One of the key books that I read on my journey to Catholicism was John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I was first introduced to it when I was a graduate student in church history at Loma Linda University; Paul Landa had me read it for a course on the History of the Papacy and Roman Catholicism.
I was persuaded by his arguments, especially by this passage:
History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.
And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicæa and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant. [p. 5]
Against all interpretations of church history that speak of apostasy, rupture, or discontinuity, Newman asserts that basic continuity must be assumed unless it can be proved otherwise. He acknowledges that there are contradictions, but refuses to take the Protestant path.
They say, in the words of Chillingworth, “There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age:”—Hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine. This is a fair argument, if it can be maintained, and it brings me at once to the subject of this Essay. [p. 4]
He acknowledges the contradictions, but is not swayed by them.
Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses. 
It doesn’t matter if theologians and bishops contradict each other through history; that is to be expected in the course of development.
… the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered; but, till I have positive and distinct evidence of the fact, I am slow to give credence to the existence of so great an improbability. 
What would he have said in our day? Where once popes praised and defended the execution of heretics, wars against Muslims and Albigensians, torture of those suspected of being crypto-Jews or Protestants, and condemned in no uncertain terms the idea of religious liberty, popes and councils in our era have claimed religious liberty is a Catholic idea, have denied the state’s right to execute criminals, have condemned torture–and a pope has kissed the Koran. Were he alive today, he’d have to acknowledge he was wrong, that “the hypothesis which [he was] advocating [was indeed] shattered” by the tumultuous change of the past forty-five years.
He argued that most seeming contradictions are developments, and that these are to be expected–as long as they don’t involve contradictory statements by authoritative teachers, i.e., popes and councils.
How do you tell the difference between true “developments” and aberrations? He lists seven “Notes of a Genuine Development”:
- Preservation of Type
- Continuity of Principles
- Power of Assimilation
- Logical Sequence
- Anticipation of Its Future
- Conservative Action upon Its Past
- Chronic Vigour
Let’s look briefly at these. This being a blog post, I don’t have time to marshall lots of quotes and citations; this is a brief sketch to lay out some thoughts and ideas I will explore at length another time.
1. Preservation of Type
Newman argues that the church should still be the same type of organization
There is a religious communion claiming a divine commission, and holding all other religious bodies around it heretical or infidel; it is a well-organized, well-disciplined body; it is a sort of secret society, binding together its members by influences and by engagements which it is difficult for strangers to ascertain. It is spread over the known world; it may be weak or insignificant locally, but it is strong on the whole from its continuity; it may be smaller than all other religious bodies together, but is larger than each separately. It is a natural enemy to governments external to itself; it is intolerant and engrossing, and tends to a new modelling of society; it breaks laws, it divides families. It is a gross superstition; it is charged with the foulest crimes; it is despised by the intellect of the day; it is frightful to the imagination of the many. And there is but one communion such.
Many of those phrases do describe the early church (a look at the New Testament suggests it wasn’t as unified and organized and orderly as he supposes), but does his portrait of an underground, subversive church really describe Roman Church of history? I suggest it does not–it describes those whom the Roman Church persecuted. Following the legalization of Christianity, and then its endorsement as the official religion of Rome, a path was followed which negated these features Newman sketches. It made discipline and order a mark above others; it embraced the world and made external acceptance of its rule a minimum which allowed the world to in turn influence it. It raised and deposed kings, and boldly asserted its superiority over them. It claimed superiority to the laws of God, and replaced those with its own, to which it demanded obedience. It embraced pagan ideas and established universities to further them; the intellectuals of its day defended the embrace of paganism and built great systematic theologies justifying this union. Where the early church hid in fear, this power declared war, and justified execution and torture. Where the early church was poor and outcast and naked, like its crucified Lord, this was rich and arrogant and clothed in gold and silver and scarlet and purple.
But in each era we see Christians who did refuse worldly honors; who valued truth over life and comfort; who remained a thorn in the flesh of persecuting powers; who lived the non-violence of Jesus; who were content to be naked and beaten and bruised for the sake of the Gospel. These are the Christians who demonstrated true preservation of type.
2. Continuity of Principles
As we’ve seen above, some principles of the early church were deformed through the centuries, especially those regarding the church’s attitude to the world and to violence. But Newman suggests some specific principles he has in mind when he wishes to demonstrate their continuity. It has a sense of dogma, “supernatural truths irrevocably committed to human language”; of faith as “the absolute acceptance of the divine Word with an internal assent”; of faith as opening “a way for inquiry, comparison and inference”; of the Incarnation as “a divine gift conveyed in a material and visible medium”; of the necessity of interpreting Scripture “in a second or mystical sense‘; of grace involving a transformation; of mortifying our lower nature; of the “malignity of sin“; that “matter is an essential part of us.”
