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“Convictions change, habits of mind endure” stated John Henry Newman as he reflected in 1861 upon his uncertainty and ambivalence during his long discernment from Canterbury to Rome. In 1845 Newman sealed his fate with the lengthy Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, hereafter, ‘Essay’. It enters into the middle of what is often considered the three ‘epochs’ or phases of Newman’s life; his Anglican years, his conversion to Catholicism and his ecclesiological writings, particularly on papal infallibility as a Catholic. Ian Ker is generally regarded as one of the world’s authorities on John Henry Newman and has penned twenty books. Prior to 1839 Newman clearly believed that the Anglican Church was an embodiment of the Church of Christ. His ‘Essay’ is the result of seven years of struggle with conscience and faith, good and bad.
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Ian Ker spends considerable length in his definitive biography of Newman in the events and writings during Newman’s Anglican phase. It is in stark contrast with the previous work of Wilfred Ward in 1912 who gave very few pages over to this highly significant, religiously and politically charged period of Newman’s life. That Newman expressed continued doubts amidst his certainty on God’s call and providence perhaps expresses more about the person than on his relationship with God. Ker succinctly documents the period of turmoil. Reference to Newman’s contact with Keble, the ‘poet of the Tractarian movement’ (Goodwin 475) his close friend and colleague in the Oxford Movement, on ‘how he could continue at St. Mary’s with any sense of propriety’. (Ker, 273). Newman writes, “As far as I can realize my own convictions, I consider the Roman Catholic Communion the Church of the Apostles. … I am very far more sure that England is in schism, than that the Roman additions to the Primitive Creed may not be developments, arising out of a keen and vivid realizing of the Divine Depositum of faith. (To J. Keble, 4 May 1843; quoted in: Ker, 274)
Perhaps Newman could be charged with fideism, did he mentally divorce faith from reason? David Birch notes that Newman wanted “certitude that what he was doing was not the result of his own private judgement but was God’s will. He was surrounded by a world, political and scientific, that was increasingly positioning private judgement over God’s truths. [T]his … would not come from his logical reasoning about Church history and development — it could, for Newman, only come from God — and it led him to the Catholic Church. (Birch, 4). But his journey was not easy. Indeed, Ker refers to the trips Newman made to Pusey where Newman concluded that Pusey’s poor mental health was essentially down to “joining the Church of Rome [is evil].” (Ker, 289)
Between 1839 and 1843 Newman entered into dialogue with the changing relationship between science and religion, reason and faith. In his university sermons, Newman defends internal, personal faith under siege from scientific reasoning’s newfound standing in society. Perhaps one ought to consider the context in which Newman found himself involved in the often-dialectical form of argument with the Oriel fellows schooled in the Lockean school of reason. Basil Mitchell describes Newman, at times, “facing the other way and confronting those who think of faith as a basic commitment which is independent of reason, either because we enjoy a kind of direct awareness of God or because we can rely unquestioningly on scripture or some other religious authority.” (Mitchell, 240) Perhaps the nuance in Newman’s understanding is echoed most recently by Robert Barron when he stated earlier in 2018 that “I intuited that faith and reason are not opposed to one another, but they are, in point of fact, mutually implicative. (Barron, 7). Newman himself sums it upo in the University Sermomns when he states that “human knowledge is based on doubt, faith can be seen as the opposite of doubt…reason can be considered a ‘critical’ rather than ‘creative’”. Faculty. (Newman, 131)
While Newman’s desire was one of salvation, and the certainty of it, Birch adds, “his interest lay in being sure that the one true Church would be the Church where he could have the certitude of knowing that within that Church, he could save his soul. (Birch, 4). A person of Newman’s intellect could not lapse into fideism. He writes, “Mary’s faith did not end in a mere acquiescence in Divine providence and revelations: as the text informs us, she pondered them” (Newman, 312). In the 15th University Sermon Newman puts forward the application of two ideas to revelation; implicit and explicit reason. The implicit reason is a person’s grasp of revelation, his or her ‘impression‟ of the revealed idea. The explicit reason is the analysis done by the mind over this impression in investigating and reflecting on it by drawing out the idea of divine revelation into propositions. (Fernando, 29). To ascertain the certainty with which modern Catholicism is the historical continuation of early Christianity, Newman proposed seven notes to help discern healthy developments from its state of corruption and decay. Ker reflects upon them at length, but it is perhaps the seventh ‘note’ that is of greatest significance in the light of Vatican II. Ker highlights Newman’s reference to the ‘chronic vigour as shown in the development of dogmatic theology. (Ker, 313). But that significance is not for now.
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Ker reflects upon the pain and anguish experienced by Newman. Significant space is given over to Newman’s personal letters to friends in the Anglican communion and even to Manning who was to make his own journey to Rome some six years later. However, it is here that Newman perhaps indicates the ‘one real reason for joining the Roman Church, and that was his belief that the Church of England was in schism. (Ker, 293). But it was no single influence or person. Indeed, Ker notes that Newman states in a letter to Miss M. Giberne in 1844 that “I have no existing sympathies with Roman Catholics…I do not like what I hear of them.” (Ker, 293). It was ultimately the move beyond his own scepticism and utter conviction in the authentic call of God that finally allowed him to swim the Tiber to Rome.
Newman’s Essay on Development… may be seen as his apologia. The Essay “does not pretend to be a dogmatic work, but an obscure philosophical work … to advertise people how things stood with me”. (Dessain, 170) Newman states, “the main object of the Essay is to show that the grounds a person gives for his conversion cannot be expressed in a formula” (Dessain, 109). Perhaps Newman’s Essay on Development… is best summed up in the words of Ker who concludes that “First, it is one of the intellectual documents of the nineteenth century comparable to Darwin’s Origin of Species, which it predates by over a decade. Secondly, if this was the only book Newman to survive, its rhetorical art and style would surely place him among the best of English prose”. (Ker, 315)
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