Theological Controversies, Development, and the Response of John Henry Newman

(Early Modern Views of God II)

For Christian theology and practice, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and America represent a great period of transition and conflict. They give witness to Christian voices accounting for the Enlightenment in a variety of ways, everything from full adoption to complete rejection, from cautious engagement to willful ignorance. But whatever their responses, Christian theologians, scholars, ministers, and laity could not avoid the changing views of reason, intuition, emotion, philosophy, history, science, ethics, and law. The cultural air that they breathed was bound to shape them. Newman's own journey through boyhood Evangelicalism, collegiate Liberalism, Anglican Tractarianism, and finally Roman Catholicism was one way of struggling with the pressures that had come to bear on traditional Christianity.

In many ways, Newman stood within two broad streams of doctrinal challenge and change. One stream involved growing doubt and accommodation before the rationalism of early modern thought; the other stream was more a tension-filled dance between the new historical reasoning and various Christian traditions. The late seventeenth and on into most of the eighteenth century had seen both declines in church vibrancy and various renewal movements arise in response. All of this created a search for the definition of what a true church is, as well as strong interest in recovering the primitive church's polity, liturgy, and confession of faith. Even the Roman Catholic Church found it had to defend its views of papal infallibility and reliance on tradition as a source of dogma. The growing knowledge of early Patristic Christianity made this more difficult as the divergences among these formative Christian leaders and their thought became more and more obvious. The Anglican reliance upon the first four centuries of the Patristic period in particularly had to answer for this diversity, but the other Protestant bodies, holding to the doctrinal consensus of the Ecumenical church councils at Nicea and at Chalcedon regarding the trinity and the two-natures of Christ, were not immune to the new historical periodization. Some in the early modern period stressed a renewed commitment to catechism and confessions of faith, while others held the need for each individual to search out doctrinal truths for themselves. These divisions continued to be particularly important in debates about law and grace, as well as the role of the sacraments. The importance of piety, too, in all parts of life brought a fresh seriousness to the Christian life for many, but ironically it also threatened the sacraments, raising the question of  whether right observance must depend upon the right attitude of the faithful. 

Three traditional topics of Christian teaching that each suffered under early modern assaults were belief in miracles, the rationality of dogmatic mysteries, and the stability of sources of authority, such as scripture and tradition. In many ways the former two were extensions of the later question. Christian belief that 1) the biblical miracles actually occurred and that 2) mysteries of the faith,. such as the Trinity, were true even if beyond human attempts to entirely explain them were both ideas based on a trust in doctrinal authority. This further raised hermeneutical issues. While one could assert a doctrinal or scriptural inerrancy based on the infallible nature of the author, trusting that human interpreters had got the message right was another problem altogether. What method could best attend to context, genre, and a passage's various senses? What role did confessional exegesis play in right understanding?

Some began to seriously question traditional views of the atonement or to search for the essence of a "rational religion" outside historic Christianity. In the first instance, thinkers saw the atonement as a kind of human sacrifice or as representing God as a blood-thirsty tyrant who needs to punish the innocent to satisfy his craving. Others revised the historical picture of Jesus, presenting him as a universal teacher and great moral sage, while religion itself was fulfilled in the love of God and people, the promise of immortality, and an ethical judgment. 

As the rational defense of doctrine began to reach various dead-ends, others began to look to a religion of the heart as a way of establishing the authority and power of Christian faith. The subjective experience of the believer took on greater importance. Believers began to stress a history of pious warmth and zeal, looking back to Bernard of Clairvaux, John Huss, Luther, and others. The contemplation of Christ's sufferings and the role of the Holy Spirit in the inner soul took on new resonances, as well. The creed of the heart was judged to transcend without leaving behind that of objective confessions. The new stress on lay piety extended to communion and the other sacraments, with the subjective faith of the participant becoming a measure of verification. Inward and outward worship must be conjoined, and personal prayer and Bible study were more emphasized, as was the connection between ethics and personal holiness. Appeals to conscience replaced the older Thomistic proofs for God's existence and continued to gather strength into the next century.

The nineteenth century began with a broad division of opinion regarding Christian dogma. The evangelical "heart religion" continued in force among many, but it also began to shade into doctrinal fuzziness, forming more of an attitude than a confession in some quarters. Among many, skepticism had set in in regards to both the defensibility of doctrine and also the truths of its key doctrines--the Trinity and the hypostatic union of Christ as fully God-fully human. The former were as often answered by the concessions and experiential approach of a Schleiermacher as the popular piety of Methodism and its fellow travelers. Many feared a vague theism that over-layered an implicit or functional agnosticism. Still others, growing weary of the potential deceptions of the subjective turned to tradition as an authoritative stay against confusion. Much of this forced a doctrinal reexamination of first principles, a return to the often unstated assumptions of the Christian worldview, especially with the growth in Sabellianism, in Unitarianism, and in Romantic pantheism. 


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding