Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Newman, I hardly knew you

Sometimes we can know that there is just something wrong with an idea, we can even explain why we believe it is wrong. We can see that it is not workable. Perhaps we cannot see the depth of its wrongness until we get to its cleanest exposition. That is what happened when Ken pointed me to Cardinal Newman's "Faith and Judgement". I believe CardinalNewman is simply wrong about faith. I actually found some themes I agree with in this essay, for instance that we do not start with knowledge, but with faith. I do believe, however, that he is wrong when he equates faith with submission to authority, indeed faith consists of that for him.

I read this essay, expecting some pretty tough arguments in favor of the preferred apologetic against anyone who disagrees with the pope: that only those who are in the RCC and submit to the authority of the Majesterium (or the EOC, depending on the individual RC) truly have faith, because their faith is based on authority, and not on what they themselves decide. All else is "private judgement", a mere opinion held, and as that is not really faith at all. If one's faith is based on "private judgement", one cannot believe in the Words of God, and one does not have the same faith as that of the early Christians, who all believed based on the authority of the ones preaching to them and not on the message they preached.

First, I will say that Cardinal Newman seems to be arguing against a naive view of the Scriptures as something from which we are free to extract whatever teachings we wish, and when a new idea pops into our heads, we are free to believe that is truth too, abandoning our previous truth in light of our new interpretation. This is not the Lutheran way of using the Scriptures, though. Newman writes:

...he who believes that God is true, and that this is His word, which he has committed to man, has no doubt at all. He is as certain that the doctrine taught is true, as that God is true; and he is certain, =because= God is true, =because= God has spoken, not because he sees its truth or can prove its truth.

That pretty well sums up the Lutheran way of understanding the Scriptures--first we are Christians, then we can understand what the Scriptures teach us. In other words, we believe the Scriptures are true because they are God's Word, because they testify of the same Christ we believe through the proclamation of the Gospel--the proclamation of his life, death and resurrection and the remission of sins and felowship with the Father that flow from that. Our certainty starts with the promises God made throughout history, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments. That we do not start with the Scriptures or any other plain text, Lutherans and Cardinal Newman agree, we are not to read the Scriptures and start extrapolating ideas about God and the world apart from faith. Where the difference lies is in Newman's idiosyncratic way of using the word "faith".

Lutherans believe faith is trust in God, "He who believes and is Baptized will be saved", and for Lutherans, the object of this faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, born of the Virgin Mary; who was crucified, died and was buried and rose again as Lord of Life. He who believes these things will be saved. For Lutherans, belief in the message preached by the preacher is faith. Faith in this promise is the gift of God, and not the product of "private judgement" or one's decision, or even of gleaning truth from the Scriptures. It is primarily a spiritual thing, a reorientation of the will. In fact, for Lutherans, "deciding to follow Christ" is ruled out until we are awakened by the Gospel through the Holy Ghost. We don't "decide" anything until we are reborn.

For Cardinal Newman however, it is not enough that one believes the promises, it is not enough even to believe this faith is a supernatural gift; one must believe the promises based on the authority of the one preaching, or one does not actually believe the promises because one does not have the faith of the first Christians. Newman writes:

Now, is it not certain that faith in the time of the Apostles consisted in submitting? and is it not certain that it did not consist in judging for one's self.... then were men to receive it? why did so many embrace it? on the word of the Apostles, who were, as their powers showed, messengers from God. Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority...

...The simple account of their remaining as they are, is, that they lack one thing,--they have not faith; it is a state of mind, it is a virtue, which they do not recognise to be praiseworthy, which they do not aim at possessing...

First, it seems that that Newman changes the focus from the message to the messenger, for even if one believes the message, it makes no difference unless one believes in the messenger's authority. He goes even further and says that any Protestants who believe in e.g. the Flood, do so out of habit and not because they actually conform their views to God's revelation in the Scriptures, whereas the Catholic believes these things because of faith, defined as submission to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. (It seems to me it would be hard to find a Catholic who believes in the Flood through faith these days, but I digress). Where we agree with him is that God's message of salvation needs to be spoken by people, we are saved through means, not unmediated action by God; he uses his creation to bring us to faith in him. However, Newman is wrong to imply that faith comes because of submission to a teacher. Indeed, he goes on to say that unless one is in submission to authority, one does not believe in anything when he writes "..that since they have not this faculty of religious belief,no wonder they do not embrace that [the RCC], which cannot really be embraced without it [faith]. They do not believe any teaching at all in any true sense..." So, another difference between Lutheran doctrine and Newman's teaching is that for Newman, faith is in an important way a command, whereas for Lutherans, the Gospel proclamation is an invitation to believe in Jesus Christ, so we may live. There s a huge gulf between starting with power and authority and starting with God's invitation to eternal life in glory.

