John Henry Newman

1801-1890









John Henry Newman: Mega-Links Page
The Tractarian Movement
John Henry Newman: His Developing Faith, His Life as a Catholic
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Apologia pro Vita Sua
The Idea of a University
The Pillar of the Cloud










A leader of the Oxford Movement and later a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, John Henry Newman, outstanding religious thinker and essayist, was probably the most influential theologian of Victorian England. Born on February 21, 1801, Newman was educated at Trinity College, University of Oxford. In 1822 he obtained an Oriel College fellowship, then the highest distinction of Oxford scholarship, and thus found himself in the company of the group of liberal Anglicans known as the Noetics (notably Edward Copleston and Richard Whateley, as well as of the high church John Keble, and was later joined by other new fellows, Hurrell Froude and Robert Isaac Wilberforce. In 1826 Newman was appointed a tutor at Oriel and two years later became vicar of Saint Mary's, the (Anglican) church of the University of Oxford. In this position he exerted a pervasive influence on contemporary religious thought through his learned and eloquent sermons. He resigned his tutorship in 1832 and in the following year made a tour of the Mediterranean region, during which he wrote the famous hymn "Lead, Kindly Light."

Newman began to read systematically the Fathers of the Church and under their influence moved from his earlier evangelicalism to a more catholic ecclesiology, in which he was also encouraged by the influence of Keble and Froude. With Hurrell Froude he visited Italy in 1832, and upon his return from the journey, during which he nearly died of typhoid in Sicily, and inspired by John Keble's sermon "National Apostasy" (1833), he joined the effort to reaffirm the catholic inheritance of the Anglican church that resulted in the Oxford movement. This movement within the Church of England was directed against the growth of theological liberalism and advocated the return to theology and ritual of the period following the Reformation. Newman, whose own religious thinking had for some time been along similar lines, soon became the acknowledged leader of the Oxford group, a role for which his vital personality, fervent asceticism, and persuasive eloquence preeminently qualified him. He was one of the chief contributors to the Tracts for the Times (1833-41), for which he wrote 29 papers, including the famous Tract 90, which terminated the series. That final tract provoked a storm of opposition by its claim that the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, which incorporate the creed of the Reformed Church in England, are aimed primarily at the abuses and not the dogmas of Roman Catholicism. The thesis was repudiated by Anglican dignitaries, who almost universally declared against the Oxford movement.

In 1842 Newman retired from Oxford to the neighboring village of Littlemore, where he passed three years in seclusion, writing at this time a formal retraction of the adverse criticisms of the Roman Catholic church that he had made on previous occasions. He also resigned his post as vicar of St. Mary's, and on October 9, 1845, after writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which expressed the final crystallization of his ideas, he became a Roman Catholic. A year later he went to Rome, where he was ordained priest and entered the Congregation of the Oratory. On his return to England he introduced the Oratorians there.

Newman spent most of the remainder of his life in the house of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri that he had established near Birmingham. From 1854 to 1858, however, he served as rector of a Roman Catholic university that the bishops of Ireland were attempting to establish in Dublin. In response to a charge by the British novelist Charles Kingsley that Roman Catholicism was indifferent to the truth, Newman in 1864 published his masterpiece, Apologia pro Vita Sua (Apology for His Life), a memorable account of his spiritual development that is an acknowledged classic of both religious autobiography and English prose. Because of his disagreement with Cardinal Henry Manning over the wisdom of promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility--Newman did not oppose the doctrine per se--he fell out of favor with the Vatican in 1870, a favor that was only restored in 1879, when, at the insistence of English Catholics, Leo XIII made him cardinal. He died on August 11, 1890.

Newman's thought was primarily formed by his Oxford classical education, which provided a significant Aristotelean shaping of his epistemology, and the Church Fathers, particularly the Alexandrian Fathers. His first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century (1832), is a study of the Arian controversy which introduced Newman to the problem of the development of doctrine and the nature of the creeds, particularly in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. In Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837) Newman defends the Church of England as a via media between Roman Catholicism and popular Protestantism. Against Roman concepts of authority, which he thought discounted Christian antiquity, he sets Scripture and the Fathers, and against the Protestant sola scriptura he points to the importance of tradition, both prophetic and episcopal. Christianity, he claims, is corporate and ecclesial, and therefore necessarily involves authority. The individualism of private judgment in Protestantism causes division and leads to rationalism and liberalism.

In Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (1838) Newman attempted to find a via media between justification by faith and by works. His emphasis on sanctification and his suspicion of a merely imputed righteousness was marked by a return to an emphasis on the imparted righteousness of the indwelling Christ. His Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) attempts to distinguish between true and false doctrinal developments. He suggests a number of tests including preservation of type or idea, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, early anticipation, logical sequence, preservative additions, and chronic continuance. He attempts to apply these tests to particular historical instances in the life of the church. In addition to these tests he argues that for Christianity to be maintained through the flux of history, it must have an infallible expounder. A living magisterium was necessary; and that was what Rome claimed to possess. By such process of argument Newman became a Roman Catholic.

Newman's other important writings include An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), a closely reasoned defense of the rationality of religious belief. He expounds a theory of cumulative arguments and the process of the "illative" sense of moral judgment to defend the moral propriety and intellectual integrity of faith. It remains one of the most important analyses of religious belief. His The Idea of a University is a landmark in writing on the nature of university education, in which he defined the function of a university as the training of the mind rather than the diffusion of practical information, and treats in particular the place of theology within such a comprehensive framework. Newman also wrote the novels Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1856); The Dream of Gerontius (1865), a monologue in verse; and Verses on Various Occasions (1874).


References:
1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. Alister E. McGrath, Copyright 1993 Blackwell Publishers Ltd.