Friday, December 02, 2011

Newman, “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”, and Rome’s Foundational Assumption

A “willing suspension of disbelief”

The following citation came up in recent comments, citing John Henry Newman’s defense of the early papacy:
While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope. . . . St. Peter's prerogative would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiastical matters became the cause of ascertaining it. . . . When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.
All of this, however, is based on Newman’s foundational assumption. Newman, of course, makes historical concessions, when he says [relying on the Notre Dame publication of his “Theory”], “I shall admit that there are in fact certain apparent variations in teaching, which have to be explained; thus I shall begin, but then I shall attempt to explain them to the exculpation of that teaching in point of unity, directness, and consistency” (7) … “Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. (p. 9)

There are two ways to approach these “inconsistencies” and “alterations”. Genuine history and Biblical studies will seek to understand (a) what the biblical writers understood and sought to convey, (b) who the readers were, and (c) what the “cultural context” was that shaped the writers’ and readers’ understanding. To borrow the words of a famous Watergate-era senator, we seek to understand “what the early church knew, and when they knew it”.

This contrasts with Newman’s understanding, which posits, “St. Peter's prerogative would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiastical matters became the cause of ascertaining it”. But in fact, no such thing existed – no human being understood this “prerogative” until “bishops” of Rome, made wealthy by Roman emperors, had the power and wealth and freedom to assert authority outside of their small circle.

The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic, the backward-looking method of which Newman followed, does the opposite thing: it takes a current or existing Roman Catholic doctrine or dogma, then “proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources” (Aiden Nichols, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” pg 253).

The raw, overpowering weakness of the Roman Catholic hermeneutic is that its foundation is this assumption. As Newman put it
Till positive reasons grounded on facts are adduced to the contrary, the most natural hypotheses, the most agreeable to our mode of proceeding in parallel cases, and that which takes precedence of all others, is to consider that the society of Christians, which the Apostles left on earth, were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion, argues a real continuity of doctrine; that, as Christianity began by manifesting itself as of a certain shape and bearing to all mankind, therefore it went on so to manifest itself; and that the more, considering that prophecy had already determined that it was to be a power visible in the world and sovereign over it, characters which are accurately fulfilled in that historical Christianity to which we commonly give the name. It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.
Writing perhaps 75 years after this, Adrian Fortescue (“The Early Papacy,” pg 26-27) writes
Even the most fundamental dogmas rest ultimately on the teaching of the Catholic Church today, even, for instance, that of the Holy Trinity. All we suppose, before we come to the Church, is that our Lord Jesus Christ was a man sent by God and whom we must follow if we wish to serve God in the proper way; that he founded one visible Church, to which his followers should belong; that this Church is, as a matter of historic fact, the communion of Rome (not, however, supposing anything about the papacy, but supposing only the visible unity and historic continuity). This much must be presupposed and does not rest on the authority of the [Roman Catholic] Church. All else does.
Newman assumes that there was “communion with the Pope”, and that it “was necessary for Catholicity [and] would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred.” This “communion” is merely assumed.

As John Reumann noted, there are historical gaps precisely in the places where Vatican I proclaimed “immediate jurisdiction”, and where Vatican II proclaimed “this hierarchically constituted society”. John Meier said, and I’ve quoted him many times, “A papacy that cannot give a credible historical account of its own origins can hardly hope to be a catalyst for unity among divided Christians”. In fact the papacy’s account of its own origins is merely a fiction, the Roman Catholic maintenance of which relies on what is essentially a willing suspension of disbelief. Such a process works to enable us to enjoy fiction; as a “foundation for the faith,” I find it quite lacking.

This is why the most recent scholarship, an effort to understand “what the early church knew and when they knew it” is so necessary. This is why an early primary document source such as The Shepherd of Hermas in conjunction with Scriptural and other evidence for house-church networks and also leadership structures, both Biblical and cultural, and most importantly, exegetical studies of Roman Catholic proof-texts, are so important. All of these decisively affirm the notion that Rome’s presupposition of a divinely-instituted hierarchy, situated in Rome, with which communion was necessary, is a fiction.

See this link for more information on how Newman’s “theory of development” rests upon the logical fallacy of “amphiboly”.


  1. "Peter - whom the Lord chose first and upon whom He built His church - did not insolently claim anything to himself. Nor did he arrogantly assume anything when Paul later disputed with him about circumcision. He did not say that he held the primacy and that he needed to be obeyed by novices and those lately come!" (emphasis added.)

    St. Cyprian.

  2. "Newman, “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”, and Rome’s Foundational Assumption"

    The force of the arguments, while more than sufficient for many, simply do not penetrate the heads and hearts of the Called to Communion Crowd, Dave Armstrong, and other Catholic epologists.

  3. Episcopacy established in second century. But according to Jerome not of "veritate dominicae dispositionis."

    Re: Newman on development:
    "What finally led Dr. Newman to be satisfied with Romanism, which has confessedly a multitude of doctrines unknown to the primitive church, was the principle of development. He was far down the hill, no doubt, long before; but that plunged him into its waters. Now in the Person of Christ, and the value of His work before God, there can be no development. He is the same — and so is the efficacy of His work — yesterday, to-day, and for ever. I or Dr. Newman may grow in the knowledge of Christ. Faithful zeal may resist and dispel errors which arise, and by which Satan seeks to cloud the truth and overthrow faith; but there cannot be a development of the infinitely perfect and completely revealed Person of the Son of God, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. Dr. Newman may find (in spite of Bishop Bull, and as Pettau has admitted) that: the ante-Nicene fathers were worse than obscure as to the divinity of the blessed Lord; but Paul is not, who declares that the fulness of the Godhead (theotes not theiotes, that is, proper Deity, not divine character simply) dwells in Him bodily; John is not, who declares, He is the true God, was with God, and was God; and the New Testament, so plainly and blessedly making Christ known to us, is not. There He is Immanuel, Jesus — Jehovah the Saviour. He may rejoice that the Nicene Council re-affirmed this truth. But to say that this was development, and that the church of God for three centuries did not know the true divinity of Christ is high treason against Christ and the truth. It is the folly of a mind who, to excuse itself and make out a point, gives up all fundamental truth — does not possess it. It may lead to Romanism — I dare say it does; I am sure it does not lead to God. The apostle tells us, on this very head, "Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that therefore which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father." There might be the rejection of heresies, as Arianism, whose source was in Platonism and philosophy, or of other similar evil doctrines; but it was not to develop but to maintain what was from the beginning. So the apostle Paul, "But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned, . . . knowing of whom thou hast learned them." I admit no development: that is popery."