Saint John Cardinal Newman: Development of Doctrine-Third Note-Power of Assimilation

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Continuing on with my series on the seven notes, I would call them tests, which Saint John Cardinal Newman developed for determining whether some aspect of Church teaching is a development of doctrine or a corruption of doctrine.  We began with Note Six-Conservative Action Upon Its Past, and I would highly recommend that any one who has not read the first post in the series read it here before proceeding with this post.  Go here to read the post on the First Note-Preservation of Type.  Go here to read the post on the Second Note-Continuity of Principles. This post will deal with the Third Note-Power of Assimilation.

In the Third Note Newman recognizes the fact all institutions of Man are subject to the impact of events and the assimilation of these events into the institution:

The stronger and more living is an idea, that is, the more powerful hold it exercises on the minds of men, the more able is it to dispense with safeguards, and trust to itself against the danger of corruption. As strong frames exult in their agility, and healthy constitutions throw off ailments, so parties or schools that live can afford to be rash, and will sometimes be betrayed into extravagances, yet are brought right by their inherent vigour. On the other hand, unreal systems are commonly decent externally. Forms, subscriptions, or Articles of religion are indispensable when the principle of life is weakly. Thus Presbyterianism has maintained its original theology in Scotland where legal subscriptions are enforced, while it has run into Arianism or Unitarianism where that protection is away. We have yet to see whether the Free Kirk can keep its present theological ground. The Church of Rome can consult expedience more freely than other bodies, as trusting to her living tradition, and is sometimes thought to disregard principle and scruple, when she is but dispensing with forms. Thus Saints are often characterized by acts which are no pattern for others; and the most gifted men are, by reason of their very gifts, sometimes led into fatal inadvertence. Hence vows are the wise defence of unstable virtue, and general rules the refuge of feeble authority.

Thus, for example, Saint Thomas Aquinas using the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle to look at Christian theology demonstrated the vigor of the Church rather than a weakness.  Of course not all new concepts or ideas can, or should be assimilated into the Church, hence the other Notes of Newman.

Newman on the Third Note:

 

In the physical world, whatever has life is characterized by growth, so that in no respect to grow is to cease to live. It grows by taking into its own substance external materials; and this absorption or assimilation is completed when the materials appropriated come to belong to it or enter into its unity. Two things cannot become one, except there be a power of assimilation in one or the other. Sometimes assimilation is effected only with an effort; it is possible to die of repletion, and there are animals who lie torpid for a time under the contest between the foreign substance and the assimilating power. And different food is proper for different recipients.

This analogy may be taken to illustrate certain peculiarities in the growth or development in ideas, which were noticed in the first Chapter. It is otherwise with mathematical and other abstract creations, which, like the soul itself, are solitary and self-dependent; but doctrines and views which relate to man are not placed in a void, but in the crowded world, and make way for themselves by interpenetration, and develop by absorption. Facts and opinions, which have hitherto been regarded in other relations and grouped round other centres, henceforth are gradually attracted to a new influence and subjected to a new sovereign. They are modified, laid down afresh, thrust aside, as the case may be. A new element of order and composition has come among them; and its life is proved by this capacity of expansion, without disarrangement or dissolution. An eclectic, conservative, assimilating, healing, moulding process, a unitive power, is of the essence, and a third test, of a faithful development.

2.

Thus, a power of development is a proof of life, not only in its essay, but especially in its success; for a mere formula either does not expand or is shattered in expanding. A living idea becomes many, yet remains one.

The attempt at development shows the presence of a principle, and its success the presence of an idea. Principles stimulate thought, and an idea concentrates it.

The idea never was that throve and lasted, yet, like mathematical truth, incorporated nothing from external sources. So far from the fact of such incorporation implying corruption, as is sometimes supposed, development is a process of incorporation. Mahometanism may be in external developments scarcely more than a compound of other theologies, yet no one would deny that there has been a living idea somewhere in a religion, which has been so strong, so wide, so lasting a bond of union in the history of the world. Why it has not continued to develop after its first preaching, if this be the case, as it seems to be, cannot be determined without a greater knowledge of that religion, and how far it is merely political, how far theological, than we commonly possess.

3.

In Christianity, opinion, while a raw material, is called philosophy or scholasticism; when a rejected refuse, it is called heresy.

Ideas are more open to an external bias in their commencement than afterwards; hence the great majority of writers who consider the Medieval Church corrupt, trace its corruption to the first four centuries, not to what are called the dark ages.

That an idea more readily coalesces with these ideas than with those does not show that it has been unduly influenced, that is, corrupted by them, but that it has an antecedent affinity to them. At least it shall be assumed here that, when the Gospels speak of virtue going out of our Lord, and of His healing with the clay which His lips had moistened, they afford instances, not of a perversion of Christianity, but of affinity to notions which were external to it; and that St. Paul was not biassed by Orientalism, though he said, after the manner of some Eastern sects, that it was “excellent not to touch a woman.”

4.

Thus in politics, too, ideas are sometimes proposed, discussed, rejected, or adopted, as it may happen, and sometimes they are shown to be unmeaning and impossible; sometimes they are true, but partially so, or in subordination to other ideas, with which, in consequence, they are as wholes or in part incorporated, as far as these have affinities to them, the power to incorporate being thus recognised as a property of life. Mr. Bentham’s system was an attempt to make the circle of legal and moral truths developments of certain principles of his own;—those principles of his may, if it so happen, prove unequal to the weight of truths which are eternal, and the system founded on them may break into pieces; or again, a State may absorb certain of them, for which it has affinity, that is, it may develop in Benthamism, yet remain in substance what it was before. In the history of the French Revolution we read of many middle parties, who attempted to form theories of constitutions short of those which they would call extreme, and successively failed from the want of power or reality in their characteristic ideas. The Semi-arians attempted a middle way between orthodoxy and heresy, but could not stand their ground; at length part fell into Macedonianism, and part joined the Church.

5.

The stronger and more living is an idea, that is, the more powerful hold it exercises on the minds of men, the more able is it to dispense with safeguards, and trust to itself against the danger of corruption. As strong frames exult in their agility, and healthy constitutions throw off ailments, so parties or schools that live can afford to be rash, and will sometimes be betrayed into extravagances, yet are brought right by their inherent vigour. On the other hand, unreal systems are commonly decent externally. Forms, subscriptions, or Articles of religion are indispensable when the principle of life is weakly. Thus Presbyterianism has maintained its original theology in Scotland where legal subscriptions are enforced, while it has run into Arianism or Unitarianism where that protection is away. We have yet to see whether the Free Kirk can keep its present theological ground. The Church of Rome can consult expedience more freely than other bodies, as trusting to her living tradition, and is sometimes thought to disregard principle and scruple, when she is but dispensing with forms. Thus Saints are often characterized by acts which are no pattern for others; and the most gifted men are, by reason of their very gifts, sometimes led into fatal inadvertence. Hence vows are the wise defence of unstable virtue, and general rules the refuge of feeble authority.

And so much may suffice on the unitive power of faithful developments, which constitutes their third characteristic.

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