Justification by Faith and John Henry Newman
The Development of Newman's Thought
Newman's life was a spiritual pilgrimage which took him from evangelicalism to High Anglicanism and from High Anglicanism to Romanism. If we are to understand that pilgrimage, we must follow the development of Newman's thought on justification by faith. Contemporary Roman Catholic scholar, Louis Bouyer, who was also converted from Protestantism to Romanism, agrees that justification is the key to understanding Newman.1
Newman's development may be conveniently divided into three stages: the early Newman, Newman in transition and Newman's attempted synthesis of the Protestant and Roman Catholic faith.
The Early Newman
Newman's religious upbringing was basically within the evangelical wing of the Church of England. At the age of fifteen he experienced a remarkable evangelical conversion under the ministry of the Rev. Walter Mayers. Mayers directed the serious and youthful convert to the writings of Thomas Scott. Scott left the deepest impression on Newman's early thinking. Scott was a moderate Calvinist, a product of the Wesley-Whitefield revival of the eighteenth century. He held the orthodox Protestant doctrine of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, which he understood to be distinct but never separate from sanctification. Two features in Scott's teaching left a lasting impression on Newman's mind: a strong antipathy toward antinomianism (which Scott tried to offset by greatly stressing regeneration) and a preference for practical divinity rather than abstract, speculative theology.
In the years 1817-1822 the youthful Newman, to use his own words, was "devoted to the evangelical creed and more strict in his religious duties than at any previous time."2 He was earnest, intense, serious beyond his years and, like young people who take themselves too seriously, somewhat strongly opinionated and lacking in humor. His experience at this time was not unlike the experience of the Wesleys and Whitefield in the Holy Club at Oxford one hundred years earlier.
From the documents of this early period which are available, we know that Newman believed in forensic justification (imputed righteousness) on the ground of the atonement and in regeneration by the Holy Spirit. However, like many pietists, his great interest seemed to be in the inner work of regeneration. He tended to conceive of it as a higher stage in the soteriological process than "mere" justification. This should not surprise us, since the Wesley-Whitefield revival often had the same tendency.
Newman in Transition
In April 1822 Newman was honored by being elected to an Oriel Fellowship. Here he came into contact with High Churchmen who opposed the evangelical party by stressing apostolic succession, tradition, the importance of the visible church and the sacraments. Pusey undermined Newman's belief in justification by an imputed righteousness and influenced him toward seeing baptism as the instrumental means of justification and regeneration. Hawkins taught Newman the value of tradition in determining the dogmas of the faith. This was not altogether bad counsel for young Newman. He was an immature young Christian wrestling with theological problems far too much on his own. He needed to identify with the experience of the church down through the centuries. However, Hawkins influenced Newman with the extreme position that the normal channel of Christian truth is the teaching of the church rather than the Bible. Whately also influenced Newman toward such High Church views as the idea of apostolic succession and the impartation of the Holy Spirit through association with the visible church. Keble and Froude further led him to reject evangelicalism in favor of High Church views.
Newman's developing thought in this period of time should also be seen as a reaction against certain tendencies within the evangelical movement. Some of these had already been drawn to his attention by reading Scott. Newman's own observations at the parish level reinforced his reaction. After a period of thorough pastoral visitation in 1824, Newman noted in his diary that the religion he had received "from John Newton and Thomas Scott would not work in a parish."3
The main elements in evangelicalism which troubled Newman were:
1. Antinomianism. Within Protestantism there has often been a tendency to separate regeneration from justification and to reduce justification to an abstract theory of imputed righteousness which leaves the convert essentially unchanged. Newman struggled for a long time with the problem of the relationship of justification to regeneration until he came to his final synthesis in 1838.
2. Individualism. Much of the evangelicalism that Newman encountered did not do justice to the corporate aspect of redemption, to the biblical doctrine of the community. Among evangelicals Newman witnessed an exaggerated and unbiblical individualism.
3. Subjectivism. Along with the individualism which stressed a private conversion experience that devalued baptism, the Supper and the visible church, Newman discerned that many evangelicals were far too subjective. Perhaps he reflected on the subjectivism of his own evangelical experience. Many tried to find the assurance of salvation in their own conversion experience. Newman felt that evangelicalism was leading them into bondage to their own feelings.
4. Speculative Theology. Newman inherited from Scott a dislike for abstract, scholastic theology. He saw that the Calvinist teaching on predestination, which tended to be presented in an abstract, speculative framework, was useless on a pastoral level. Even the great Protestant doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness tended to be presented as a celestial abstraction. In the 1820's the extreme individualism and intellectualism which prevailed in the church had produced a great surge of liberalism. About 1827 Newman struggled briefly against the temptation toward liberalism, but then reacted by making his final break both with liberalism and with evangelicalism. About this time Newman began a systematic reading of the church Fathers. He did not find support in the Fathers for the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith. When a group of clergy with High Church sympathies launched the Oxford Movement in 1833, Newman soon became one of its leading spirits. Newman saw the Church of England as a via media between the evangelicals and Rome. He thought that both Luther and the Council of Trent had erred from the purer form of teaching found in the church Fathers. His aim and the aim of his colleagues was to make the theology of the Fathers normative for the Anglican Church.
Newman Develops a Synthesis
In 1838 Newman published his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification. Roman Catholic scholar Thomas L. Sheridan is right when he says, "The Lectures on Justification remain, for all practical purposes, Newman's last word on the subject."4 In his Lectures Newman arrived at what Sheridan calls a "synthesis of justification and regeneration."5 What Protestantism had always regarded as two distinct (though inseparable) gifts, Newman finally conceived as one gift. At this time Newman still retained some misgivings about Romanism, but he found evangelicalism even more objectionable. He tried to create a synthesis between the theology of Protestantism and Romanism—a synthesis that would satisfy both sides. He succeeded only in coming to a position in harmony with Rome. Consequently, he joined her communion in 1845.
The history of Newman proves a vital lesson which should not be lost in this ecumenical age when many are emulating Newman's idea of creating a synthesis between Protestantism and Romanism. Rome can accept the synthesis and still be Rome. Protestantism, however, cannot accept the synthesis and still be Protestant.
1 See Louis Bouyer, Preface to Newman on Justification, by Thomas L. Sheridan.
2 John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings, p.80.
3 Ibid., pp.73, 79
4 Sheridan, Newman on Justification, p.239.
5. Ibid., p.108.