Justification by Faith and John Henry Newman
An Analysis of Newman's Synthesis
Newman began his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification with a survey of both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic positions.
Newman's Criticism of the Protestant Position. Newman called Luther's position the "extreme Protestant idea of justifying faith."1 One does not need to read far to see that Newman was not really analyzing the theology of Luther. Rather, his eye was on the contemporary evangelical scene. The Lectures clearly demonstrate that Newman had not grappled with Luther firsthand, but he was reading contemporary evangelicalism with all its distortions back into Luther. He blamed Luther's teaching for all of evangelicalism's antinomianism, its extreme individualism, its devaluing of the sacraments and the visible church, and its bondage to religious feelings. Newman claimed that the Lutheran doctrine was not taught in the church until the sixteenth century and hence must be seen as a novelty which only enjoyed the patronage of the previous three hundred years. The Protestant theory which came from Luther, said Newman, could only be supported by those who, "like the Arians, entrench themselves in a few favourite texts."2 It was "an utter perversion of the truth."3
Newman attacked a caricature of Luther, but he also attacked as unscriptural the heart of the Protestant faith — that is, the distinction between justification and sanctification. In 1519 Luther broke through the medieval system when he discerned the distinction between the passive righteousness of faith and the active righteousness of the believer's life. Before this these two gifts of God — the imputation of Christ's merits and the impartation of the Holy Spirit — were always fused as one, even in great teachers like Augustine. The Reformation stands or falls on this proper distinction between gospel righteousness and law righteousness. Neither Luther nor any of the Reformers denied the necessity of righteousness of life — that is, a righteousness which consists in Spirit inspired obedience to God's law (Rom. 8:4) — and it was lack of insight on Newman's part to impute antinomianism to Luther. But Luther and the Reformation declared with one voice that law-keeping righteousness, either with or without the Holy Spirit's aid, is no part of the righteousness which justifies us before the tribunal of God. The only righteousness which can stand before God in judgment is the holy obedience of Jesus Christ. Those whom God freely justifies He also gives His Holy Spirit, who enables them to live in new obedience; and God justifies no one whom He does not sanctify. But the two gifts must be distinguished so that the glory of our salvation may be ascribed to the finished work of Christ and so that troubled consciences may not have to ground their acceptance on their spiritual attainments. Newman, however, called this distinction between justification and sanctification "technical and unscriptural."4
As for the Protestant doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness alone, Newman likened it to Judaism and its "shadows of religion."5 He called it a "visionary system," "an unreal righteousness. "6 And then he exclaimed:
Away then with this modern, this private, this arbitrary, this unscriptural system, which promising liberty conspires against it; which abolishes Christian Sacraments to introduce barren and dead ordinances; and for the real participation of the Son, and justification through the Spirit, would, at the very marriage feast, feed us on shells and husks, who hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is a new gospel, unless three hundred years stand for eighteen hundred.7
These seeds of disaffection toward the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness had been growing in Newman's mind for more than ten years. Fourteen years before his celebrated Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, we find Newman recording in his diary:
I am lodged in the same house with Pusey, and we have had many conversations on the subject of religion, I arguing for imputed righteousness, he against it, I inclining to separate regeneration from baptism, he doubting its separation, etc.8
Newman was not to succeed in converting Pusey to his opinions, but Pusey was eventually able to convert Newman. In sermons which Newman preached this same year (1824) and for some time after, he still distinguished between justification and regeneration. But by January 13, 1825, the seeds of anti-evangelical High Churchmanism began to take effect. He wrote in his diary:
I think, I am not certain, I must give up the doctrine of imputed righteousness and that of regeneration as apart from baptism.
But in his sermons Newman continued making the Protestant distinction between forensic justification and effective regeneration until about the time he began reading the Fathers (1827) and having intimate fellowship with High Churchman Richard Froude (1829). Newman wrote of Froude, "He made me look with admiration towards the Church of Rome, and in the same degree to dislike the Reformation."10 From as early as 1822 one can trace the growing tendency in Newman to merge justification and regeneration more and more closely until he arrived at his synthesis in his 1838 Lectures.
