A Foreword to John Henry Newman’s On the Development of Christian Doctrine

For the occasion of Gabriel Gordon’s birthday (Happy Birthday, Gabe!)

John Henry Newman is, without question, the single most influential anglophone Roman Catholic intellectual. He lived and wrote in Ninteenth Century England, beginning as an influential ‘Anglo-Catholic’ priest in the Church of England until his conversion to Roman Catholicism in his mid-forties. He wrote widely, his work spanning a collection of sermons, tomes on the theological Arian crisis in church history, autobiography, philosophy, and theological method. This post will concern what is arguably his most commonly cited work, On the Development of Christian Doctrine.

It is my impression that this book is problematic. Not problematic in the sense that it is misleading or useless. Quite the opposite. On the Development of Christian Doctrine is problematic precisely in the way that Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae or Origen’s On First Principles is problematic. The book represents an entire paradigm. It is not a simple argument for or against a particular interpretation of a particular event. On the Development of Christian Doctrine concerns an entire manner of speaking about Christian theology. It is because Newman advocates for a paradigm that the book is very prone to being misapplied and misunderstood.

How can one carefully navigate Newman’s thought on this point? First, an observation. While the book concerns the development — the evolution — of Christian language, the paradox that Newman set out to solve was the sameness of true Christianity, its continuity with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and his closest disciples, a sameness that nevertheless coincides — or seems to coincide — with undeniable and sometimes remarkable changes, changes that concern, at a minimum, the language of religion itself.

Take a very elementary example, chiefly, the Trinity. The word ‘Trinity’ famously never appears in the Christian Scriptures, and yet it has been considered throughout the majority of Christian history and communities the central doctrine of the faith, more fundamental than the doctrines of salvation and atonement. A legitimate Christian could not accept the doctrine of the Trinity — the view that the one God is three persons, each “consubstantial” with one another by “essence” while nevertheless differing in terms of “relations”, “processions”, or (perhaps too crudely) “movements” — unless she believed it to have been the authentic teaching of Jesus Christ and the Twelve. All properly Christian doctrine — that is, revealed truths that humans are probably not capable of discovering independently, as opposed to general philosophical knowledge that Christians hold to be available to any genuine inquirer — depends for its legitimacy upon the authority of Jesus Christ. To abandon the original teachings of Jesus Christ is for the Christian to altogether abandon faith. Newman’s goal in writing was to make sense of how seeming evolutions of the Christian faith are really attempts to draw out the full implications of the original, primitive religion of Jesus Christ and his disciples.

I think that Newman’s concept of a “contradiction”, as opposed to a “development”, is very useful in terms of accurately applying his concept of development. Newman forthrightly acknowledged that not just any changes to terminology are to be accepted by the Christian Church. Developments in the Church’s understanding of the original teachings may lead to new ways of expressing an old truth, as it did in the case of Trinitarian theology; however, a mere glimpse into the history of Christianity reveals that the opposite can often be true. Sometimes, groups within the Christian tent may actually depart from a primitive revealed truth. Clearly this was happening as early as the apostolic age itself, as several of the New Testament’s letters take great pains to acknowledge the existence of “false teachers” and the antidotes for their teachings. These changes — betrayals, really — Newman terms “contradictions”. A legitimate development, according to Newman, cannot be something that would contradict a prior teaching. A true development merely expounds upon and deepens one’s understanding of the authentic teaching.

What is the usefulness of the concept of development within Christian doctrine? Is the admission of development itself a concession to change, an accusation of weakness in primitive Christianity that the contemporary Christian would arrogantly attempt to remedy by his own strength or merits? Would not this be a kind of intellectual Pelagianism, a denial of prodigal trust in Trinitarian love and its truth, its authenticity? Newman’s articulation of development provides an opportunity for the Christian to reconcile the Body of Christ across not only space, but through time itself. Newman created a space for the Christian to bluntly explore her own history, to acknowledge the “shadow of change” while looking even there for Christ, who promised the Church that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth. As Paul once sought to reconcile the oracles of his people with an unlikely Christ in Jesus, so Newman invites the Christian to reconcile our own history with the person of Jesus in order to rediscover the beauty of his grace, appreciate it anew, and perhaps to find it in a place altogether unexpected, a place of development without contradiction.

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