Blessed John Henry Newman on Tradition and the Apostolic Ministry

Following on from the conclusions of my post of yesterday, which were essentially an affirmation of ecclesial infallibility, I would like to take a look at the dangers which come about from doubting this charism of the Church and of separating one’s belief from the Church’s traditional understanding of the Faith. As yesterday was the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman, I would like to do this by sharing an extract from one of his Plain and Parochial Sermons, written whilst he was still an Anglican. The sermon (preached on Saint Peter’s Day in 1835) in question is entitled The Christian Ministry, and in it Newman asks what it is we may stand to lose should we deny the plain meaning of the promises Our Lord made to the Apostles.

The passage below begins with a discussion (via a comparison of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist) of the nature of Christian apostolic ministry in general, explaining that its essential character is not based upon a possession of certain information, but is marked by the reception of spiritual power – power conveyed by Our Lord Himself. John the Baptist was not lacking in knowledge of the Truth, but was lacking in the particular commission of power given to the Apostles. Blessed John Henry then goes on to consider the process by which either the individual or the society at large may, once having discounted something as basic to orthodox Christianity as the apostolic ministry, have opened a door which allows progressive doubt about other essential tenets of the Faith.

Once the traditionally held belief that Christ’s promises of power to administer Sacraments and to teach in His name did not extend past the Apostles themselves, and that the apostolic ministry continues in the institutional Church, are given up, a crack has been opened which then, having given priority to private inclinations and private judgement over Sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church, allows for doubts about more and more aspects of Christian orthodoxy to appear. Essentially, although he doesn’t mention it by name, what Newman is talking about here is theological liberalism – something that he considered to be the greatest of threats to Christianity and a life-long personal adversary.

Ironically, given that he was still an Anglican at the time this sermon was preached, it is in Protestantism that the doctrine of private judgement (which led to and to a great extent constitutes theological liberalism) was and is given greatest expression and opportunity to spread, eventually greatly impacting Western culture and Christianity in the West as a whole. Nevertheless, what we find in the extract here (which is quite lengthy, but worth including so much of) is the instinct within Newman that would eventually lead him to recognise both the need for a guarantor of Christian Truth, and its existence within the Catholic Church. This intuitive recognition of the need to preserve and correctly discern orthodoxy, as well as to protect it against liberalism, is something that characterises his whole career, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic.

Furthermore, despite being a member of a Protestant denomination at the time, he certainly did not see himself as being so (that Anglicanism was a valid branch of the Catholic Church was a basic principle of the Tractarian movement), and here shows a strong commitment to ecclesial authority and Tradition (both their logical necessity and the historical evidence of their importance). This commitment to Truth is a fundamental part of that instinct which eventually led him home to the Church, and which is perhaps his greatest legacy. The importance of that legacy has not even begun to be properly felt or fully appreciated; he is a widely (and rightly) revered man whose ideas are held in high esteem by many, but I believe the full impact of his thought and person are still yet to come:

We may end these remarks by recurring to the instances of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist; who, as types of God’s ordained servants, before and after His Son’s coming, may serve to explain the office of ordinary Christian Ministers. Even the lowest of them is “greater than John.” Now what was it that he wanted? Was it the knowledge of Gospel doctrine? No, surely; no words can be clearer than his concerning the New covenant. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”  “He that cometh from above, is above all … He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God, for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” [John i. 29; iii. 31-36.] Therefore, the Baptist lacked not the full Christian doctrine; what he did lack was (as he says himself) the Baptism of the Spirit, conveying a commission from Christ the Saviour, in all His manifold gifts, ordinary and extraordinary, Regal and Sacerdotal. John was not inferior to us Gospel Ministers in knowledge, but in power.

On the other hand, if, as I have made appear, St. Peter’s ministerial office continues as regards ordinary purposes, in the persons of those who come after him, we are bound to understand our Lord’s blessing, pronounced in the first instance upon him, as descending in due measure on the least of us His ministers who “keep the faith,” Peter being but the representative and type of them all. “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father, which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” August and glorious promise! Can it be, that it is all expended on St. Peter, how great soever that noble Apostle? Is it inserted in the “everlasting Gospel,” to witness merely of one long since departed? Is it the practice of the inspired word to exalt individuals? Does not the very exuberance of the blessing resist any such niggardly use of it? Does it not flow over in spite of us, till our unbelief is vanquished by the graciousness of Him who spoke it? Is it, in short, anything but the prejudices of education, which prevent so many of us from receiving it in that fullness of grace in which it was poured out?

