An Evaluation of John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

An Evaluation of John Henry Newman’s

Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler



            More properly this evaluation should be titled A Defense of the Roman Catholic Claim to be the one true Church with Explanation of the Changing Doctrines and Practices of Rome throughout the Centuries in Terms of the Development of Doctrine.  Newman’s essay (titled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine) is one of the most famous defenses of Roman Catholicism by one of its most noted convertsIn our response, we have organized the materially systematically and quoted from it extensively, using the 1845 edition (Pelican Books, 1974). 

The Stated Purpose of Newman’s Essay

Newman wrote: “The following Essay is directed towards a solution of the difficulty which has been stated—the difficulty which lies in the way of using testimony of our most natural informant concerning the doctrine and worship of Christianity, viz., the history of eighteen hundred years” (90). That is, “that the increase and expansion of the Christian creed and ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and the heart and has had any wide or extended dominion; that, from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.  This may be called the Theory of Development” (90).

The Logic of the Argument

  1. Roman Catholic Doctrine as known today is “…the historical and logical continuation of the body of doctrine…in every preceding century successively till we come to the first. Whether it be a corrupt development or a legitimate, conducted on sound logic or fallacious, the present so-called Catholic religion is the successor, the representative, and the heir of the religion of the so-called Catholic Church of primitive times” (240).

            Response:  First, a historic continuity of the early and present Roman Catholic churches is acknowledged.  However, this proves nothing as such because, as admitted, it may be a corruption of the original doctrine. Second, this assumes without justification that the original doctrine was correct.  But, as will be shown below, the original two sources view (Scripture and Tradition) is not correct.  For a parallel example, the present US government is the historic descendant of the first one.  However, many decisions of the Supreme Court are directly contrary to the First Amendment of the Constitution as envisioned by its framers.

For instance, the framers did not intend it to enact a separation of Church and State and never even used the terms.  The First Amendment says simply “Congress [the Federal Government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Nor did the Federal Government forbid the States from having their own State religions which five of the 13 colonies had at the time and were never required to disestablish.  But the current Supreme Court following the Everson ruling in 1947 declared: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another…. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”  Clearly there is a historical continuity between early and current America, yet there is a doctrinal discontinuity on some important matters.  So, it is with the earlier and later Roman Church (as shown below).

  1.   “…the doctrines of which the present Catholic religion consist are prima facie the correct, true, faithful, legitimate development of the doctrines which preceded them, and not their corruption” (240.)   No “case can be made out against that religion, to prove that it is materially corrupt, and not in its substance Apostolic” (240).  So, “It appears then that there has been a certain general type of Christianity in every age, by which it is known at first sight…. And it appears that this type has remained entire from first to last, in spite of the process of development which seems to be attributed by all parties, for good or bad, to the doctrines, rites, and usages in which Christianity consists; or, in other words, that the changes which have taken place in Christianity have not been such as to destroy that type…” (335).

Response: This premise is challenged on two grounds.  First, even if Catholicism was an uncorrupted development of the original idea, Catholicism would not be true, if the original idea was false.  It would just be a logical development of a false idea.  Second, as will be shown below, there was significant doctrinal corruption between earlier and later Catholicism.

  1. The tests to determine whether development or corruption of the ideas occurred include:

(A.) Preservation of the Basic Idea (122).

“It was said, then, that a true development retains the essential idea of the subject from which it has proceeded, and a corruption loses it (241). This parallels the development of a living organism from conception to maturity (241).  “An empire or a religion may have many changes: but when we speak of its development, we consider it to be fulfilling, not to be belying its destiny” (122).  “A popular leader may go through a variety of professions, he may court parties and break with them, he may contradict himself in words, and undo his own measures, yet there may be a steady fulfillment of certain objects, or adherence to certain plain doctrines, which impress upon beholders, not his scrupulousness, but his sincerity and consistency” (123).

Response: There are several problems with this test.  First, the starting premise of the “basic idea” behind Christian doctrine can be challenged.  Protestants take it to be sola Scripture (see below) and Roman Catholics believe it is Scripture plus Tradition, that is, as interpreted by the Roman Catholic teaching Magisterium.  The development of these different basic ideas will bring about different results.

Second, one can question whether the analogy between the development of a doctrine and the development of a living organism is a proper analogy.  There are, after all, some significant differences between the two: one is living and one is dead.  But Newman’s whole thesis and conclusion depends on the appropriateness of this challengeable analogy (see below).   Even Newman himself claims a heresy is like a living organism.  He wrote: “The church is a kingdom; a heresy is a family rather than a kingdom; and as a family continually divides and sends out branches, founding new houses…” (275).

 (B.) Continuity of the Principles (124).

“Doctrines expand variously according to the mind, individual or social, into which they are received; and the peculiarities of the recipient are the regulating power, the law, the organization, or, as it may be called, the form of the development.  The life of doctrines may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody” (124).

“Principles are abstract and general, doctrines relate to facts; doctrines develop, and principles do not” (127).  “Principles are popularly said to develop when they are but exemplified; thus the various sects of Protestantism, unconnected  as they are with each other, are called development of the principle of Private Judgment, of which really they are applications and results” (129).

“Doctrine without its correspondent principle remains barren, if not lifeless, of which the Greek Church seems an instance” (129).   “Pagans may have, heretics cannot have, the same principles as Catholics…. Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine” (129) “The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting” (129).

Response: Non-Roman Catholics acknowledge a doctrinal continuity between original and later Catholicism without accepting Catholicism.  For example, Protestants agree with Catholics on the dogmas of the first four ecumenical councils and Eastern Orthodox agrees on the first seven councils.  The basic idea could have been preserved in these earlier councils, as it has been noted: “One Bible, two Testaments, Three Creeds, and Four centuries” is the common core of most forms of Christianity.  Since Catholicism embraces these as well, it too has a doctrinal continuity with earlier Christianity.  However, this does not as such support the Catholic claim to be the true Church.

(C.) The Power of Assimilation (130). 

“In the physical world whatever has life is characterized by growth, so that in no respect to grow is to cease to live.  It grows by taking into its own substance external materials; and this absorption or assimilation is completed when the materials appropriated come to belong to it or enter into its unity” (130).  “Thus, a power of development is a proof of life, not only in its essay, but in its success; for a mere formula either does not expand or is shattered in expanding.  A living idea becomes many, yet remains one.  The attempt at development shows the presence of a principle, and its success the presence of an idea.  Principles stimulate thought, and an idea keeps it together” (131).

Response:  As mentioned above, this is dependent on the alleged validity of the analogy of Roman Catholicism’s development with a living organism.   But this is a questionable analogy.  Ideas are not living entities and do not “assimilate” the way a living organism does.  Further, since this is based on the first two tests and is a continuation of them, it is subject to the same criticisms of these two tests (see above). Finally, even if this principle was valid, it would only demonstrate that ideas develop in a certain way; it would not prove that the original ideas were true.

 (D.) Early Anticipation of Aspects of the Idea (133).

“When an idea is living, that is influential and operative in the minds of recipients, it is sure to develop according to the principles on which they are formed; instances of such a process, though vague and isolated, may occur from the very first, though a lapse of time be necessary to bring it to perfection.  And since developments are in great measure only aspects of the idea from which they come, and all of them are natural consequences of it, it is often a matter of accident in what order they are carried out in individual minds; and it is in no wise strange that here and there definite specimens should very early occur, which in the historical course are not found till a late day…. Nothing is more common, for instance, than accounts or legends of the anticipations, which great men have in boyhood of the bent of their minds, as afterwards displayed in their history” (133-134).

