Tuesday, April 03, 2018

To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant

To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant

Cardinal Newman's catchy one-liner is a popular slogan among Catholic apologists and evangelical converts to Rome. But I'd like to consider that slogan in context.

1. The oft-quoted slogan comes from his celebrated Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine. That, however, was issued in two different editions (1845; 1878), 33 years apart. Newman revised his original essay, and it can be instructive to compare the two different editions. It would be a useful exercise for someone to display both editions in parallel columns, to facilitate comparison. For instance, unless I missed it, the slogan doesn't appear in the original edition of Newman's essay, but only in the revised edition. 


2. One problem with Newman's claim is that he couldn't foresee the future. His past isn't my past. In the essay he boldly issued the following disclaimer:

Of course I do not deny the abstract possibility of extreme changes. The substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity,—superseding the original, by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons, till, according to the familiar illustration, the "blade" and the "handle" are alternately renewed, and identity is lost without the loss of continuity. It is possible; but it must not be assumed. The onus probandi is with those who assert what it is unnatural to expect; to be just able to doubt is no warrant for disbelieving.

At the time he said it that was a throwaway concession, because he didn't feel threatened by that hypothetical defeater, since he was writing from a retrospective rather than prospective viewpoint. He knew church history up to his own time, so he felt safe about floating that "abstract possibility". But of course, my retrospective viewpoint begins at a later date than Newman's, and the Catholicism of the last 70 years makes Newman's statement about "substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity,—superseding the original, by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons" painfully prescient. 

Mind you, I think as of 1845, and long before, the Roman church was a counterfeit. But at the moment I'm just considering Newman on his own terms. Since 1845, the church of Rome has introduced many theological innovations and undergone radical change, viz, the Immaculate Conception (1854), Papal infallibility (1870) Assumption of Mary (1950), the historical-critical method (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943), theistic evolution (Humani generis, 1950), Vatican II, hopeful universalism, pacifism, the Francis pontificate. 

Likewise, modern Catholic church historians concede the historical fiction of a 1C monoepiscopate in Rome. 

3. Then there's awkward the question of how objectively Newman interprets church history. As one scholar notes:

Newman's exemplars of Catholic truth in "Causes of Arianism" are no surprise. When explaining syncatabasis, he writes:

This doctrine, expounded by St. Athanasius, confirmed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas, is in tone and drift very unlike Arianism, which had no sympathy with the mysticism and poetry of Plato; but it had a direct resemblance to the Semi-Arian edition of the heresy, and, if put forward without its necessary safeguards and corrections, as we find them in those great doctors, was likely to open the way  to it. (TT 207). 

Thanks to those doctors, spoken of as if they all say the same thing, Newman thought the danger of Platonic language was overcome. It is, however, likely, that Athanasius had more in common with the Platonizing pre-Nicene Alexandrians who taught him than with later Latins who read (and misread) him.

In his criticisms of the first translation John Kaye uncovered Newman's Latinized (or Lateranized) depiction of the Trinity. However, during 1842-4, it was only in the annotations that Newman attempted to tidy up the differences between the Alexandrian East and Latin West. Only within the annotations could a composite Athanasius be seen. In 1881, within the translation itself, made with scholastic doctrines of God in mind, a confused Athanasius is seen. 

A comparison of the latter translation with the earlier gives insight into the mind of a convert still after many years trying to explain himself to his adopted Church, as he did in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, but now with more confidence in Roman theology. In November 1876, when Newman was considering in what form to republish his Athanasius volume, Pusey wrote to him: "If you could have revised your translation and notes (not that I know that there is anything to revise) it would have been pleasant to have printed them in common; but your authorities might not have like it" (LD xxviii.138n3). Here the Anglican Pusey misunderstands the Catholic Newman because he assumes "your authorities" would prevent Newman publishing jointly with Pusey. The authorities were at work on Newman's translation in ways Pusey did not understand, however, for his friend was aligning Athanasius with the Thomistic revival. This is the real irony: Newman, as a Catholic, maintained he was a historian not a theologian, yet, by the 1870s, he was less interested in the historical Athanasius than in Catholic theology. His revised translation exhibits what Gerald McCool has described, referring to Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), as "the serene confection of the nineteenth-century neo-Thomists that scholastic philosophy was a single metaphysical system, common to all the scholastic doctors, and that scholastic philosophy cold gather up, preserve, and represent the essence of patristic thought which it has superseded". B. King, Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteeth-Century England (Oxford 2009), 246-47. 