Newman's Criticism of the Roman Catholic Position. In his Lectures Newman was the spokesman of a via media theology. He saw both sides—Protestantism and Romanism—as somewhat of a distortion of the truth. But he was clearly more congenial to Roman Catholicism. While he called Luther's position "an utter perversion of the truth," he merely said that the Roman Catholic position "does in some respects come short" of the truth.11 Rome's position, said Newman, is "not unsound or dangerous in itself [like Protestantism], but in a certain degree incomplete,—truth, but not the whole truth."12
It is very interesting to observe that while Newman seemed to do his best to caricature Luther's theology, he represented the Roman position quite accurately. Here is his sympathetic summary of the Roman Catholic theology of justification:
It is affirmed then, that since man fell, he has lain under one great need, in which all other needs are included, in supplying which all blessings are secured; and which, in proportion as he has understood his real state, he has ever desired, ever struggled after, in vain. He is by nature born in sin, and consequently the child of wrath; and he needs a new birth unto righteousness, that he may become the child of God. He needs a destruction of the old Adam, of the body of original death, and thereby a restoration to the light of God's countenance. What has made him hateful to Infinite Purity, what exposes him to death eternal, is disobedience; take away that disobedience, and you take away his guilt, peril, misery, all that needs taking away; and in proportion as you rid him of the one, you rid him of the other. This then is really our one burden; not merely a sense of guilt, or guilt itself, but that which is the cause both of guilt and the sense of guilt. Man did not become guilty except by becoming sinful; he does not become innocent except by becoming holy. God cannot, from His very nature, look with pleasure and favour upon an unholy creature, or justify or count righteous one who is not righteous. Cleanness of heart and spirit, obedience by word and deed, this alone in us can be acceptable to God; that is, this alone can constitute our justification. And as certain is it, we cannot acquire it for ourselves; but, if it is to be ours, it must come from God only.
We needed then a justification, or making righteous; and this might be vouchsafed to us in two ways, either by our Maker's dispensing with that exact obedience which the Law required, or by His enabling us to fulfil it. In either, but in no other conceivable way, could our moral state, which by nature is displeasing, become pleasing to God, our unrighteousness become righteousness. Now, according to the doctrine I am engaged in expounding, the remedy lies in the latter alternative only; not in lowering the Law, much less in abolishing it, but in bringing up our hearts to it; in preserving, in raising its standard, and in refashioning them, and so (as it were) attuning them to its high harmonies. As regards the past indeed, since it cannot literally be undone, a dispensation or pardon is all that can be given us; but for the present and future, if a gift is to be vouchsafed us, and we may anticipate what it should be, this is what we have to pray for, —not to have the Holy Law taken away, not to be merely accounted to do what we do not do, not a nominal change, a nominal righteousness, an external blessing, but one penetrating inwards into our heart and spirit, joints and marrow, pervading us with a real efficacy, and wrapping us round in its fullness; not a change merely in God's dealings towards us, like the pale and wan sunshine of a winter's day, but (if we may seek it) the possession of Himself, of His substantial grace to touch and heal the root of the evil, the fountain of our misery, our bitter heart and its inbred corruption. As we can conceive God blessing nothing but what is holy, so all our notions of blessing centre in holiness as a necessary foundation. Holiness is the thing, the internal state, because of which blessing comes. He may bless, He may curse, according to His mercy or our deserts; but if He blesses, surely it is by making holy; if He counts righteous, it is by making righteous; if He justifies, it is by renewing; if He reconciles us to Himself, it is not by annihilating the Law, but by creating in us new wills and new powers for the observance of it.13
Newman's Understanding of Justification
We come now to an analysis of the heart of Newman's theology — his understanding of justification.
