An Essay On Christian Doctrine

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine
John Henry Newman

Preface to 1878 Edition
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Title Page

Revised September, 2001—NR.

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Life of Cardinal Newman, Chapter 3 [covers the period in which this book was written—NR]

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{v} NOT from any special interest which I anticipate you will take in this Volume, or any sympathy you will feel in its argument, or intrinsic fitness of any kind in my associating you and your Fellows with it,—

But, because I have nothing besides it to offer you, in token of my sense of the gracious compliment which you and they have paid me in making me once more a Member of a College dear to me from Undergraduate memories;—

Also, because of the happy coincidence, that whereas its first publication was contemporaneous with my leaving Oxford, its second becomes, by virtue of your act, contemporaneous with a recovery of my position there:— {vi}

Therefore it is that, without your leave or your responsibility, I take the bold step of placing your name in the first pages of what, at my age, I must consider the last print or reprint on which I shall ever be engaged.

I am, my dear President,
Most sincerely yours,
February 23, 1878.

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Preface to the 1878 Edition

{vii} THE following pages were not in the first instance written to prove the divinity of the Catholic Religion, though ultimately they furnish a positive argument in its behalf, but to explain certain difficulties in its history, felt before now by the author himself, and commonly insisted on by Protestants in controversy, as serving to blunt the force of its primâ facie and general claims on our recognition.

However beautiful and promising that Religion is in theory, its history, we are told, is its best refutation; the inconsistencies, found age after age in its teaching, being as patent as the simultaneous contrarieties of religious opinion manifest in the High, Low, and Broad branches of the Church of England.

In reply to this specious objection, it is maintained in this Essay that, granting that some large variations of teaching in its long course of 1800 years exist, nevertheless, these, on examination, will be found to arise from the nature of the case, and to proceed on a law, and with a harmony and a definite drift, and with {viii} an analogy to Scripture revelations, which, instead of telling to their disadvantage, actually constitute an argument in their favour, as witnessing to a Superintending Providence and a great Design in the mode and in the circumstances of their occurrence.

Perhaps his confidence in the truth and availableness of this view has sometimes led the author to be careless and over-liberal in his concessions to Protestants of historical fact.

If this be so anywhere, he begs the reader in such cases to understand him as speaking hypothetically, and in the sense of an argumentum ad hominem and à fortiari. Nor is such hypothetical reasoning out of place in a publication which is addressed, not to theologians, but to those who as yet are not even Catholics, and who, as they read history, would scoff at any defence of Catholic doctrine which did not go the length of covering admissions in matters of fact as broad as those which are here ventured on.

In this new Edition of the Essay various important alterations have been made in the arrangement of its separate parts, and some, not indeed in its matter, but in its text.

February 2, 1878

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{ix} IT is now above eleven years since the writer of the following pages, in one of the early Numbers of the Tracts for the Times, expressed himself thus:—

"Considering the high gifts, and the strong claims of the Church of Rome and her dependencies on our admiration, reverence, love, and gratitude, how could we withstand her, as we do; how could we refrain from being melted into tenderness, and rushing into communion with her, but for the words of Truth, which bid us prefer Itself to the whole world? 'He that loveth father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me.' How could we learn to be severe, and execute judgment, but for the warning of Moses against even a divinely-gifted teacher who should preach new gods, and the anathema of St. Paul even against Angels and Apostles who should bring in a new doctrine?"
[Records of the Church, xxiv. p. 7.]

He little thought, when he so wrote, that the time would ever come when he should feel the obstacle, which he spoke of as lying in the way of communion with the Church of Rome, to be destitute of solid foundation.

The following work is directed towards its removal.

Having, in former publications, called attention to the {x} supposed difficulty, he considers himself bound to avow his present belief that it is imaginary.

He has neither the ability to put out of hand a finished composition, nor the wish to make a powerful and moving representation, on the great subject of which he treats. His aim will be answered, if he succeeds in suggesting thoughts, which in God's good time may quietly bear fruit, in the minds of those to whom that subject is new; and which may carry forward inquirers, who have already put themselves on the course.

If at times his tone appears positive or peremptory, he hopes this will be imputed to the scientific character of the Work, which requires a distinct statement of principles, and of the arguments which recommend them.

He hopes too he shall be excused for his frequent quotations from himself; which are necessary in order to show how he stands at present in relation to various of his former Publications.    *    *    *

October 6, 1845


Since the above was written, the Author has joined the Catholic Church. It was his intention and wish to have carried his Volume through the Press before deciding {xi} finally on this step. But when he had got some way in the printing, he recognized in himself a conviction of the truth of the conclusion to which the discussion leads, so clear as to supersede further deliberation. Shortly afterwards circumstances gave him the opportunity of acting upon it, and he felt that he had no warrant for refusing to do so.

His first act on his conversion was to offer his Work for revision to the proper authorities; but the offer was declined on the ground that it was written and partly printed before he was a Catholic, and that it would come before the reader in a more persuasive form, if he read it as the author wrote it.

It is scarcely necessary to add that he now submits every part of the book to the judgment of the Church, with whose doctrine, on the subjects of which he treats, he wishes all his thoughts to be coincident.

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All rights reserved

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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.

Development of doctrine is a term used by John Henry Newman and other theologians influenced by him to describe the way Catholic teaching has become more detailed and explicit over the centuries, while later statements of doctrine remain consistent with earlier statements.

Newman's book[edit]

The term was introduced in Newman's 1845 book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman used the idea of development of doctrine to defend Catholic teaching from attacks by some Anglicans and other Protestants, who saw certain elements in Catholic teaching as corruptions or innovations. He relied on an extensive study of early Church Fathers in tracing the elaboration or development of doctrine which he argued was in some way implicitly present in the Divine Revelation in Sacred Scripture and Tradition which was present from the beginnings of the Church.

He argued that various Catholic doctrines not accepted by Protestants (such as devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Purgatory) had a developmental history analogous to doctrines that were accepted by Protestants (such as the Trinity or the divinity and humanity of Christ). Such developments were, in his view, the natural and beneficial consequences of reason working on the original revealed truth to draw out consequences that were not obvious at first. This thinking of Newman had a major impact on the Bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and appears in their statement that ″the understanding of the things and words handed down grows, through the contemplation and study of believers, ... (which) tends continually towards the fullness of divine truth."[1]

As distinct from evolution of dogmas[edit]

There is a more radical understanding of development of doctrine that is known as evolution of dogmas. This view, mixed in with philosophical currents such as vitalism, immanentism and historicism, was at the heart of the modernist controversy during the papacy of Pius X, and was condemned in the encyclical Pascendi. Although modernist intellectuals such as George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy did at times cite the influence of Newman's ideas on their thinking, their goal was not so much to understand the ancient roots of Church doctrine but to make it evolve according to their own ideas in the liberal spirit of the times.[2]


Many Protestants, particularly those influenced by Mercersburg Theology, believe in doctrinal development and see the Reformation itself as an example of it. In Philip Schaff's inaugural address as a professor at German Reformed Seminary, he described the Reformation as "the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church". In addition, the Protestant slogan Semper reformanda implies a form of ongoing doctrinal development.

Eastern Orthodoxy[edit]

Orthodox Christians tend to be far more conservative and suspicious of change than either Roman Catholics or Protestants. As such, many Orthodox theologians reject the concept of doctrinal development outright, instead arguing that the entire deposit of faith has been present in the Church from the very beginning, and has never changed. However, authors such as Daniel Lattier have argued that some older Orthodox thinkers did not reject the concept outright, and that Orthodoxy may allow a form of doctrinal development, albeit more limited than Western forms of it.[3]

See also[edit]



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