McGrath writes about the “seriously and irredeemably inaccurate” historical and theological analyses that John Henry Cardinal Newman did of Luther’s doctrine of Justification. That assessment — “seriously and irredeemably inaccurate” — is based on his review of Neman’s 1937 Lectures on Justification.
Now, McGrath is not the be-all and end-all of English theology. But neither is he a slouch. And since he is famous for writing and re-writing various editions of his books, fixing mistakes, and charging more money for them each time, I can’t tell you if this information appeared in earlier editions of his work (and thus, he’s had opportunities to reflect on what he’s saying here, and correct it). But given that this is in the “Third Edition” of this work, you can be pretty sure that he’s comfortable with this assessment. He’s had three opportunities now to tweak what’s in this book.
Newman is, of course, a hero to many of today’s generation of militant Roman Catholics. Newman’s theory of “the development of doctrine” provides the underpinning for the modern (Vatican II) version of Roman Catholic doctrine. Of course, Roman Catholics expect that Newman was right, or substantially right, about most of the things he said.
But on the contrary, Newman’s Lectures were “seriously and irredeemably inaccurate” in many respects, and McGrath documents this thoroughly.
McGrath says of Newman:
Newman’s theology of justification rests primarily upon a historical analysis of the doctrines of justification associated with Luther (and to a much lesser extent, with Melanchthon), with Roman Catholic theologians such as Bellarmine and Vasquez, and with the Caroline Divines. It is therefore of the utmost importance to appreciate that in every case, and supremely in the case of Luther himself, Newman’s historico-theological analysis appears to be seriously and irredeemably inaccurate. In other words, Newman’s construction of a via media doctrine of justification seems to rest upon a fallacious interpretation of both the extremes to which he was opposed, as well as of the Caroline divinity of the seventeenth century, which he regarded as a prototype of his own position. (296-297)Of this third error, which essentially was recent Anglican history at the time he wrote, McGrath says, “Newman’s claims to present an ‘Anglican’ theology of justification appears to involve the unwarranted restriction of ‘Anglican’ sources to the ‘holy living’ divines, with the total exclusion of several earlier generations of Anglican divines - men such as Andrewes, Beveridge, Davenant, Downham, Hooker, Jewel, Reynolds, Ussher and Whitaker. The case for the ‘Anglican’ provenance of Newman’s via media doctrine of justification thus rests upon the teachings of a small, and unrepresentative group of theologians operating over a period of a mere thirty or so years, which immediately followed the greatest discontinuity within English history — the period of the Commonwealth.” (283)
“Newman simply did not understand the Tridentine doctrine of Justification”
McGrath says “Newman’s superficial engagement with Roman Catholic theologies of justification cannot be allowed to pass without comment.” Newman only superficially interacted with the works of Bellarmine and Vasquez, “forcing us to base our tentative conclusions upon the few passing statements made in the Lectures in general. Newman clearly believes the Roman Catholic teaching to be that humans are justified on account of their renewal. Like many contemporary Evangelicals, Newman appears to have assumed that the notion of factive justification implies that the analytic divine verdict of justification is based upon the inherent righteousness of the individual achieved through moral renewal — whereas the reference is, of course, to the infusion of divine righteousness which is the cause of subsequent renewal, and is not identical with with that renewal itself” (pgs 299-300, emphases in original). McGrath says that overall, Newman’s assessment of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification in these Lectures “suggests (though it is not conclusive) that Newman simply did not understand the Tridentine doctrine of justification.”
Newman’s faulty understanding of Luther
But most glaringly, Newman makes “a series of puzzling assertions concerning Luther, of which I shall note a few, and indicate the responses which any Oxford undergraduate studying Luther’s works for the Final Honor School of Theology would be able to make:
1. “He found Christians in bondage to their works and observances … he left them in bondage to their feelings”. This is untenable. Luther’s theology cruces is aimed precisely at any form of reliance upon feelings. Luther has no doubt that theology must relate to experience, but the nature of that relationship is construed in terms of the primacy of theology over experience.At this point, McGrath, terming Newman’s handling of Luther “inept”, looks for several factors that may “help us view Newman’s inept treatment of Luther in a more kindly manner…” These include the fact that Luther’s works had not fully been translated into English, and that the existing English translations were not accurate. He also suggests that Newman was viewing Luther “through the lens of the evangelicalism that he knew within the Church of England during the 1830’s”.
2. “He weaned them from seeking assurance of salvation in standing ordinances, at the cost of teaching them that a personal consciousness of it was promised to every one who believed.” Once more, Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’ flatly contradicts this point. For Luther, the grounds of Christian certainty most emphatically do not lie in any “personal consciousness of salvation”, but only in the objective promises of God. For Luther, security comes form looking outside of oneself to the gracious promises of God delivered and secured in Christ, and made visible and tangible in the sacraments. Luther argues that the essence of sin is that humanity is … “bent in on itself”, in that it seeks both the grounds of salvation and reassurance in itself, rather than in Christ.
3. “For outward signs he substituted inward.” I assume that this is to be interpreted as meaning that Luther puts personal consciousness of salvation above the sacraments. Precisely the opposite is true. Luther consistently declares that the sacraments are objective signs and reassurances of the promises of God, which are to be trusted and relied upon irrespective of the personal feelings and emotions of the believer.
4. “…for reverence towards the church [he substituted] contemplation of self”. Newman here seems to have bought into the Enlightenment view that Luther is a rugged and lonely individualist, who spurned the church in order to contemplate himself. The popular view of Luther’s doctrine of justification is that it obviates the need for church, sacraments and ministry. Luther’s view on this matter was, of course, rather different (301-302).
There is, quite frankly, more of this, and more egregious, and I hope to get into it in a future post.