Saint John Henry Newman: A Theologian for our Time
Of all the theologians I have become acquainted with over the last twenty years, Saint John Henry Newman has surprised me the most. I would argue that the four greatest theologians since the New Testament are Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint John Henry Newman, and Benedict XVI (Ratzinger). In the average book on theology, three of these four are mentioned with greater regularity. Yet, Saint John Henry Newman is a theologian whose insights need to be rediscovered by more of the Church’s faithful. Specifically, I would recommend two works for those new to the thought of Newman (besides his autobiography: Apologia Pro Vita Sua). The first is An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, the second is “On Consulting the Faithful.”
Newman was a 19th century English-speaking theologian who became a Roman Catholic from Anglicanism. As a beloved Anglican bishop, he shocked British society by becoming Catholic during a time when Catholicism was still taboo in England. Newman’s study of history, particularly the Church Fathers, was instrumental in this journey and the eventual crafting of his work on the development of doctrine. In this essay he notes that ideas change, whether within the individual or a community. Some changes are developments and others are corruption; some have continuity with their past and others have discontinuity. While applying this to doctrine, he provides seven notes or criteria for determining development or corruption. It is not my goal to summarize each here but rather hopefully spark your interest.
The Preservation of Type (like an infant bird developing into an adult bird and not a fish)
Continuity of Principles (the initial principle/idea is not lost)
Power of Assimilation (the ability to absorb that which is compatible with the gospel from other cultures)
Anticipation of its Future (the development is seen earlier in its infancy)
Conservative Action upon its Past (retains what came before)
Chronic Vigor (endures)
Newman’s article “On Consulting the Faithful” in matters of doctrine is a bit more challenging due to its heavy use of Latin. Be sure to have Google translates standing by to assist you if necessary. As you read it, consider the following questions: What is meant by consulting? Who are the faithful? What are examples of this process? What do these examples and principles mean for us today?
Newman’s memorial is on October 9th. Whether you are a theology teacher, pastor, or someone that loves to read theology, I encourage you get to know this great saint and theologian. Spend some time with his work. Explore his seven notes and the notion of consulting. Pray with his prayers and meditations. Read his novels. Imitate his holiness.
Saint John Henry Newman, Pray for us.