Newman’s historical concession

A commenter wrote:

I was not aware that Newman concedes the point that there was no bishop in Rome during that period and I am surprised to hear that! Could you possibly reference that for me?

I’m working with the 1989 edition, published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Newman (p. 12) in discussing the Rule of Vincent of Lerins (what was believed always, everywhere, by all — which he single-handedly dismissed) is quoting an imaginary Anglican interlocutor on the discrepancies in teaching from the time of the early church to his time in the 19th century:

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)

He is speaking of those Anglicans who “maintain that history first presents to us a pure Christianity in East and West, and then a corrupt;” (10), and then suggests that “their duty is to draw the line between what is corrupt and what is pure, to determine the dates at which the various changes from good to bad were introduced.” He brings up Vincent’s rule, “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus”.

He then mockingly cites this imaginary interlocutor: “What there is not the shadow of a reason for saying that the Fathers held, what has not the faintest pretensions of being a Catholic truth, is this, that St. Peter or his successors were and are universal Bishops, that they have the whole of Christendom for their one diocese in a way in which other Apostles and Bishops had and have not.” (13)

He says this is “Most true, if, in order that a doctrine be considered Catholic, must be formally stated by the Fathers generally from the first. He also allows “But on the same understanding, the doctrine also of the apostolical succesion in the episcopal order “has not the faintest pretensions of being a Catholic truth.” (13)

Newman’s theory takes for granted these “certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in [the church’s] doctrine and its worship.” (9) That’s why he has to articulate this “theory.” As a Presbyterian, I’m not a person who holds that the “development” of “apostolical succession in the episcopal order” is a “catholic truth” in the first place.

This same commenter suggested, in response to my long posting on recent historical studies of the early papacy that, “The burden of proof lies with the party who’s making the assertion, does it not? Without providing a “proof” or “clear/conclusive demonstration” that your assessment of things is indeed accurate, your position is just that- your position. My conscience cannot be bound by what I understand to be another man’s opinion.”

Newman’s theory is that it is safe to assume that “the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ 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.” (5) But what evidence does he himself have for this assertion? What “burden of proof” is required to keep this “safe assumption” alive?

The rest of Newman’s work seems to be “after-the-fact” explanations of how, one “doctrine” or another was changed and yet remains the same. In fact, his response to the lack of historical evidence for a historical papacy is, “no doctrine is defined till it is violated.” (151)

Is it ok for this commenter, (and for Newman), simply to make an assumption, and then to assert that that assumption is correct without any burden of proof to show that somehow, development of the episcopacy was somehow “divinely instituted.” And further, for Rome to “bind the consciences” of all its adherents. (And by extension, to claim that those outside its fold are somehow lacking in “the fullness of the faith.”)

But when any historical underpinnings for this very assumption are removed, is there not reason for those making this assumption to really give some evidence on their own behalf? Are you willing to “bind your conscience” on an opinion and an assumption that has no historical foundation?

That’s is the gist of Newman’s great theory, his answer for why the early papacy was invisible during the earliest centuries.

“No one had challenged it, and therefore it hadn’t been clearly defined.”

That, frankly, doesn’t hold any water, especially not in the light of the historical evidence that I’ve cited below.

I’ll remind you, too, that we are not asked to make any allowances for “development” in the life and death of Christ. That the resurrection was being preached by the apostles in the year that it happened is no longer in question by any scholars — Evangelical or Catholic or hostile and atheist. All agree to this historical fact. And it is a fact that Peter preached:

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. … Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. … Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Here we have history and doctrine rolled all into one. And yet, there is not a word, from Peter or any of the others that “And I have been left in charge.” One would think that, if it were true, such a statement would have been important.

Again, as I’ve posted below, Newman’s “theory” has a defeater: “the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered.” (121)

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

3 replies on “Newman’s historical concession”

  1. John-

    You originally wrote:

    “The only thing you (herbert) have is a presupposition, with only threadbare, if not nonexistent historical evidence that there was anything at all like even a bishop in Rome. (Newman concedes this.)”

    I am not able to see how the information in this post substantiates your initial claim. I can’t even come up with some awkward formulation of these references which could be misconstrued in such a way as to be understood as a concession on Newman’s part that there was nothing like a bishop in Rome.

    Then again, I have no formal training in philosophy or apologetics (not to mention the fact that I’m just beginning to read Newman’s essay!). So, quite frankly, though I am the one who initially commented and questioned some points in your previous post, I’m sure I’m not in a position to speak too soundly on this topic. I’m not running away from a discussion. I would be happy to continue to discuss things via private email. But I am simply speaking as a lay person doing what I can to understand and explore the faith that I profess… and I want to be VERY clear about that.

    Regardless of my lack of expertise, however, I must say that, if this is all you’ve got to substantiate that initial claim, then I’m thinking you grossly mischaracterized Cardinal Newman’s position on the subject and you’d probably be better off just admitting it.




  2. Herbert: you should have my email address. I’m happy to talk with you in private. Though I do not believe I am mischaracterizing Newman’s position. Hard to do that when you’re citing him directly. I’ve interacted with lots of Catholics who cite “development” for everything, without really citing him. It seems to be used to prove almost literally everything these days.


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