Saturday, May 13, 2023

Newman's Development of Doctrine

[May 12, 2023] I was recently privileged to join Steve Cunningham on the Resistance Podcast on the Sensus Fidelium channel to talk about St. John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It was an excellent discussion on a very timely subject. If you'd like to listen to the talk, you can do so here. The entire video is around 55 minutes long.

Here is a synopsis of what we cover in the talk:

1. Newman's theory of development of doctrine is often invoked erroneously as a deus ex machina explanation of why something has changed or should change in Catholic thought.

2. This erroneous application of Newman's development of doctrine is made by progressives as well as conservatives: the former invoke it as an argument for why the Church should break from its traditional beliefs and practices, the latter as an explanation for officially sanctioned departures from tradition (e.g., the change in the Church's attitude towards the death penalty.

3. To see things properly, we need to have a correct understanding of what Newman did (and did not) mean when he argued that doctrine develops.

4. Newman wrote his Essay in the context of objections posed by Protestants to the Catholic claim to teach unchangin truth. His purpose is to offer an historical explanation of how doctrince can develop while remaining true to its fundamental principles; in other words, how Catholic teaching can mature while remaining unchanged. Newman is not necessarily positing a theological doctrine so much as an historical argument for how doctrine has, in fact, developed over the centuries.

5. Newman says that an authentic doctrinal development can be distinguished from a doctrinal corruption by the presence of seven characteristics or "notes." These "notes" are like marks that identify an organic development that should be accepted from a perversion that should be rejected. Each note is discussed with examples.

6. The conclusion reached is that few people invoking Newman in contemporary discussion are doing so according to the principles Newman himself laid down in his Essay. The abuse of Newman's idea has led even traditional Catholics to view it with skepticism. This is lamentable, as Newman's development of doctrine is a wonderful tool for explaining the maturation of the Faith, but it must be understood rightly.

One caveat before you listen: in the introduction, I say the theory of the development of doctrine is not itself a theological doctrine; rather, it is an historical theory purporting to explain how doctrine changes over time while remaining true to its principles. One listener criticized me here, saying that development of doctrine is, in fact, a theological teaching of the Church taught at Vatican I, and that my comment is incorrect.

I respond: I do not know what he is referring to re: Vatican I. My comments in the video, however, pertain only to John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, not the broader concept of the development of doctrine as such. When I say this is a historical theory and not a theological principle, what I mean is that Newman is making a historical case, not a theological one. The Essay is a lengthy historical argument offering a mechanism to explain how the development of doctrine happens. It is generally granted by all but the most obtuse that doctrine develops within the realm of theology; that is not in question. Newman's Essay offers an historical argument for how it happens. This is what I mean when I say development of doctrine is an historical theory. Please keep that in mind in case it is unclear.

I hope you are edified by the discussion. Pax.


Anonymous said...

Vatican 1 not only doesn't teach DOD but bases its teaching on something very close to St. Vincent's formula. It claims its teaching is the "constant custom" of the Church and "believed in every age." Etc. Quite the opposite of Newman's Own Development Sauce.

Boniface said...


I am not sure what you are getting at referring to Newman's idea as "development sauce," but it seems you are implying that Newman is at odds with St. Vincent? If you believe that Newman's development of doctrine contradicts Vincent's "beleived in every age," I can only assume you do not understand Newman's Essay. The introduction of the Essay covers St. Vincent at length; Newman's writing is an effort to offer a historical mechanism for how to apply Vincent's formula, since almost all commentators agree that Vincent's formula--while a solid general principle--is too vague in itself to be helpfulw hen applied to very complicated historical questions. I don't know if you really are opposing Newman to Vincent, but if you believe Newman's idea is that doctrine is not "believed in every age" or that it opposes "constant custom," that is quite disappointing, as the entire Essay is about how development of doctrine literally does NOT mean those things.

Anonymous said...

I do not intend to create an opposition between St. Vincent and St. Newman.

Of course DoD is a legitimate concept. It can be stretched past the limits plausibility, however. What we call "Newman Sauce" in some circles is this very habit of drenching a topic in loads of DoD to try and get out the foundations when they are disputed.

What I am responding to was your commenter claiming DoD was taught by Vatican 1. It's not there. In fact, Newman's essay was 25 years old by then, and Pastor Aeternus doesn't hang any of its claims on it. It's quite extraordinary when you think about it. There isn't a straight line from Matthew 16 to Pastor Aeternus, and Newman Sauce would seem to provide an effective solution to the lack of clear continuity. But the Council doesn't bother with that. It throws down the gauntlet and declares that the "full, universal, immediate jurisdiction" of the Pope over every single Christian was believed from the very beginning and belonged to the constant custom of the Church. This is actually an outrageous claim. Well ... apologists need to apply a metric ton of Newman Sauce to find PA's claims in the first millennium, but the concept it isn't in the Council at all.

Boniface said...


HAHAHA Oh my I love it. "Newman Sauce," going to have to use that :D Yes, that is exactly the sort of misapplication that led me to do this interview. I was watching an online exchange between a "theologian" woman and an well-meaning guy who was confused about things that the Church had apparently taken a 180 degree turn on (e.g., death penalty) and she was applying copious amounts of Newman Sauce to the problem.

Thanks for the clarification!

Anonymous said...

How does this tie in to historical method biblical criticism? Has that method ever been discussed on the blog or website?


Boniface said...

@Anon M,

This really doesn't have much to do with the historical-critical method of biblical criticism, save to say that interpretations out of that school that ran contrary to the Church's traditional way of understanding the Scriptures would not be considered legitimate developments in Newman's understanding.

I did do an article about the Documentary Hypothesis ( but this treats more of Old Testament history and not the historical-critical method as such.


Anonymous said...

I look forward to learning about the “ marks.” I have the Newman book of meditations published by baronius press, it has station meditations and also a lot regarding st. Phillip neri- whose prayer every morning was to the effect of-“ beware Lord for Phillip is about to betray thee” . The book definitely provides much to consider.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, sorry if that was off topic. I found several really good old articles on the blog about the book of Daniel and Genesis (I searched Pentateuch in the search bar). Does any Catholic today or in decades previous even address the biblical critics? I'd like to find a good resource whether a book or online. I do have your Book of Non-Contradiction which I have regrettably not read yet though I imagine it might only slightly treat with these theories but it's not the main theme of course.


Anonymous said...

I listened to the program. It reminded me of something - when listening to music, I can distinguish influences incorporated from past music styles- developing organically - as you say.

For example, the symphonic sound that was popular in prior years, and then incorporated in music tracts from the 70’s. Where when artists went into studios, there would be a string section waiting to provide backup sounds. Carrying the symphonic sound forward so to speak within new arrangements. Listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s Sunshine and you will hear The symphonic sound from a prior era in the background.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to reading more historical examples from the original book. I always wondered about what exactly the “agape feast” referred to.

Like baby birds, we are fed these errors about the “early Church” without any type of defenses to refute.

I can see now how the agape feast could have been used to support the elimination of the midnight eucharistic fast.

The hallmarks should have been taught in theology school.

Anonymous said...

That Documentary Hypothesis post was the exact thing I was looking for, thank you!

Anonymous said...

What would Hilair Belloc think of Vatican 2? I am just reading characters of the reformation and his strong words makes me wonder- would Vatican 2 even happen if he were alive in 1962?! I think not.

Boniface said...


Yes people who think Newman is teaching doctrine "changes" really aren't grasping the argument. Doctrine does not change, but it matures; it admits of no alteration, but it does expand. It grows, but its growth no more changes it into something else than your growth from childhood to manhood changes you into a different person.

I am not familiar with Brownson's critique, but I should like to read it! Newman does say Christianity begins with an idea, but I don't see how this is objectionable: the foundation of Christianity is the idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; everything else flows from that. Of course, it is no mere idea; it is also a historical fact. But that it is a fact does not make it any less an idea, and the development of Christology demonstrates how the Church developed this idea over the centuries.

I am not sure to what degree Newman can be called the Father of Vatican II, but I don't see how that is any strike against Newman, whose writing demonstrates a profound respect for the continuity in the Church's worship and belief. If anything, Newman's Essay is a demonstration of the rupture Vatican II represents.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Boniface. But Christianity began with Jesus, a Divine Person, not an idea.

There has only ever been one religion- the religion of Jesus Christ.

Religion means bond with God and it is God who established religion with His creatures and because God is one He only established one religion.

Briefly considered, the religion of Jesus Christ in the O.T. was based on a limited Divine revelation suited to the people of that time but enough was revealed so the faithful Jews could become righteous and saved in the religion of Jesus Christ and thne of course, in the fullness of time, Jesus Himself came, not as an idea but as a Divine person.

Ill posy a lonk abut that in a second

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Brother Boniface. There is a link to the Brownson's critique of Newman's
essay in my first post here.

As to christianity, it is part oft the one religion, the religion of Jesus Christ.

As Saint Augustine teaches Religion is the bond which unites man and God and because it is God who created man it is God who established that Bond with man and because God is one, He only ever established one religion. the religion of Jesus Christ.

God is He who established religion- the bond with Him – and, because He is one God, He established only one religion and there has only ever been one religion established by God and if we don’t get that right we will forever wander around taking false religions seriously.

The Religion of Jesus Christ is as old as time itself but it has not always been as fully taught as it is now since God became man.

The Religion of Jesus Christ in the old testament taught His chosen people about the need for a savior and redeemer and the Old Testament prophets identified Him over 300 times - who He would be and what He would do - and so the truth was revealed slowly and sequentially owing to the arrogant and ignorance of those He liberated from Egypt and gave them water, food and shelter and even preserved for forty years the original sandals and clothes they wore when they were liberated from their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt.

His Chosen people had a rough idea of Our Lord and Saviour and they were taught enough so the faithful could be saved whereas some of them had a much more complete idea of the Messias.

So, when you hear of this religion or that religion know that you are hearing about a man created religion and not the bond God established with man, the Religion of Jesus Christ.

If Newman meant the idea of Christianity was Jesus he should have said it as the idea of Christianity is not Jesus, as Jesus is not an idea.

As an aside, you have no idea of how many times I have linked to you great blog/site when arguing over this or that point.

You have always done great work, brother. God Be with you always.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Brother Boniface, I consul post many links referring to Newman as the Father of Vatican Two.

Here is just ne