4. Returning to Newman's essay, here's a statement he made in the original edition: 

That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine; but there is a determination which is difficult. It is difficult to complete, to finish from history that picture of the divine religion which, even in its outlines, is sufficient to condemn Protestantism, though not sufficient to imprint upon our minds the living image of Christianity. Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge. It is the very fault we find with youths under education that they use words without meaning, that they are wanting in precision and distinction, that they are ignorant what they know and what they do not know. We account this a great defect of mind, which must be overcome. Now our difficulty lies in getting beyond this half knowledge of Christianity, if we make history our teacher; in obtaining from it views serviceable, read, for belief and practice, whole views, definite answers to definite questions, critical decisions between truth and error, explanations of its own variations, measures of its meaning. History is not a creed or a catechism; it gives lessons rather than rules; it does not bring out clearly upon the canvass the details which were familiar to the ten thousand minds of whose combined movements and fortunes it treats. Such is it from its very nature; nor can the defect ever fully be remedied. This must be admitted: at the same time, principles may be laid down with considerable success as keys to its various notices, enabling us to arrange and reconcile them [1845 edition].

Compare that to what he says in the revised edition:

That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine, but to retort is a poor reply in controversy to a question of fact, and whatever be the violence or the exaggeration of writers like Chillingworth, if they have raised a real difficulty, it may claim a real answer, and we must determine whether on the one hand Christianity is still to represent to us a definite teaching from above, or whether on the other its utterances have been from time to time so strangely at variance, that we are necessarily thrown back on our own judgment individually to determine, what the revelation of God is, or rather if in fact there is, or has been, any revelation at all [1878 edition].

Notice how the Catholic Newman bowdlerized the Anglican Newman to expurgate the damaging admissions he made in the original edition. No more "Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge…Now our difficulty lies in getting beyond this half knowledge of Christianity, if we make history our teacher; in obtaining from it views serviceable, read, for belief and practice, whole views, definite answers to definite questions, critical decisions between truth and error, explanations of its own variations, measures of its meaning. History is not a creed or a catechism; it gives lessons rather than rules; it does not bring out clearly upon the canvass the details which were familiar to the ten thousand minds of whose combined movements and fortunes it treats. Such is it from its very nature; nor can the defect ever fully be remedied."

For someone who wishes to justify his position by appeal to church history, you can see how he'd have second thoughts about the unguarded candor of his initial formulation. 

5. Here's Newman's slogan in a fuller setting:

And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this...To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant...And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period.

i) Different ways of wording the same allegation. However, one problem with the allegation is how it arbitrarily discounts Protestant church history, as if historical Christianity exists in a parallel universe where that never happened. Yet last year we commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Admittedly, Newman didn't pen his slogan in 2017, but Catholic apologists and converts to Rome continue to quote it and apply it to the contemporary scene. 

Why isn't 500 years of church history part of historical Christianity? Imagine if we cut out the 500 years before the Reformation when writing about historical Christianity. 

ii) Perhaps, though, the objection will be that Newman is talking about the past, not the future. If so, does this mean we should dismiss the history of Roman Catholicism from 1845 to 2018 and beyond? 

6. In the same essay, Newman says:

Accordingly, some writers have gone on to give reasons from history for their refusing to appeal to history. They aver that, when they come to look into the documents and literature of Christianity in times past, they find its doctrines so variously represented, and so inconsistently maintained by its professors, that, however natural it be à priori, it is useless, in fact, to seek in history the matter of that Revelation which has been vouchsafed to mankind; that they cannot be historical Christians if they would. They say, in the words of Chillingworth, "There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age:"—Hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine. This is a fair argument, if it can be maintained, and it brings me at once to the subject of this Essay.

