Newman and Tradition

I spent some time earlier in the fall reading through John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine, an immense work written over the course of more than thirty years, during which time Newman crossed the Tiber. This is one of the most important works of theology I have ever read, and surely one of the most quotable (really on a level with Chesterton, though more by sheer force of intellect than by wit). The crucial insight of the work is that orthodox Christianity is a living creature (the corporeal metaphors of 1 Cor. 3 being particularly appropriate here, I suppose), whose development is dialectical, piecemeal, proceeding by opposition and by argument. He argues against what he terms the “Protestant” reading of Christianity, which abandons history for an abstract revelation of timeless truth, asserting instead the inescapably historical situation of the temporal community called by God to be a new humanity among and for the sake of the world. Historical development, for Newman, grounds and secures Christian doctrine, rather than vice versa. For instance, he writes,

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often (1.7).

It seems to me that the Arian / Athanasian controversy is a good example of this sort of process: the New Testament provides some excellent source material for subordinationist doctrines (John 1 and Philippians 2 are particularly susceptible of this reading), with little clear grounding in the plain sense of the text for which hermeneutic is preferable. Rather, only the supra-biblical (in the qualified sense of “not present in the text”) insight that “Only God can bring us to God,” could finally overcome the existential threat of Arianism. And to assert that the Nicene doctrine was always “hidden” in the text is really no help, for the fact remains that it is a product of fourth century Christians employing a neo-Platonic philosophical grammar and engaging in specific pastoral and didactic controversies: we have no other history to which we might appeal, and so no clear grounds for insisting that other men in other (earlier?) ages could have equally well hit upon what we know today as orthodoxy.

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3 Responses to “Newman and Tradition”

  1. Rowan Williams’ book “Arius: Heresy and Tradition” is a great book on the Arian controversy that dialogues with Newman’s conception of it.

  2. Somewhere in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, MacIntyre says that Newman’s account of tradition is pretty much the same as his own, but that it (Newman’s account) was too embedded in the history of the church for MacIntyre to use it in WJWR.

  3. Yes, that’s right–it was that very comment that brought me to read Newman in the first place. I also recalled that remark when reading the opening of Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures (published as With the Grain of the Universe), in he attempts to distinguish their views of the relationship of theology to philosophy: “In response to the suggestion that his most recent philosophical positions conceal a reassertion of Christianity, MacIntyre declares:

    ‘It is false, both biographically and with respect to the structure of my belief’s. What I now believe philosophically I came to believe very largely before I reacknowledged the truth of Catholic Christianity. And I was only able to respond to the teachings of the Church because I had already learned from Aristotelianism both the nature of the mistakes involved in my earlier rejection of Christianity, and how to understand aright the relation of philosophical argument to theological inquiry. My philosophy, like that of many other Aristotelians, is theistic; but it is as secular in its content as any other.’

    I have no stake in denying that philosophy has a history that can be told in a manner that separates the work of philosophy from theology, or that philosophy as a discipline, particularly in the modern university, has its own canons of excellence. Nor do I think that philosophy has no other purpose than to be a handmaid to theology. Yet the strong distinction MacIntyre maintains between philosophy and theology—such that philosophy represents a secular discipline—does justice neither to the complex relationship between philosophy and theology in Aquinas, the thinker MacIntyre most admires, nor to MacIntyre’s own historicist commitments.”

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