John Henry Newman and the Meaning of History

Author: John Mulloy


by John J. Mulloy

John Henry Newman was born on February 21, 1801 and died on August 11, 1890. He entered the Catholic Church on October 8, 1845. Thus his life was divided almost equally between his Catholic and non-Catholic periods. I do not wish to say Protestant period, because Newman was in reaction against Protestantism from the middle 1830s onward, if not indeed earlier. In fact, from 1836, with the publication of the he was seeking to present the Anglican Church as possessed of definite Catholic traditions. That effort, to discover and emphasize Catholic elements in the Anglican past, was brought to an abrupt halt with his writing of in 1841. That document, which sought to interpret the Thirty Nine Articles, the Anglican statement of belief, in a Catholic sense, brought down a storm of opposition and controversy upon his head. This included the strong opposition of the bishops of the Anglican Church. It became clear that the Anglican bishops considered the Church of England to be Protestant, and that they would resist any attempt to make it appear in any sense Catholic. Thus, for four years, until 1845, Newman wrestled with his earlier prejudices against the Catholic Church, until he finally came to see that these prejudices were not in fact justified.

It must be recognized that Newman's thinking about the Church and about Christianity was always founded on a conception of History. When he came under Evangelical Protestant influence in 1816, as a result of a conversion he experienced at that time, he was led to see the Catholic Church as the Antichrist, and the Protestant Reformation as the rescue of Christians from their thousand-year bondage to Babylon, to which they had fallen victim during the medieval supremacy of the Church of Rome. It was only after many years that he was delivered from this conception. As he wrote in the

"My imagination was stained by the effect of this doctrine up to the year 1843; it had been obliterated from my reason and my judgement at an earlier date; but the thought remained with me as a kind of false conscience." p. 27 of Houghton Mefflin ed (1956).

When Newman abandoned this Protestant view of the history of the Church because of his understanding of the Church as a visible institution with sacraments communicating the life of grace, his mind was still governed by aconception of history. In this conception he looked back to the early Church, the Church of the Fathers, in order to show that the Anglican Church was the true heir of the Church of Antiquity and of the promises which Christ had made to His Apostles.

The first serious blow which he sustained to this justification of the Anglican Church was when he read an article of Monsignor Wiseman in 1839 in which he perceived the force of Wiseman's argument that Rome had taken the same position against the Monophysite heresy in Egypt as she was to take later against the Church of England. Of this jar to his theory Newman wrote:

"I saw my face in that mirror [of the past history of the Church] and I was a Monophysite. The Church of the [Newman's defense of Anglicanism] was in the position of the Oriental Communion, Rome was where she now is and the Protestants were the Eutychians." p. 121

Newman's greatest work, written in 1844-45, was based upon an examination of the facts of the earlier history of the Church. In it he demonstrates that the additions to the teachings of the Catholic Church which he had earlier condemend as corruptions, were in fact legitimate developments from its original content. It was the writing of this book which led him into the Catholic Church.

Newman's written in 1864, traces the history of his own life and of the steps by which he arrived at a conviction of the truth of Catholic teaching. And in (1870), the last chapter on Natural and Revealed Religion, is essentially historical in its presentation of his arguments. And a fair number of his sermons, both in his Anglican and Catholic periods, are strongly influenced by his conception of history.

Newman's last important work, his written in 1874, which was a response to the criticism made by Prime Minister Gladstone of Vatican Council I and its teaching on Papal infallibility, draws upon the facts of the history of the Church to defend that doctrine.

There is no doubt, therefore, that Newman's thought and apologetics in behalf of both Christianity and the Catholic Faith are deeply rooted in a Christian conceptionof history. Let us now consider what are some of the major elements which helped to shape that conception. In the anthology itself we shall see Newman's enunciation of its basic principles, and their application to specific historical events and movements. [Reference here is to an anthology of Newman's view of history which the author has prepared]

When we consider Newman's conception of history, we find that it is composed of several different strands. One is a theology of history derived from Scripture, a second is a psychological analysis of human nature seen from a Christian perspective, and a third is an evaluation of the historical events that have contributed to the main course of mankind's history. Presenting his ideas on the meaning of history in the middle third of the nineteenth century, Newman includes un his view of history the religion of primitive man, Judaism and the religion of the Canaanites, the societies of Greece and Rome, and the history of Christendom and of the Church down to the nineteenth century.

But he pays very little attention to Islam, China, and India, despite the fact that these world cultures were becoming much better known to Europeans since the latter part of the eighteenth century. Thus Newman's view of history has certain limitations, as compared with the views of other and earlier interpreters of history--Voltaire and Hegel, for example, or that of the German Romantic philosopher and convert to Catholicism, Friedrich von Schlegel.

