Cardinal John Henry Newman is a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Not known to be a miracle worker during his life, his canonization for all practical intents and purposes hinged upon his importance as a teacher. Perhaps the most important doctrine he expounded in his teaching office as a bishop is the Roman Catholic doctrine of doctrinal development.

Why would the view of a Roman Catholic bishop be relevant to an Orthodox Christian? It would seem that it is not, but Saint Vincent de Lerins taught that the Church should always be making “all possible progress.” (Commonitorium, par 54) What exactly does this look like? As it will be shown, Newman proposes a method from the words of Vincent to accomplish exactly that. By understanding Newman’s method, Orthodox can greater reflect precisely how they are faithful to Vincent’s rule concerning doctrinal development.

Some Necessary Background Information. Contextualizing Newman’s thought is incredibly important. He was a former Anglican who had resisted the Roman Catholic Church quite vocally. In grappling with the issue of why the Roman Catholic Church had appeared to acquire doctrines that were not found in the early Church, he came to the opinion that a correct application of Saint Vincent de Lerins allowed for legitimate development (lit. profectus in Latin), but not alteration (lit. permutatio in Latin). (cf par 54 of Commonitorium) These categories of development helped one weed through a rightful and good development, such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (and all of its associated post-Apostolic wordings and creedal affirmations), and an illegitimate one, such as Origenist universalism.

In so doing, Newman was hoping to reject modernism and positivism, but offer a clear set of guidelines that helped the Church fulfill its teaching function in light of new controversies and insights into the Apostolic deposit of faith. Hence, Newman was not defending a literal prophetic view of the Church (i.e. that she can teach new things), but a living Church that can interact with tradition in a vibrant matter. This means that tradition is not static and ossified, but it in effect is a set of precedents that can be delineated back into Apostolic times.

This, as it will be shown from Newman himself, enshrines the perpetual rule of inference as the correct epistemic mode of conducting theological inquiry. In other words, if there is an apostolic doctrine which is logically consistent with a later doctrine, and that this later doctrine is logically consistent with yet a later doctrine, and so on, then the final doctrine in this long chain of logical derivations must in fact be true and dogmatic. Though Newman himself would not strictly understand his epistemology on these grounds, it is the only way one may accurately describe and apply his view.

Newman, in formulating this epistemology derived from the profectus/permutatio distinction happened upon an extremely practical method of theology. In so doing, Roman Catholic theologians were able to explain how it was that their church had certain views and practices which were seemingly absent, if not at odds, with earlier views—without resorting to an epistemology which devolved into relativism or mere empiricism. One can see why this was especially important during of the 19th century.

Furthermore, it offered a theological methodology that rose above an unthinking fideism, which then just as today was out of style. It allowed the Church to be logically holding to the Apostolic deposit of faith (and therefore a belief in absolute, eternal truths), but provided an explanation as to how the Church came up with new words and seemingly elucidated novel ideas without literally contradicting the said deposit of faith.

Newman’s Earlier Fideism. Before Newman devised his application of the profectus/permutatio distinction, he appeared to be the sort of fideist that he would later reject. However, he was not an unthinking one.

In the Via Media, he cites Saint Vincent de Lerins a few times. In all of these references, Newman understands Vincent to be teaching a means in which one discerns what is authentically Apostolic with the implication the doctrine is clearly visible and unchanging. “The rule of inference approach,” itself explicitly absent from Vincent’s work, was also notably absent from Newman’s earlier treatments of the same Vincent.

For example, in citing Vincent’s “canon,” his application is that a given doctrine is clearly visible and universal:

The Rule or Canon which I have been explaining, is best known as expressed in the words of Vincentius of Lerins, in his celebrated treatise upon the tests of Heresy and Error; viz. that that is to be received as Apostolic which has been taught “always, everywhere, and by all.” Catholicity, Antiquity, and consent of Fathers, is the proper evidence of the fidelity or Apostolicity of a professed Tradition. Infant Baptism, for instance, must have been appointed by the Apostles, or we should not find it received so early, so generally, with such a silence concerning its introduction. The Christian faith is dogmatic, because it has been so accounted in every Church up to this day. The washing of the feet, enjoined in the 13th chapter of St. John, is not a necessary rite or a Sacrament, because it has never been so observed:—Did Christ or His Apostles intend otherwise, it would follow, (what is surely impossible,) that a new and erroneous view of our Lord’s words arose even in the Apostles’ lifetime, and was from the first everywhere substituted for the true. (Via Media, Lecture 2, chap 3)

As stated previously, Newman was never an unthinking fideist. Then, what is one to do in matters in which the Church traditionally has never commented on the issue? Newman is thoughtful in tackling this question. Citing Vincent, teaches that the Church can and should, exercise judgement in these “lesser matters.” These matters are “lesser” because they do not touch the “Rule of Faith” which is Apostolic and unchanging:

