Sunday, October 20, 2019

John Henry Newman’s "acceptance of non-Christian religions”

A couple of days ago, whilst engaged in research concerning some enigmatic statements contained within Newman’s  An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I found a provocative article by Matthew Ramsay titled, “Ex Umbris: Newman’s New Evangelization”, which is germane to my investigation into those statements. Ramsay’s article seems to be an attempt to justify Newman’s overall, positive acceptance of non-Christian religious thought and practice in his apologetic methodology.

[PDF copy available via THIS LINK.]

From the opening abstract, we read:

This article investigates Newman’s arguments for Christianity in light of his acceptance of non-Christian religions. Drawing primarily on the Grammar of Assent and the Oxford University Sermons, as well as Newman’s poetry, prayers, and other works, I argue that Newman’s acceptance of other religions forms the foundation of his Christian apologetic. I first look at Newman’s view of non-Christian religions, where he sees an ascending movement of humanity searching for God and a descending movement of God revealing himself to humanity. (Page 1)

On the next page, Ramsay wrote:

Cardinal Avery Dulles has argued that “Newman made a major contribution by bringing out the importance of what he called ‘natural religion’ as a presupposition for the effectiveness of any demonstratio christiana.” Against the prevailing apologetics of Italian manuals, which attempted to convert by sheer logic, Newman developed a holistic apologetic that sees Christianity as the fulfillment of humanity’s natural religious inclinations. (Page 2)

He then lists four elements concerning Newman’s argument for religious faith:

Newman argued, first, that religion can be good and true outside of Christian revelation; second, that even in non-religious assent, people are not convinced by reason alone; third, that assent to Christianity models other types of assent, which means that religious knowledge outside of Christianity provides the foundation of conversion to Christianity; and finally that the New Testament provides examples of evangelization that follows this model. (Ibid.)

Towards the end of his article, Ramsay advances the following:

Newman’s apologetic is essentially based on two convictions: religious faith is rooted in natural religion, and we are not convinced by reason alone. True natural religion comes from the ascending movements of reason, conscience, and an innate desire for God, and from the descending movement of God’s wide action throughout the world. Assent in all matters of life comes from experience, prior beliefs, and internal convictions rather than reason alone. Religious conversion, then, is rooted in prior religious knowledge and practice, and Christianity is the fulfillment of religious truth already believed and lived.

Because conversion is a movement from partial to fuller truth, a Christian must be willing to recognize truth and goodness outside Christianity. This recognition is not a denial of the centrality of Christ but an affirmation of God’s power and action throughout history. Nor is it a rejection of evangelization. Truth in umbris et imaginibus seeks fulfillment in the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). (Page 18)

[The above brings to mind the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, wherein we read: The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.]

Though Ramsay’s article has been a useful aid in my ongoing study of the recently sainted John Henry Newman, I am still left pondering over the following selections from his pen:

I do not know when I first learnt to consider that Antiquity was the true exponent of the doctrines of Christianity and the basis of the Church of England; but I take it for granted that the works of Bishop Bull, which at this time I read, were my chief introduction to this principle. The course of reading, which I pursued in the composition of my volume, was directly adapted to develop it in my mind. What principally attracted me in the ante-Nicene period was the great Church of Alexandria, the historical centre of teaching in those times. Of Rome for some centuries comparatively little is known. The battle of Arianism was first fought in Alexandria; Athanasius, the champion of the truth, was Bishop of Alexandria; and in his writings he refers to the great religious names of an earlier date, to Origen, Dionysius, and others, who were the glory of its see, or of its school. The broad philosophy of Clement and Origen carried me away; the philosophy, not the theological doctrine; and I have drawn out some features of it in my volume, with the zeal and freshness, but with the partiality, of a neophyte. Some portions of their teaching, magnificent in themselves, came like music to my inward ear, as if the response to ideas, which, with little external to encourage them, I had cherished so long. These were based on the mystical or sacramental principle, and spoke of the various Economies or Dispensations of the Eternal. I understood these passages to mean that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable: Scripture was an allegory: pagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets; for "thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given." (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1865/1945, pp. 17, 18 – bold emphasis mine.)

There are various revelations all over the earth which do not carry with them the evidence of their divinity. Such are the inward suggestions and secret illuminations granted to so many individuals; such are the traditionary doctrines which are found among the heathen, that "vague and unconnected family of religious truths, originally from God, but sojourning, without the sanction of miracle or a definite home, as pilgrims up and down the world, and discernible and separable from the corrupt legends with which they are mixed, by the spiritual mind alone. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878/1989, p. 79 - bold emphasis mine.)