Nevertheless, the thorough saturation of Newman's mind with the thought, imagery, and events of both the Old Testament and the New, gives to his interpretation of history an intensity and a depth which more than compensate for the limited range of its survey. And, since from the Christian standpoint, it has been through God's dealings with the People of God under both the old and the new dispensations that the true purpose of history is to be realized, Newman deals with the essential elements which give history its meaning.

Newman's analysis of history is governed by the contrast and tension between two opposite principles which are at work. The most fundamental tension is between the creation of the world and of man by God on the one hand, and the Fall of Man through Original Sin on the other. The first principle indicates God's ongoing creative concern for the world by means of His providence. Where man is concerned, this is exercised through a Divine influence upon the events of mankind's history. The second principle results in the record of human sinfulness and rebellion against God of which the history of humanity gives such striking evidence.

Consequently, when Newman looks at history from a secular standpoint, he seeks in it little indication of God's overruling providence. Instead he finds that the record ofhuman striving in history leads one to disillusionment and disappointment. In one passage he tells of his own struggle--that if his own conscience did not bear witness to God's existence and to God's concern that man should act rightly, then his own contemplation of history would tempt him to become either an atheist, a pantheist or a polytheist. In Newman's opinion, the outward appearance of history--the record of historical events--reveals a world that is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator.

Yet, Newman believes that history does not run blind and that it has not been abandoned by God. God's purposes are active beneath the surface of history, bringing to fulfillment what God intends. When one distinguishes between the external appearance of history and the inner meaning of its events, a prophetic and apocalyptic view of history results. Prophetic here does not mean so much the foretelling of the future, although this is often included, as a pointing out of the real meaning of historical events, a meaning which often contradicts the surface record of history. In this sense, a prophecy concerning future events is a means of vindicating the word of the prophet, of showing how the prophet's vision perceives the deeper significance of what is taking place. In the following passage Newman contrasts the vision of the prophets with the attitude of most of mankind:

Men who are plunged in the pursuits of active life, are no judges of its course and tendency on the whole. They confuse great events with little, and measure the importance of objects, as in perspective, by the mere standard of nearness or remoteness. It is only at a distance that one can take in the outlines and features of the whole country. It is but holy Daniel, solitary among princes, or Elijah, the recluse of Mount Carmel, who can withstand Baal, or forecast the time of God's providences among the nations. To the multitude all things continue to the end, as they were from the beginning of the creation....Thus the world proceeds till wrath comes upon it and there is no escape. II, 112- 113.

A striking characteristic of Newman's thinking about history emerges from this passage. That is, his thought is very much indebted to the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Some of the most powerful and eloquent of his writings derive their inspiration form this source. This, in part, results from the influence of Protestant Evangelical writers upon him, with whom he became acquainted at the time of his first conversion at age 15. Newman never lost the influence of the Old Testament upon his thinking, which he ultimately joined with a deep sense of its fulfillment in the New Testament and in the Catholic Church. As Christopher Dawson points out concerning this development:

Throughout his life, as he wrote in his last days to the Secretary of the London Evangelical Society, his mind was possessed by those great and burning truths which [he] learned as a boy from Evangelical teaching, which he taught when a man at Oxford, and which he found at last shining in their true glory in the Catholic Roman Church. (1933), p. 42.

The apocalyptic element in history taken in itself, Newman asserts, tends to overthrow and visit destruction upon the self- sufficient societies which mankind constructs. We see this element at work in the disasters predicted by the Old Testament Prophets, which eventually did come to pass. And through these disasters, God meted out justice upon Israel herself and not only upon the nations that surrounded her. At different times, because of their practice of injustice and their worship of idols, each of the two kingdoms of the Hebrew people were led away into captivity.

The harsh prophetic reality, however, is intrinsically linked to the merciful principle of incarnation; that is, Divine punishments are intended not only to manifest God's anger against human sinfulness, but also to prepare the way for new developments in which God's providential purposes can be realized. Newman sees that the history of the Jews is not simply one of punishments for their idolatry and their disregard of God's law; it is also a record of restoration to their homeland, of building a more purified society dedicated to the worship of the One True God, and leaving behind the lust for idolatry which had so often characterized their forefathers. For, in God's design, the fruit of Israel's purified remnant would be he Messiah, the Savior of all nations.

Moreover, even those members of the Jewish nation who remained behind in Babylon, subject to the rule of Gentile kings, were a means for spreading a knowledge of God and His law among the Nations, serving another providential purpose.

For Newman, of course, the greatest example of this positive element in history, which overcomes the record of human sinfulness otherwise so apparent, is the Incarnation itself; and it is the Catholic Church which is meant to perpetuate and fulfill the purposes of the Incarnation, by communicating its grace and truth to all the peoples of the earth.