Yet Chillingworth's words seem as true or truer today than when he said that back in the 16C. Just compare the antimodernist papacy of Pius IX or Leo XIII to the developments between Pius XII and Francis. 

7. Now consider Newman's slogan in contrast to other things he says in the course of the essay:

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines, who reconcile and bring into shape the exuberant phenomena under consideration, by cutting and casting away as corruptions all usages, ways, opinions, and tenets, which have not the sanction of primitive times. They maintain that history first presents to us a pure Christianity in East and West, and then a corrupt; and then of course their duty is to draw the line between what is corrupt and what is pure, and to determine the dates at which the various changes from good to bad were introduced. Such a principle of demarcation, available for the purpose, they consider they have found in the dictum of Vincent of Lerins, that revealed and Apostolic doctrine is "quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus," a principle infallibly separating, on the whole field of history, authoritative doctrine from opinion, rejecting what is faulty, and combining and forming a theology. That "Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all," certainly promises a solution of the perplexities, an interpretation of the meaning, of history.

Such is the rule of historical interpretation which has been professed in the English school of divines; and it contains a majestic truth, and offers an intelligible principle, and wears a reasonable air. It is congenial, or, as it may be said, native to the Anglican mind, which takes up a middle position, neither discarding the Fathers nor acknowledging the Pope. It lays down a simple rule by which to measure the value of every historical fact, as it comes, and thereby it provides a bulwark against Rome, while it opens an assault upon Protestantism. Such is its promise; but its difficulty lies in applying it in particular cases. The rule is more serviceable in determining what is not, than what is Christianity; it is irresistible against Protestantism, and in one sense indeed it is irresistible against Rome also, but in the same sense it is irresistible against England. It strikes at Rome through England. It admits of being interpreted in one of two ways: if it be narrowed for the purpose of disproving the catholicity {12} of the Creed of Pope Pius, it becomes also an objection to the Athanasian; and if it be relaxed to admit the doctrines retained by the English Church, it no longer excludes certain doctrines of Rome which that Church denies. It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

This general defect in its serviceableness has been heretofore felt by those who appealed to it. It was said by one writer; "The Rule of Vincent is not of a mathematical or demonstrative character, but moral, and requires practical judgment and good sense to apply it. For instance, what is meant by being 'taught always'? does it mean in every century, or every year, or every month? Does 'everywhere' mean in every country, or in every diocese? and does 'the Consent of Fathers' require us to produce the direct testimony of every one of them? How many Fathers, how many places, how many instances, constitute a fulfilment of the test proposed? It is, then, from the nature of the case, a condition which never can be satisfied as fully as it might have been. It admits of various and unequal application in various instances; and what degree of application is enough, must be decided by the same principles which guide us in the conduct of life, which determine us in politics, or trade, or war, which lead us to accept Revelation at all, (for which we have but probability to show at most,) nay, to believe in the existence of an intelligent Creator."

Notice that he rejects the Vincentian canon. He repudiates the threefold criterion of catholicity as a hyperbolic idealization. It's quite ironic that the man who said "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" is the very same man whose appeal to historical theology flunks the triple test of antiquity, unanimity, and ecumenicity. Moral of the story: a Catholic convert or apologist has to choose between two divergent slogans: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" or "What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all", for Vicentian continuity is antithetical to the theory of development. Case in point:

In this connection I would like to relate a small episode that I think can cast much light on the situation. Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative…”Tradition” was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg…had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into haven was unknown before the 5C; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the “apostolic tradition. And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand “tradition” strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts…But if you conceive of “tradition” as the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent “remembering” (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it has not caught sight of previously and was already handed down in the original Word,” J. Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius, n.d.), 58-59.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. Very insightful.

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  2. Interesting and enlightening stuff.

    They say, in the words of Chillingworth, "There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age:"—Hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine. This is a fair argument, if it can be maintained, and it brings me at once to the subject of this Essay.

    Exactly. That gets to the heart of the issue. Unfortunately, I don't the time or patience to read all of Newman's Essay (approx. 445 pages) where he attempts to answer that problem.

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  3. To be deep in Catholicism is to become fantastical.

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  4. Well, here's a great article:

    http://www.justforcatholics.org/11.05.pdf

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