1. Justification Is Fused with Regeneration. No good Protestant divines have ever quarreled with the idea of seeing justification and regeneration in the closest, indeed, an inseparable relationship. But Newman made the fatal mistake of arguing from their union to make a fusion of the two. In the years preceding his Lectures Newman wrestled with this problem of the relationship between justification and regeneration. We can sympathize with his concern over the tendency among Protestants to separate regeneration from justification and to reduce justification to an abstraction which fails to do justice to the transforming power of the gospel. But as Newman reacted against this antinomian element, he moved closer to the fusion of the two gifts. In his Lectures he achieved this synthesis. Using David's penitential Psalm (Psalm 51), Newman argued that because David prayed for both forgiveness and renewal, "we are forgiven by being, or while we are renewed."14 Forgiveness, therefore, said Newman, "relates not only to the past but to the present" — that is, it consists in pardon plus renewal.15
"Gospel righteousness," Newman said, "is obedience to the Law of God, wrought in us by the Holy Ghost."16 "The Law written on the heart, or spiritual renovation, is that which justifies us."17 The righteousness of God spoken of in Romans 3:21 was said to be this renewing work of the Spirit in the heart.18 Newman then cited Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5-8 and Galatians 5:18 to show that regeneration and justification are the same. Thus:
Justification and sanctification were [are] in fact substantially one and the same thing.19
Justification, then, as such, is an imputation; but the actual Gospel gift called justification is more, it is renewal also.20
Justification renews, therefore I say it may fitly be called renewal.21
It is a parallel mode of speaking, to say that justification consists in renewal, or that renewal constitutes justification.22
Justification... consists of two parts, acceptance and renewal. . . . Justification is a change of heart.23
In the next statement we see that Newman argued from the fact of the union of the two things to make a fusion:
I have been arguing from the essential union between justification and renewal, that they are practically convertible terms.24
Calvin and Melanchthon saw justification as "consisting in the remission of sins"; Rome sees it "as consisting in renewal." Newman said that both are right.25 Hence his synthesis. Referring again to Titus 3:5-8, Newman concluded that "renewing of the Holy Ghost" is equivalent to "'being justified by His grace.' "26
2. Justification Is a Declaring Righteous and a Making Righteous. Newman was quite well aware of the classical Protestant argument on the forensic meaning of justification in the Hebrew and the Greek — a meaning which had first been brilliantly defined by Melanchthon, Calvin and Chemnitz. That is to say, the word justify means a declaring righteous by the judge. Newman evidently felt the strength of this Protestant argument and was not disposed to refute it, as many Roman Catholic scholars had vainly tried to do for three hundred years. Roman Catholics had contended that the word justify signifies a making righteous (justum efficare). They based their interpretation largely on the meaning of the Latin word instead of basing it on the Greek and Hebrew.
On this contentious point Newman achieved what appeared to be a brilliant synthesis between the two positions. In other features of his Lectures we are inclined to agree with Faber when he said that Newman's Lectures are a "tissue of contradictions and inconsistencies."27 But with respect to the argument about whether justify is a declaring righteous or a making righteous, Newman produced the most subtle synthesis. We need to give the closest attention to this point, not just because it is the heart of the Newman octopus, but because the same subtle arguments are now being reproduced by both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars, as we shall see later.
In the first place, Newman, like many contemporary Roman Catholic scholars, admitted that justification is a counting righteous28 and that the verb to justify does mean "to declare righteous."29 Now let us follow how Newman tried to reconcile this with the Roman Catholic idea of justification being a making righteous:
It is a pronouncing righteous while it proceeds to make righteous. As Almighty God in the beginning created the world solemnly and in form, speaking the word not to exclude, but to proclaim the deed, — as in the days of His flesh He made use of the creature and changed its properties not without a command; so does He new-create the soul by the breath of His mouth, by the sacrament of His Voice. The declaration of our righteousness, while it contains pardon for the past, promises holiness for the future.30
The justifying grace of God effects what it declares. "The Voice of the Lord is mighty in operation, the Voice of the Lord is a glorious Voice." It is not like some idle sound, or a vague rumour coming at random, and tending no whither, but it is "the Word which goeth forth out of His mouth;" it has a sacramental power, being the instrument as well as the sign of His will. It never can "return unto Him void, but it accomplishes that which He pleases, and prospers in the thing whereto He sends it. "Imputed righteousness is the coming in of actual righteousness. They whom God's sovereign voice pronounces just, forthwith become in their measure just. He declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being "ingrafted" in our own hearts, "is able to save our souls."31
God's word, I say, effects what it announces. This is its characteristic all through Scripture. He "calleth those things which be not, as though they are," and they are forthwith. Thus in the beginning He said, "Let there be light, and there was light." Word and deed went together in creation; and so again "in the regeneration."32
It would seem, then, in all cases, that God's word is the instrument of His deed. When, then, He solemnly utters the command, "Let the soul be just," it becomes inwardly just.33
On the whole then, from what has been said, it appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous.34
