the depositum fidei.  While a lengthy discussion of each note is impossible in this setting, they remain indispensable to carving one’s way through the tangled jungle of modern theological scholarship and conversation.  They include: preservation of type, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, logical sequence, anticipation of its own future, conservative action on its past, and (my favorite) chronic vigour.

These seven notes convinced Newman that the early stages of ecclesiastical history, most notably the controversy with the Arians, put forth a theological worldview which was consistent with the biblical message, and that the same authentic developments were taking place in his day and would continue to do so in the future. In the midst of writing the book, Newman became convinced of his own arguments and made his profession of Catholic faith to Father Dominic Barberi.

As opposed to philosophical and political systems which rise and fall, “have each its day…are parts of a succession…supplant and are in turn supplanted” (Essay, 440), Catholic doctrines can and have adapted themselves to every generation. They have been able to encounter philosophical thought of the ancient world or the mysticism of an undiluted transcendental experience, and incorporate what is good and true in them, as Thomas Aquinas did with the former, and John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi with the latter. The flourishing and perseverance of Christianity for two millennia is itself, for Newman, a testimony to its lasting, healthy, and self-regulating existence.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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