Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Fidelity through time: “Apostles are harbingers of popes”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 03, 2024

The last task St. John Henry Newman set himself before he could be absolutely certain that he must leave the Anglican Church and convert to Catholicism was to complete the major study entitled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This remarkable book establishes beyond possible question that it is not only normal but necessary for the principles and truths embodied in Divine Revelation to be expressed more fully and in greater detail over time as new questions emerge to which we must apply these same principles and truths.

Not only must this be so, but it must be so in an authoritative manner consistent with the Divine character of the Revelation itself. That is, any such Revelation must come equipped, as it were, with an “authority principle” to guarantee its adequate expression and interpretation over time. Only in this context can Christian doctrine be successfully articulated with greater precision and definition as challenges or conflicts arise, in response to new situations, new speculations and new interpretations which have not yet been considered in light of the original Revelation.

This is manifestly necessary because our finite minds are constantly taking up new aspects of old questions which force us to inquire further of our basic principles to see what light they can shed, and how they can be expressed consistently yet more precisely to address each new concern over time. An analogy may be drawn with our direct perceptions of reality itself. Every form or branch of human knowledge develops according to its own principles as they are applied to new problems and new tasks. The inductive disciplines, such as the natural and social sciences, attempt to observe the nature and behavior of things and to induce from this behavior larger principles which enhance our understanding of reality or our ability to accomplish particular tasks. The deductive disciplines, such as philosophy, theology and mathematics, exhibit this same consistency in a different way. They attempt to reason from first principles so that a proper understanding and expression of reality, including what we learn inductively, may serve various human ends, from building a safe bridge to living a good life to shaping a thriving community. But each human “science”, to maintain its integrity, must develop in accordance with its own proper principles and rules.

Now, each discipline interacts with reality in a somewhat different way, according to its particular object and the sources of its information about that object. The title of my work here, which mentions apostles and popes, clearly indicates that our subject is religion, and not just any religious idea, but that particular religion which claims to be based not on human speculation or natural law or philosophical analysis but on a specific Revelation to us by God through Jesus Christ. Given the characteristic willfulness of our human nature, however, it is not surprising that this Revelation is claimed to include and even actually to mean a variety of different and even contradictory things, depending on which person or group is explaining it to us. Nonetheless, to remain itself, it must be expounded according to its own defining principles. Therefore the question immediately arises as to who, if anyone, actually has an authoritative grasp of this Revelation, such that it can be taught and explained to us now, thousands of years after the Revelatory events occurred.

Newman’s Problem

This was precisely the problem faced by St. John Henry Newman in nineteenth-century England. Having come to Christianity through the respectable Church of England, he constantly imbibed its anti-Roman sensibilities. In Newman’s time, many Anglicans (including Newman himself) subscribed to a “branch” theory of Catholicism, which held that the Anglican Church was a perfectly legitimate branch of the Church Christ founded, in terms of the integrity not only of its episcopal leadership but also of its sacraments and its doctrines. Unfortunately, this theory was historically incorrect: The apostolic succession in the episcopate had been decisively broken, and the control of Christian teaching was for all practical purposes political rather than properly ecclesiastical in nature.

For some years, however, Newman wished only to stir the established Anglican Church to greater apostolic fervor, in which he helped to make significant strides through the Oxford Movement. But it was mostly through the studies, reflections and prayers of that period in his life that he became increasingly dubious about Anglican claims. As what we would now call the “secular liberal” attitude toward Christian doctrine grew without check among the Anglicans throughout the nineteenth century, Newman increastngly questioned what Anglicans considered to be the errors and excesses which supposedly made Catholicism historically incapable of fidelity—to the Gospel alone in its doctrines and to Christ alone in its devotions.

Much of this enmity and controversy between Anglicans and Catholics swirled around the question of whether the Anglican Church had managed to avoid an alleged Catholic attachment to human corruptions of doctrine and devotion without falling into blatantly Protestant departures from the evident initial constitution of the Church under episcopal authority. This via media or “middle way” was not only the boast of Anglicanism but, as Newman began to observe, a boast about a series of ever-changing ideas, whose fidelity to the original Gospel seemed continually to slide and shift.

