Cardinal John Henry Newman, as a translator of Saint Vincent de Lerin’s Commonitorium into English, believed himself to be expounding upon Vincent’s view when he spoke of the idea of doctrinal development. However, his views concerning Vincent’s understanding of doctrinal development have themselves changed during his lifetime.

Father Thomas G. Guarino is a Roman Catholic priest, a professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey; and co-chair of the initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He is the author of Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine and has argued the Cardinal Newman authentically expounds Vincent’s view. Due to his role as an expert on Saint Vincent and his desire to communicate his research for those interested in the connection between Vincent and Newman, he agreed to an interview with Orthodox Christian Theology.

During this interview, questions were asked concerning Newman’s usage of the “rule of inference” and how Newman would use this rule, but not in a “naked” way in which (to quote Newman) to “extend to statements, which are mere logical conclusions from the Articles of the Aposotolic Depositum” the level of dogma. Father Guarino’s research has not investigated this aspect of Newman and so it is not treated in the interview as repeated here.

What is the relevance of Cardinal Newman to Orthodox? As discussed on this blog earlier, Newman’s thought challenges Orthodox to take seriously Vincent’s call for “all possible progress.” Father Dumitru Staniloae, a confessor for the faith, provides for Orthodox a view doctrinal development and so this is a conversation Orthodox must have.

Without further ado, here is the interview:

Is the acknowledgement of there being doctrinal development the mainstream view of the Roman Catholic Church today? What opposition exists, if any?

Yes, virtually all Catholic theologians would agree that there is doctrinal development over time. By this they mean that the Church, under the light of the Holy Spirit, comes to a fuller understanding of divine revelation. I am aware of no opposition to this position among Catholic theologians.

Saint Vincent de Lerins spoke that the Church should make “all possible progress.” (Commonitorium, par 54) What does he mean by this?

St. Vincent, as you know, speaks about “progress” in the Church of Christ in several places in his Commonitorium. As you point out, chapter 23 is where this idea is treated in a concentrated fashion, but it can be found throughout his work. St. Vincent wrote three years after the conclusion of the council of Ephesus in 431 AD. He was well aware that not everyone accepted the conciliar term, Theotokos (Mary as the Mother of God.) But, he argued, even though this term is non-biblical, it represents a doctrinally valid understanding of the faith. The same is true with the term homoousios from the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The term itself is not found in the Bible, but it represents the truth about Jesus Christ.

In chapter 13, St. Vincent states that he is “unfolding doctrine more distinctly and explicitly”. He sees the Christological and Trinitarian affirmations of the early Church as drawing out the implications of Scripture. If we read chapter 13 carefully, we can see the kind of progress that St. Vincent sanctions. He says, for example, that Jesus is one person, but with two natures, human and divine. He adds that Christ’s divine nature is “unchangeable and incapable of suffering.” And the unity of Christ’s two natures exists from the first moment of his conception in the womb of Mary. In these and other such statements, we see St. Vincent’s understanding of doctrinal progress.

How would one understand Vincent’s clarification that doctrinal development is “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)?

This line, found in the first paragraph of chapter 23, is crucial for St. Vincent. Throughout his Commonitorium, Vincent repeatedly cites St. Paul’s admonition, “Guard the Deposit, Timothy!” (I Timothy 6.20). The truth of the Christian faith is always uppermost in St. Vincent’s mind—and it must be jealously guarded from errors. So, while there can be progress and development over time, any growth must clearly protect prior doctrinal landmarks. Later ecumenical councils, for example, must cherish and protect the teachings of earlier ones, even if they add something further. That is what he means when he says that development and growth are always possible, but they must protect the anterior tradition, “in the same sense and with the same meaning.”

St. Vincent remained concerned about various attempts to “reformulate” the Nicene Creed without the term homoousios. He was haunted, for example, by the synod of Ariminum (Rimini) in 359 AD where many bishops—as Vincent says “partly by violence, partly by fraud”—subscribed to a creed with Arian overtones. But any attempt to reverse or contravene a doctrinal landmark such as the Nicene Creed is illegitimate. All later doctrinal statements must be congruent “in the same sense and in the same meaning” with the earlier councils.

What main epistemic and theological problems did doctrinal development help solve at Vincent’s time? How does this contrast with those who Vincent considered innovators, such as the Donatists and Nestorians?

Again, Vincent was a great defender of the council of Nicaea (with its signature term, homoousios), and a great defender of the council of Ephesus (with its signature term, Theotokos). He wanted to show that these non-biblical words were proper developments—that is, they fully protected the ancient, biblical faith of the Church. Writing four centuries after Christ’s death, St. Vincent knew that change occurs in the Church.

But he distinguishes two kinds of change—change which is an advance (which he calls a profectus) and change which is a corruption (which he calls a permutatio.) The former is acceptable while the latter leads to heresy.

St. Vincent was a strong and knowledgeable opponent of heretics. For him, heretics are those who fail to adhere to the teachings of ecumenical councils and, instead, follow their own idiosyncratic understanding of the faith. For example, the Nestorians failed to adhere to the clear teaching of the council of Ephesus. He also spends much time condemning
Pelagians for their failure to understand the priority of God’s grace, instead relying solely on human merit. And he attacks the Donatists for their idiosyncratic approach to the faith, abandoning the rest of Christendom.