Response:  This test shows indication of being devised in advance to help explain a severe difficulty in Catholicism, namely, that many of its doctrines have no real root in the Bible or in the early church.  Indeed, many of them are late in origin.  Hence, positing that faintness and lateness can be explained by comparison with a living organism is suspect.  This is particularly true when later ideas (doctrines) of Rome are in conflict with earlier ones.  This is most evident in the contradictory “infallible” pronouncements of Rome regarding ex cathedra declarations (see Popes below).

Further, Newman’s concept of slow development is countered by admitting the supernatural confirmation of God’s revelation.  He wrote: “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).  But what could be greater than the original revelation as supernaturally confirmed by God.  How does time outweigh the Transcendent?

(E.) Logical Sequence of the Idea (136). 

“Though it is a matter of accident in what order or degree developments of a common idea which show themselves…, yet on a large field they will on the whole be gradual and orderly, nay, in logical sequence” (which may not be a conscious process) (136). “Afterwards, however, this logical character which the whole wears becomes a test that the process has been a true development, not a perversion or corruption from its naturalness” (137).  “Again, the doctrine of the Sacraments leads to the doctrine of Justification; Justification to Original sin; Original sin to the merit of Celibacy” (199). “The Mass and Real Presence are parts of one; the veneration of Saints and their relics are part of one; their intercessory power, and the Purgatorial State, and again the Mass and that State are correlative…. You must accept the whole or reject the whole; rejection does but enfeeble, and amputation mutilate: (199).  “Moreover, since the doctrines all together make up the integral religion, it follows that the several evidences which respectively support those doctrines belong to the whole, and are available in the defense of any” (199).

Response:  To the degree that ideas have logical consequences, this point is true.  However, it does not show that the later doctrines are true anymore than the earlier ones.  For instance, prayers for the dead may help lead to the idea of Purgatory, but this does not prove that either idea is true; it may merely show a logical connection between two false ideas.  Furthermore, it is a stretch to see the alleged connection between earlier and later doctrines.  For example, Newman held that belief of Christ’s resurrection in flesh leads to doctrines of the Real Presence, Virginity of Mary, and her Mother of God (378).  But this is a stretch, to say nothing of the fact that the original doctrine (of the Real Presence) may be challenged (see “Does the NT Support the Roman Catholic View of Communion?”).

(F.) Preservative Addition (141). 

“As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contract and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate” (141).  The development is gradual.  However, “…so great a paradox cannot be maintained as that truth literally leads to falsehood” (142).  But “True religion is the summit and perfection of false religion; it combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately remaining in each.  And in like manner the Catholic Creed is for the most part the combination of separate truths, which heretics have divided among themselves, and err is dividing” (143).  “And thus a sixth test of a true development is its being an addition which is conservative of what has gone before it” (144).

Response: Within proper limits, this is a valid principle, but it may be questioned whether later Catholicism is the proper and logical development of what has gone before. This is particularly true when some later practices contradict the earlier doctrines.  Such practices are not conservative, but contradictory, of what has gone before.  Even Newman recognized that this is precisely the Protestant criticism of Catholicism.  He spoke of Roman Catholics as being “…accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed” (144).  When Catholics point out that they are as faithful as anyone to the original creeds, Neman recognized the Protestant rebuttal that Catholics “…obscure and virtually annul them by their additions; thus the cultus of St. Mary and the Saints is no development of the truth, but a corruption, because it draws away the mind and heart from Christ” (144).  The Catholic response to this is weak and unsatisfactory, as is its response to the charge that Purgatory (see below) diminishes the all sufficiency of the death of Christ (Jn. 19:30; Heb.1:3; 10:11-14).

Newman critiques Islam for revoking previous revelations in view of later contradictory ones, pointing to their principle of abrogation which he claims revoked about 150 of Muhammed’s previous revelations (143).  But this is a more credible way to deal with the problem than Newton’s Essay which attempts to show there is a progress in Dogma wherein later formulations (which in some cases are contrary to earlier ones) are accepted and the previous ones rejected. How can this be true if the earlier one was infallible (see Pope below).

(G.) Chronic Continuance of the Idea (144).

“Since corruption of an idea, as far as its appearance goes, is a sort of accident or affection of its development…it is as has been observed, a brief and rapid process…. Corruption cannot, therefore be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development” (145). “The course of heresies is always short.  It has a “’transitory character’” (147).  “If Christianity is a fact…and impresses an idea of itself on our minds, that idea will in course of time develop in a series of ideas connected and harmonious with one another, and unchangeable and complete, as is the external fact itself which is thus represented” (148).  “And the more claim an idea has to be considered living, the more various will be its aspects; and the more social and political is its nature, the more complicated and subtle will be its developments, and the longer and more eventful will be its course.  Such is Christianity” (148).  Newman adds, “Hence, all bodies of Christianity develop the doctrines of Scripture” (150).

Response:  This test is false as stated.  For it is simply not true that “Corruption cannot, therefore be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development” (145).  Even Newman admits that Islam—a false religion—is an apparent counter example. He said, Islam has “…a living idea somewhere in that religion, which has been so strong, so wide, so lasting a bond of union in the history of the world” (131).  Yet he said elsewhere that “A corruption is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death” (442).

Further, Arianism was a widespread and long enduring heresy.  At one time it encompassed much of the Christian Church.   It is still alive in the Jehovah’s Witness cult. Likewise, not all forms of Christianity “developed” the doctrine of Scripture in the way Roman Catholicism has.  For other than drawing logically necessary conclusions from Scriptural premises, as in the Trinity and Incarnation, Protestants believe that the perspicuity (clearness of the central message) of Scripture as interpreted by the historical-grammatical method (see below), there is no Catholic-like “development” of Scripture in biblical Protestantism.

 4. When applied to the Catholic Church, these principles show that it is a development, not a corruption, of the original Idea. 

Newman’s conclusion from his premises is:

“It appears then that there has been a certain general type of Christianity in every age, by which it is known at first sight…. And it appears that this type has remained entire from first to last, in spite of the process of development which seems to be attributed by all parties, for good or bad, to the doctrines, rites, and usages in which Christianity consists; or, in other words, that the changes which have taken place in Christianity have not been such as to destroy that type…” (335).

            Response:  First of all, the conclusion is no better than the premise.  A chain is no better than its weakest link.  And the foregoing discussion shows the weakness of Newman’s premises.  At best, even if the basic premises of development versus corruption are correct, it would show no more than Roman Catholicism in its present form is a natural outworking of the core idea which is Scripture plus Catholic interpreted Tradition plus time yields current Roman Catholicism.  This leads us to examine this core premise more carefully.

Second, Newman frankly admits that his view is only a theory: “it will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is…. “Then he adds quickly, “…[but] all depends on the strength of that presumption.”  Of course it does, and that is the point.  If Newman’s basic idea (of Scripture plus tradition as interpreted by Rome) is accepted, then to no one’s surprise, one can make a convincing case the current Roman Catholic Church is the developmental result of its long history from the seminal beginning.  Then Newman adds a negative argument, namely,               “Supposing there be otherwise good reasons for saying Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it” (212).  But neither is there anything that really supports it either.  In fact, as we shall see, there is much to contradict it.

Third, Newman’s stress on the necessity of faith to accept the system and explanations of Catholicism is a key to understanding how otherwise intelligent and thinking persons can accept a view with such incredible beliefs as Transubstantiation and the Infallibility of the Pope.  He claims that faith is preferred to reason in making a decision about a religious system (242f.).  He said that “Men were not obliged to wait for proof before believing” (346).  Then he attempts to justify this conclusion by citing Aquinas and Augustine out of context (348) and by neglecting clear passages to the contrary.  For example, Augustine said, “No one indeed believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed.  For… it is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought had led the way” (On Predestination of the Saints, 5).  However, “faith” in a “theory” as big and boasting as is Catholicism (which claims to be the only true religion) and which holds teaching so contrary to experience and reason (e.g., transubstantiation) needs careful scrutiny before one makes the leap of faith into it.


