Friday, 29 April 2011

"If ever there was a safe truth, it is this..."

During our examination of Bl. John Henry's writing 'On the Development of Christian Doctrine', we have seen that he has concluded that it is reasonable to expect developments to occur in the doctrines of Christianity, because it is a heavenly idea which must be comprehensible to earthly minds i.e. it must gradually be understood, being too 'big' an idea for the human mind to take in all-at-once. Further, it is because of this necessary component of development that an infallible authority must exist as part of this Revelation, in order to judge between genuine developments and false ones, that is, corruptions.

Newman, thinking deeply
 So far, all of the old Cardinal's work has been theoretical, along the lines of "it is reasonable to expect that...". What about the empirical facts? Do the observations fit the workings out? Being Newman, he sees fit to start this section (as with every previous section) with a few principles to bear in mind before we proceed...

First, this investigation should be treated like any other: “Thus most men take Newton's theory of gravitation for granted, because it is generally received, and use it without rigidly testing it first, each for himself." I suspect Newman knew that people approach religious matters like this one with a predetermined mindset of suspiscion, and so is trying to call attention to that hypocrisy. Of course, we all know this attitude is as common today as it was 160 years ago, if not more so.

Next, we must go about collecting evidence, not seperating it. Once piece of evidence may not be enough to make the case by itself, but when it is gathered together with other, similarly 'sized' examples, then we begin to see that the facts follow the theory. Finally, we must take account of a wider context when looking at the individual evidences. Newman uses icons as an example, by arguing that a fully formed, or even nascent, theology of icons was not likely while the persecuted Church was surrounded by pagan idolatry (though it's worth noting that the practice of iconography began as early as the 2nd Century).

So, when we look for a church with developing doctrine, overseen by an infallible authority, actually fulfilling this theory in history, where should we look? The Anglican Newman wrote that there was only once place to go - the Catholic Church. From it's ancient Latin and Greek roots down to the present day, only this church, Newman observed, has lived and grown along the lines we have come to reasonably expect.

For one thing, only its system of doctrine is the 'many-sided' object we looked at in a previous post - only this church has gone about collecting doctrines together, so that one truth supports another. For example, "The Incarnation is the archetype of the Sacramental principle*. From the Sacramental principle come the Sacraments properly so called. Of the Sacraments, Baptism is developed into Confirmation on the one hand; into Penance, Purgatory, and Indulgences on the other." Needless to say, Newman gives a few dozen examples, but these will suffice. Further, even its critics insist on the 'wholeness' and integrity of this system of teachings, if only because it means they can opt out of it entirely.
*(Newman just expects you to know what he means by this; no explanation is forthcoming. However, he's simply referring to the meaning of the word 'Sacrament' - an encounter through the senses with a divine, invisible reality. This is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.)

What about about other churches? They have systems of doctrine, too, after all. Could one of them be the legitimate development of the Church which Jesus founded all those years ago? The Anglican Newman is not convinced: "If ever there was a safe truth, it is this...To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. This is shown in the determination already referred to of [their] dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men would never have put it aside, unless they despaired of it."

From the first, he goes on, the Catholic Church's "teaching looked towards these dogmas, afterwards recognised and defined, with a determinate advance in the direction of them." Like what? Again, there are numerous examples given, from the Canon of the New Testament, to the Lord's Nature, and Infant Baptism. We'll look in more depth at the dogma which began our, and Newman's, investigation - the Papacy.

St. Ignatius and the lions (not of Judah)

Newman observes that the papacy remained a "mysterious privilege, an unfulfilled prophecy" until the time and circumstances were right for it to be brought into effect. "For St. Ignatius [in the early 2nd century] to speak of Popes when it was a matter for Bishops would have been like sending in the army to arrest a housebreaker." The authority of the popes remained undeveloped during this time because of the persecution the Church suffered (St. Ignatius wrote of the authority of bishops as he was on his way to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts), as did the New Testament and the Creed (which we accept without a problem).

Neither should the time lapse of a few centuries before a Papacy we would recognise grew into its full stature bother us, because if the Bible shows us anything, it's that God always keeps His promises, but in His own sweet time. Newman compares this relatively short period to the eight hundred years between Jacob's prophecy of Judah's offspring being kings of Israel to it actually being fulfilled, during which interval we hear next to nothing of the tribe of Judah [Gen 49:8].

The words and acts of the early Church speak strongly of a latent, papal authority-in-waiting. St. Clement (the fourth pope) writes to the church in Corinth, while it is without a bishop, to settle some of its internal disputes, and he was never accused of interfering in something which didn't concern him. During the many doctrinal disputes which were part of the early Church's life, Rome was the destination of deposed bishops and heretics alike, who streamed to Rome to plead their case before its Bishop, the Pope. There is no equivalent traffic to any other See, not even Jerusalem, the birthplace of the Church. Finally, there is the praise heaped upon the Roman church, and its bishop, since the earliest times, from St. Iraneaus in the 2nd century, to this from St. Jerome in the 5th: "I am associated in communion with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. I know that on that rock, the Church is built."

Still need historical proof? This is from the very end of the book, and it's awesome: "If there is a form of Christianity now in the world which is accused of gross superstition, of borrowing its rites and customs from the heathen, a religion such, that men look at a convert to it with a feeling which no other denomination raises viz. with curiosity, suspicion, fear, disgust...[if Christian communions separated from it] are but local; if they continually subdivide, and it remains one, if some of its members are degenerate and corrupt, and are surpassed in conscientiousness and in virtue by the very heretics whom it condemns;—if heresies are rife and bishops negligent within its own pale, and if there is but one Voice for whose decisions the peoples wait with trust, one Name and one See to which they look with hope, and that name Peter, and that see Rome;—such a religion is not unlike the Christianity of the first to sixth Centuries.” So...what does the theory anticipate, and the history show? "If there must be, and are in fact, developments in Christianity, the doctrines proposed by successive Popes and Councils, are they."


  1. You seem to write quite frequently on Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman. I love it! You don't blog very often, but it makes the (almost monthly) visits here well worth the wait!

    P.s. I don't mean for you to think that your other posts are bland or anything. Everything on this blog is a wonderfully enjoyable read. Continue to go at your own pace. You have no complaints from me!

    God Bless.

  2. Evan, thanks for your very kind comments. I've been working lots recently, so haven't had the time. Hopefully I'll be able to post again in the next week. You a fan of Bl. JHN? I've got a few other talks I've done on the great ol' Cardinal that I may work up into a post. You're welcome here any time!