To the same purpose are the following passages from Vincentius of Lerins. “It is necessary,” he says, “that the heavenly sense of Scripture be explained according to this one rule, the Church’s understanding of it, principally in those questions only on which the foundations of the whole Catholic doctrine rest. Again, he says, “The ancient consent of the Holy Fathers is to be diligently ascertained and followed, not in all the lesser questions of the Divine Law, but only or at least principally as regards the Rule of Faith.” And again, in the following passage, he tacitly allows the right of Private Judgment in lesser matters; that is, the necessity and duty of judging on our own responsibility piously and cautiously, provided our conclusions be not pertinaciously urged, for then our Judgment is no longer private in any unexceptionable sense of the word. (Via Media, Lecture 10, chap 13)

And so, one can see that Newman initially viewed tradition as an unchanging rule that can easily be perceived. Everything outside of this rule was a matter of private judgement and therefore not absolutely binding on the faithful. Hence, the rule of inference could not be employed dogmatically in such a system, though it would have been allowable to address “lesser matters.”

Newman’s Change of Heart. While Newman surely felt, before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, that he was expounding an epistemology sufficiently flexible to (cautiously) address new controversies and ideas relevant to the Apostolic (and early Patristic) Rule of Faith, it seemed not robust enough to tackle the liberal theological crises of the 19th century Anglican Church. By leaving certain parts of the faith as unchangeable and all else as doctrinally questionable (hence the caution in judging “lesser matters”), this epistemology on paper can counter Anglican liberals who doubted doctrines such as baptismal regeneration. This reactionary tendency was encapsulated by the “Oxford Movement.”

However, the politicized nature of the Anglican Church, where the English parliament would defy the church and overturn it’s decisions, seemed to demand not only the invention of Anglo-Catholicism, but a stronger ecclesiology. Newman himself also needed something more to address his nagging conscious that perceived Anglicanism as a minority view. The apparent option was to convert to Roman Catholicism, something many Anglo-Catholics did after Newman, especially as the English church continued to liberalize and show increased subjugation to the government.

Newman’s aforementioned epistemology was insufficient to the Roman Catholic. It could never allow for the primacy of the Pope to become supremacy, the sinlessness of the Theotokos to become exemption from original sin, the prayers for the dead to become purgatory, and other theological developments. At best, all of these views could be private judgements, but not binding on the faith. Yet, these things were dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church. Epistemologically, Newman had no choice but to change.

In summary, Newman initially had a pretty straightforward view of tradition. If something was not clearly and explicitly there, he disallowed for it. It cannot be said that Newman did not understand Vincent. Rather, he understood Vincent far more conservatively than his later reflections on the writer.

Newman’s Theology of Doctrinal Development in His Own Words. As mentioned previously, there was already an ancient epistemic basis for tweaking his epistemology so that it can accommodate the entirety of Roman Catholic tradition, including its evolving doctrines. He never called it “the rule of inference approach,” but this is probably the simplest way of encapsulating his views in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

In this essay, Newman asserts that doctrinal development is not the mere preservation of “the faith once and for all given to the saints” (Jude 1:3), “but:”

simply the legitimate growth and complement, that is, the natural and necessary development, of the doctrine of the early church, and that its divine authority is included in the divinity of Christianity. (p. 169)

The refusal to progress doctrinally, as necessary, leads to “corruption:”

[O]ne cause of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past. (p. 177)

Hence, a central tenet of Newman’s theology of doctrinal development is that mere preservation/ossification of the doctrine is disallowed. This, in fact, corrupts true theology. This is why understanding Newman as employing “the rule of inference approach” is absolutely necessary, because he himself does not allow for not employing the epistemology. However, “corruption” was not solely the refusal to develop doctrine. He addresses this in an illustration:

Corruption…is the breaking up of life, preparatory to its termination. This resolution of a body into its component parts is the stage before its dissolution; it begins when life has reached its perfection, and it is the sequel, or rather the continuation, of that process towards perfection, being at the same time the reversal and undoing of what went before. (p. 170-171)

Hence, corrupting doctrine is effectively “breaking” the doctrine. This appears to be understood as creating incorrect logical syllogisms and breaking up a doctrine “into component parts before its dissolution.” Contrasted with this is doctrinal development, which begins with “perfection” (i.e. a correct Apostolic dogma) and represents a continual “process towards that perfection” which in effect prevents a “reversal and undoing” into doctrinal corruption—which would result from not pursuing doctrinal progress.

This is a bold argument. It condemns those who have taken their talent and buried it into the ground and rewards those who have taken their talents and used them for profit. Newman thereby refutes his earlier self, understanding his former approach as inconsistent with a rational application of dogma. One may lament that its central presupposition, that inactivity/a lack of progress is bad by default, is not popularly appreciated today.

Surely, this change in presuppositions explains Newman as a thinker. He had earlier employed an epistemology that presupposed that evolving dogmas from the early Church were disallowed. Now, his presupposition was the exact opposite—for a doctrine not to evolve is to set into motion its corruption.

Now, this does not mean all evolution of dogma is by default good. Surely not. With all the preceding in mind, one can now understand precisely how Newman employs Vincent de Lerins in his essay:

A true [doctrinal] development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption… Vincentius of Lerins, in like manner, speaks of the development of Christian doctrine, as profectus [progress] fidei non permutatio [alteration]. And so as regards the Jewish Law, our Lord said that He came “not to destroy, but to fulfil.” (p. 201-202)

As one can see, Newman asserts that the profectus/permutatio distinction of Vincent in fact teaches that a “conservative” employment of the rule of inference (“antecedent developments being really those antecedents”) continually brings out dogmas in greater fullness. One must understand that by “conservative,” Newman means “not overly audacious.” The purpose of doctrinal development, in his eyes, would not be to figure some sort of logical work around to ordain female bishops or to dogmatize the propitiatory mediation of Mary (i.e. the extreme fringes of the Mediatrix doctrine.) His view of conservatism was robust enough that he initially opposed Papal Infallibility at the Council of Vatican I due to his desire to preserve what he perceived as the free deliberation of doctrines and saint canonizations. He also wanted to limit, in his own words in the Apologia, infallibility “extend[ing] to statements, which are mere logical conclusions from the Articles of the Aposotolic Depositum.” (emphasis added, p. 445) Simply being eminently rational was not, in of itself, compelling enough reason for a doctrinal development to be legitimate (at least in theory–it should be noted that Newman himself excised the preceding phrase from all subsequent editions of the Apologia).

At his time Newman’s speculations were considered too liberal by some, including a former Anglo-Catholic accomplice of his, Cardinal Henry Manning. While the ultramontane tendency of Newman’s earlier opposition has since largely fallen away, even still a more traditional Roman Catholic may raise an eyebrow at the liberality of Newman’s words. For example, Newman asserted that doctrinal development explained how a Church, which did not originally venerate the saints, grew to do so:

When Roman Catholics are accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed, they answer that they hold, and can show that they hold, the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement, as firmly as any Protestant can state them. To this it is replied that they do certainly profess them, but that they obscure and virtually annul them by their additions; that the cultus of St. Mary and the Saints is no development of the truth, but a corruption and a religious mischief to those doctrines of which it is the corruption, because it draws away the mind and heart from Christ. But they answer that, so far from this, it subserves, illustrates, protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation. Thus the parties in controversy join issue on the common ground, that a developed doctrine which reverses the course of development which has preceded it, is no true development but a corruption; also, that what is corrupt acts as an element of unhealthiness towards what is sound. (p. 202)

Instead of simply making the popular argument, that the Church always venerated the saints, Newman has none of this neo-traditionalism. In the words of Father Dr. Thomas G Guarino*, “adding the cultus of Mary and the saints…’illustrates [and] protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation.”’ (emphasis added, TRADITION AND DOCTRINAL DEVELOPMENT: CAN VINCENT OF LÉRINS STILL TEACH THE CHURCH? Theological Studies, 2006, p. 38)

*Father Guarino’s research and footnotes greatly inform the content of this article.

The idea that the church can add dogmas is central to Newman’s thought. A good case study is how Newman treated the doctrine of purgatory. With his old epistemology, whose central presupposition was ossification over progress, Newman rejected purgatory out of hand:

My next instance shall be the Roman doctrine of Purgatory. All Protestants are sufficiently alive to the seriousness of this error. Now I think it may be shown that its existence is owing to a like indulgence of human reason and of private judgment upon Scripture, in default of [failure to fulfill an obligation to] Catholic Tradition. That it was no received opinion during the first ages of the Gospel, has often been shown, and need not be dwelt on here. Hardly one or two short passages of one or two Fathers for six centuries can be brought in its favour, and those, at the most, rather suggesting than teaching it…As this doctrine, thus suggested by certain striking texts, grew into popularity and definiteness, and verged towards its present Roman form, it seemed a key to many others… all that it concerns us here, that there was no definite Catholic Tradition for Purgatory in early times. (Via Media, Lecture 7, chap 5)

Merely “suggesting” a doctrine (one such example Newman explicitly had in mind was Saint Augustine calling the idea “doubtful” in the Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love) was insufficient according to Newman’s old epistemology. A doctrine had to be “definite” with explicit adherents to meet his earlier, ossified view of dogma.