There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it, and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth. This is the principle, above spoken of, which I have called the Sacramental.  (Ibid. p. 368 - bold emphasis mine.)

Confiding then in the power of Christianity to resist the infection of evil, and to transmute the very instruments and appendages of demon-worship to an evangelical use, and feeling also that these usages had originally come from primitive revelations and from the instinct of nature, though they had been corrupted ; and that they must invent what they needed, if they did not use what they found ; and that they were moreover possessed of the very archetypes, of which paganism attempted the shadows; the rulers of the Church from early times were prepared, should the occasion arise, to adopt, or imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace, as well as the philosophy of the educated class. (Ibid. pp. 371, 372 - bold emphasis mine.)

In the course of the fourth century two movements or developments spread over the face of Christendom, with a rapidity characteristic of the Church ; the one ascetic, the other ritual or ceremonial. We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness ; holy water ; asylums ; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields ; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church. (Ibid. p. 373, - bold emphasis mine.)

After relating the replacement of festivals, rites, shrines and temples dedicated to pagan gods and heroes with Christian martyrs, Newman then writes:

The introduction of Images was still later, and met with more opposition in the West than in the East. It is grounded on the same great principle which I am illustrating; and as I have given extracts from Theodoret for the developments of the fourth and fifth centuries, so will I now cite St. John Damascene in defence of the further developments of the eighth.

"As to the passages you adduce," he says to his opponents, "they abominate not the worship paid to our Images, but that of the Greeks, who made them gods. It needs not therefore, because of the absurd use of the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious. Enchanters and wizards use adjurations, so does the Church over its Catechumens; but they invoke devils, and she invokes God against devils. Greeks dedicate images to devils, and call them gods; but we to True God Incarnate, and to God's servants and friends, who drive away the troops of devils." Again, "As the holy Fathers overthrew the temples and shrines of the devils, and raised in their places shrines in the names of Saints and we worship them, so also they overthrew the images of the devils, and in their stead raised images of Christ, and God's Mother, and the Saints. And under the Old Covenant, Israel neither raised temples in the name of men, nor was memory of man made a festival; for, as yet, man's nature was under a curse, and death was condemnation, and therefore was lamented, and a corpse was reckoned unclean and he who touched it; but now that the Godhead has been combined with our nature, as some life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and is trans-elemented into incorruption. Wherefore the death of Saints is made a feast, and temples are raised to them, and Images are painted ... For the Image is a triumph, and a manifestation, and a monument in memory of the victory of those who have done nobly and excelled, and of the shame of the devils defeated and overthrown." (Ibid. pp. 376, 377 - bold emphasis mine.)

Back to my studies…

Grace and peace,



Rory said...

I have read and re-read your post several times. I am a little skeptical that Newman would have agreed with the way Ramsay and Cd. Dulles praise his work.

It has been a long time since I read Grammar of Assent. But I can see from what I have highlighted that I tend to agree with what Newman says about natural religion. He is not talking about mankind moving higher and higher towards God through belief in the often horrifying errors of false religions. He insists as I do, and as he claims St. Augustine does, that nobody is wrong about everything. (That is my way of putting it.) Truth is the only possible building block toward God, and it seems to me to harmonize with the Catholic maxim, "Grace builds upon nature."

Doctor appointment imminent. I'll get up some quotes tonight or probably tomorrow.



Rory said...

I concur with Newman about what is the foundation of all religion. It is a truth that can be known through natural revelation according to the Catholic Church:

"If anyone have said that the one true God, our Creator and our Lord, cannot be known with certitude by those things which have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema." (Canon 1, Revelation, Vatican Council I)

According to Scripture (Romans 1:19, 20), the soul that does not recognize The truth that there is one God and maker of all things, is inexcusable:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: [19] Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

Chapter 5 of Newman's Grammar of Assent is entitled Apprehension and Assent in Religion. At the end of the short chapter he discusses the the "threeness" as well as the "oneness" of God in a way that makes a critical distinction about the way one might gain moral certitude about the threeness as against how one should gain certitude about the oneness. Previously, Newman had spoken about how we believe in divinely revealed truths on the authority of God, "because He says it". Newman excludes the oneness of God from this kind of knowledge:

"However, this 'because He says it' does not enter into the scope of the present inquiry, but only the truths themselves, and these particular truths, 'He is One,' 'He is Three;' and of these two, both of which are in Revelation, I shall consider 'He is One,' not as revealed truth [divinely revealed], but as what it is also, a natural truth [naturally revealed], the foundation of all religion. And with it I begin."

