Peter Leithart is one of the most insightful Protestant thinkers of our day, but his recent post on “Tradition and the Individual Theologian” gave this Protestant pause. He begins with the assertion that “Catholics, Orthodox, and not a few Protestants have been known to reject theological novelties with a wave of the hand and an appeal to tradition.” They have, in other words, set up a dichotomy between tradition and new theological ideas. And, based on his last (rather startling) paragraph, Leithart readily places Newman in this camp. Newman was mistaken in asserting that to know history was to reject Protestantism, Leithart argues, for the history of theology is the history of individual thinkers who protested against the prevailing tradition and suggested new ways to think the tradition. So to object to all theological innovation—to think of tradition as a permanent feature of the theological landscape—is to misunderstand the history of theology.

Leithart is correct in pointing out that setting up a dichotomy between “Tradition” and “the individual” is highly problematic. But Leithart agrees with Newman more than he knows. We need only look to Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) to see that Newman thinks of the history of orthodox theology as a history of change and development, developed precisely by rethinking the tradition in light of new questions and suggesting new implications of the basic principles of the tradition.

Newman begins his Essay on the Development with an epistemological assertion: “It is characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.” And, he goes on to say, the more dimensions the idea brought before the human mind has, the more it will arrest and possess the minds of men, and the more “real” or “living” it can be said to be.

The Incarnation, writes Newman, is one such living idea—it is, in fact, the living idea of Christianity. Because of the great mystery at its center, its aspects are numberless, and our limited human minds cannot see them all at once. This is why there must be a process of development: 

This process . . . 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.

So, to take a few examples of developments according to Newman: “Original” sin is not stated in those words in the New Testament, and is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds, but it has been adopted by all the western churches. The practice of penance is not shown explicitly in the Bible. But it is a necessary consequence of baptism, since there must be a way to receive public forgiveness and readmission to the visible Church after public sin.

But with the possibility of development comes the possibility of a corruption of the central living idea. The Church, led by the Holy Spirit in its growing understanding of biblical revelation, in its development, must also be prepared for a series of tests and conflicts:

Whatever the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. . . . In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. [emph. added]

Faithful developments, writes Newman, are to be distinguished from corruptions by seven “notes”—it must correspond to its rudiments; it shows a continuity of principle; it assimilates and absorbs; it is a logical result of original teaching; it can be seen in earlier anticipations; it conserves orthodox teaching from the past; and it shows energy and permanence. In short, a faithful development is one which truly develops from what is in the biblical vision, and does not conflict with “the whole counsel of God.”

Newman believed that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was “extreme” and therefore not a faithful development, but a corruption. Newman had been an evangelical Protestant, and saw the incipient antinomianism in the English evangelicalism of his day as a mere continuation of this corruption. And no doubt Newman would say that today’s Protestant liberalism that rejects the catholic tradition on sex and marriage, and today’s evangelicalism that often rejects tradition in principle, are much the same: further corruption—the logical result of Luther’s unbiblical addition of the word “alone.”

So, in that sense, Leithart is right: Newman would object to the possibility of a Protestantism that protests historic doctrine that conflicts with modern social orthodoxy, and he would deny the legitimacy of those who deny the validity of tradition. But to those Protestants who want to think with the Great Tradition as they read the Bible, including those evangelicals like John Walton and Brent Sandy who celebrate the oral tradition in their Lost World of Scripture, Newman might say they are on the right track—that they are merely seeking to develop the idea of the Incarnation. He would no doubt say they must swim the Tiber to find the true expression of their findings, but he would also agree with Leithart that the proper use of tradition is not to refuse innovation but to consider new ways of developing its inner principles.

Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. He is the co-author of A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (Oxford).

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Articles by Gerald McDermott

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