Compare this to Newman’s later treatment:

Thus, the holy Apostles would without words know all the truths concerning the high doctrines of theology, which controversialists after them have piously and charitably reduced to formulæ, and developed through argument. Thus, St. Justin or St. Irenæus might be without any digested ideas of Purgatory or Original Sin, yet have an intense feeling, which they had not defined or located, both of the fault of our first nature and the responsibilities of our nature regenerate. (p. 191-192)

A “suggestion,” the minimal bar for doctrine which Newman earlier disallowed, has been replaced by “an intense feeling…not defined or located.” This “feeling” is pregnant with meaning, however. The most developed dogmas was “know[n]” to the Apostles who delivered the faith once and for all, but “without words.”

However, this is not meant to be an emotional as opposed to rational approach to Apostolic doctrine. The rule of inference draws out from the feeling one doctrine after another consistent doctrine. As long as each logical consequence is in fact rational, then the feeling logically included all later derivations. There is nothing irrational about what Newman is proposing.

Perhaps Newman’s most radical application of the preceding is his treatment as to how doctrinal development can explain why the Church was able to rightly condemn Origen and proto-Nestorians after death. One can only fully appreciate his thought by reading the entire passage:

This is but one out of many instances with which the history of the Church supplies us. The fortunes of a theological school are made, in a later generation, the measure of the teaching of its founder. The great Origen after his many labours died in peace; his immediate pupils were saints and rulers in the Church; he has the praise of St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, and furnishes materials to St. Ambrose and St. Hilary; yet, as time proceeded, a definite heterodoxy was the growing result of his theology, and at length, three hundred years after his death, he was condemned, and, as has generally been considered, in an Ecumenical Council. “Diodorus of Tarsus,” says Tillemont, “died at an advanced age, in the peace of the Church, honoured by the praises of the greatest saints, and crowned with a glory, which, having ever attended him through life, followed him after his death;” yet St. Cyril of Alexandria considers him and Theodore of Mopsuestia the true authors of Nestorianism, and he was placed in the event by the Nestorians among their saints. Theodore himself was condemned after his death by the same Council which is said to have condemned Origen, and is justly considered the chief rationalizing doctor of Antiquity; yet he was in the highest repute in his day, and the Eastern Synod complains, as quoted by Facundus, that “Blessed Theodore, who died so happily, who was so eminent a teacher for five and forty years, and overthrew every heresy, and in his lifetime experienced no imputation from the orthodox, now after his death so long ago, after his many conflicts, after his ten thousand books composed in refutation of errors, after his approval in the sight of priests, emperors, and people, runs the risk of receiving the reward of heretics, and of being called their chief.” There is a certain continuous advance and determinate path which belong to the history of a doctrine, policy, or institution, and which impress upon the common sense of mankind, that what it ultimately becomes is the issue of what it was at first. This sentiment is expressed in the proverb, not limited to Latin, Exitus acta probat; and is sanctioned by Divine wisdom, when, warning us against false prophets, it says, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” (p. 194-195)

In effect, Origen (as well as others such as Theodore of Mopsuestia) were not explicitly heretics, but were implicitly so. This is proven by “their fruits.” What are these “fruits?” The logical conclusions derived by applying the rule of inference to Origen’s/others’ thoughts, as exhibited by later Origenists/Nestorians. This, in effect, would condemn someone like Origen for having the wrong feeling, provided it was the basis for later explicitly false teaching.

Due to Origen’s recent renaissance in Christendom, as well as increased criticism of Saint Justinian’s approach to solving doctrinal dilemmas in the sixth century, Newman’s sentiment here is presently underappreciated. What he had in fact accomplished here is a stroke of philosophical and historical brilliance. His epistemology in fact solves any difficulty one may have explaining the actions of several ecumenical councils as well as the mixed Patristic reception of Origen’s work specifically. This was a brilliant revelation for his day and the fact his epistemology works means that if Origen experiences another fall from grace in the popular imagination, surely someone will seize upon Newman’s argument.

Conclusion. From the preceding, one may gather that Newman had in his lifetime expounded two opposing epistemologies whose crucial differences revolved around one central presupposition: To be sufficiently apostolic, doctrine must either be ossified in the Apostolic mode or continually evolving—without any pause. A pause would put into motion a process of doctrinal corruption.

While for the moment I will leave it to others to logically (and historically) work out which presupposition is more logically compelling and adhered to by the saints, I will end on the following positive note. Newman’s thought challenges Orthodox to take seriously Vincent’s canon, which asserts that, “the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.” (Commonitorium, par 54)

How is the Orthodox Church doing this today? How can the Church do so in a way that is faithful to progress always consisting of “the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning?”

Newman provides an answer that is not special pleading, but is in fact consistent with Church History. Due to this, such an answer must be both understood and taken seriously.