Jeffery's Reviews > An Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine

An Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman
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Jul 24, 10

Read in September, 2009

Newman answered for me a question with which I struggled for five years. Is the Bible alone enough to determine the content of our faith, without the comment of teachers and councils, past or present? This question is not Newman's main concern here, but the Essay nonetheless answered my question in a breathtaking and very satisfactory way. Stuck between Anglicanism and Catholicism in 1840s England, the brightest Christian mind of his generation immersed himself in the history of the early Church to examine how core doctrines of Christianity first received expression, and then to compare and contrast the development of those core doctrines with what were particularly "Catholic" doctrines. His finding, exhaustively documented: the core doctrines were not proclaimed more or less clearly or consistently than the Catholic doctrines. They were of a piece.
Anglicans, while not adhering strictly to sola scriptura, nonetheless distinguished themselves from Catholics by claiming that they simply believed what has been taught and believed at all times, in all places, by everyone. Newman's research in patristics, the study of the writings of the Church Fathers, showed that this rule of thumb did not help to distinguish non-Catholic doctrines from Catholic ones. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome was better documented than the Real Presence of Jesus in Communion (believed by Anglicans and Catholics). Prayers for the dead showed a development parallel to that of the communion of all believers, and devotion to the Blessed Mother grew parallel to a better understanding of Jesus' Incarnation; indeed, in both cases the one reinforced the other. Similarly, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome developed alongside an understanding of the unity and universality of the church. In each case, those who taught the truth about the Person of Jesus could not be found to deny Catholic distinctives: though sometimes they were silent, they did not deny. Those who wrote such denials were most often heretics who taught that Jesus was just a spirit, or that He was only a man, or that His divinity only came upon Him once He began His ministry. Thus Newman at one point in the book concluded, "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." Letting the early Church speak for itself, without bringing doctrinal assumptions to the study of history, Newman found no evidence of a point where the "simple" teachings of the apostles fell silent and monolithic, ritualistic religion took over. The development of Catholicism, though often messy, was yet seamless and continuous from the earliest church documents. Research by many scholars in the 160 years since Newman wrote his Essay have corroborated his claims by showing that the worship of the early Church was highly liturgical and sacramental. If early worship was Protestant in any sense, that sense was interior and invisible, and by all exteriors it had far more in common with the worship seen today in Orthodox and Catholic parishes.
Newman intended to carry out his investigation of the development of doctrine up to his own time, but he only got to the 500s. His study and writing had convinced him by that point that the Anglican church, to which he then belonged, was in the wrong, and that Catholics were the inheritors of the true teaching. Calling the Church of Rome "the one true Fold of the Redeemer", he put down his pen and asked to be received into the Church. From 1845 till his death in 1890, he faithfully served God in the Catholic Church as a priest and cardinal, and specially through his ministerial gifts of teaching and writing. Though his conversion stirred up much bad feeling and his English countrymen rejected him at the time, the holiness of his life and the power of his words eventually revived their admiration, and upon his death he was hailed as a national treasure by Protestants and Catholics alike.
The cause for Newman's sainthood is currently being investigated by the Catholic Church, with special interest and devotion from Pope Benedict XVI. He currently holds the title "Venerable", and in September Benedict will visit Britain to proclaim him "Blessed".
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