The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman
ED. BY IAN KER & TERRANCE MERRIGAN CAMBRIDGE, £17.99
John Henry Newman
BY RODERICK STRANGE DARTON, LONGMAN & TODD, £14.95
We should all feel a little sorry for John Henry Newman. He is constantly quoted out of 19th-century context and carelessly dragged into contemporary debates. Don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with utilising Newman in the 21st century: he wrote and preached brilliantly on diverse topics (some of which are as urgent now as they were back then) so later commentators are always likely to recruit him.
All one wishes is that some of the more slapdash recruiters (and they exist in the academy as well as the more populist byways) treated Newman with a little more respect and intellectual courtesy.
Firing off a random Newman quote to shore up arguments he would have found curious or reprehensible has become a theological bad habit. New Newman books therefore tend to fill with me dread. This latest brace provoked a few moments of offence but (far more often) it reminded me that the sensitive, nuanced study of Newman is in rude health.
The Cambridge Companion to Newman is a splendid volume. The bench of contributors is tremendous and the authors manage to strike a balance between providing nifty summaries of aspects of Newman’s thought (useful for the general reader) and more focused speculations about the intricacies of Newman’s theologising (which will thrill specialists). Alongside a reliable biographical account, there are chapters on Newman’s thoughts about faith, the Patristic legacy, justification, revelation, the nature of the Church, conscience, and much else besides.
For me, the stand-out piece is Gerard McCarren’s summary of Newman’s analysis of the development of doctrine. Any established Church, the Roman Catholic variety included, faces an obvious, reasonable, and sceptical question: if it is the curator of an authentic religious “truth”, how does it explain the fact that, since time immemorial, interpretations of Christianity have been so diverse? Given all the competing denominations and dogmas, isn’t the idea of doctrinal fixity a pipe dream? Why did notions such as transubstantiation or papal primacy or even a workable understanding of the nature of Christ take centuries to establish themselves?
Newman took such issues very seri ously and he fastened upon an elegant, if deeply contestable, solution. Scripture was both keystone and starting point and, since we are human beings, we require time to flesh out the consequences of what the Gospel teaches us. As the centuries sail by we might even gain new insights and refine our understanding of the Christian message.
Newman admitted that spotting the difference between authentic advance and doctrinal corruption is difficult but, with typical boldness, he provided a series of tests: logical development, consistency with the faith of the Apostles (“preservation of type”, “continuity of principles” in Newman’s jargon), and so forth. There could still be authenticity amid the flux.
Newman’s theory (however warmly it has been embraced) has always struck me as inadequate (it is all a tad too convenient and a conspicuous, after-the-horse-has-bolted exercise in philosophising one’s way out of a tricky corner) but it was also rather brilliant and I have rarely seen it being anatomised with such economy and precision. McCarren only requires 12 pages: others write bloated, door-stopping books. This is a magnificent achievement.
Other highlights in the Cambridge volume are a detailed study (by Francis Sullivan) of Newman’s response to the 19th-century definition of papal infallibility (a notion with which he had no fundamental problems, though he grumbled about its timing and specific elucidation), and a fabulous chapter (by Denis Robinson) on Newman the preacher. If you require a reliable introduction to Newman, the Cambridge Companion is an obvious first port of call.
That said, if you prefer the personal touch why not pick up Roderick Strange’s super little book? Strange hasn’t tried to write a comprehensive account of Newman’s career and thought but, for all his modest claims of focusing on “Newman’s influence on me”, he manages to provide some lucid, penetrating analyses.
He makes the excellent point that Newman should be regarded as more than a rarefied controversialist. Throughout his career, on both sides of the 1845 conversion, Newman was deeply committed to his pastoral role. There are a few moments when Strange’s personal reminiscences are overly distracting but the book easily redeems itself by dint of passion and erudition. Newman is here for the ages and Christians of all stripes will always be intrigued by his personal spiritual odyssey and the rich fabric of his thought.
In his contribution to the Cambridge volume Avery Dulles offers some sage advice to those who want to understand the man: “To profit from Newman’s wisdom we should not be content to quote statements from one or another of his works.” That, Dulles argues, is a perilous pursuit because Newman was not a flawlessly systematic thinker and his ideas evolved over time.
We ought to read as much Newman as possible and, as Dulles concludes, “for those who have the patience to familiarise themselves with the full corpus of his writing, he is a teacher almost without peer”. General readers can’t be expected to plough through the entire Newman back catalogue, so a few pointers and short-cuts would come in very handy. Anyone who gobbles up these two books will be off to a very good start. Everyone’s library should devote at least half a shelf to Newman and Newman studies (reading the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, however fabulous it might be, really isn’t sufficient). The results are unpredictable. I’ve read my share of Newman and I disagree with nine out of 10 of his arguments, but he’s still one of my favourite Christian writers. Conclusion: there’s nothing more nourishing than squabbling with a dead genius.