Newman’s Rejection of Sola Scriptura 

Of course, accepting the Catholic starting point means rejecting sola Scripture. Many arguments against the Protestant principle of the Bible alone are offered by Newman.  However, all of them fail to dethrone the doctrine. Let’s examine them carefully.

1) He rejects sola Scripture saying,

“It may be objected that inspired documents, such as the Holy Scriptures, at once determine its doctrine without further trouble.  But they were intended to create an idea, and that idea is not in the sacred text, but in the mind of the reader” (149).  But that idea is complete and accurate and only “…comes to perfection in the course of time” (149).

Response: this argument begs the question by assuming that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to convey a central message.  Rather, he believes that its purpose is “…to create an idea, and that idea is not in the sacred text.”  But the Bible as a revelation of God’s true in itself and not merely an instrument to create an idea in our minds.

Furthermore, the idea conveyed by the sacred text does not have to wait for centuries to come to perfection.  “The Law of the Lord is perfect” (Psa. 19:7).  And when that idea is conveyed to our minds by the Holy Spirit enlightening them to God’s truth, neither centuries of development nor a teaching Magisterium is necessary to do the Holy Spirit’s work for Him.

Newman’s attempt to counter this misses the point.  He wrote, “Nor is the case altered by supposing that inspiration did for the first recipients of the Revelation what the Divine Fiat did for herbs and plants in the beginning, which were created in maturity.  Still, the time at length came, when its recipients ceased to be inspired; and on these recipients  the truth would fall, as in other cases, at first vaguely and generally, and would afterwards be completed by development” (149). However, any distortions that occur after a perfect and mature revelation are given are irrelevant to the point which is that God gave a complete and clear understandable revelation in the Bible

2)  Newman claimed that important theological questions like “the intermediate state between death and Resurrection” are not answered in Scripture but imply a later development (153).

Response: The Bible tells us all we need to know about the intermediate state.  It is found in many verses like these: “it is far better to depart and to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23); “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8); “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43); ”We must all appear before he judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive a reward for what was done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10 cf. Mat. 17:2-3; Rev. 6:9).  As for the rest, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but to us and to our children the things that are revealed” (Deut. 29:29).

3)  Newman claims that doctrines like the duty to worship and that the day of worship is Sunday are not revealed in the Bible.  Thus, without the Catholic Church’s “development” of the original deposit of revelation in the Bible and the Catholic teaching Magisterium interpreting this, we would not know on which day to worship.

Response:  Not everything in the Bible is taught by direct command.  Some things are taught by principle and example.  As for Church attendance, Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us “Do not neglect to meet together.”  And Jesus set the example for meeting on Sunday by rising from the dead on Sunday (Mat. 28:1), by appearing to his disciples on Sunday (Jn. 20:1), by sending the Holy Spirit to baptize the disciples into the body of Christ on Sunday (Acts 2:1).  Following this example, the early disciples met “on the first day of the week they gathered together to break bread” (Act 20:7).  And Paul exhorted the Corinthians, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside” to give to the Lord (1 Cor. 16:2).  This is sufficient for faith and practice on this matter.  No pronouncements by a teaching Magisterium are necessary.

4) Newman argued that

“The Bible does not answer basic questions like how we got “the Canon of Scripture.“  That is, “unless we suppose a new revelation, from the revelation we have, that is by development [deduction]” (151).

Response: A new revelation is not necessary to establish the canon.  All that is necessary is, as the Westminster Confession states, that everything we need is “…either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture” (I, VI).  The Bible speaks of the Old Testament canon in “the Law and the Prophets” (Lk. 24:27) and in the Jewish “Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:15-16).  The epistles speak of the Gospels as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18).  Peter speaks of Paul’s epistles as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:15-16), and by “good and necessary consequences” we deduce that the other New Testament books written by apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) were also Scripture (see Geisler, From God to Us in

Even Newman admits elsewhere that one does not need an infallible writer to confirm an infallible writing.  And he acknowledges that even though “the Apostles were made infallible” in their inspired writings, “yet we are only morally certain that they were infallible” (170).  Similarly, we can be morally certain about the canon of Scripture by the Bible’s claim for itself and as confirmed by the early Fathers’ citations from the canon.

Further, contrary to Catholic claim, the Church did not determine the canon of Scripture; God determined it by inspiring the canonical book.  The Church merely discovered the books that God had determined to be canonical by noting the earmarks of inspiration such as, was it written by a prophet of God?  Was he confirmed to be a prophet of God by miracles (Heb. 2:3-4) or other means? Did it tell the truth about God in accordance with other prophetic writings?  If so, then these were collected by the people of God (cf. Duet 31:24-25; Dan. 9:1; Zech. 7:12;   2 Pet. 3:15-16).

All the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments were eventually recognized by the Early Fathers as part of the canon of Scripture by citations, translations, and official listings (see From God to Us, chaps 6-10). By the time of Irenaeus in c. A.D. 180 (who knew Papias the disciple of John the apostle) all the New Testament books (except the tiny one chapter book of 3rd John) were recognized as canonical.  Only a few years later (c. A.D. 200) even 3rd John was cited as canonical.  By the time of the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) the Christian Church in general had recognized the entire canon of Scripture, including the 27 books of the New Testament as inspired of God and rightfully in the canon of Scripture.  For a discussion of The Old Testament Apocrypha see below.

5) Newman claimed that only the Church can properly interpret the Bible.  

“We are told that God has spoken.  Where?  In a book?  We have tried it, and it disappoints; it disappoints, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given.  The Ethiopian’s reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading (Acts 8:34), is the voice of nature: ‘How can I unless some man guide me?’  The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do, and this is the secret of the power” (175).

Response: This does not deny the Protestant principle of the perspicuity which holds only that the main message of the Bible is clear, not every particular detail.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was: a) only one man, b) reading one text.  He did not represent a failure of believers in general to understand the central message of the Bible in general.  Further, the Ethiopian was a new convert who had not yet heard about Jesus, his death and resurrection for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-4).  There is every indication that once he heard the Gospel that he had no difficulty understanding it.  Indeed, once the Ethiopian heard about Jesus he understood the message and wanted to obey him in baptism immediately (Acts 8:35-38) without the help of an ecclesiastical authority.

6) The Claim of Need for Absolute Authority. “The absolute need of spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest argument in favour of its supply” (177). “The only general persuasive in matters of conduct is authority; that is when truth is in question, a judgement which we consider superior to our own” (177).  While there are many conflicting authorities, “The question is, which of all these theories is the simplest, the most natural, the most persuasive.

Response: There are several problems with this argument.  First, the need for something does not guarantee it will be obtained; it merely shows that it is needed.  Thirsty people need water and hungry people need food, but still many die of hunger and thirst.  Second, Newman does not demonstrate (but merely posits, but does not prove, that absolute authority is a need).  Indeed, he admits elsewhere that infallibility does not need an infallible argument to support it (169).  Finally, he assumes a questionable hypothesis that the “simplest” explanation is the best.  This is sometimes called “Ockham’s Razor,” but Ockham did not say this. He said “Don’t multiply causes without necessity.”  The true explanation may not always be the simplest one.

Newman’s Argument for a Mystical Interpretation of Scripture

Hand in hand with the rejection of sola Scriptura is Newman’s rejection of the sufficiency of the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture.  There is a good reason for this because once a sufficiency of knowing God’s Word (that is adequate for faith and practice) is no longer found in the Bible and its historical-grammatical interpretation, one must find a source elsewhere.  Newman finds this in the teaching Magisterium (see Pope below) and in a mystical interpretation of the Bible.

Catholicism Can’t be established by Scripture Alone. 

