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John Henry Newman: The Greatest Modern Theologian?

It is reported that the great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan was once asked who he thought the greatest modern theologian was.  Rather than Barth, Schleiermacher, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Niebuhr or any of the other more obvious choices, he replied without hesitation that his vote went to John Henry Cardinal Newman.  Why do you think Pelikan would say this?  Obviously it has someting to do with the fact that he, like Newman ended up migrating from a Protestant tradition to the historical apostolic churches, a decision which Pelikan must have thought had great theological importance.  But, what really was it that Pelikan identified as unique to Newman that made him so important among modern theologians?

13 Comments

  1. Pontificator wrote:

    Because of Newman’s long-term impact upon an entire theological and ecclesial tradition. Would Vatican II have happened if Newman had not written his *Development of Doctrine*? Would Lumen Gentium have been written if Newman had not written his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk?

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben George wrote:

    I would venture to guess that Pelikan saw in Newman the foundation for much of 20th c. theology: a sense of historical continuity.

    Maybe Newman wasn’t the greatest, but perhaps Pelikan viewed him as a taste-maker… I’m rummaging through my limited memory, but I think that Newman was one of the first major modern figures to focus on the Fathers (and by extension the entire developing doctrinal tradition)

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrew wrote:

    newman anticipates later modern theological developments in de lubac, von balthasar, maritan, and others (even chesterton and lewis)…
    he, before barth, issued a clarion call to christendom to really respond to modernity, perhaps sans the “NIEN!”.
    and he was, as you have voiced repeatedly, infinitely concerned with the implications related to actual pastoral care.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Al, can you say more about the influence of Newman on Vatican II? I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Blackhaw wrote:

    It might be that they both were very interested in the development of doctrine. Newman wrote a classic work on it and Pelikan has a 5 volume work on it. But Newman is not a bad choice. But for me I would say Barth.

    CARL

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    One important point about Newman that was been alluded to above is the pastoral and eccesial character of virtually everything he wrote. I think this has resulted in the academic theological establishment underrating him historically. It also explains why people have such a profound and personal attachment to Newman’s writings: they continue to fulfill their pastoral role many years after his death.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    Halden, while I can’t speak directly to the influence of Newman on Vatican II, I think he can be understood in some ways as the father of modern Catholic evangelism, and was a fore-runner, as mentioned above, in preaching the historical Catholic faith as ressourcement, not just theologically, but in an evangelical context. Much of this spirit figures prominently in Vatican II.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrew wrote:

    i would also recommend reading The Grammar of Assent.
    part of the significance, in my mind at least, is his bypassing of kant and dealing specifically with hume and empricism. i had a conversation at one point with my theology professor about the fact that, even if a substantive response to kant is given, no one has really answered hume. hume makes science possible without philosophy or theology. milbank has begun to try to account for hume (see chapter nine and ten of ‘Theology of Social Theory’) but there has been little else.
    so read newman. its good for you.

    *note: the previous post should have been “NEIN!” sorry.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Andrew how do you see that work relating to his work in his essay on the development of Christian doctrine?

    Also (anyone), one thing I wonder about with Newman is what concept of certainty he’s working with, both regarding faith in God and in the authoritative teaching of the church. What kind of certainty does Newman want? In my limited encounter with him it sometimes sounds like a pretty rationalistic and indubitable sort of certainty – the kind I don’t think is really a possiblity.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Ben George wrote:

    Halden,

    Newman speaks of an “illative sense” which, as far as I can tell, amounts to “intuitive logic” or perhaps an “intellectual smell test.”

    Sans a DNA test, can you PROVE to me that you are your father’s son? Maybe not, but you can certainly stack up quite a bit of info that supports your case, to the point that if I were to continue to deny it I would have to be obtuse or have an agenda.

    Balthasar makes mention of this illative sense in GL vol 1.

    Googling “illative newman” comes up with quite a bit of hits.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Kevin D. wrote:

    Also (anyone), one thing I wonder about with Newman is what concept of certainty he’s working with, both regarding faith in God and in the authoritative teaching of the church. What kind of certainty does Newman want? In my limited encounter with him it sometimes sounds like a pretty rationalistic and indubitable sort of certainty – the kind I don’t think is really a possiblity.

    I’m actually working on this now for my dissertation. Newman is precisely trying to avoid rationalism by asserting (contra much neo-Thomism at the time) that there are only probabilities tending toward the truth of Christianity, not proofs of a syllogistic form. Indeed the probabilities converge in pointing toward the veracity of Christian claims, but ultimately faith is required — a faith given from without, i.e., not by any immanent processes of the world and our thinking. The certainty to which Newman speaks is thus not the sort of certainty that one gets from mathematical deduction — since the latter forces assent, whereas faith is not forced but chosen. Rather, the certainty of faith is such that the mind is illumined to see the world as encompassed in the totality of Christian logic but which nonetheless if broken down can only be demonstrative as individuated probabilities. It’s all quite brilliant on Newman’s part — I’m still working through it — and makes him quite contemporaneous with current philosophy (namely Wittgenstein) and with the concerns of Barth and de Lubac.

    I’d recommend starting with the Oxford University Sermons and then go to the Grammar of Assent. The latter is much more dense and will be helped along with the University Sermons in mind.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Kevin D. wrote:

    As for the Pelikan statement, I give the full quote from Neuhaus in this blog entry of mine from last semester.

    Newman was the most influential theologian of the last two centuries according to Pelikan because “Newman’s thought has been received into the tradition of the Catholic Church, whereas Schleiermacher and Harnack, brilliant though they were, wrote against the tradition, and Barth was, as he claimed to be, a “church theologian” but a church theologian without a church capable of bearing his contribution through successive generations. Pelikan understood, as [Robert Louis] Wilken said at Yale, that it is orthodoxy that is the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring.”

    It’s all about dogma — else we have pietistic functionalism or liberal existentialism — and Newman saw this, as did Pelikan (and Congar, Ratzinger, von Balthasar, and so on). Barth saw this too, but he believed the tethering of dogma to the church is not warranted, whereas Newman, Pelikan, etc. saw this as absolutely necessary and, indeed, naive to think otherwise.

    Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  13. Brian wrote:

    Since we’re talking about Newman, allow me to throw out one of my favorite lines of his. It’s from one of his numerous letters, this one to E.B. Pusey:

    “For myself, hopeless as you consider it, I am not ashamed still to take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge. The history of their times is not an old almanac to me”.

    I think Pelikan hit it, per Kevin’s quote above, in that the Fathers were an old almanac to so many of the 19th/20th century.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

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