---An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Longmans, Green, and Co., May 1939, p. 100

I will consider any evidence that Newman would have been comfortable with the present claims by apologists for Pope Francis that Catholics may be enriched from the "natural religion" of Amazonian witch doctors. I put "natural religion" in quotes because it seems doubtful that tribal pantheists and polytheists practise a "natural religion" in the sense Newman is using the expression. I am willing to be corrected by other citations from Newman, not his overzealous expositors. It appears to me from what is highlighted above that unless anyone profess the one God, they do not even have the "foundation of all religion".


David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Busy day for me; just got back from our bi-weekly, over the river shopping. Since Veronica drove, I was able to get some reading in. Before I provide a few selections from today’s readings, I wanted to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to put a couple of posts yesterday.

Now, to Newman. Given the topic we are discussing, the following I read earlier today especially caught my eye:

>>It often happens that, in pursuing the successive stages of an investigation, the mind continually reverses its judgment to and fro, according as the weight of argument passes over and back again from the one alternative of the question to the other; and in such a case the ultimate utility of the inquiry does not consist in the conclusion finally adopted, which may be no other than that with which the inquiry was commenced; but in the position in which we have learned to view it, and the circumstances with which we have associated it. It is plain, too, that the man who has gone through many of these progressive alternations of opinion, but has for some cause or other stopped short of the true view legitimately terminating the inquiry, would be farther from it in the mere enunciation of his sentiments, but in the state of his mind far nearer to it, than he who has not examined the subject at all, and is right by accident.>> (Fifteen Sermons Preached Before The University of Oxford, Sermon VI, pp. 100, 101.)

The above words from Newman’s sermon are somewhat refreshing to me at this present hour, for I have been frustrated with my studies over the last month or so in that clarity towards a definitive conclusion has been elusive. With that said, it now seems that I need to exercise patience, and remain diligent, realizing that it may take a considerable amount of time and effort to reach the clarity I am seeking.

One more selection from Newman before I go back to reading. It comes from the aforementioned sermon, and concerns 'natural religion':

>>20. Against these fearful traces or omens of God's visitation upon sin, we are, of course, at liberty to set all the gracious intimations, given us in nature, of His placability. Certain as it is, that all our efforts and all our regrets are often unable to rid us of the consequences of previous disobedience, yet doubtless they often alleviate these, and often remove them. And this goes to show that His Governance is not one of absolute unmixed justice, which, of course, (were it so) would reduce every one of us to a state of despair. Nothing, however, is told us in nature of the limits of the two rules, of love and of justice, or how they are to be reconciled; nothing to show that the rule of mercy, as acting on moral agents, is more than the supplement, not the substitute of the fundamental law of justice and holiness. And, let it be added, taking us even as we are, much as each of us has to be forgiven, yet a religious man would hardly wish the rule of justice obliterated. It is a something which he can depend on and recur to; it gives a character and a certainty to the course of Divine Governance; and, tempered by the hope of mercy, it suggests animating and consolatory thoughts to him; so that, far from acquiescing in the theory of God's unmixed benevolence, he will rather protest against it as the invention of those who, in their eagerness to conciliate the enemies of the Truth, care little about distressing and sacrificing its friends.


David Waltz said...


21. Different, indeed, is his view of God and of man, of the claims of God, of man's resources, of the guilt of disobedience, and of the prospect of forgiveness, from those flimsy self-invented notions, which satisfy the reason of the mere man of letters, or the prosperous and self-indulgent philosopher! It is easy to speak eloquently of the order and beauty of the physical world, of the wise contrivances of visible nature, and of the benevolence of the objects proposed in them; but none of those topics throw light upon the subject which it most concerns us to understand, the character of the Moral Governance under which we live; yet, is not this the way of the wise in this world, viz. instead of studying that Governance as a primary subject of inquiry, to assume they know it, or to conceive of it after some work of "Natural Theology," or, at best, to take their notions of it from what appears on the mere surface of human society?—as if men did not put on their gayest and most showy apparel when they went abroad! To see truly the cost and misery of sinning, we must quit the public haunts of business and pleasure, and be able, like the Angels, to see the tears shed in secret,—to witness the anguish of pride and impatience, where there is no sorrow,—the stings of remorse, where yet there is no repentance,—the wearing, never-ceasing struggle between conscience and sin,—the misery of indecision,—the harassing, haunting fears of death, and a judgment to come,—and the superstitions which these engender. Who can name the overwhelming total of the world's guilt and suffering,—suffering crying for vengeance on the authors of it, and guilt foreboding it!