Newman argued that the Catholic Faith can’t be proven from Scripture alone without using a mystical interpretation.  He wrote,

“Nor am I aware that Post-tridentine writers deny that the whole Catholic faith may be proved from Scripture, though they would certainly maintain that it is not to be found on the surface of it, nor in such sense that it may be gained from Scripture without the aid of Tradition.  And this has been the doctrine of all ages of the Church, as is shown by the disinclination of her teachers to confine themselves to mere literal interpretation of Scripture.  Her most subtle and powerful method of proof, whether in ancient or modern times, is the mystical sense, which I so frequently used in doctrinal controversy as on many occasions to supersede any other” [e.g., Mal. 1 is used by Trent to support the Sacrifice of the Mass] (339).

Response: This is an incredible admission. He admits “…the disinclination of her (the Church’s) teachers to confine themselves to mere literal interpretation of Scripture” (339, emphasis mine).  This is a confession that they cannot establish the truth of Catholicism from the Bible alone using the normal method of interpretation.  He adds, “Her most subtle and powerful method of proof… is the mystical sense, which is so frequently used in doctrinal controversy as on many occasions to supersede any other” For example, Malachi 1 is used by the Council of Trent to support the Sacrifice of the Mass (339).  But the inability of the mystical method to be anchored in the objective text of divine Scripture, along with the inability to provide an objective criteria by which to guide one’s understanding of Scripture, is sufficient evidence to show the inadequacy of Rome’s “most powerful method” of establishing its unique but aberrant doctrines.

2) The Bible is not Self-Interpreting

Newman argues that the Bible is not self-interpreting. He wrote:

“The whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development” (156).  “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).

Response:  First of all, pointing to fulfilled prophecy is not a good example of Newman’s principle of development which demands more than the Bible to understand the Bible.  For using the Bible to understand the Bible is not contrary to sola Scripture; it is an example of sola Scriptura at work.  For literal predictions of Christ’s first coming found literal fulfillment in the New Testament, whether it was the place of his birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the manner of his birth by a virgin (Isa. 7:14), the manner of his death (Isa. 53), or his resurrection (Psa. 16:10 cf. Acts 2:27-31), or numerous other literal predictions and literal fulfillment (cf. Isa. 61:1-2 cf. Lk. 4:16-21).

Second, Newman’s passing reference of miracles to confirm a message from God (“notwithstanding the miracles which attendee it”) is evidence against his view.  For if a clear revelation is accompanied by a literal divine confirmation) what need is there of a further gradual development before one can understand it.

Third, if one carried this logic out consistently, then there would be need of a further “development” of divine confirmation for that and so on, ad infinitum.  And if one agrees the process can be stopped, then why not stop it with God’s supernatural revelation as confirmed by miracles.  In this case there is no reason to add an infallible interpreter for God’s infallible Word.  For Newman argued that there is no need of infallible proof for the doctrine of infallibility (169).  If moral certainty is sufficient in this case, then why not in the case of miracles confirming a revelation from God.


Newman’s Arguments for an Infallible Authority (Pope)

            Not only do Roman Catholics insist the Bible is not sufficient for faith and practice, but they insist there must be an infallible authority (Pope) to interpret the Bible.  Indeed, as retroactive as it is and as arrogant as it seems, Newman claims later Pope are in a better position than the earlier Fathers to know what they meant.  He wrote: “Rome knows the meaning of the Fathers better than they did.”  So, the “testimony of all the Fathers, supposing such a case, would not have a feather’s weight against a decision of the Pope in Council…” (227). The reasons given for the infallibility of the Pope include the following:

1)  There must be an infallible authority to adjudicate the conflict between all the sects and heresies.  Newman claims that “The Church is everywhere, but it is one; sects are everywhere, but they are many, independent, and discordant” (275).  What is necessary to counter this disunity?  According to Newman, “Councils and Popes are the guardians and instruments of the dogmatic principle; they are not that principle themselves; they presuppose the principle; they are summoned into action at the call of the principle…” (359).  “In a thousand instances of a minor character, the statements of the early Fathers, are but tokens of the multiplicity of openings which the mind of the Church was making into the treasure-house of Truth” (360). “The doctrinal determinations and the ecclesiastical usages of the middle ages are the true fulfillment of its self-willed and abortive attempts at precipitating the growth of the Church” (362).  “Doctrine too is percolated, as it were, through different minds, beginning with writers of inferior authority in the Church, and issuing at length in the enunciation of her Doctors” (363).

Response:  An infallible authority is not necessary to discern between truth and error, just as clear understanding of truth.  Jesus said to the Father, “Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).  The Bible is more than sufficient for that task.  It is certainly a lot better than the hundreds and thousands of conflicting statements of the Fathers and even some flat contradictions in the alleged infallible Councils of the later Church (see Popes below).  As for confirmation of the essentials doctrines, there are the Creeds of the first few centuries of the Church.  With the infallible Scriptures and its historical grammatical interpretation and confirmation by the ministerial guidance of the Fathers and Creeds, there is no need for a Magisterial function of a Pope. In fact, history has demonstrated that with the anti-Popes, heretical Popes, and contradictory papal pronouncements, the so-called infallible Magisterium has not proven to be very effective (see Popes below).

2)   Newman claimed:

“No Church can do without its Pope.  We see before our eyes the centralizing process by which the See of St Peter became the Head of Christendom” (213).

“To this must be added the general probability…that all true developments of doctrine and usage which have been permitted [is] in favour of the existence, in some quarter, of an infallible authority in matters of faith” (213).

Response:  First, in the political realm, centralizing governments do not lead to better results but worse.  Rather than being an argument for an infallible authority, this centralizing tendency leads to a spiritual monarchy.  Further, there is no guarantee of its orthodoxy. Diverse independent authority is a better check-and-balance in preserving orthodoxy. Second, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Checks and balances are needed to preserve the integrity and orthodoxy of an institution. The scandalous conflicts between numerous anti-Popes strongly supports this conclusion.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974 ed.) lists some 40 anti-popes.  Sometimes a third party (a Church Council) had to intervene and resolve the conflict between the Popes (see Council of Constance 1413-1418).

3) Newman claimed that basic doctrines cannot be truly understood without a period of doctrinal development. Even the name “Trinity” did not appear until the Third century (in Tertulliam) after it was revealed in the Bible.

Response: The truth of the Trinity was revealed in the first century revelation in the Bible, even though the term “Trinity” came later.  As the Westminster Confession declared (I, VI) that “The whole counsel of God…is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture.”  For the Bible clearly teaches that (1) there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:1-6).  Further, (2) there are three Persons who are called God: Father Son, and Holy Spirit (Mat. 3:16-17; 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 12:13).  So, there is no need for a long doctrinal development to understand that: (3) there is One God who exists in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All that is necessary is a logical deduction from the basic biblical truths to have the basic meaning of the Trinity.  Of course, the implications (significance) of the doctrine takes time and development, but the basic meaning is known immediately from the Biblical texts and necessary logical deductions.

The same is true of another great Christian doctrine:  the Incarnation of Christ.  Its meaning is taught clearly and simply in Scripture in two premises: 1) The Person of Christ has a human nature; He is a human being.  2) The same Person also has a divine nature; He is God. Now only one conclusion validly comes from these premises, namely, 3) The Person of Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature.  He is both God and man in one and the same Person.  So while plummeting the depths of the significance and implications of this doctrine takes time and involves a process, nonetheless, the meaning is clear from the Bible alone.  Thus it is with all basic salvation truths; they are known from the Bible alone without any infallible teaching authority.

This is not to say that there is no role for creeds or systematic theology.  There is.  It is only to say that the basic biblical propositions are clear and sufficient as a revelation of God.  They do not need years, even centuries, of development for their truth to be understood.  Later nuancing, systematization, and application are welcomed, but they are not necessary for discovering the basic truths of God’s revelation in Scripture.