Many of these are good points. I’d agree that true Christianity has a sense of dogma, of “supernatural truths irrevocably committed to human language,” and these are established once for all in the inspired Scriptures, which preserve the actual teaching of the apostles and the revelation of God and are the continuing norm for all doctrine. I’d agree that faith requires “the absolute acceptance of the divine Word with an internal assent,” but add that this must be so even when humans teach contrary to it. I’d agree that faith “opens a way for inquiry, comparison and inference,” and that this is true for every Christian, who has the obligation of searching the Scriptures daily to see whether the things taught by church leaders are so. I’d agree that the Incarnation is the touchstone, and it shows that Christ divests his power and glory and takes on humility–something that stands in stark contrast to papal pomp. And if the Incarnation is the touchstone, if human flesh can envelope the divine, if human language can express divine truth, then we must shun any pretensions of “a second or mystical sense” of Scripture, and must seek to understand the actual words. Yes, grace must transform and sanctify us; we must mortify our lower nature; we must be aware of the “malignity of sin” and the beauty of the grace of God which is in Christ Jesus. But when we look at the Catholicism of history we see structures of sin, that embody pride and arrogance; we see a church that regarded itself as above the law, that absolved crimes and transferred the criminals and protected them from harm while pursuing and hounding and persecuting those who called the church to true holiness. I’d go further than saying that “matter is an essential part of us”–it is what we are, formed out of the dust of the earth, animated by the breath of life, and when that breath departs our lips we will die, and wait the resurrection of our bodies on the last day.
In the very areas where Newman says we should see continuity of principles, we see stark discontinuity when we look at the Roman church through history–but in each era we see Christians who clung to the word of God instead of the word of man, who recoiled from sin, especially when they saw it in the temple of God, who refused to explain away Scripture, but accepted its plain teaching and conformed their lives and their teachings to it. Who searched the Scriptures daily to see whether those things were so. Who let the mind of Christ rule in them, humbling themselves, embracing the cross and its shame. These are the Christians who demonstrated true continuity of principle.
3.Power of Assimilation
Newman thinks it a positive thing that Catholicism did not conquer paganism by the proclamation of the truth but instead absorbed it into its own heart. But Paul warned against false teachers who would lead astray; of a man of sin sitting where he ought not. John called all to come out of Babylon, a false system that would enmesh Christians in the life and ideas and beliefs of the world. They didn’t urge assimilation, they called Christians to come out and be separate. And throughout history, Christians responded to the Roman Church’s assimilation of paganism by calling the church back to the purity of the apostolic faith, unmixed with error.
4. Logical Sequence
Newman thinks it a virtue that one idea led logically to another. But this is only a virtue if the foundation is true and pure, and not mixed with error. Lay a bad foundation, mix error in with truth, and you may built logically upon it, but still go drastically astray. There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end of it is death. Yes, if you believe souls are immortal, it is logical to assume you can communicate with them, and they with you, and that some are purified after death and that some will suffer forever. But if you accept the clear teaching of Scripture that the idea of natural immortality was the first lie of Satan in the garden, then all these other teachings must logically fall apart. And throughout history we see Christians in all places seeking to purify the church by uncovering and removing the false elements that had been implanted deeply into the teachings of the Roman Church.
5. Anticipation of Its Future
Christianity, affirming the goodness of the material world, and the reality of the Incarnation and of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, looks forward to the resurrection and glorification of our bodies at the last day. Yes, indeed. But where Newman says this is why the church adores relics, and prays to saints, and places Mary in a special role, we have to cry, “Wait!” It is specifically because our eternal life in Christ is future, and inseparable from the resurrection of the body, that we must say no to all these aberrations. These are all premised on the lie that “Ye shall not surely die,” on the admixture of the pagan idea of the natural immortality of the soul with beliefs in the Incarnation and the future resurrection of the body. And throughout history we see Christians who looked with faith to the return of Christ when all the saints who sleep in the dust will be raised to eternal life.
6. Conservative Action upon Its Past
Newman says genuine Christianity must be conservative. It must hold on to the past, and resist innovation. Indeed, that is why the apostolic teaching must be given primacy of place; why Scripture, the inspired record of God’s revelation, must be listened to with reverence. Why all those things which would take us away from Scripture, and the life and practice of the apostolic Church, must be resisted. And all through history we see Christians who did so, and called the church to reject the changes and aberrations that had been brought in, and to return to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
7. Chronic Vigour
Newman argues that “a corruption, if vigorous, is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death; on the other hand, if it lasts, it fails in vigour and passes into a decay.” Islam is vigorous today, as is Hinduism. By this logic they must be true. But the father of lies is still propagating his errors, and he is very vigorous, coming after us like a roaring lion because he knows his time is short. The vigor we need to embrace is that spirit-given life that energizes the church, that helps it to persevere in the face of persecution, that gives it the courage to proclaim the word even when it is beaten down. And that vigor we find in the church of all ages, in Christians who wouldn’t let themselves be squeezed into the world’s mold, but broke free of the hold of lies and distortions to proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus.
I wasn’t wrong in seeking to embrace Christians of all places and times. I was wrong when I assumed they would be found within the walls of a particular building, accepting the word of certain men. But God’s word is alive in every day. He will not let it be bound or captured by tradition and error. In each era men and women of faith and humility have opened its pages, or heard a passage read, and let it do its work. They took what steps they could, on the basis of the light they had. But all who hear the voice of the shepherd and follow are his sheep, regardless of the fold they find themselves in.
The test of truth is whether it is in accordance with God’s word, and I have learned to say ‘Amen’ to that truth whether it is spoken by Augustine, the Cappadocians, Francis or Dominic, Aquinas or Bonaventure, Huss or Luther, Zwingli or Calvin, Wesley or Miller, John Paul II or Benedict XVI, Billy Graham or Mark Finley. I do believe in the communion of saints–a communion based in Jesus, and his word, and our desire to follow him and learn of him–a communion that will be realized in that great day when we shall be raised at his appearing, and shall go in to the marriage supper of the Lamb, and shall join in praising him for ever and ever. Amen.