I discovered John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua on a rainy morning in Cambridge in 1994. I was a twenty-seven-year-old junior professor of medieval and Reformation theology at the University of Nottingham, and I happened to be in town for a day or two of study. I had taken shelter from the English weather in a bookshop when I saw a copy of the Apologia on a shelf. This, I decided, was the day on which my Protestant prejudices against the erstwhile most dangerous man in England would be confirmed. So that afternoon I sat by the fireside in the senior guest room at St. John’s and read the book from start to finish—not because I wanted to learn from Newman, but because I wanted to hate him.
But on that damp day in Cambridge, the story of Newman’s spiritual life gave me no cause to denounce him. I was gripped by the language and absorbed by the dogmas. Here was a man who had asked many of the questions that pressed on me as a young Christian and academic. I could not put the book down. Decades later, I still keep it close at hand and reread favorite passages. I own various critical editions. I have it on my Kindle.
There is no single reason why the story of one of the great Roman Catholic conversions should be so valuable to me, a Protestant. The prose is graceful, the narrative intriguing, the polemic compelling. But there is more to the Apologia than these literary pleasures. Newman’s work was not only profound in its analysis of his own religious development. It was prophetic in its assertion of truths that the present age has come to regard as heresies.
If today’s liberators of the self decry dogma, history, and institutional authority as instruments of oppression, Newman offers these same things as instruments of liberation. He knew that freedom requires a place to stand, and that the great creeds of Christendom need institutions to maintain them. To a young academic such as I was, facing the corrosive impact of critical theory on higher education, Newman’s ecclesiastical polemic against the “suicidal excesses” of unfettered human thought retained a powerful relevance. More positively, Newman confronted me with questions that I saw I needed to address. What is the essence of Christianity? How and why does doctrine develop? What is the significance of the institutional Church?
The first thrill of identification came at the start of the work, where Newman reflects on the moment to which, even as a cardinal, he dated his conversion to Christianity:
When I was fifteen (in the autumn of 1816), a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.
This was my religion he was describing, a religion that makes claims, truth claims, about the past, the present, and the future—a religion of dogmatic assertions. I believed that Christ was God incarnate, that the tomb was empty, that the resurrected Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. These are not psychological projections of my religious self-consciousness. They are beliefs about time and reality. And this was Newman’s faith, too. But there is an irony here: Reading on, I found that this very love of dogma eventually led Newman away from the evangelicalism with which I then identified, first to Tractarianism and then to Rome.
I was disturbed by this. Why would Newman need to swim the Tiber when, it seemed to me, this dogmatic faith was available in the Reformation-inspired Articles of his own Anglican Church? It would have been easy to shut the book, smile, and say, “There it is—the betrayal!” But I could not. Newman’s narrative—written in answer to Charles Kingsley’s accusation of dishonesty—was compelling in its honesty and coherence, at times painfully so. It did not lead me to cry “Traitor!” Instead, it clarified for me a basic problem in my own evangelicalism. Then it pinpointed the significance of that problem for my Christian faith as a whole. I had begun the Apologia looking for evidence against Newman, and instead I found myself rethinking my own approach to Christianity.
Newman understood one of the great problems of Protestant evangelicalism. While it holds to a dogmatic faith, evangelicalism demands more than this: an experience, that of the new birth, and a vigorous activism. Historically, this combination has proved a difficult one. When evangelicals have been forced to choose, experience and activism usually have beaten out dogma. As long as we have experienced Jesus or told a lot of people about him, we need not be too precise about who he is or what he did.
In this emphasis on experience, Newman saw a point of contact between evangelicalism and religious liberalism. The latter he defined as “the anti-dogmatic principle.” In contrast to both evangelicalism and liberalism, orthodox Christianity asserted the priority of truth over experience and of dogma over psychology. I was already aware of the perils of connecting the dogmatic to the experiential, but I had never faced it in quite this way. Newman confronted me on my own ground—that of the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy—and demanded that I examine what my dogmatic principle meant for my Christian life. What was the essence of the Gospel? Was it first and foremost a truth about God, or was it more to do with human experience and practical living? Were doctrinal statements true in an objective sense, or were they true only because of their subjective impact in the life of the believer?
In the years since I discovered Newman, these questions have become more acute and more relevant. On that rainy morning in Cambridge, I inhabited a religious world in which dogma seemed secure; and a demonstrative faith, surely, is a good thing. But now I am convinced that, all too often, emotivism and the aesthetic tastes of the world become authoritative practical criteria of the true and the good. The philosophy of Oprah has proved more deadly to the dogmatic faith than the higher criticism of D. F. Strauss. For many Christians, truth is found not in dogmas (even as they may affirm them) but in the feelings of fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness that faith provides.
Newman spoke against this triumph of the aesthetic and the therapeutic: “From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.”
Reading these lines, I can say nothing but “Amen!” Take away dogma and there is nothing left of Christianity. Important as experience and activism may be in their proper place, when detached from dogma they are but mysticism and pragmatism. To be a Christian is not to indulge in a matter of taste nor to express a personal preference. It is before everything else to believe in Christian truth. Faith, no matter how ardent, is empty without content.
As I have read and reread the Apologia, however, I have had to face something that even the most dogmatically inclined evangelical often avoids: the historical nature of dogma. At Oxford, Newman dabbled briefly in liberalism, then was rescued from it by his study of the Church Fathers. This near-disaster reinforced his convictions that patristic Christianity was the purest Christianity and that the study of the history of dogma was a vital part of the theological task. I had already known this in an unreflective way. I taught the history of dogma for a living. I was quite aware that the Nicene formulation of the Trinity had not sprung fully formed from the pages of the Bible into the mind of the Church. But life is often compartmentalized, and I had never reflected on the theological significance of the historical work that I pursued.
In Newman, I found a church historian of a different character. As a young believer, he had read Joseph Milner’s History of the Church of Christ, a standard Protestant account. He then spent decades working out the implications of that history for his own faith. I saw that I needed to do likewise. I knew that the church history I often heard from evangelical pulpits was really a sanitized hagiography designed to comfort the brethren. If Newman faced the dogmatic challenges that history posed, then so must I. And if Newman could spend decades on the task, then so could I. I could hardly regard his conversion to Rome as a great betrayal unless I were willing to face the questions he sought to answer.
Newman wrestled with the trinitarian and christological debates of the fifth century, and his struggles paralleled my own. I was wondering why evangelical Protestants so often neglected trinitarianism in favor of understandings of salvation only remotely rooted in the doctrine of God. And why did the Church hold to positions such as dyothelitism—the teaching that the person of Jesus had two wills, one human and the other divine, which seemed alien to the simple text of Scripture? I needed answers, and I found in Newman a surprising source for them. Newman pointed me toward the dynamic development of historical debates about dogma, and to the institutional Church as the context and primary agent in these debates. These were vital connections, which had never been brought to my attention by any pastor or Christian mentor.
After reading the Apologia, I purchased An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Here Newman proposed an understanding of continuity in Christian dogma. I had found that evangelical biblicism made no sense of this topic. I was aware, for instance, that subordinationist views of the Son that saw Christ as in some sense derivative from the Father had been unexceptionable in the third century but were anathematized in the fourth. A simple appeal to the Bible without reference to the historical particularities of doctrinal debate could not help me to understand why this should be the case.
Yet the alternative liberalism of my university colleagues seemed to view history as something to be deconstructed, overcome, or simply avoided. My liberal colleagues were even less interested in puzzling out the continuity of truth in classical doctrine than were hard-nosed biblicists. It was as if the catholicity of the Church, or indeed the historicity of the Church, had nothing to say to theology. This seemed an impossible position to hold. My Christian faith is predicated on the Incarnation as a historical fact. Likewise, the Church into which I was baptized is a historical entity.
I was faced with two extremes: a view of revelation as incapable of development, and a view of development as incapable of being revelation. The one was as implausible as the other. Here I found in Newman a gentle guide, one who understood that the faith had been delivered definitively to the Church, yet who knew that the Church was a historical entity developing through time. This affirmation of apostolic fixity and historical development ultimately drove Newman to Rome. As he wrote in an 1844 letter, quoted in the Apologia:
Granting that the Roman (special) doctrines are not found drawn out in the early Church, yet I think there is sufficient trace of them in it, to recommend and prove them, on the hypothesis of the Church having a divine guidance, though not sufficient to prove them by itself. So that the question simply turns on the nature of the promise of the Spirit, made to the Church.
