Newman on Development: Introduction

The following is no more than a loose paraphrase of the Introduction to Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.

“Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history.” With this line, Newman begins his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and it sets out his task for the essay: showing that there is a historic Christianity.

Ahistorical Hypotheses about Christianity

  • Christianity does not fall within the province of history.
  • It is to each man what he thinks, a mere name for a cluster of religions.
  • Not because of a doctrine which is a common foundation.
  • Or: All existing denominations of Christianity are wrong.
  • None represents what Christan apostles taught.
  • Died out of the world at its birth, and was succeeded by a counterfeit.
  • Or: Christianity historically has no substance of its own.
  • From the first, only an assemblage of doctrine and practice from other sources.
  • Or: True Christianity only has hidden and isolated life in hearts of elect.
  • Or: Christianity is a literature or philosophy, not surely from above, but furnished us by providence.

Newman’s Evaluation: All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with [them]. And further, This is not self-evident, and has to be proved.

The more natural hypothesis is that the community left by the Apostles were of the same religion to which the Apostles converted them.

  • Continuity of name, profession, communion argue continuity of doctrine.
  • Has a certain shape and bearing before mankind.
  • A power visible in the world, as prophesied.

It is not a violent assumption to take it for granted that the Christianity from the 2nd to the 16th centuries is in substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the 1st.

There is the abstract of possibility of extreme changes. But that a counterfeit Christianity supplanted the original (identity is lost without loss of continuity) is possible, but not assumed.

Difficulty: In history, one sees doctrine variously represent and inconsistently maintained. For this reason, one rejects history as a source falls back on the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine.

Answer: Newman admits this is a fair argument if it can be maintained. Admits apparent variations that need to be explained.

Goal: To explain variations, and show the unity, directness, and consistency of doctrine.

He continues with the incongruity of history and Protestantism. Protestantism, seeing the difficulties in history, will often reject it as a source and rely on the Bible alone with private interpretation. Newman then supplies a number of hypotheses to answer the difficulty of variation over the centuries:

  • First, that Christianity changed from the first and ever accommodates to the times. This is difficult to reconcile with the special idea of revealed truth. Its advocates tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.
  • Second, more plausible: to cut off what does not have the sanction of primitive times. There is a pure Christianity, and then a corrupt one. The problem then becomes where to draw the line between corrupt and pure.
  • They appeal to the principle of Vincent of Lerins (+445): “What is believed always, everywhere, by all.” This is a promising solution. Since men speak sometimes from themselves and sometimes from tradition, this could sort things out. This gives some reason for accepting the early and rejecting the latter.
  • The difficulty with the rule is applying it in particular cases. It is just as effective against Protestantism as it is against Rome and England.

Newman goes on to consider the consensus of the Ante-nicene Church concerning the Trinity:

  • There is consensus on the Consubstantiality and Coeternity of Christ with the Father. But there is no consensus on the Trinity, so stated. The divinity of the Christ partly implies and partly recommends the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is not the same thing.
  • Moreover, one writer is not the same a whole set. The Catholic truth is made up of a number of propositions which maintained to the exclusion of the rest is a heresy.
  • The Son is God (held by Sabellians and Macedonians)
  • Father is not the Son (held by Arians)
  • Son is equal to the Father (held by Tritheists)
  • There is only one God (held by Unitarians)
  • Some sense of Threefold Power attached to the Almighty (indeed, held by all who accept the NT)

There continues a discussion of difficulties related to the Trinity. Only Tertullian seems to affirm the doctrine plainly, and he is heterodox. And then even Basil (4th cent.) refrains from calling the Third Person of the Holy Spirit by the name of God. He proceeds with several other doctrines:

  • Purgatory and Original Sin. The former is more widely testified.
  • Real Presence and Papal Supremacy. The latter is more widely testified.

This ultimately shows that the solution of Vincent of Lerins is as difficult as the problem it had hoped to solve.

Another hypothesis:

  • Third, the disciplina arcani, that there was no variation, but that some doctrines were hidden early on. That this happened early on is clear. And yet this is no key to the difficulty, for the variations continue beyond the time when it is conceivable that the discipline be in force. Also, the variations do not come abruptly, but by a visible growth which has persevered up to the present time.

And so this Essay is directed to solving the difficulty which lies in the way of using in controversy the testimony of 1800 years of history concerning Christian doctrine and worship.

View on which this Essay is written has probably been adopted implicitly by theologians at all times: the increase and expansion of Christian Creed and Ritual, and variations which attend this process are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wide or extended dominion. That from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; the highest and most wonderful truths, communicated to the world once and for all could not be comprehended by the recipients. Being received and transmitted by by minds not inspired, have required longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.

This may be called the Theory of the Development of Doctrine.

He affirms that this is merely a hypothesis, and gives examples of such hypotheses in other sciences. Yet he argues for the need of a hypothesis against unbelievers who (without any such hypothesis) interpret the data from their own principles. An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.

He concludes by saying that such an inquiry does not immediately imply a reception of Roman Catholic doctrine. And yet the explanation might serve as a fair ground for trusting her in parallel cases where the investigation has not been pursued.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s