John Henry Newman and the 'method of personation'
The Beatification of John Henry Newman promises to be a cause of joy and of grace for the whole Church. But it will be a particular grace for the Church's pastors and theologians, especially as they prepare for the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
As is well-known, almost one hundred years before Blessed John XXIII summoned the Council, Newman had anticipated it. Moreover, a number of the documents of the Council, especially Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) and Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) reflect Newman's foresight and influence.
However, besides foreseeing Vatican II, Blessed John Henry may serve as a privileged guide to the Council's ongoing reception and appropriation. For Newman is an outstanding representative of the distinctively Catholic vision and imagination. His writings reveal a generosity of spirit that proceeds by way of inclusion rather than reduction: an openness to the multifaceted presence and promise of God. He embodies St Paul's exhortation to the Philippians: "Whatever is true, whatever honorable, just; whatever is pure, lovely, gracious; if there is anything excellent and worthy of praise — ponder these things" (Phil 4:8).
But this openness and inclusiveness is never indiscriminate. Newman unites, in a distinctive fashion, generosity of spirit with subtlety of intellect. His careful and crystalline prose is the apt expression of a mind trained to differentiate and distinguish, so as not to rush towards facile and premature synthesis. Newman's spiritual and intellectual vision neither constricts grace nor canonizes nature.
Thus he extols "conscience" as "the echo of God's voice"; and yet recognizes how prone we are to muffle that echo by our own preferences and prejudices. He affirms that "no people has been denied a revelation from God": grace is indeed everywhere. But he cautions that only "a portion of the world has enjoyed an authenticated revelation": not everything is grace.
Throughout his long life, from teenage conversion to the "Biglietto Address" upon receiving formal notification of his selection as cardinal, there was but one Personal Measure of Newman's generous spirit and refined discernment: the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. As the First Letter of John admonishes: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God — every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God" (1 John 4:1 and 2). All the authentically graced aspirations of the human quest for God find in Christ their fount and fulfillment. As Newman declares in his great work, A Grammar of Assent: "all the Providences of God centre in Him".
In an age when the prevalent approach to the theology of revelation was to view it in "propositional" terms, Newman was steadfast in advocating a "personalist" approach to God's revelation, consummating in Christ. In "The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively", the second of his great Oxford University Sermons, he speaks of God's economy of revelation as the "method of personation". He says, for example, that all the abstract principles of philosophy, Word, Light, Life, Truth, Wisdom, become personalized in Christ. What otherwise remains "notional" becomes "real" in him — concrete, vivid, enkindling affection and inspiring imitation. Newman sums up his persuasion in these words: "It is the Incarnation of the Son of God rather than any doctrine drawn from a partial view of Scripture (however true and momentous it may be) which is the article of a standing or a falling Church".
It is worthy of note that the Scripture text, which is the point of departure of this magnificent sermon and serves to orient Newman's entire exposition, is the beginning of the First Letter of John. These are the very same verses that the fathers of Vatican II proclaimed in the "Preface" to Dei Verbum, thereby introducing their profoundly personalist reading of revelation. "We announce to you the eternal life which was with the Father, and has appeared to us. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you, in order that you also may have fellowship with us, and that our fellowship may be with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ".
It is equally worthy of note that one of those who was much involved in the elaboration of Dei Verbum was the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger whose knowledge of and love for Newman have been well attested. Therefore, to regard Newman as a father of the Council is no mere "honorific"; it is to celebrate the part he played in the Council's dual task of ressourcement and aggiornamento.
Though, for Newman, the "method of personation" finds its supreme manifestation and normative embodiment in Christ, it also extends to "the body of the faithful, or church, considered as the dwelling-place of the One Holy Spirit: For the Church, Christ's body, "is invested with a metaphorical personality, and is bound to act as one, in order to those practical ends of influencing and directing human conduct". One recognizes here clear anticipations of Vatican II's realization that the Church is "in Christ, like a sacrament or sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind".
As we strive, then, to receive and appropriate the Council anew, Blessed John Henry Newman can tutor us concerning the crucial significance of the "in Christ". His generosity of spirit and sensitive discernment are ever anchored in complete dedication of heart and mind to Christ who vivified his prayer and enlightened his path. His vision and imagination could be generously inclusive, because they were radically rooted in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Both Newman and Vatican II joyfully proclaim Christ to be "Lumen Gentium", the Light of the nations. Their Catholic inclusiveness flows from their Christological belief.
*Professor of Theology, Boston College Massachusetts, U.S.A.