As even Newman admits, many doctrines assumed to be apostolic were not actually formed until centuries later.  He wrote: “Certain doctrines come to us, professing to be Apostolic, and possessed of such high antiquity that, though we are able to assign a date of their formal establishment to the fourth, or fifth, or eighth, or thirteenth century, as it may happen, yet their substance may, for what appears, be coeval with the Apostles, and be expressed or implied in texts of Scripture” (192).   If the “formal establishment” was not until centuries later it is merely a “theory” (212) based on “faith” (242f.), then this allows Catholics to claim they were apostolic.


The Teaching Magisterium Rome (the Pope)

Did Jesus establish Peter as the first Pope, the first infallible interpreter of God’s infallible Word?  According to Rome, the infallible Scriptures need an infallible interpreter, and God chose Peter to be the first one.  The chief biblical text used to support this doctrine is Matthew 16:18-19: Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Other verses used by Rome are even less convincing (see Geisler, Is Rome the True Church?, Chap. 5).

Matthew 16:16-18 Does not Make Peter Alone the Basis of the Church

Despite Rome’s current claim, this text does not support their claim that Peter alone was given this Magisterial authority and that it was infallible.

Response:  First, Peter alone was not given the authority to bind and loose since all the disciples were given this authority only two chapters later (in Matt. 18:18).

Second, the church was not built on Peter alone but on “the apostles [plural] and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20).  Indeed, the names of all the apostles (not just Peter’s name) are inscribed on “the twelve foundations” of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).

Third, even though Peter preached the sermons that opened the kingdom to the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10), these were only one-time events.  Indeed, after the conversion of Paul (Acts 9), Paul becomes the dominant apostle through most of the rest of the book of Acts. Indeed, Peter fades into the background.  When the first big doctrinal dispute occurred, it was not Peter alone who made the decision, but “the apostles and elders” together (Acts 15:6, 22).  And James seemed to be the leader of the apostles since it was he who spoke last and summed up the decision (Acts 15:13, 19), saying, it is “my judgment.” Indeed, the New Testament speaks of “pillars” (plural) in the church (Gal. 2:9), not only one pillar.  Peter himself spoke of Christ as the chief “Cornerstone” of the church (1 Pet. 2:7).

Fourth, the authority in the early church was the “apostles” as a body, not a single individual.  Paul spoke of the church being built on them (Eph. 2:20; Rev.21:14) and they had the power to do its work (Mat. 18:18) in “the laying on of hands of the apostles” (Acts 8:18) to anoint others to do the work of building the church (Mat. 18:18; Acts 2:42), and in performing special confirming miracles (Acts 5:12; Heb. 2:3-4).

Fifth, with regard to Peter being the alleged Rock on which the Church was built, there is strong evidence to indicate that it was not a reference to Peter alone: (1) The term “rock” is in the  third person whereas Peter (“you”) is in the second person; (2) “Peter” is masculine singular” but “rock” is feminine singular; (3) “Peter” (petros) means little rock, but the Church was built on petra, the big Rock, Christ.  (4) No Catholic commentator gives Peter primacy in evil a few verses later because Jesus called him “Satan” (v. 23); (5) Peter himself refers to Christ as “the chief Cornerstone” (1 Pet 2:7); (6) Even some great Catholic commentators, like St. Augustine, affirm that the “Rock” is Christ; “’Upon this Rock’ which thou hast confessed…will I build My Church.’  I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon thee (Augustine Sermons on the NT), XXVI, p. 340 (in Schaff Vol. VI of Nicene and Ante-Fathers); (7) According to Catholic dogma of Vatican I, no dogma of the Church should be established apart from “the unanimous consent of the Fathers,” but even Catholic authorities (see Ludwig Ott, Sources of Catholic Dogma, 996) admits many early Fathers did not affirm the primacy of Peter.  Peter was only the little rock (petros) who confessed the big Rock (petra) on whom the Church of Christ was built.

Peter was not Given Infallibility in His Official Teaching

Not only was Peter never given the sole authority for defining faith and practice, neither he nor the apostles were given infallible authority to do this.  So, Newman’s claims for the infallibility of the Pope are groundless.  Indeed, even he recognizes some serious problems with Rome’s claim to infallibility.

First of all, he defines infallibility thus:  “When we say that a person is infallible, we mean no more than that what he says is always true, always to be believed, always to be done” (170).  But when we examine this more carefully, we discover that it is infallibility only when speaking ex cathedra, that is, “out of the chair” [of St. Peter].  And when we examine that, we find that there is no infallible way to determine when that is.  It is certainly not anytime he engages in teaching doctrine for even Newman admits there were heretical Pope’s.  He even names three, saying, “Three Popes, Liberius, Vigilius, Honorius, have left to posterity the burden of their defence” (15).  So, the Popes do not even have infallibility whenever they teach doctrine, but only when they do it while sitting in St. Peter’s chair.  However, there seems to be no real way to know when this is.  It certainly is not in the regular teachings and writings of the Pope.  At a minimum it probably has only been a couple times in the last two centuries, once pronouncing the Pope infallible (1870) and once declaring the Bodily Assumption of Mary (1950).  In between, the faithful must accept an authoritative but fallible Pope.

Second, neither can we say the Pope is infallible only when he sits in Council with the other Bishops for even then we run into two serious problems.  First of all, this contradicts an infallible dogma of the Church given at the First Vatican Council (in 1870) which declares that the Pope’s definitions are “irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church” whenever he is speaking ex cathedra.  That is, they do not need the council and consent of the Bishops. Second, this infallible statement itself is contradicted by the Council of Florence (1413-18) which declared (in Haec Sancta) that “this Council holds its power direct from Christ; Everyone, no matter his rank of office, even it be papal, is bound to obey it in whatever pertains to faith….”  Here we have an irresistible dogmatic force hitting an immovable dogmatic object!  In short, this is a flat and unequivocal contradiction of allegedly infallible pronouncements.

Newman admits, “It is possible for the Pope, even as Pope, and with his own assembly of counselors, or with General Council, to err in particular controversies of fact, which chiefly depend on human information and testimony” (174).  However, “whether it is possible for him to err or not, [he] is to be obeyed by all the faithful” (174).

Newman proposes a way out of this dilemma in his progress of dogma theory.  However, his position collapses upon careful scrutiny because of the contradictions of dogma with Scripture and of Dogma with Dogma.  Even the dogma of infallibility is questioned by Newman.  He wrote: “Again, it may be discussed whether infallibility is a principle or a doctrine of the Church of Rome, and dogmatism a principle or doctrine of Christianity” (127).  According to Newman, principles don’t change but dogmas do.  But herein is a dilemma of Rome.  If the infallibility of the Pope is only a dogma which can change, then how can it be infallible?.  One of the characteristics of infallibility is irreformability.  That is, what is infallible cannot change, and what changes is not infallible.  If, on the other hand, infallibility is a principle that cannot change, then they are left with no explanation of the contradiction between two infallible Church councils (the 16th and 20th).  The first (Council of Constance, 1413-1418) declared the Council could act apart from the Pope).  And the later (First Vatican Council, 1870) declared that the Pope could make infallible pronouncements apart from the Council.


The Doctrine of Development

According to Newman, the Doctrine of Development is “…the doctrines of which the present Catholic religion consist are prima facie the correct, true, faithful, legitimate development of the doctrines which preceded them, and not their corruption.”  He adds, no “case can be made out against that religion, to prove that it is materially corrupt, and not in its substance Apostolic” (240).  “If there are developments in Christianity, the doctrines propounded by successive Popes and Councils through so many ages, are they” (183).

Further, “We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not” (173).  We can argue “…on the analogy of Nature, and from the fact of Christianity.  Preservation is involved in the idea of creation… (173). “And, then, in addition, is the high antecedent probability that Providence would watch over His own work, and would direct and ratify those developments of doctrine which were inevitable” (193).