Newman gradually became convinced that the peculiarities of Anglicanism (as with Protestantism) were deviations from the original Revelation and that, despite the ever-growing precision of Catholic teaching over time, the doctrinal emphases of the Catholic Church in his own century were all legitimate, confirmatory developments of the approved texts and apostolic teaching in the earliest centuries. He saw clearly in the mid-nineteenth century what he also saw in history from the late first century on through the Patristic era—namely, that new challenges to the proper understanding of Divine Revelation had arisen in every period, and that it was always through recourse to the popes in Rome that legitimate clarifications and developments of doctrine occurred so that the original Revelation was ultimately preserved.

Confirmatory development in Catholicism

In other words, Newman realized that Catholic teaching in his time was completely consistent with what had come before but had clarified the whole truth when specific distortions and errors had been urged against it by those who were simply wrong about what it “really” meant. Accordingly, he realized that any system of thought or teaching must be capable of legitimate development in response to errors of interpretation of the original idea—development that confirmed and corroborated the initial teachings rather than undermining and abandoning them. Finally, he realized it had been very frequent indeed throughout history that the original ideas of some founder or movement were eventually altered in ways that betrayed those initial purposes—and indeed that such corruptions of a teaching were and must be extremely likely and even normal in human affairs as interests and attitudes and pressures changed.

Therefore, Newman began to understand that, if revealed truth were to retain its integrity over time, the following must inescapably be the case:

  • There must be a rational means of discerning whether a new expression, clarification or application of an original teaching should be viewed as either a legitimate development of or a departure from the original idea; and
  • Along with the authoritative terms in which a Divine Revelation was of necessity expressed, there must be a corresponding Divinely-established authority to ensure that, in response to the different human insights and pressures characteristic of changing times and places and conditions, our understanding of the same doctrine would be sure to develop in ways which clarify and corroborate the original teachings rather than undermining and corrupting them; and finally
  • Among all claimants to the Revelation of Jesus Christ, only the Catholic Church claimed to possess an authority capable of ensuring precisely this outcome; and only the Catholic Church could claim over the centuries to have consistently distinguished between developments which corroborated and clarified what had been taught before and corruptions which abandoned and even denied what had been taught before.

Newman’s Proof

Newman’s great proof of Catholicism’s solution to this problem was his monumental work entitled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which set forth these rational means or principles of authentic development, identified the corresponding aurhority under which proposed developments must be judged, and proved the effective and recognized exercise of that authority from the earliest centuries of Christian history. Again, this was the final study he set himself to undertake as an Anglican, sure that if nothing arose during the course of it to change his mind, he could then enter the Catholic Church with complete certainty about his conversion. In this work, heavily rooted in the Fathers and the history of the early Church, Newman exercised his tremendous grasp of both logic and history, not to mention the unparalleled clarity of his own magnificent prose, to set forth both the principles of true doctrinal development and the consistent demonstration of that authenticity of development under the authority of the Catholic Church—as opposed to the various bodies which had broken communion with her.

As a simple demonstration of his skills, I will close with just one of the many cogent and inspiring passages in this truly major study, which on every page revealed the author’s unparalleled grasp of Scripture, Christian history, the Fathers of the Church, the principles of logic, and Catholic doctrine itself:

Supposing the order of nature once broken by the introduction of a revelation, the continuance of that revelation is but a question of degree; and the circumstance that a work has begun makes it more probable than not that it will proceed. We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not.
The case then stands thus:—Revelation has introduced a new law of divine governance over and above those laws which appear in the natural course of the world; and in consequence we are able to argue for the existence of a standing authority in matters of faith on the analogy of Nature, and from the fact of Christianity. Preservation is involved in the idea of creation. As the Creator rested on the seventh day from the work which He had made, yet He “worketh hitherto;“ so He gave the Creed once for all in the beginning, yet blesses its growth still, and provides for its increase. His word “shall not return unto Him void, but accomplish” His pleasure. As creation argues continual governance, so are Apostles harbingers of Popes.*

* An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: Part I (Doctrinal Developments viewed in Themselves); Chapter II (On the Antecedent Argument in Behalf of Developments in Christian Doctrine), Section II (An Infallible Developing Authority to be expected), #10 (pp. 85-86)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.