I say our prejudices,—for these surely are the cause of our inconsistency in faith; adopting, as we do, a rule of Scripture interpretation, which carries us a certain way, and stops short of the whole counsel of God, and should teach us nothing, or a great deal more. If the promises to Christ’s Apostles are not fulfilled in the Church for ever after, why should the blessing attaching to the Sacraments extend after the first age? Why should the Lord’s Supper be now the Communion of the Lord’s Body and Blood? Why should Baptism convey spiritual privileges? Why should any part of Scripture afford permanent instruction? Why should the way of life be any longer narrow? Why should the burden of the Cross be necessary for every disciple of Christ? Why should the Spirit of adoption any longer be promised us? Why should separation from the world be now a duty? Happy indeed it is for men that they are inconsistent; for then, though they lose some part of a Christian’s faith, at least they keep a portion. This will happen in quiet times, and in the case of those who are of mature years, and whose minds have been long made up on the subject of religion. But should a time of controversy arise, then such inconsistencies become of fearful moment as regards the multitude called Christian, who have not any decided convictions to rest upon. Inconsistency of creed is sure to attract the notice of the intellect, unless habit has reconciled the heart to it. Therefore, in a speculative age, such as our own, a religious education which involves such inconsistency, is most dangerous to the unformed Christian, who will set straight his traditionary creed by unlearning the portion of truth it contains, rather than by adding that in which it is deficient. Hence, the lamentable spectacle, so commonly seen, of men who deny the Apostolic commission proceeding to degrade the Eucharist from a Sacrament to a bare commemorative rite; or to make Baptism such a mere outward form, and sign of profession, as it would be childish or fanciful to revere. And reasonably; for they who think it superstitious to believe that particular persons are channels of grace, are but consistent in denying virtue to particular ordinances. Nor do they stop even here; for denying the grace of baptism, they proceed to deny the doctrine of original sin, for which that grace is the remedy. Further, denying the doctrine of original sin, they necessarily impair the doctrine of the Atonement, and so prepare a way for the denial of our Lord’s Divinity. Again, denying the power of the Sacraments on the ground of its mysteriousness, demanding from the very text of Scripture the fullest proof of it conceivable, and thinking little of the blessedness of “not seeing, and yet believing,” they naturally proceed to object to the doctrine of the Trinity as obstructing and obscuring the simplicity (as they consider it) of the Gospel, and but indirectly deducible from the extant documents of inspiration. Lastly, after they have thus divested the divine remedies of sin, and the treatment necessary for the sinner, of their solemnity and awe, having made the whole scheme of salvation of as intelligible and ordinary a character as the repair of any accident in the works of man, having robbed Faith of its mysteries, the Sacraments of their virtue, the Priesthood of its commission, no wonder that sin itself is soon considered a venial matter, moral evil as a mere imperfection, man as involved in no great peril or misery, his duties of no very arduous or anxious nature. In a word, religion, as such, is in the way to disappear from the mind altogether; and in its stead a mere cold worldly morality, a decent regard to the claims of society, a cultivation of the benevolent affections, and a gentleness and polish of external deportment, will be supposed to constitute the entire duties of that being, who is conceived in sin, and the child of wrath, is redeemed by the precious blood of the Son of God, is born again and sustained by the Spirit through the invisible strength of Sacraments, and called, through self-denial and sanctification of the inward man, to the Eternal Presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Such is the course and issue of unbelief, though beginning in what the world calls trifles. Beware then, O my Brethren, of entering a way which leads to death. Fear to question what Scripture says of the Ministers of Christ, lest the same perverse spirit lead you on to question its doctrine about Himself and His Father. “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many Antichrists … They went out from us, but they were not of us.” [1 John ii. 18, 19.] “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” [Matt. vii. 16.] If any man come to you, bringing any scoff against the power of Christ’s Ministers, ask him what he holds concerning the Sacraments, or concerning the Blessed Trinity; look narrowly after his belief as regards the Atonement, or Original Sin. Ascertain whether he holds with the Church’s doctrine in these points; see to it whether at very best he does not try to evade the question, has recourse to explanations, or professes to have no opinion at all upon it. Look to these things, that you may see whither you are invited. Be not robbed of your faith blindfold. Do what you do with a clear understanding of the consequences. And if the arguments which he uses against you tend to show that your present set of opinions is in some measure inconsistent, and force you to see in Scripture more than you do at present, or else less, be not afraid to add to it, rather than to detract from it. Be quite sure that, go as far as you may, you will never, through God’s grace, be led to see more in it than the early Christians saw; that, however you enlarge your creed, you will but carry yourselves on to Apostolic perfection, equally removed from the extremes of presumption and of unbelief, neither intruding into things not seen as yet, nor denying, on the other hand, what you cannot see.

Plain and Parochial Sermons, Volume II, no.25.


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