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

See also:

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory”

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism”

This is the third of a number of transcriptions from Nick Needham’s lecture on “Roman Catholicism Today.” I’m providing transcripts of this lecture because I think it’s one of the most succinct and well-organized summaries that I’ve seen of how Vatican II came about, and its effects.

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 justifiy 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. (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)

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

  1. This seems tinny or thin. Surely an accurate portrayal of the Catholic Church would not be that is merely ‘canonize(d) the doctrine of one limited time period, the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century’? The Catholic Church draws from all of the patristic fathers and many councils, as well as on the Holy Scriptures themselves throughout the centuries. MORE RESEARCH, please, before writing. To end, let us not forget the quote made famous by Cardinal Newman: ‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’ Love, A former TULIP Calvinist now Catholic and thanking God for it!


    1. Regarding “having canonized” Aquinas, you may be interested in Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris:

      22. The ecumenical councils, also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the Councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.

      Regarding Newman and “being deep in history”, we’ve found quite the opposite to be true:

      Sure you want to use Newman to prove your point? As a recent historical monograph has documented, “it was events in Newman’s life that changed his interpretation of the Fathers, not the interpretation of the Fathers that caused Newman to change his life. King argues that Newman tailored his reading, ‘trying on’ the ideas of different Fathers to fit his own needs.”

      Cf. B. King, Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers (OUP 2009).

      Maybe you should have done some research before converting. I’m quite sure you’ve made a horrible mistake.


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