22. Yet one need not shrink from appealing even to the outward face of the world, as proving to us the extreme awfulness of our condition, as sinners against the law of our being; for a strange fact it is, that boldly as the world talks of its own greatness and its enjoyments, and easily as it deceives the mere theophilanthropist, yet, when it proceeds to the thought of its Maker, it has ever professed a gloomy religion, in spite of itself. This has been the case in all times and places. Barbarous and civilized nations here agree. The world cannot bear up against the Truth, with all its boastings. It makes an open mock at sin, yet secretly attempts to secure an interest against its possible consequences in the world to come. Where has not the custom prevailed of propitiating, if possible, the unseen powers of heaven?—but why, unless man were universally conscious of his danger, and feared the punishment of sin, while he "hated to be reformed"? Where have not sacrifices been in use, as means of appeasing the Divine displeasure?—and men have anxiously sought out what it was they loved best, and would miss most painfully, as if to strip themselves of it might move the compassion of God. Some have gone so far as to offer their sons and their daughters as a ransom for their own sin,—an abominable crime doubtless, and a sacrifice to devils, yet clearly witnessing man's instinctive judgment upon his own guilt, and his foreboding of punishment. How much more simple a course had it been, merely to have been sorry for disobedience, and to profess repentance, were it a natural doctrine (as some pretend), that repentance is an atonement for offences committed!


David Waltz said...


23. Nor is this all. Not only in their possessions and their offspring, but in their own persons, have men mortified themselves, with the hope of expiating deeds of evil. Burnt-offerings, calves of a year old, thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil, their first-born for their transgression, the fruit of their body for the sin of their soul, even these are insufficient to lull the sharp throbbings of a heavy-laden conscience. Think of the bodily tortures to which multitudes have gloomily subjected themselves, and that for years, under almost every religious system, with a view of ridding themselves of their sins, and judge what man conceives of the guilt of disobedience. You will say that such fierceness in self-tormenting is a mental disease, and grows on a man. But this answer, granting there is truth in it, does not account for the reverence in which such persons have usually been held. Have we no instinct of self-preservation? Would these same persons gain the admiration of others, unless their cruelty to their own flesh arose from a religious motive? Would they not be derided as madmen, unless they sheltered themselves under the sanction of an awful, admitted truth, the corruption and the guilt of human nature?

24. But it will be said, that Christians, at least, must admit that these frightful exhibitions of self-torture are superstition. Here I may refer to the remarks with which I began. Doubtless these desperate and dark struggles are to be called superstition, when viewed by the side of true religion; and it is easy enough to speak of them as superstition, when we have been informed of the gracious and joyful result in which the scheme of Divine Governance issues. But it is man's truest and best religion, before the Gospel shines on him. If our race be in a fallen and depraved state, what ought our religion to be but anxiety and remorse, till God comforts us? Surely, to be in gloom,—to view ourselves with horror,—to look about to the right hand and to the left for means of safety,—to catch at every thing, yet trust in nothing,—to do all we can, and try to do more than all,—and, after all, to wait in miserable suspense, naked and shivering, among the trees of the garden, for the hour of His coming, and meanwhile to fancy sounds of woe in every wind stirring the leaves about us,—in a word, to be superstitious,—is nature's best offering, her most acceptable service, her most mature and enlarged wisdom, in the presence of a holy and offended God. They who are not superstitious without the Gospel, will not be religious with it: and I would that even in us, who have the Gospel, there were more of superstition than there is; for much is it to be feared that our security about ourselves arises from defect in self-knowledge rather than in fulness of faith, and that we appropriate to ourselves promises which we cannot read.>> (Fifteen Sermons Preached Before The University of Oxford, Sermon VI, pp. 113-118 – bold emphasis mine.)

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Last night—in the previous thread—Nick provided a link to an article by Bryan Cross that should be of interest to you:

On Religious Liberty: An Objection Considered

Hope you have the time to check it out, and then share your thoughts…

Grace and peace,


Rory said...

Hey Dave,

Thanks. It sounds like Dr. Bryan Cross would allow for opposition to false religions on the part of the state in his interpretation of the meaning of freedom from coercion semantically in a way to reconcile it with the Syllabus of Errors. But I don't think he accounts for what the Council Fathers explicitly called for as the implications of freedom from coercion in Dignitatis Humanae, 4.

I doubt others are interested, but just in case, there is a new post up at the old thread our blog host mentions above.