“From necessity, then of the case, from the history of all sects and parties in religion, and from the analogy and example of Scripture, we may fairly conclude that Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate, and true development, or of development contemplated by its Divine Author” (164).  “It has now been made probable that developments of Christianity were but natural, as time went on, and were to be expected; and that these natural and true developments, as being natural and true, we of course contemplated and taken into account by its Author, who in designing the work designed its legitimate results” (165).

“If the Christian doctrine, as originally taught , admits of true and important developments…this is a strong antecedent argument in favour of a provision in the Dispensation for putting a seal of authority upon these developments” (168). ”There are various revelations all over the earth, which do not carry with them the evidence of their divinity” (168).  “Thus developments of Christianity are proved to have been in contemplation of its Divine Author, by an argument parallel to that by which we infer intelligence in the system of the physical world [given by Butler]” (154), namely, “gaps” in the creeds, like gaps in nature, imply a Divine Author (154).  Likewise, earlier prophecies imply and expect later ones (155).  “But the whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development” (156).  “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).

Response:  First of all, Newman makes the same error that some divine design in nature theorist did.  It is called the “God-of-the-gap” fallacy.  For gaps as such do not prove divine intervention.  They simply show the lack of evidence.  Newman superimposed divine design on his human attempt to explain the widespread lack of evidence that all these major Catholic doctrines were found in seminal form from the very beginning—even if the evidence is lacking or contrary.

Second, of course, granted the Christian view of God’s providence, we can accept the idea that God will preserve the truth He has provided for the saints of all time.  However, serious question can be raised as to whether God granted a living infallible authority for the saints of all the ages.  Again, the analogy of nature breaks down.  Of course, God will provide for his creation now as he did in the past.  However, it is a giant step to assume that an infallible authority is like God’s provision for nature.

Third, there are in fact is good reasons to believe that God never intended to perpetuate a living infallible authority for the church on earth between the First and Second advents of Christ.  An infallible Bible is sufficient (see sola Scriptura above).  We don’t need an infallible interpreter of it.  Even Newman admits that a less than infallible authority is sufficient to establish an infallible authority (169).  Even so, a less than infallible guide is sufficient for understanding God’s infallible Word.  Likewise, if the Bible can be infallible without another infallible authority for it, then why is it necessary to have another authority after Christ even in the first century—let alone in the centuries to come.  Sola Scriptura plus the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture (dependent on the Historical-Grammatical interpretation) is sufficient for understanding the main message of the Bible.

Fourth, the evidence is lacking that Peter was a living infallible authority in the first century.  And if he was not, then there is no succession of infallible authorities after him.  There was not even a first link in the chain, to say nothing of an unbroken chain after Peter.  Consider the following:

(1) Peter made a serious mistake in “faith and practice,” and had to be rebuke by the Apostle Paul for it.  Paul wrote: “When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned…. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the gospel…,” I rebuked them for their “hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:11-13).

(2) The doctrinal dispute was not settled by Peter, but by the whole group of “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:23).

(3)  The first opportunity Peter had to exercise his alleged infallible authority not to mislead the faithful in “faith of practice” he totally blew it so that Jesus had to say “Get behind me Satan” (Mat. 16:23). “Immediately after Peter had earned commendation by his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah, the doctrine of the crucified Messiah was proposed to him and he rejected it.”  So if “…the Apostles had believed that the words ‘On this Rock I will build my church’ constituted Peter their infallible guide, the very first time they followed his guidance they would have been led to miserable error” (Salmon, Infallibility, 343).

Fifth, even according to Newman, “development” of doctrine cannot include contradictions (123).  Yet these two infallible pronouncements (from Councils 16 and 20) are contradictory.  The Council of Constance (1413-1418) declares flatly that the Council can make infallible pronouncements without consulting with the Pope.  And the First Vatican Council (1869-70) declared that the Pope can make infallible statements without consulting the Council of Bishops. Both of these cannot be true without violating the law of non-contradiction. The only way out of this dilemma is to deny the absolute truth of one or both infallible pronouncement.

Adding the Apocrypha to the Old Testament

            Roman Catholics accept eleven extra books not found in the Jewish (and Protestant) Bible (7 of which appear in the table of contents plus four small books appended, three in Daniel and one in Esther).  These are sometimes called Deutero-Canoncal (Second Canon) books.  These books were mostly written between 250 B.C. and the time of Christ.  Catholics accept these as divinely inspired books and Protestants do not, considering them of various degrees of value historically and devotionally (hence, they were sometimes read in services).  Although from the time of Augustine on these books were increasingly cited by some Church Fathers and even some local councils, they were not given an infallible status in the Old Testament canon by Catholics at the Council of Trent (in 1546).  In actual fact, this is a good example of the corruption of doctrine in Catholicism since: (1) Unlike most canonical books, there is no implicit or explicit claim in them for divine inspiration; (2) Judaism never accepted these books as inspired.  In fact, the first century Jewish historian lists the inspired books of the OT by name which excludes the Apocrypha(see Josephus, Against Apion 1.8); (3) Most of the early Church Fathers did not grant them canonical status; (4) The great Catholic biblical scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate rejected this books as part of the canon; (5) Although Jesus cited  the vast majority of the Jewish Old Testament books as inspired, he never once quoted from an one of the eleven apocryphal books as inspired; (6) None of the apostles or writers of the New Testament ever cited any of these eleven books as inspired; (7) The Catholic official acceptance of these books (at Trent in 1546) was a sign of its doctrinal deterioration.  For they inconsistently rejected an Apocryphal book opposed to praying for the dead (2) [4] Esdras 7:105 and yet accepted an apocryphal book in favor of praying for the dead (2 Mac. 12:45-46). This tended to support several Catholic doctrines which were part of the corruption of Christianity which included prayers for the dead, Purgatory, the unfinished nature of the Atonement, and Indulgences.

Adding the Doctrine of Purgatory to the Bible

            Newman attempts to justify adding Purgatory to the list of biblical doctrines by several different argumentsFirst, he opines: “Thus we see how, as time went on, the doctrine of Purgatory was opened upon the apprehension of the Church, as a portion or form of Penance due for sins committed after Baptism” (417).  Of course, this assumes baptism actually washes way sins when the apostle declares baptism is not part of the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:17), but the Gospel alone is that by which we are saved (Rom. 1:16).

Second, he rationalizes that there are people too good for hell but not good enough for heaven:   “How Almighty God will deal with the mass of Christians, who are neither very bad nor very good, is a problem…; (418).  But the Bible speaks only of two categories of people; believers and unbelievers (Jn. 3:36), saved and lost (Lk. 19:10), sheep and goats (Mat. 25:32). Further, apart from the saving grace of God received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9), all men are evil and lost (Rom.3:10-23).  What is more, Christ died for all men and purged our sins on the cross (Heb.1:2) once and for all (Heb. 10:11-14).  His work was “finished” on the Cross (Jn. 19:30).

Third, Purgatory is necessary to account for “the universal and apparently apostolical practice of praying for the dead in Christ” (421), according to Newman.  However, the practice was not universal or apostolic, and the Bible says emphatically that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).  Finally, when we are saved, we are instantaneously made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  So, we need not be further purified from our sins in order to qualify for heaven.

Fourth, other than text taken out of context (1 Cor. 3) which speak of rewards and loss of rewards (not of loss of heaven), Catholics have to resort to mystical (allegorical) interpretations of Scripture or adding books to the Bible to support their doctrine of Purgatory.  Thus 29 years after Luther spoke out against buying indulgences and praying for the dead in Purgatory, the Catholic Church officially and infallibly added 2 Maccabees to the Bible which declares: “Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 ac.12:45 RSV).  While at the same time they rejected an Apocryphal book that forbid praying for the dead, saying, “No one shall ever pray for another on the day” (2 [4] Esdras 7:105).