When man makes a thing, it is an effort on his part passing into a result; when God creates, it is by His fiat, by a word issuing in a work. He does not make, He says, "Let it be made." The Hebrew style accurately sets forth this token of Divine Majesty. The Psalmist says, not "He spake, and He did," but "He spake, and it was done." It was only a word on His part, but a substantial Word, with a work close upon it as its attendant shadow. In like manner it seems a true representation of the Scripture statements on the subject, to say, that He does not make us righteous, but He calls us righteous, and we are forthwith made righteous. But, if so, justification, which in its full meaning is the whole great appointment of God from beginning to end, may be viewed on its two sides,—active and passive, in its beginning and its completion, in what God does, and what man receives; and while in its passive sense man is made righteous, in its active, God calls or declares. That is, the word will rightly stand either for imputation or for sanctification, according to the grammatical use of it. Thus divines, who in the main agree in what the great mercy of God is as a whole, may differ as to what should be called justification; for according as they view it as active or passive, God's giving or man's receiving, they will consider it God's accounting righteous or man's becoming righteous. One party, then, in the controversy consider it to be a mere acceptance, the other to be mainly renewal. The one consider it in its effects, the other in its primary idea. St. Austin, that is, explains it, and Protestants define it. The latter describe it theoretically, and the former practically. The Protestant sense is more close upon the word, the ancient use more close upon the thing.35
Newman's theological forerunner was Osiander, who also confounded justification with regeneration and rejected the purely forensic understanding of justification. There was, however, a subtle difference in that Newman was able to make his point in a more plausible way. Osiander had said that God cannot declare the sinner to be righteous unless He first makes him righteous. Osiander rejected the forensic meaning of the word justify. Both Chemnitz and Calvin had soundly refuted Osiander on the plain biblical meaning of justify—that it means "to declare righteous."36 Newman, as we have seen, admitted this point, but then turned the old argument backward by saying that since God's word creates what it declares, justification is both a declaring righteous and a making righteous.
Newman's argument, however, still leads to the old Roman error of confounding God's work for us and His work in us. Though differing in style, Newman's position is the same in substance as Osiander's theory. The close affinity between Newman and Osiander is even more apparent —when we consider the real ground of the sinner's justification.
3. Justification by the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Osiander had contended that the basis of justification is the indwelling of the essential or divine righteousness of Christ. With an eye on Osiander, the Lutheran Formula of Concord had declared emphatically, "This indwelling of God is not the righteousness of faith."37 The Reformers fiercely contended this point because here is the heart of the issue with Rome. Is the ground of the sinner's justification the atonement of Christ alone, or is it the renewal of the sinner's heart? Rome, of course, always professed salvation by grace alone, but it was a justification by God's transforming grace. Hence, its doctrine of justification rested on sanctification.
On this matter of the basis of justification, Newman aligned himself with Rome and Osiander. Newman's theory was that the believer is justified by the renewing of the Holy Spirit. This error is really a Trinitarian error. It improperly ascribes our justification to the work of the Third Person instead of to the Second Person of the Godhead and utterly confounds the work of the Mediator and High Priest with the work of the Holy Spirit. Said Newman:
The coming of the Holy Ghost, to write the Divine Law in our hearts: that Law then so implanted is our justification. . .
Justification, or the imparting of righteousness, is not unfrequently mentioned as an act depending on our Lord's Resurrection, and therefore, according to the analogy of faith, more naturally connected with the Holy Ghost.38
Christ then does not keep the power of justification solely in His own hands, but by His Spirit dispenses it to us in due measure.39
The Holy Ghost is given us unto or in order to, renovation and justification. . . . Justification is wrought by the power of the Spirit, or rather by His presence within us.40
Justifying righteousness, then, consists in the coming and presence of the Holy Ghost within us.41
In like manner "Christ in us" is said to be "the hope of glory." Christ then is our Righteousness by dwelling in us by the Spirit: He justifies us by entering into us, He continues to justify us by remaining in us. This is really and truly our justification, not faith, not holiness, not (much less) a mere imputation; but through God's mercy, the very Presence of Christ.42
It is the Divine Presence that justifies us.43
Justification is the setting up of the Cross within us.44
Justification is wholly the work of God.45
Newman categorically denied that men are justified solely by Christ's atonement. He argued that since the redemptive work of Christ must be applied by the Holy Spirit, it is really Christ's work plus the Holy Spirit's work in us which justifies us before God.46
4. Justification by the Instrument of Baptism and on the Condition of Faith. We have left Newman's sacramental view of justification to the last because one's views of the sacraments are generally the formal expression of the spirit of one's theology. Newman's mystical theory of justification is well summarized in his following statement:
We are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the Divine Nature,—that through the participation of Christ, we receive, as through a channel, the true Presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. This, I repeat, is our justification.4
Once we see that this mystical indwelling of grace/Spirit/Christ is the principle of Newman's justification, we can then see how in this theory the sacraments of the church are like a filling station through which "justifying grace" is infused into the believer. But if one starts with the sacramental means of justification instead of the principle of justification, one may easily be thrown off the track. Many hastily conclude that Newman's sacramentarianism is the heart of his error, just as too many think Rome's sacramentarianism is the heart of her error. They think they part company with Newman or Rome because they part company with their view of the sacraments. This represents a very superficial, even dangerous, grasp of the real issues at stake.
