Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the foremost leaders of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement, an attempt to renew Anglicanism and reverse its subjection to the secular power by reviving its Catholic heritage and stressing its self-understanding as a via media (middle way) between Catholic Christianity and Protestantism. As such, he was a founder of the Anglo-Catholic or High Church wing of the Anglican communion. However, after a careful study of the history of the Faith, especially the thought of the early Church, Newman came to realize that the via media theory was untenable and that the Catholic Church represented  the authentic Faith established by Christ. Therefore, at great personal and professional loss, he resigned his Anglican benefice in 1943 and was received into the true Church in 1845.

His Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine* was first published in the year of Newman’s conversion to Catholic Christianity. It was written in the two years of reflection that came before his final reception to the true Church, but its foundations were laid when he began to edit an English edition of the writings of early Christians, or the early Church Fathers. In the Development, Newman shows that all belief systems begin with ideas or principles, often implicit, which must undergo a growing process or development to be actualized in the real world.**

[W]hen some great enunciation, whether true or false, about human nature, or present good, or government, or duty, or religion, is carried forward into the public throng of men and draws attention, then it is not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side… Moreover, an idea not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it… [chapter 1] ***

Newman shows that this growth necessarily uses the materials of its surroundings and responds to the challenges and stimuli it encounters. It therefore inevitably involves changes from its original state. The key issue, therefore, is the need to distinguish the development of an idea from its corruption. Newman shows in chapter 5 that this distinction lies in several indicia, among which are: the preservation of type, the way an adult animal is the same species as its embryonic stage; its logical sequence, which hinges on whether the present expressions of the seed-idea logically follow from the seed-idea; and the continuity of its principles or, to use modern metaphors, its genetic code or operating system. (Thus we would ask in today’s language: Are the attributes we see now phenotypical expressions of the same genetic code as the original idea, or do they express mutations of that genetic code?). In sum, Newman says:

This process, whether it be longer or shorter in point of time, by which the aspects of an idea are brought into consistency and form, I call its development, being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start.[chapter 1]

Using the Scriptures and the witness of the earliest Christians, Newman applies these indicia and finds that the Catholic Faith is the organic and logical development of early Christianity, whereas Protestantism and even Anglicanism in its attempt to form a via media, do not.

Newman cites two examples of development at Part 1 of the Essay. First, in line with the promise/prophecy of Christ our Lord to St. Peter (St. Matthew 16:18), of the early Christians already speak of the bishop of Rome, considered to be his principal successor, and of the Roman church in the highest terms:

St. Irenæus [180 AD] speaks of Rome as “the greatest Church, the most ancient, the most conspicuous, and founded and established by Peter and Paul,” appeals to its tradition, not in contrast indeed, but in preference to that of other Churches, and declares that “to this Church, every Church, that is, the faithful from every side must resort” or “must agree with it…St. Cyprian speaks of Rome as “the See of Peter and the principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise, whose faith has been commended by the Apostles, to whom faithlessness can have no access” [chapter 4]

Newman then quotes an anti-Catholic writer who recounts how dispossessed bishops, feuding bishops, Christians accusing heretics or protesting their condemnation as heretics, appealed to the bishop of Rome as though he had actual primacy of authority, even though the exact terminology for that authority was not fixed until the succeeding centuries.

The Pope’s power… was much amplified by the importunity of persons condemned or extruded from their places, whether upon just accounts, or wrongfully, and by faction; for they, finding no other more hopeful place of refuge and redress, did often apply to him: for what will not men do, whither will not they go in straits? [chapter 4]

Another example of development that Newman cites is the Catholic practice of heaping titles and honors upon the Saints, especially the Virgin Mary who had prophesied that “all generations shall call me blessed” (St. Luke 1:48). Protestants chafe at such practices because they believe that this detracts from the glory that is due to Christ, but Newman shows how the early Church had realized that such detraction was, in fact, impossible, because of their deepening awareness of the implications of Christ’s intrinsic uniqueness.

Briefly: When the Arians rejected the received teaching that Christ being God the Son is equal to God the Father, they innovated the theory that Christ was a subordinate being who was merely raised by the Father. However, the early Christians recognized that, no matter how much a mere creature is honored and raised, it remains a mere creature and cannot be God; and so they affirmed the original teaching that Christ is not a mere creature honored and elevated by God but is Himself God the Son made man, “the Word [who] was made flesh” (St. John 1:14). Therefore, no matter how much human beings such as the Blessed Mother and the Saints are honored or loved, it will never raise above creaturehood or make them equal to Christ Who is both divine and human.

Hence, to say, as Protestants do, that honors make the Saints equal to Christ amounts to saying that Christ was a mere creature honored into Christ-hood, so that honoring creatures detract from His uniqueness. It is also foreign to the mind of the early Christians, who, Newman recounts, did not hesitate to call the Virgin Mary “the Eastern gate through which the High Priest alone goes in and out, yet is ever shut;” the wise woman who “hath clad all believers, from the fleece of the Lamb born of her, with the clothing of incorruption, and delivered them from their spiritual nakedness”, “Ever-Virgin”, “the Mother of all living”, “the Mother of Life, of beauty, of majesty, the Morning Star,” “the mystical new heavens,” “the heavens carrying the Divinity,” “the fruitful vine by whom we are translated from death unto life,” manna from heaven, “the unsullied shell which contains the pearl of price,” “the sacred shrine of sinlessness,” “the ark gilt within and without,” “the fair bride of the Canticles,” “the Church’s diadem,” “the expression of orthodoxy” and “God’s only bridge to man”.

St. Augustine says that all have sinned “except the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, for the honour of the Lord, I wish no question to be raised at all, when we are treating of sins.” “She was alone and wrought the world’s salvation,” says St. Ambrose… [and Proclus declared:] Run through all creation in your thoughts, and see if there be equal to, or greater than, the Holy Virgin Mother of God.” [chapter 4]

Indeed, it was the same Fathers who affirmed the divinity of Christ that recognized that this affirmation required acknowledging the dignity of His mother. When the Nestorians denied the original divinity of Christ from the womb, they logically denied that the Virgin Mary was the mother of God, saying she was only the mother of Jesus. When the Council of Ephesus affirmed the original teaching that Christ was always divine, even in the womb, they re-affirmed likewise the ancient appellation of the Virgin Mary (already used by Origen and other pre-Ephesus writers) as the theotokos (“bearer of God”) or the mother of God. Thus Newman cites honoring the Blessed Mother as a Catholic practice that is compatible with, an organic development of, and is logically required by, the Faith of the early Church.

The foregoing shows the breadth of the learning that Development of Christian Doctrine manifests, as well as the depth of the analysis employed by Newman. Not all the ideas in it are new; and, interestingly, Newman’s writing of the Development of Christian Doctrine illustrates own thesis, because it is in organic continuity with the theory of tradition and development championed by the early Christians, particularly Vincent of Lerins. However, it was Newman who crafted a comprehensive framework for understanding the development of belief, one that accounted for both the discursive methodology of the Scholastics and the experiential evolution of theologoumena later explored in 20th century theology. Development of Christian Doctrine is a seminal work on the history of dogma and the sociology of Christian culture, and is highly recommended.


*An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, by John Henry Newman, 6th ed. (1878), is available in multiple formats at and Project Gutenberg, and may be read online at Newman Reader and Cambridge Books Online. The 7th edition (1890) is available in multiple formats here at Internet Archive with a second copy here and at Open Library with a second copy here. The audiobook is available at Sonitus Sanctus.

**For reviews or observations on Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine, see Dave Armstrong’s essay “How Cardinal Newman Convinced me of the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church” which is chapter 4 of his book Development of Catholic Doctrine: Evolution, Revolution, or an Organic Process?. See also Eric Sammons’ post ‘“You cannot bear it now” and the development of doctrine’ on his weblog The Divine Life: Why were were created.

***All quotations from the Development of Christian Doctrine are made from the text of the work at Newman Reader. It is believed that their reproduction here constitutes fair use. However, if you believe that their use is illicit or inappropriate, please tell me so I can remove them forthwith. Many thanks.

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