Other Indications of Catholic Doctrinal Corruption

Contrary to Newman’s hypothesis, the facts support a doctrinal corruption, not a doctrinal development. By reading subsequent history back into prior history (207), Newman was able to argue that Catholic dogmas that were late in the appearance, often many centuries later, he attempted to counter the stark silence of the Bible and early Christian history by assuming they were there is implicit of seed form.  He said,  “For instance, it is  true, St. Ignatius is silent in his Epistles on the subject of the Pope’s

authority; but…such silence is not so difficult to account for as the Silence of Plutarch about Christianity itself, or Lucian about the Roman people” (208).  “And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgement of the doctrine of the Trinity till the fourth” (209).  The reason, he hypothesized, was that “The state of the most primitive Church did not well admit such universal sovereignty.  For that did consist of small bodies incoherently situated, and scattered about in very distant places, and consequently unfit to be modeled into one political society, or to be governed by one head” (210/211).

However, the evidence, much of which ironically Newman revealed, was exactly to the contrary of his speculations about development. Consider the following evidence. First, there is an acknowledged late date for the official ecumenical pronouncement of many crucial Catholic doctrines, with no orthodox acknowledgement of an earlier date for the doctrine:

1) Transubstantiation of the Communion Elements (1215)

2)  Prayers for the dead (and Purgatory) (1546)

3)  The Canonicity of the Apocrypha (1546)

4)  Worship of the Consecrated Communion Elements (1546)

5)  The Veneration of Mary (1546)

6)  The Immaculate Conception (1854)

7) The Infallibility of the Pope (1870)

8)  The Bodily Assumption of Mary (1950)

Second, in most cases there is scant, if any, evidence that the given aberrant view was held by even most, let alone, all orthodox Fathers long before these late dates.  Most Roman Catholic views emerged for unorthodoxy to orthodoxy by infallible pronouncement many centuries after the time of Christ.  In fact, many seem to violate Newman’s principle that error cannot give rise to truth.  For he declared that “…a development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started” (129).

Third, most of these later dogmas violate the Catholic principle annunciated infallibly by Trent that a dogma must have “the universal consent of the Fathers.” For many of these later dogmas did not even have a majority consent of the Fathers, let alone a universal consent or meet St. Vincent’s canon that orthodoxy is what is “believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Fourth, Newman frankly admits that many of the additions Rome made to Christianity were of Pagan origin (see next point).

Pagan Religions are the Source of Many Roman Doctrines and Practices

Newman acknowledged that “We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own.”  This included, holy water, temples, holy days, sacerdotal vestments, images, incense, and candles.  These “are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church” (369).  “It [the Church] need not therefore because if the absurd use of the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious” (371). “The continuity of these various principled own to this day, and their operations, are two distinct guarantees that the theological conclusions to which they are subservient are, in accordance with the Divine Promise, true developments, and not corruption of the Revelation” (374).  He adds,  “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters which become incorporated with it, and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author.… Thus outward rights, which are but worthless in themselves, lose their own character and become Sacraments under the gospel [e.g., circumcision becomes baptism]” (365).

Response: First of all, this is a surprising admission, one that fits the counter thesis that Rome contains a corruption, not merely a development of Christian truth.  In fact, his words need to be put in bold for they are self-condemning: These “…are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church” (369).  He adds, “It [the Church] need not therefore because if the absurd use if the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious.”  But how does adoption by the Church “sanctify” paganism?   How does the piety of the Church justify the absurdity of the Pagan teachings or practice (371).  Baptizing Paganism and giving it a Christian name does not somehow make it Christian.  The Gospel does not “change” a false doctrine into a true one, nor take pagan practices and “make them right.”

Second, this focuses one of the most serious charges that can be leveled against Roman Catholicism, namely, it sanctions idolatry and, as such, stands under the condemnation of Scripture.  This is does in several ways: (1) By the veneration (dulia) of saints, (2) by the veneration of (hyper-dulia) of Mary (3) by the veneration of images, (4) by prayers to saints, (5) by prayers to Mary, (6) by prayers for the dead, and (7) by the actual worship (latria) of the consecrated communion elements.

Communicating with the dead was a Pagan practice condemned in the Old Testament (Deut 18:11).  Making, not just worshipping, graven images was forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:4).  Likewise, prayer (a form of worship) was forbidden by Moses (Deut. 6:13) and Jesus when he commanded, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”  In vain Newman attempts to explain why early Christians were opposed to the use of an image as an object of worship.  He wrote, “In like manner Celsus objects that Christians did not ‘endure the sight of temples, altars, and statues;’ Porphyry, that ‘they blame the rites of worship, victims, and frankincense;’ the heathen disputant in Minucius asks, ‘Why have Christians no altars, no temples, no conspicuous images’ and ‘no sacrifices’” (366).  Newman’s response that only images and sacrifices to false gods were condemned; the true God can overcome false gods (367) is just another unconvincing Example of Catholicism capitulation to the Pagan culture around it.

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of compromise was in the developing Mariolatry.  Prayers to Mary “the Mother of God” became part and parcel of the faithful Catholic’s devotional life.  Indeed, Newman acknowledges that “Her being the Mother of God is the source of all the extraordinary honours due to Mary” (441).  One of the most popular of all Catholic devotional guides, the Glories of Mary (1750), illustrates the excessive exuberance in devotion to Mary.  It affirms, for example, that: “The way of salvation is open to none otherwise   than through Mary” or “Many things are asked from God, and are not granted: they are asked of Mary, and are obtained” or “At the command of Mary all obey—even God”[!!!].  These prayers are repugnant, if not blasphemous.  It is not possible to so highly exalt a creature without withdrawing the heart from the Creator.

Newman’s theory of “development” is a beautiful theory, but it is ruined by a brutal gang of facts about the Paganism that was adopted by Catholicism.  It is clearly a corruption of biblical truth, not a true development of it.   In fact, there is a better model for understanding what Jaroslav Pelikan called The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959) in his excellent book on the topic.

A Package Deal: Evidence for One Part Supports the Whole: When Neman finds it difficult to support a given Catholic dogma, then he appeals to the evidence for another in a “Package deal” kind of reasoning.  He wrote: “One strong argument imparts cogency to collateral arguments which are in themselves weak” (199).

Of course, this can be true, if the “collateral” arguments are logically necessary.  But here again this is not the case with Newman’s argument. For often there is no logical connection between the two arguments.  For instance, just because there is evidence that canonical books were written by prophets of God, confirmed by acts of God, telling the truth about God, having life-transforming power of God, and received by the people of God, it does not follow that we should accept Apocryphal books into the canon which lack these characteristic.   Further, just because God graciously blessed Mary to give birth to the Messiah, it does not justify the veneration of Mary or praying to her.


A More Adequate Model of Roman Catholicism

A more appropriate model for understanding Roman Catholicism is an eclectic one which combines: (1) A basic Christian doctrinal core; (2) A Roman hierarchical structure; (3) A Jewish ritualistic form, and (4) Some Pagan idolatrous practices.  These different aspects vary in dominance from time to time and place to place, but they are all part of the total system.

(1) The basic doctrinal core (expressed in the early creeds and accepted by all major forms of Christianity) has not changed or “developed” by addition or subtraction from the original truth of the Incarnation and Trinity, regardless of later wording or nuancing.  And it is this doctrinal core which provides the Christian element in Catholicism.  It is the affirmation of all these essential doctrines that saves Roman Catholicism from being a “cult” which is designated as a religious group that denies one or more essential Christian doctrines (see Geisler, Conviction without Compromise, Part 1). However, the addition of the other three elements of Roman Catholicism has evolved down through the centuries and it has placed layers of distortion on the core Christian element.