When the Apostles preached, according to Newman, people believed their message because of the authority of the Apostles, because of their miracles, because they perceived their words came from God. I will leave aside for the moment the semi-Pelagian implications of a hearer "deciding" someone's words are from God based on their assessment of the person, and instead describe why I believe Cardinal Newman's use of "faith" is just plain wrong. If anything, the message the Apostles preached was a story about a man who was executed and put to shame; yet this same man is God, rose again and will give eternal life to all who believe in his message of salvation. That is all they seem to be about, unless they have to face some controversy. Faith did not consist of submission to the Apostles, but belief in their message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Faith consists of belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we "submit" because we become his sheep when we believe the message they bring of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is a stumbling block to the Greeks because it does not conform to reason, it is an offense to the Jews because the idea of God hanging on a tree to die, i.e. suffering humiliation, is utter nonsense. No human authority is able to overcome these objections to the Gospel, only God can do that. Finally, when Jesus said "Repent and believe the Good News", are we really to believe that the Good News is submission to authority? Shouldn't the "good news" be good news?


Anonymous said...


Just wanted to let you know I'm reading you now that I know about you. Great post - I agree, from what I have heard about Newman from others, he is not half as profound as he is made out to be.


P.S. I have no plans for my own blog, but thank you for suggesting it. :)

bop said...

I’m again afraid you rather miss the point. Faith is not simply about belief, but about submission in belief. Even the devils believed and trembled but they did not in consequence have faith. According to your description one is incapable of distinguishing between devil and apostle. One can believe in the good news, but one must assent to daily lift up one’s cross before one can be said to have faith in it. And indeed there will be some days when one doesn’t lift up one’s cross. And on those days one doesn’t have faith. And what does one do then? Well, reestablish assent through the offices of the church. You should read Newman on Confession. And you should read Newman with your heart, not with your logician defensiveness.

Edward Reiss said...

Hello Again Bop! :-)

Newman here defines faith as submission to authority, and only afterwards as belief in the content of that faith.

Re: Demons. There is a difference, We trust while the demons merely know. Newman's whole point is that Protestants do not trust.

Re: Reading with the heart. Well, Cardinal Newman was advancing a logical argument here. As a Lutheran, I don't really have too much use for logic used above the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I am open to the idea that I may have missed something in Newman. But I am not open to having missed something because I did not read him with my heart. He was, as I said, using logical arguments.

bop said...

Demons. There is a difference, We trust while the demons merely know.

Well no. The demons believed and trembled. If you are equating believing and knowing, fair enough. But then there is a difference between trusting and believing. Which is Newman’s point. Faith is trusting in that it is belief put to action. One can believe without faith, but one cannot trust without faith. And the action of faith can only be as submission to the authority of Christ. Authority expressed through his Church. Jesus did not establish the church in authority for the fun of it. It serves a purpose.

Edward Reiss said...


As I said earlier, Newman defines faith as submission to authority. Not only that, he does so absolutely. In other words, one must absolutely believe what the authority says, or one is guilty of "private judgment".

In that vein, there is a difference between trusting and " believing". In fact, Newman's thesis is that Protestants have no faith, i.e. trust, because all their beliefs are nothing more than "private judgment". Hence their faith is like that of the demons in the Epistle of St. James. This is true even if a Protestant accidentally "believes" the truth. If you doubt me you can read his essay.

So, I say that the demons merely know who Christ is, and they fear him. Christians are his lambs though, and we trust in him. The two relationships could not be more different.

Also, you bring up another big difference between RC and Lutheran soteriology. You wrote:

"And the action of faith can only be as submission to the authority of Christ. Authority expressed through his Church. Jesus did not establish the church in authority for the fun of it. It serves a purpose."

The RC starts with authority, power, submission, glory. The Lutheran starts with grace, invitation, forgiveness, love. It is the difference between the theology of glory and power; and the theology of the cross and God's self sacrifice for his fallen creatures. The difference is as great as the East is from the West. And Newman is squarely within the authority/submission/power part of the equation, and that is where he is most wrong.

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