The last point was crucial to me. Newman brought me to see that the question of the doctrinal development led to and revised an affirmation of the Church as both historical entity and recipient of the Holy Spirit. The Church herself and her authority to teach provide crucial warrants for seeing a developing doctrine as the deepening of a continuous, unchanging revealed truth.
Thus did Newman’s view of development pose one final, necessary challenge: the need to take seriously the institutional Church, a notion alien to my evangelical world, where a “high” view of the Church typically meant little more than attending morning and evening services on a Sunday. For Newman, a high view of the Church meant a high view of the authority of the institutional Church and her offices and sacraments. In Newman’s mind, this high view revealed a connection between doctrinal development, the institutional church, and the primacy of Rome. The fateful year of 1845 was dominated by his drafting of An Essay Concerning the Development of Christian Doctrine, culminating in his conversion:
All this time I was hard at my Essay on Doctrinal Development. As I advanced, my view so cleared that instead of speaking any more of “the Roman Catholics,” I boldly called them Catholics. Before I got to the end, I resolved to be received, and the book remains in the state in which it was then, unfinished.
I had been struck the first time I read the Apologia by the antithesis Newman proposed between liberalism and the institutional Church. If liberalism was “the anti-dogmatic principle,” then liberals must take a low view of the foundation of dogma, the visible Church. I was attracted to this argument and challenged by it. Newman’s critique of liberalism’s aversion to dogma comported well with my own aversion to liberalism. But now I was forced to think harder about the Church as an institution. In my world, you read the Bible and prayed by yourself, and the Church was a support to individual piety. Newman made me recognize that what I held dear—the great dogmas of the faith, the creeds, God’s work in and through history—presupposed the institutional Church. The Church gives faith historical force and solidity by defining dogma and teaching it with authority.
For Newman, this logic led to Rome. In the Essay, he declared that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Here he certainly challenged me, and challenged me deeply, but in the end we parted company. It is one thing to argue for the development of trinitarianism and quite another to advocate the development of Marian dogma or Roman primacy. As a Protestant, I could see the exegetical basis for the former, with the dogma developing as the result of debates over biblical texts. But Marian dogma stands too free of biblical warrant, and Roman primacy has too complicated a history for me to see with clarity the hand of God behind it. Roman primacy seems an instance of church authority validating itself rather than serving as the instrument for a providential outworking of scriptural truths. From the beginning, I liked Newman. Against all expectation, I admired him. But on Mary and Rome, I could not bring myself to believe him.
Nevertheless, to this day, I appreciate his provocative claim and its all-or-nothing style. It raises a question that all thoughtful Christians must at some point address: How do we identify the true tradition of Christian teaching throughout history, and what part does the Church play in that tradition? The words “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” are blazoned on my favorite coffee mug, reminding me daily of the stakes for which we historical theologians play. To be deep in history is certainly, for instance, to cease to be an evangelical of the kind who allows experience to trump doctrine, who believes doctrine can be read off the surface of the biblical text, and who sees no theological or existential problem that cannot be solved with a proof text or two.
But that type of evangelicalism is not classic Protestantism. Ironically, in driving me back to history and pressing the questions of dogma, development, and the institutional Church, Newman imparted both an appreciation for Rome and a conviction that I can never make it my home. History witnesses (as Newman notes) to the relative unimportance of the bishop of Rome, even in Newman’s beloved fourth and fifth centuries, the study of which killed Anglicanism for him. And history since then has raised enough questions about the dogmatic competence of the papacy to give pause to the most convinced Roman Catholic.
So, even as Newman drove me away from much of evangelicalism, he led me not to Rome but to Geneva and to traditional, Reformed Protestantism—a religion that eschews the parading of personal religious experience, sees sacraments as crucial, and takes seriously its connection, through the great ecumenical creeds, to a Christianity that is bigger than its local expressions or even its denominational and confessional manifestations.
I had no idea, on that rainy day in Cambridge, that as I opened Newman’s Apologia I was to discover not an enemy but a lifelong friend, not a dusty Victorian but a vital thinker, and not a hectoring Catholic insisting I must convert but a guide toward a truer Protestantism. In the years since, Newman has been my constant companion and friendly interlocutor. As I swig coffee from my Newman mug and ruminate on the legend it bears, I am inclined to think of him as a mentor who posed to me the questions to which all Christians must give an answer.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.