John Henry Newman: A Saint for Today

Jim Tonkowich | Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation | Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Henry Newman: A Saint for Today

October 1, 2010

On September 19, during the first state visit a pope has ever paid to Great Britain, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Englishman John Henry Newman. Newman is now one step away from being officially named a Saint with a capital "S."

As a result of the publicity surrounding the beatification and the pope's historic visit to England, many of my Catholic friends have been reading or rereading Newman's many and noteworthy works. "You have to read Newman's The Idea of a University," said someone, "so that you can find out what you missed out on."

My hope is that my Protestant friends will take up and read as well. Newman's legacy is one we dare not ignore because he is preeminently a saint for our era.

Born in 1801, Newman had a powerful conversion experience at age 15 and soon after gave up his ambition of becoming a lawyer and began studying for the ministry. First as a minister in the Church of England and later as a convert and minister in the Catholic Church, Newman argued for an intellectually coherent, objectively true Christianity against those for whom objective truth in religion was not even a meaningful category. Newman called that commitment to subjectivity in religion "liberalism."

Delivering a lecture in 1879, Newman described liberalism:

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…. It teaches that all religions are to be tolerated, for all are a matter of opinion. Revealed religion [biblical Christianity] is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste, not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Sound familiar? It should. Christianity—including evangelical Christianity—is mired in the same relativistic mud 130 years after Newman spoke those words.

For example, Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Christian Smith discovered in his study of adults 19-24 years-old, "They seem to presuppose that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves." This, Smith is quick to note, includes many who attend evangelical churches.

The individual self, Smith found, is the final arbiter of truth for most in this age group. He also makes it clear that this generation learned this way of understanding the world, truth, and morality. Rather than rebelling against parents they are simply repeating what their parents taught them. Our cultural bias toward subjectivity and radical individualism runs very deep.

But Christian orthodoxy is not a free-for-all. In fact, orthodoxy, as Newman well knew, cannot be maintained in a world where everyone gets to pick and choose from the religious buffet table. If this kind of subjectivism is in our evangelical churches—and it is—then we need to act or the future is bleak indeed.

And while our era is different and the philosophical forces shaping the mid-nineteenth century did not include the kind of postmodernism and radical individualism we live with, the age-old tendency to want to decide for ourselves (see the story of the Serpent and Eve in Genesis 3:1-6) was Newman's life-long enemy.

As Pope Benedict said in his sermon the evening before Newman was canonized, "At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life's work as a struggle against a growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion."

Newman's solution was a deep commitment to theology: not his own theology or even recent theology, but to the theology of the Church through the ages. We should not attempt to read the Bible entirely by ourselves thus enabling our own private interpretations. That is not to say we should not read the Bible privately, but rather that we must read the Bible with the Church, as heirs to more than two thousand years of (to use a very unpopular term these days) dogma. Newman wrote:

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. 

Stated dogma includes the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, and other catechisms and statements of belief. While denomination specific and not identical, these all serve as guardrails that keep us from running off into the well-worn errors of the past. When it comes to doctrinal errors, there really is nothing new under the sun. As a result, error can be avoided if we are prepared by an understanding of sound theology that in turn informs our Bible reading and our moral decision making.

Commenting on Newman, scholar George Weigel correctly stated:

For there seems to be an iron law built into the Christian encounter with modern life and culture: Christian communities that maintain a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral borders flourish, while Christian communities whose borders become so porous that it's hard to tell who's in and who's out wither and die. 

"We can believe what we choose," wrote Newman. Then he added, "We are answerable for what we choose to believe." Our choices have real world consequences.

Christianity, a friend is fond of saying, is always personal, but it is never individualistic. As Christians we belong to the Church, something bigger, older, and far wiser than we are. Newman's instance that we stand in the Great Tradition on the shoulders of giants who, while having their mystical moments, nonetheless created the great synthesis of faith and reason that marks, protects, and empowers God's people in every generation.

Newman wrote:

I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it."

I can think of no more pressing need in the Church today as such men and women. A familiarity with the thought and the gentle pastoral spirit of John Henry Newman can be a stepping stone in reaching that noble and as yet unfulfilled goal.

Jim Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More of his work can be found at