From an ecclesiological point of view, St. Vincent saw heretics as those who departed from the consentient teaching of the Church. Vincent had a high regard for consensus—regarding heretics as a small (and sometimes even a large, such as the Donatists) portion of the Church that decides to go its own way. He also was a great defender of ecumenical councils. The teachings of these gatherings, composed of bishops from the entire world, offered to the Church the true meaning of the Sacred Scriptures.

What epistemic and theological issues in the 19th century posed challenges within the Roman Catholic Church which inspired Cardinal John Henry Newman’s invoking of Vincent’s idea?

It is important to remember that Cardinal Newman, for the first half of his life, was a member of the Anglican Church. As an Anglican clergyman and patristic historian, Newman often adduced Vincent to witness against Catholicism. How so? The early Newman was greatly enamored of what is usually called Vincent’s “canon” or “first rule”. It reads, “In the Church catholic…we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. (This is usually cited in Latin as “semper, ubique et ab omnibus”.)

The early Newman, as with many others, was attracted to this phrase because, on its face, it offers a clear criterion which separates Christian truth from heresy. Truth is that which has been believed by Christians always, everywhere and by everyone. Later teachings, therefore, are innovations which must be opposed. So the early Newman argued that certain teachings of the Catholic Church—such as the existence of an intermediate state (purgatory), or the strong emphasis on Mary, or the veneration of relics—were later innovations, not teachings believed “always, everywhere and by everyone.”

After Newman became a Catholic, he reflected on the idea that Christian teachings take time to mature and come to fruition. As he argues in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, even the Church’s understanding of the Holy Trinity took time to come to fruition. For example, in 379 AD we see St. Basil the Great still arguing ardently for the Holy Spirit as a unique Divine Person within the Trinity. In other words, the Word of God [sic. word of God, i.e. the Scriptures, concerning the Holy Trinity] is not understood completely and immediately. There is growth in understanding over the course of time.

To what degree, if at all, did the intellectual milieu of the 19th century color Newman’s thought, particularly the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Darwin?

I am not aware of those thinkers having any great influence on Newman. The best I can tell is that Newman thought evolutionary theory could be reconciled with the Christian faith.

I believe Newman’s thought on doctrinal development owed much more to St. Vincent than to anyone else. It is often forgotten that when Newman was only 33 years of age he translated most of the Commonitorium into English. Vincent’s thought had a profound effect on him for his entire life.

What main crises in the Anglican Church motivated Newman’s intellectual development and color his views?

Newman’s concern was that the Anglican Church was losing touch with the patristic roots of Christianity. This was one reason that Newman and his friends published a series called “Records of the Church,” which were published along with the better-known “Tracts for the Times.” The “Records” were usually translations of texts from the Fathers of the
Church. In fact, Newman’s translation of St. Vincent’s
Commonitorium appeared in this series.

In Via Media, Newman appears to have only accepted what can be demonstrated to have been in full existence in the early Church. He explicitly interprets Vincent in this light. How did Newman ultimately reinterpret Vincent?

Yes, absolutely. As with many others, the early Newman interpreted Vincent’s “semper, ubique et ab omnibus”—from chapter two of the Commonitorium—to mean that only those elements of the faith that were universally accepted by Christians from the beginning are normative for Christians today.

But in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman argues that even the doctrine of the Holy Trinity came to be understood only gradually and over time. From that time onwards, he turned away from his mistaken interpretation of Vincent’s canon. He started to place more emphasis on Vincent’s claim that there is great progress in the Church of Christ, with doctrine maturing and ripening over time.

In what way is Vincent’s view of doctrinal development interpreted too conservatively?

St. Vincent is badly misunderstood when one takes his “canon” to mean that there cannot be development and growth over time. This mistake has been made by many theologians who take his “canon” in isolation from the rest of St. Vincent’s great book.

What is the “seed theory” and how did Newman apply it?

St. Vincent uses the example of the seed and the plant as similar to the example of the child and the adult. [Commonitorium, Par 57/Chap 23] In both cases, there is growth—but it is growth that is organic and homogeneous. In his Essay on Development, Newman adopted Vincent’s biological examples to explain, at great length, how the Church’s teaching matures and unfolds over time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Newman makes provocative statements in his Essay, such as the cults of the Theotokos and the saints being “additions” to the Apostolic practices of the Church. How were statements like these received during his time? How about now?

In his Essay, Newman boldly states that the council of Ephesus “sanctioned the Theotokos, an addition greater perhaps than any before or since to the letter of the primitive faith” (303). He adds “This exclusive maintenance [of the Nicene Creed] and yet extension of the Creed, according to the exigencies of the times, is instanced in other Fathers [besides Gregory Nazienzen, about whom he is speaking]” (303n8).

As I understand these comments, Newman is arguing that developments necessarily occur beyond the letter of creeds. At the same time, any development must always be harmonious with that which preceded it, in eodem sensu eademque sententia.

