Newman’s Message for Those Leaving the Church

In 2018, we saw many Catholics, including some prominent ones, head for the exits in the wake of the latest sex abuse scandal. No doubt we’ll see more of this in 2019, especially if the New York Times and The Washington Post are to be believed. Some prominent Protestant scholars, smelling blood in the water, have been urging Catholics to consider swimming the other way across the Tiber, marching up the Italian peninsula, and crossing the Alps to Geneva or Wittenberg. There are many good reasons why Catholics should not heed their siren song. Blessed John Henry Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in 1845, offers at least two: (1) Protestantism is an anti-historical religion; and (2) Protestantism is fundamentally premised on a problematic paradigm of private judgment.

Those familiar with Newman’s text on the development of doctrine may think it odd to suggest that this book is a primer in criticisms of Protestantism—it is far more famous (and foundational) as the most extensive and sophisticated discussion of Catholic doctrinal development ever offered. Indeed, his seven tests for evaluating true development—as opposed to its antithesis, doctrinal corruption—may be one of the most valuable contributions the English cardinal made to his adoptive Church. Yet Newman’s main interlocutors in his “essay” (my copy is 300 pages!) are Protestants, and much of the context behind his work is a desire to defend the Church’s doctrines against those who, like their Reformation-era theological ancestors, claimed that Rome had strayed from the faith of the Bible and the Early Church. Moreover, given Newman’s acute theological abilities, we shouldn’t be surprised that his writing possesses layers of value—for example, I’ve argued that his Apologia Pro Vita Sua is a textbook in how to charitably debate one’s detractors. Let’s consider Newman’s salient points on Protestantism.

Protestantism is Anti-historical
“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” famously says Newman in the introduction to his essay. This is usually interpreted by Catholic apologists to mean that the more one studies history, the less Protestantism makes sense within the broader arc of two thousands years of Christianity. Newman, however, meant something a bit more than this. Elsewhere he writes, “Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.” What Newman means here—building on his conception of doctrinal development—is that Protestantism represents a fundamental rupture in Christian history. The Church, and Catholic doctrine, had been developing in many ways over a millennia-and-a-half when Luther began his protest against Rome. It had developed a liturgy; a conciliar system for the universal Church to determine doctrine; a robust understanding of ecclesial authority; and a host of doctrines, including on God’s nature and person, soteriology, ecclesiology, and sacramentology, among many other things. Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers rejected this process.

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What would give the Reformers such boldness? A belief that Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the rule of faith. Newman explains: “This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it.” Protestants despair of Christian history in the sense that they do not accept its organic historical development up to the Reformation era as legitimate. Some Protestant scholars think the Church went off the rails in the eighth century, others the twelfth, and others the fifteenth. Whatever the century, the underlying paradigm is one where Holy Tradition and the historical movements of the Magisterium cannot be trusted, even if it was precisely that tradition and magisterium that determined the contents of the canon or formulated the doctrine of the Trinity!

Of course, Protestants don’t appreciate Newman’s critique as it relates to history. They argue that the Church of the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance period had forfeited her claim to be the inheritor of the Apostles. Interestingly, the Reformers claimed themselves to be the theological descendants of the Apostles and the Church Fathers. Calvin in his Institutes cites St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, among others, as authorities who validate his scriptural interpretations. However, as Newman sagely observes, the Reformers pick and choose from Tradition and the Church Fathers. He argues that Protestantism “cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen.” I’d go a step further: Protestants can’t defend the parts of St. Augustine they like (e.g. his doctrine of grace) and condemn what they don’t like (e.g. his defense of Roman primacy). A Christian might as well defend the parts of Scripture he likes and condemn those he doesn’t—which, come to think of it, is exactly what many Protestants do!

Protestantism is a Paradigm of Private Judgment
The ad hoc nature of Protestant perspectives on Christian history nicely connects to Newman’s second salient criticism that the Reformation’s descendants promote a paradigm whose essence is one of private judgment. He writes: “…The various sects of Protestantism, unconnected as they are with each other, are called developments of the principle of Private Judgment, of which really they are but applications and results.” With such a paradigm, Protestants have little means of condemning movements within their ranks that they interpret as unbiblical or un-Christian. Luther and Calvin, for example, based their rebellion against the Catholic Church on their personal interpretations of Holy Scripture. Yet when one relies solely on subjective opinion, what is the basis for his interpretation trumping another? Indeed, variant, contradictory forms of Protestantism proliferated in the generations after the early Reformers, something St. Francis de Sales critiqued in his Catholic Controversies. With the Bible alone, one has recourse to no other objective authority to resolve interpretive disputes. “Thus,” notes Newman, “both Calvinism and Unitarianism may be called developments, that is, exhibitions, of the principle of Private Judgment, though they have nothing in common, viewed as doctrines.”

This is a supreme irony—though Protestants eschewed papal authority, they now exist in a paradigm where every single one of them is forced to become their own pope in interpreting Scripture. Newman explains: “All parties appeal to Scripture, that is, argue from Scripture; but argument implies deduction, that is, development. Here there is no difference between early times and late, between a Pope ex cathedrâ and an individual Protestant, except that their authority is not on a par. On either side the claim of authority is the same…” Yet these Protestant pseudo-popes have no means by which to authoritatively interpret the Bible, nor any infallible tradition upon which to base their interpretations.

Theological terms and ideas that closely mirror Catholic teaching exist in the Protestant paradigm, but they float about untethered to any magisterial authority to give them meaning or unity. Says Newman: “Many of its speakers, for instance, use eloquent and glowing language about the Church and its characteristics: some of them do not realize what they say, but use high words and general statements about “the faith,” and “primitive truth,” and “schism,” and “heresy,” to which they attach no definite meaning; while others speak of “unity,” “universality,” and “Catholicity,” and use the words in their own sense and for their own ideas.” This ultimately reduces Protestants to effectively “playing” church and theology, since they lack the proper authority or tools. In the process, their paradigmatic approach results in only confusion, chaos, and ecclesial chasms. “Nothing can be easier, and nothing more trifling, than private determinations about the essentials, the peculiar doctrines, the vital doctrines, the great truths, simple views, or leading idea of the Gospel,” declares Newman.

How Catholicism is Different
By contrast, Catholicism is a theological paradigm that is both thoroughly historical and thoroughly universal and objective. It is historical, in that both the practice and teachings of our contemporary Catholic Church find their origins in the praxis and doctrine of the early Church. One may read the many chapters of Newman’s application of his seven principles of development to see how much unity there is between contemporary and historic Christianity on any number of subjects—ecclesiology, sacramentology, Christology, Mariology, to name but a few. For the less academically inclined, Jimmy Akin’s handy The Fathers Know Best distills the Church Fathers into very accessible categories. Moreover, the Church is universal and objective in that it bears not only apostolic authority in her ecclesial offices, but a principle of unity in the Holy Father, the pope. Her councils, which began in the very pages of the New Testament (Acts 15), serve as a “bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) that enables the universal Church to make authoritative judgments that guide the faithful and protect them from error. Both serve, as it were, as theological referees, capable of ruling when certain beliefs or practices cross over into heresy, and theological coaches, leading the universal Church in her quest for truth and beauty.

The Protestant paradigm cannot offer these functions—its very identity as a protest inhibits this. In throwing off the shackles of sixteenth-century Roman primacy, it threw off Christian history and objective authority as well, with no way to reclaim them, except by returning to the Church it rejected. As St. Vincent of Lerins, another great authority on doctrinal development, once declared, profectus fidei non permutatio—the success of the faith does not change, because Christ will protect it. Those thinking of departing Catholicism should remember that.


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