Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 3: “John Henry Newman”

Here are the first two parts of this series:

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory” (6:50)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism” (15:55)

Again, I’m continuing to post these transcripts, even though the audio version is available, because not everyone will have an hour to listen to it.
... the seeds of Modernism had been sown. And looming in the background stood the titanic figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman, (1801-1890). (15:55)

Newman had of course been a prominent Anglican, and he had converted to Rome in 1845. Now Newman was not really a theological liberal, or modernist at heart, but in the process of his conversion to Rome he wrote what was to become a key text for many liberalizing Roman Catholic theologians, both in the modernist crisis, and later, at the time of Vatican II. (16:32)

This was Newman’s “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”. Now Newman’s purpose in this essay was to put forward a new argument for the truth of Roman Catholicism. Prior to Newman, Roman Catholic apologists had maintained that Rome was the unchanging church founded by the apostles and carried on by the early church fathers. That modern Roman dogma and practice accorded precisely with the apostolic and patristic church of the first few centuries, including such things as the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, Rome’s Mariology, etc. Protestantism, by contrast, was marked by continual change and development, and therefore could not be in possession of the truth. (17:25)

Now for any Protestant who knew the history of the first 400 years of Christianity, this Roman Catholic thesis was laughable. Newman perceived this, and turned the argument on its head. “Development,” he argues, “is actually the sign of the fruit.” Ideas are like seeds. When first planted, they have a primitive simplicity about them. Their full meaning and potential are unfolded as they grow, in conflict with opposing ideas. When Christ and his apostles planted the seed of Christianity, therefore, one would expect to see a growing organism, which evolves and changes through the centuries, bringing to maturity more and more of its hidden potential. This, Newman contends, is precisely what we see in the Roman Catholic Church, which, of course, he identified, with the apostolic and patristic church. But, we see no such organic process of growth and development in Protestantism, which is wedded to the sterile and stagnant idea of reproducing first century primitive Christianity. (18:40)

Newman knew that his, for example, with its doctrine of the Virgin’s “Immaculate Conception,” was for Newman, not a betrayal, but a “development,” an unfolding of a seed idea, found in Scripture and the fathers, although made explicit only later. In this way, Newman turned on the edge the Protestant critique that Roman Catholicism did not look much like the church of the apostles or the early fathers. Does an oak tree look philosophy of development could justify all those features of Roman Catholic theology, piety, and worship, which Protestants had historically regarded as betrayals of the early church. Roman Catholic Mariology like an acorn? (19:30)

Now to be fair, Newman recognized that there could be illegitimate developments, corruptions. And he outlined a complex scheme of seven tests by which to distinguish these from proper developments. But in his own mind, he was perfectly convinced that 19th century Roman Catholicism was the historical continuation of first century apostolic Christianity. The early church was the primitive, undeveloped infant; Roman Catholicism is the mature and majestic man. (20:04)

Now Newman’s philosophy of development has won the day in modern Rome. Very few defenders of the old view can now be found. A cursory reading of modern Roman Catholic histories of the church and of theology will reveal Newman’s assumptions at work. It has liberated Roman Catholics from the unenviable burden of trying to prove that everything they believe and practice today was believed and practiced by the apostles (emphasis added). (20:33)

Of course Newman’s development thesis also chimes in with the pervasive evolutionary mindset of 21st century man. Like life itself, church and theology have evolved. (20:47)

Now Newman didn’t write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to justify modernism, but his ideas on how Christianity has changed and developed through the centuries were eventually to give comfort and inspiration to those Roman Catholics who wanted to reject the rigid theology of neo-Thomism, and instead promote modernist thinking. If Newman was right, and Christian doctrine had undergone this long process of development, then why should the church canonize the doctrine of one limited time period, the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century? Could things not develop still further? Could modernist thinking not be the development needed to meet the challenges of the 19th and 20th centuries? (21:42)


  1. Hi John,
    Thanks for doing this series on Nick Needham's lecture.

    What would you say is the formal accepted definition of "modernism"?

    I spent some time looking it up and googling it with formal definition and have a good idea, but it seems hard to pin down, and it can be applied to any thing and everything new into the future in seeking to keep "updating religion" to fit in with the "modern world".

    All of these things seem to be involved in it:
    The Enlightenment
    separation of church and state
    Textual Criticism with liberal assumptions of redactors, layers of editions, false naming of authors (Pseudonomity), etc.
    that religion is man's creation of some kind of hope, etc.
    Science as the top authority

    It seems that there are 3 main camps in Today's Roman Catholicism:

    1. The official magisterium and scholars, the Pope, etc.
    2. The internet and popular apologists who are largely former Protestants who disagree with all the liberal scholarship at the magisterium level (against Raymond Brown, etc.)
    3. The "Rad Trads"- those various groups that believe Vatican 2 was wrong and all the Popes from that point on are false popes. (includes Sedavecantism (sp. ?) = "the chair is empty")

    The first two don't admit there has been change; but the last group admits there has been a change and therefore, believe it is wrong.

    How could it be infallible though, if a mistake and change was made?

  2. "Now Newman’s philosophy of development has won the day in modern Rome. Very few defenders of the old view can now be found."

    It is hard for me to see how Rome could ever, with straight face, return to the pre-Vatican II model. They are now stuck with Newmanian modernism whether they liked it or not.

    And btw, when Newman defected from the Anglican church in the 1840s, some angry Protestant writers actually speculated that he was a closet liberal in high-churchian clothes, and that his "doctrine of development" had an odor of infidel relativism - see for example George S. Faber here:

    A detailed contemporary dissection of Newman's ideas here, by Anglican church historian Henry H. Milman: