Understanding Newman's Theology

The following quotations are taken from Rev. Edmond Darvil Benard, A Preface to Newman's Theology, B. Herder Book Co., 1945.

"IT DOES not seem that we are taking too much for granted when we assume that any reader of Newman should wish to determine, not merely what a certain argument might be construed as meaning if torn from the ensemble of Newman's works, but what it was intended to mean by Newman himself. Now, if there are certain fundamental principles on which Newman's whole idea of religion is based, the presumption must be that Newman, in a particular section of his works, did not intend to sabotage his entire conception of religion by contradicting these principles.

"In the Apologia pro Vita Sua, Newman wrote:

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion:
I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion;
religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. As well can there be
filial love without the fact of a father, as devotion without the fact of a Supreme Being.
What I held in 1816, I held in 1833, and I hold in 1864. Please God, I shall hold it
to the end …

Secondly, I was confident in the truth of a certain definite religious teaching, based
upon this foundation of dogma; viz. that there was a visible Church, with sacraments
and rites which are the channels of invisible grace. I thought that this was the
doctrine of Scripture, of the early Church, and of the Anglican Church. Here again,
I have not changed in opinion; I am as certain now on this point as I was in 1833,
and
have never ceased to be certain. [Apologia, p. 49.]

"This passage from the Apologia is of prime importance for the true interpretation of Newman. It records, on the authority of the Cardinal himself, two basic doctrines which he never repudiated. For the student desirous of knowing the exact meaning which Newman intended in a particular passage, these two principles are invaluable; they act as the twin lenses of the stereoscope through which an isolated segment of Newman's thought may be seen in perspective with its background." [pp. 24-25.]

Principle: "Any particular work of Newman must always be interpreted and judged in the light of the two doctrines which form the foundation of his idea of religion, the principle of dogma and the principle of the existence of a visible Church, with sacraments and rites that are the channels of invisible grace." [p. 74; emphasis added.]

Fr. Benard suggests three other principles for interpreting Newman's theology.

" … Newman's life … was divided into two almost equal periods, Anglican and Catholic; and … the Anglican period had in itself several distinct phases, ranging from an initial outspoken intolerance with regard to Catholicism to the period of tolerance and understanding which immediately preceded Newman's reception into the Church. This division of Newman's life has considerable importance for the student of Newman's theology. The works of Cardinal Newman, as we have them in the uniform edition, are comprised of writings from every period of his life. His final views on religious questions are, naturally, related in the books that he wrote as a Catholic. But his Anglican works contain much that is important intellectually, and still more, perhaps, that is of spiritual value." [p. 52.]

Principle: "A work of Cardinal Newman must always be interpreted and judged in the light of the particular phase of religious and intellectual development during which it was written, and his later and more mature views on a question must be preferred to the earlier." [p. 55.]

"One of the elements essential to an understanding of Newman is an appreciation of the method he employed in the expression of his theological thought. Newman was primarily a controversialist. He was of a practical turn of mind which discouraged abstract theorizing … His expositions of Catholic doctrine were usually made in refutation of a particular objection, attack, or error.

"As a controversialist, Newman was no mere facile debater, eager to make telling minor points even at the expense of antagonizing his opponent. In the eyes of a less conscientious polemicist, Newman would appear almost painfully fair. Not only does he set forth the case for the opposition as clearly as he can, but the keenness of his insight into the minds of his adversaries sometimes results in a more reasonable statement of their position than they have been able to construct themselves." [pp. 30-31.]

Principle: "Any particular work of Cardinal Newman must always be interpreted and judged in the light of the precise purpose for which it was written and of the persons for whom it was intended." [p. 63.]

"To Newman, writing was a fine art; or, perhaps more accurately, it was a craft. In the sense of conveying his thought clearly, his language is a masterpiece of precision. This is not to say that the English tongue itself is particularly precise, especially when employed in theology; it has too many meanings and shades of meaning for the same word. We must be certain, if we would grasp Newman's thought, that we know exactly what he means by the words he uses. Frequently recurring terms, such as 'idea,' 'revelation,' 'probabilities,' must be understood as Newman understood them. To attribute to them a meaning different from that which Newman intended is to falsify his entire argument …

"It seems paradoxical to say that theologians trained in the terminology and conventions of the Schools often have more difficulty in understanding Newman's theological thought than does the layman; but it is not far from the truth. Newman's nicety of expression, while a perfect vehicle for his thought, is seldom technically scholastic …

"To understand Newman, then, we must be prepared to accept his phraseology; only thus can we penetrate the ideas cloaked in terms unfamiliar to the theology of the Schools and appreciate the force of the argument of which these terms are the material." [pp. 64-66]

Principle: "Any particular work of Cardinal Newman must never be interpreted and judged as a work of systematic theology, or in the light of scholastic terminology or of conventional logical method, or with a meaning attached to the words different from that which Newman intended." [p. 70]

Top | Controversies | Home


Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.