Because the principle deriving from human sin and error lingers even within the Church herself, the Church has to define her doctrines more fully and guard them against perversion of their meaning. And it is often by means of meeting the challenge of this or that heresy that the Church herself, according to Newman, achieves a clearer and deeper expression of the doctrines which she holds. This is what constitutes development of doctrine,and illustrates how history goes forward to an ever deeper and richer realization of the Divine purpose.

For Newman, the positive incarnational element does not operate exclusively within the Church, but within human society as well. The riches of the Gentile nations, pre-eminently Greece and Rome in Newman's historical perspective, contribute not only to the Church's own growth and development, but also are vital principles for the life of society outside the Church. Newman's for example, is devoted to showing how the literary classics of Greece and Rome can become the basis for the enlargement of the mind through liberal education.

Thus, while Newman's view of history is strongly influenced by the prophetic element there is also a pronounced emphasis upon the element of divine progress in history. Through the Incarnation God's creative power and providential purposes flow out into human history and create a new hope for mankind. Christopher Dawson has remarked on this element in Newman's though:

"Newman's doctrine of development was inspired by an intense faith in the boundless powers of assimilation which the Christian faith possessed and which made it a unitive principle in life and thought....Hence, although Newman realized, like Leo XIII, that the modern world was on the verge of a great moral catastrophe, he never accepted the fundamental historical pessimism which is so common today, and which was expressed so powerfully in his own time by his great Protestant contemporary, Kierkegaard. For Newman saw that it was only in history that the process of progressive revelation and spiritual renovation could be fulfilled. pp. 292

The term "progressive revelation" as used by Dawson refers to the concept of the development of doctrine--making more explicit certain elements in doctrine that were implicit in the deposit of faith before. It does not mean the idea of "ongoing revelation" promoted by neo-Modernism, which means either something quite new, or else a reversal of what has been taught before. Newman would characterize the latter as corruptions of the Church's doctrine, not as its authentic development.

Finally, just as the Incarnation led to the Passion and Death of Jesus, as well as to His Resurrection, so too the Church must endure persecution and suffering in order to bring God's redemptive purposes to fulfillment. Here, the prophetic element in Newman's thinking remains strong, for, the kingdoms established by human power and pride are still the dominant forces in the world in every era of history in which the Church is living out her life. There is, therefore, a continuing conflict between the power ofthese kingdoms of man and the invisible influence of the Kingdom of God.

In this conflict the Church often appears to be losing, while in fact it is through her persecutions by the City of Man that she is wining the victory; God's purposes for her ultimate triumph are being realized. As was said by the early Christian community, subject to intense persecution by the Roman Empire, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." In the victory of the Church, which is fully realized only at Christ's Second Coming, the incarnational principle is brought to its promised fulfillment.

As a counterbalance to this, there is Newman's sense of the imminence of Divine judgement. This reaches its complete vindication in the Last Judgment rendered by Christ at the end of the world. But it finds partial realization in the different judgments and catastrophes which take place in the course of history. Moreover since the first coming of Christ, history as Newman sees it, has entered a new dimension, quite different from what it was before. Now it is ever awaiting Christ's Second Coming in Judgment. This hangs heavily over all human plans and hopes for the future, and it is the last and greatest fulfillment of the prophetic or apocalyptic principle. For such judgment breaks in upon a world which has not been expecting it, and it contradicts the basic values by which the world has ben living its life.

Here is Newman's expression of this conception of the imminence of the Second Coming.

...Up to Christ's coming in the flesh, the course of things ran straight towards that end, nearing it by every step; but now, under the Gospel, that course has (if I may so speak) altered its direction, as regards His Second Coming, and runs, not towards the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times equally near that great event, which, did it run towards, it would at once run into. Christ, then, is ever at our doors.... Vol. VI, p.241

And that expectation of Christ's Second Coming leads Newman to draw forth its implications for each one's personal life. As he meditates on the parable of the laborers in the vineyeard, some called only toward the end of the day, he points out:

For we are called, as is evident, in the world's evening, not in our own. We are called in our own morning, we are called from infancy. By the eleventh hour is not meant that Christians have little to do, but that the time is short; that it is the last time; that there is a "present distress;" that they have much to do in a little time; that "the night cometh when no man may work;" that their Lord is at hand, and that they have to wait for Him....

O may we ever bear in mind that we are not sent into this world to stand all the day idle, but to go forth to our work and to our labor until the evening. the evening, not the evening only of life, but serving God from our youth, and not waiting till our years fail us. Until the not in the day- time only, lest we begin to run well, but fall away before our course is ended. Let us "give glory to the Lord our God, before He cause darkness and before our feet stumble upon the dark mountains" (Jer. xiii. 16) and, having turned to Him, let us see that our goodness be not "as the morning cloud, and as the early dew which passeth away." The is the proof of the matter....

May that day and that hour ever be in our thoughts! from "The Work of the Christian" in of the Day, pp. 9; 11-12.

Taken from the Winter 1994 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, John J. Mulloy, Editor.