(2) The Roman hierarchical structure, adopted from the dying Roman Empire has obscured, blurred, and at times contradicted the simplicity of the Gospel.  For example, the Episcopal authoritarian structure was not found in the biblical or later first century church.  It evolved from a first century (a) plurality of elders (=bishop) in a local church (cf. Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5, 7) to (b) a Bishop over the elders in a local church (in the second century) to (c) a Bishop over a group of churches (in the third century) to (d) the Bishop of Rome (Pope) over all the churches (in the fourth century).  As Newman admitted, “Here is assuredly abundant evidence of the nature of the unity, by which the Church of those ages was distinguished from the sects among which it lay.  It was a vast organized association, co-extensive with the Roman Empire, or rather overflowing it” (290).  While this may have been a “natural” development, it does not mean it was biblical one. The same is true of other doctrines like baptism and communion.

(3) The Jewish ritualistic form was a natural progression from the Old Testament priesthood, sacrifices, and ceremonies.  It was a legalist and typological progression from a Jewish heritage.  As Newman put it, “Their ranks and numbers were insensibly multiplied by the superstitions of the times, which introduced into the Church the splendid ceremonies of a Jewish or pagan temple; and a long train of priests, deacons, sub-deacons…to swell the pomp and harmony of religious worship” (287).  Thus, reality became lost in ritual and substance in symbols.  A form of godliness evolved but denying the power thereof.

(4)  Finally, along the way Pagan practices infiltrated the Church.  The temptation to imbibe the surrounding Pagan culture, as Newman admits, added new dimension to the corruption of Christianity.  This became manifest in the magical and sacramental interpretation of these symbols as time went on.  The idolatrous influence of Paganism became visible in the veneration of saints and images, and the exaltation of Mary.  Thus, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, by faith alone became obscured by a system of works. Rome became an institution of salvation. Rather than obtaining a right standing with God by faith alone, it was mediated to the faithful a sacrament at a time through the institutionalized church.

Thus, pure, unadorned New Testament Christianity became encrusted and overlaid with layers of Romanism, Ritualism, and Paganism.  The simplicity of the Gospel became lost in the complexities of Catholicism.  It is this Pagan influence that properly earned the Church the title of “cultic.”  Indeed, by the time of Luther, the Church cried out for reformation.  Some since then have called for Restoration, believing that NT Christianity has been lost in Rome and needs a complete restoration.  To use Newman’s words, “When Roman Catholics are accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed, they answer that they hold, and can show that they hold, the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement, as firmly as any Protestant can state them.  To this it is replied that they do certainly profess them, but that they obscure and virtually annul them by their additions” (144).


Assuming “Private Judgment” is a basic the Protestant Principle

Newman argues that “Private Judgment” is the basic principle of Protestantism.  But he insists that this principle leads to sects and heresies.  Because without a unified authority, as in the Catholic Church, division and schism are inevitable (129).

However, the unified authority (In Rome) of the Catholic Church did not hinder the two biggest schisms the Catholic Church even has, the one with Eastern Orthodoxy (11th cent.) and the reformation (16th cent.).  Nor has the alleged unified authority in Rome settle the numerous divisions within Rome between Calvinists and Arminians, between Augustinians and Thomists, and myriads of Orders with opposing beliefs.  Indeed, the majority of Catholics do not agree with the Church’s stand on contraceptives, and many Catholics believe in abortion.

Further, the so-called “Private Judgment” is not a core belief of Protestants. For the individual is not the final authority, the Bible is—sola Scriptura.  And as for how the Bible is interpreted, apostolic guidance is provide.  This guidance is found in the unified statements on doctrine found in the Creeds of the first four centuries.  As for tradition, it offers guidance but is not infallible.  Essential to the idea of tradition is the concept of good history back to the apostles.  Jesus promised to give his apostles guidance by the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture.  This has been passed down to the Church historically.  But its function is ministerial not magisterial.  It is not centered in the Roman hierarchy but is dispensed to the body of the Church on earth generally.  Further, the means of interpreting Scripture is the historical-grammatical method.  So, the Bible alone is the final authority for non-Catholic believers as interpreted by the historical-grammatical method and guided by the early creeds.  The final authority is in Scripture so understood, not in the private judgment of individuals.

The Improbable use of Probability

Newman makes strange use of evidence.  He claims that “A collection of weak evidences makes up a strong evidence” (199).  This must be part of the “new” math.  Or else it is the old leaky bucket argument.  Adding up arguments that don’t hold much water don’t fill in the holes in the bucket.  Of course, adding up the number of witnesses (whose testimony is probable) can strengthen the argument, but this is not what Newman has here.  For some of the Catholic dogma has virtually no evidence of being apostolic such as the bodily assumption of Mary, her veneration, the infallibility of the Peter and successors, prayers to Mary, and the worship of the consecrated host

He also says that “The truth of our religion, like the truth of common matters, is to be judged by all the evidence taken together” (200).  This is true, providing that there is a reasonable probability for each piece of evidence.  However, this is not the situation with Newman’s argument for the Catholic Church being the one and only true church.  For many aspects crucial to the overall argument are not strong links.  And a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.  And, as we have shown, some of the links in the argument for the infallibility of Peter and his successors are weak links.

Newman’s Attack on Justification by Faith Alone

            He argued that “Few but will grant that Luther’s view of justification had never before been stated in words before his time” (150).  Perhaps Newman was reading too much Trent and not enough of St. Paul when he wrote: “But when does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5, Catholic NAB).  And “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, Catholic NAB).  Or, perhaps did not know about the Angelic Doctor (Aquinas) who when commenting on these same verses, declared: “Men receive the hope of this salvation when they are justified from sin in the present…. But this salvation of grace is by faith in Christ…. According to Romans 11 (6); ‘If by grace it is not now by works; otherwise grace is no more grace.’ He follows with the reason why God saves man by faith without any preceding merits, that no man may glory in himself but refer all the glory to God” (Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, Magi Books, 1966, 95-96).

Contrast this with the infallible pronouncement of Trent that “If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gift of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works…does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase in glory; let him be anathema” (Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, no. 842).

             Concluding Comments

            The crucial question can now be addressed: Is Roman Catholicism a true church with significant error.  Or, is it a false Church with significant truth.  In view of the forgoing discussion, it would seem that the former is the better description, at least if judged by the doctrines of the early Creeds which Rome clearly affirms.  Of course, if judged by reformation standards, it would be a false Church since it would thereby have denied justification by faith alone.  One thing seems clear, Rome is not the true church.  At best it is a true Church.  Spiritually, all believers are part of the true Church which is the body of Christ, even though organizationally we may belong to different visible manifestations of the true Church.

As Professor Merrill Tenney put it (in The Gospel of Belief, 248), “Unanimity means absolute concord of opinion within a given group of people.  Uniformity is complete similarity of organization or of ritual.  Union implies political affiliation without necessarily including individual agreement.  Unity requires oneness of inner heart and essential interest or a common life.”   So, when Jesus prayed that we “all may be One” (Jn. 17:21), he certainly was not praying for unanimity or uniformity.  Even the Roman Catholic Church does not have that.  Nor was he praying for union, otherwise his prayer has been unanswered for at least a thousand years since Rome split with eastern Orthodoxy.  Rather, Jesus was praying for true unity which all orthodox Christians have, East and West, by virtue of our common confession in the early creeds and outward conduct of love manifest to all men (Jn. 13:35).  He certainly was not praying that we all belong to the Roman Catholic Church which demands that one belong to this particular organization.  That would be organizational union with Rome.  Rather, Jesus was praying for spiritual unity among all believers, even if we differ in our organizational associations.  This is clear from his statement that we all may be one, “even as we [the Father and Son] are one” (Jn. 17:11).  There is no sense in which this is true organizationally, but only spiritually.  However, this does not mean that this unity will not be manifested visibly in doctrine and deed, in truth and in love.  In short, the error of Rome is in confusing organizational union with spiritual unity.

Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit