As a Protestant, I reject the theology of the canonization of saints. But as an admirer of certain aspects of John Henry Newman’s legacy, I am glad that his upcoming promotion may bring his work to wider attention. His canonization will no doubt be the occasion for publishing some fine books on the subject, just in time for Christmas.
Newman inspires devotion—sometimes fanatical devotion—among his Roman Catholic admirers. I am Protestant and certainly no Newmaniac, but I am a Newmanophile. The distinction is important and can perhaps be best illustrated by the polarized reactions to Frank Turner’s biography of the cardinal. Newmaniacs deplore it as virtually on a par with the most famous anti-Newman tract of all time, his brother Francis’s Contributions Chiefly to the Early History of the Late Cardinal Newman. Newmanophiles, however, see it as adding critical historical perspective to a field otherwise dominated by a tendency toward hagiography, ironically from both right and left within the Catholic Church. To be a Newmanophile is to enjoy his prose style, admire his character, and appreciate his contribution to Christian thought while still noting his flaws and failures.
Dan Hitchens recently described Newman as “a literary and theological genius.” That he certainly was. For years, I have told students who want to improve their prose that they need to read three great English writers: William Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Cardinal Newman. No less a connoisseur of literary elegance than James Joyce, speaking through Stephen Dedalus, declared Newman to be the greatest of all English prose stylists.
But for all of the dazzling brilliance of the sermons and the Apologia, his writings do vary dramatically in quality. His novels are mediocre, replete with cardboard characters and dreary, didactic speechifying. Callista has some curiosity value as a Christian novel set in the third century, but only Loss and Gain has remained consistently in print; and that, I suspect, is not because of its literary merit but because of its trite apologetic for Rome. As for Newman’s theology, the Development and the Grammar certainly represent serious and influential contributions to religious thought. Yet Tract XC remains one of the most self-serving and embarrassing pieces of historical and theological tosh ever penned by an otherwise intelligent person. Not even the author found his arguments cogent or persuasive—why should anyone else do so?
Yet Protestants, as I have written elsewhere, should read Newman and take him seriously, particularly his thoughts on doctrinal development and on Christianity as a dogmatic faith. But there are other reasons to study his work. While it may seem paradoxical to say this, his very lack of originality is also one of his great contributions to the Christian faith.
Take the doctrine of God, for example—a dogmatic locus which in evangelical circles has been increasingly detached from the church’s historic creedal tradition. It is now common in Protestant circles to hear it said that one cannot preach Christ crucified and still maintain classical theism. Newman, a careful reader of the fourth and fifth centuries, and an aficionado of the thought of the Alexandrian fathers Athanasius and Cyril, would vehemently disagree. His sermons make it clear that the most profound preaching of Christ arises precisely from the deepest and most knowledgeable commitment to creedal Christianity. Indeed, Discourses to Mixed Congregations 14 (“The Mystery of Divine Condescension”) and 15 (“Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion”) are homiletic masterpieces that exemplify how to use classical theism to bring out the beauty and drama of Christ’s life and work. They repay careful study. Newman’s doctrine of God and his Christology were deeply unoriginal; but his rhetorical deployment of them in the pulpit has few equals in the history of the church.
For all of his intellectual brilliance, however, the thing I find most compelling and attractive about Newman is his humble concern for ordinary people, something that shines in his extensive correspondence. Not only did he exchange letters with lords and archbishops, he also found time to respond to simple letters from young relatives and random nobodies asking for his advice. My favorite of them all is his response to an invitation from Monsignor George Talbot to deliver a Lenten sermon in a prestigious church in Rome in 1864. In his terse reply, Newman delivered one of his finest put-downs:
Dear Monsignor Talbot,
I have received your letter, inviting me to preach next lent in your church at Rome, to ‘an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England.’
However, Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work, which you cut out for me: and I beg to decline your offer.
I am etc,. JHN.
It is hard to imagine many of the big names in the Christian world today adopting such an attitude. But thankfully Newman avoided that most contemporary of Christian errors: the confusion of self-promotion with the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
For sixteen years as a seminary professor, I had a ringside seat at the circus that is American Big Eva. And during that time three things disillusioned me more than anything else: the self-promoting careerism of the ringmasters and their ever-present epigones; the focus on Christian-famous celebrity leaders, Big Eva’s own Warholian answer to the cult of the saints; and the cocksure confidence in theological positions and priorities which are in fact antithetical to Christian orthodoxy as found in the Catholic creeds and Reformation Protestant confessions.
In light of this, Protestants might well find that reflection on both the teaching and the example of the humble, trenchant, learned, flawed, pastoral Newman might be instructive even as we reject his ecclesiastical convictions and his newly-minted sainthood.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.