It is again important to remember that Newman was trying to demolish an understanding of St. Vincent that was widespread, although mistaken. That is, he was trying to overcome the claim of primitivism–that the Christian faith can only be that which was held always, everywhere and by everyone, taken in a literal sense.

You wrote in “Tradition and Doctrinal Development” a few years back that “adding the cultus of Mary and the saints…’illustrates [and] protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation.’” This made it seem to me that at the time you took the reading, which I myself do, that Newman believed that the saints themselves were not explicitly venerated initially and their followings grew in time. Such a view would appear to me to be historically defensible, of course, but radical to the rank-and-file which would believe that the Theotokos or any other saint has always been venerated in an explicit sense. Is there some way to tease this idea out? Are you aware of anyone who objected to Newman on this?

In his Essay on Development (p. 202), Newman writes that the cultus of the saints “…illustrates [and] protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation.”

As you know, with this comment, Newman is arguing that the veneration of the Mother of God and the saints does not obscure the Incarnation and Atonement, but actually highlights Christ’s salvific work. For Newman, the veneration of the saints in the Church’s life is a matter of development “according to the same meaning and the same judgment”—a true advance (profectus) and not corruption (permutatio) of the faith.

Some Protestant Christians will claim that the veneration of Mary and the saints is not found in the Sacred Scriptures, so this practice is clearly a later innovation by the Church—and possibly a corruption of the Gospel message. Newman was seeking to answer that charge by showing that the cultus of Mary and the saints in no way obscures the uniqueness of Christ’s salvific work. On the contrary, he argues, God’s work through the saints draws the mind and heart closer to Christ.

The cult of the saints grew quickly, even if this practice is not found in the Bible itself.  For example, we have a papyrus of a prayer to the Theotokos likely dating from the third century (“Beneath your protection, we take refuge, O Theotokos.”)   

I am aware of no one who objected to Newman’s particular claim about the veneration of the saints. The theological objection would be to the entire idea of doctrinal development over time. But, as we have discussed, Newman did not invent the notion of development. St. Vincent of Lérins had already established this idea in the early fifth century.

In short, Cardinal Newman thought this practice was only implicit and not explicit initially? (i.e. no one would have initially prayed to Mary?)

Yes. It is likely that prayer to Mary and the saints was a practice that grew over time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

Newman astutely notes that Origen was accepted during his time, but later condemned by the Church. While many observers today view this as proof of inconsistency in the early Church, Newman saw this as doctrinal development at work, the fruits of Origen’s writings proving the “tree” was in fact anathema. In your own personal view, is this sort of apologetic necessary to maintain the integrity of the Church’s decisions or is this Newman going too far?

I think Newman’s general point is valid, i.e., the Church is able to discern, over time and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which theologians possess penetrating theological insight and which conduce the Church to error. It is a work of time for the Church to absorb new theological points of view; the implications of certain positions are not always seen immediately.

As you know, St. Vincent, in chapter 17 of the Commonitorium, treats of Origen at length. Vincent observes that Origen was such an extraordinary genius that “implicit faith was to be placed in all his assertions.” Nonetheless, St. Vincent avers, Origen started to interpret passages of Scripture in a novel way, departing from the tradition of the Church. This novelty, Vincent concludes, led to Origen’s ruin. (It should be noted, however, that Vincent was aware that Origen’s disciples had corrupted some of his writings. Nonetheless, books published under Origen’s name had been a great trial for the Church.)

Are Newman and Vincent fully reconcilable or to what degree are they different in their views of doctrinal development?

Yes, I think Newman and Vincent have entirely reconcilable theologies of doctrinal development. And again, we should remember that Newman was a careful student and translator of Vincent’s work. Both of them understand “doctrinal development” as the homogeneous, organic growth of the teachings of the Church. Such teachings can develop—but development can never mean “reversal”. On the contrary, development means growth according to the same meaning and the same judgment (in eodem sensu). As Vincent says, and Newman repeats, true growth is a profectus non permutatio fidei, that is, an advance not a corruption of the faith.

In the present day, what doctrinal and moral issues does the Roman Catholic Church face and how can Vincent and Newman’s epistemologies help tackle these challenges? In other words, what may “all possible progress” look like today? What problems may arise by not applying Newman’s rule?

In my judgment, Vincent and Newman remain essential and crucial guides for Catholicism, since the Roman Catholic Church has continued to develop over time. St. Vincent’s doctrine of res amplificetur in se (the thing—i.e., the teaching—grows within itself) has helped Catholicism better understand development over time. It is no surprise, therefore,
that St. Vincent’s Commonitorium is cited in the papal teaching of 1854 defining the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Both Newman and Vincent were convinced that anything that possesses life possesses growth as well. But any growth must be carefully husbanded so that it is in accord with the prior dogmatic teachings of the Church. If I may offer a concluding thought: St. Vincent was a great believer in the consentient unity of the entire Church. It is precisely for this reason that he was an ardent defender of ecumenical councils—since they represented the faith of Christians over the entire globe. Were he alive today, Vincent would be most scandalized by the divisions that exist within Christendom. Vincent would counsel us, I believe, to exert every effort to achieve visible Christian unity.