In Newman's view, baptism rather than faith was the real instrument of justification. Whereas most Protestants see faith as the instrument and baptism as the symbol of the reality, Newman turned it the other way around. Faith was the "symbol,"48 and it could only be called an inward instrument" as it "unites the soul to Christ through the Sacraments."49 With Newman, faith was more of a condition of justification for adults, though not for children.
Thus, instead of the subjective looking to faith and a bondage to one's religious feelings (as Luther's theology was caricatured), Newman said that his view gave people an objective basis of assurance—baptism and membership in the visible community to whom God had vouchsafed the Holy Spirit. When he spoke of faith justifying, Newman broadened the concept of faith so that it became synonymous with obedience. Thus, he could speak about "justification by obedience" just as comfortably as "justification by faith." In this his synthesis between Protestantism and Romanism is also apparent.50
Being a synthesis theology, Newman's theology blurs all proper distinctions:
1. He removed the distinction between faith and obedience (works).
2. He removed the distinction between justification and regeneration (sanctification).
3. He removed the distinction between Christ's work for us and in us.
4. He removed the distinction between the work of the Second Person and the work of the Third Person of the Trinity.
5. He removed the distinction between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of life.
6. He removed the distinction between the law and the gospel.
Newman concluded his Lectures by saying that works justify, faith justifies, grace justifies, and the sacraments justify. Protestants are right. Rome is right. Both sides are part of one glorious truth found in his synthesis.
In his book, John Henry Newman, Roman Catholic scholar C. S. Dessain very adequately summarizes Newman's aim:
Newman's aim in writing this work Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification was irenical and ecumenical. He wished to show that the teaching of Roman Catholic theologians on God's gift of grace to men, and that of all Protestants (except those extreme Evangelicals who held a rigid doctrine of justification by faith only), could be reconciled. . . Newman wished to reconcile the Lutheran view that it is faith which makes men pleasing to God, and that of 'the Romanists that justification consists in spiritual renovation'." 51
1 John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, p.15.
2 Ibid., p.61.
3 Ibid., p.60.
4 Ibid., p.41.
5 Ibid., p.57.
8 John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings, p.203.
10 John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 25, quoted in Thomas L. Sheridan, Newman on Justification, p.146.
11 Newman, Lectures on Justification.
12 Ibid., p.30.
13 Ibid., pp. 32-4.
14 Ibid., p.41.
15 Ibid., p.43.
16 Ibid., p.44.
17 Ibid., p.45.
18 See ibid., p.50.
19 Ibid., p.63.
20 Ibid., p.66.
21 Ibid., p.86.
22 Ibid., pp.86-7.
23 Ibid., p.88.
25 Ibid., p.102.
26 Ibid., p.138.
27 George Stanley Faber, The Primitive Doctrine of Justification Investigated, p.427.
28 See Newman, Lectures on Justification, p.65
29 See ibid., p.74.
31 Ibid., pp.79-80.
32 Ibid., p.81.
33 Ibid., p.82.
34 Ibid., p.83.
35 Ibid., pp.98-9.
36 See Formula of Concord, "Epitome. III. Of the Righteousness of Faith before God." Book of Concord: The Symbols of the Ev. Lutheran Church, pp.219-21; Formula of Concord, "Thorough Declaration. III. Of the Righteousness of Faith before God," Book of Concord, pp.250-55; John Calvin, "Refutation of Osiander's Doctrine of 'Essential Righteousness,' " Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 3, chap. 11, sees. 5-12.
37 Formula of Concord, "Thorough Declaration. III. Of the Righteousness of Faith before God," Book of Concord, p.254.
38 Newman, Lectures on Justification, pp.46-7.
39 Ibid., p.54.
40 Ibid., p.133.
41 Ibid., p.139.
42 Ibid., p.150.
43 Ibid., p.154.
44 Ibid., p.173.
45 Ibid., p.175.
46 See ibid., pp.174-76.
47 Ibid., p.219.
48 Ibid., p.251.
50 See ibid., pp.44, 63.
51 Charles Stephen Dessain, John Henry Newman, p.46.