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John Henry Newman: by Revd Canon Chuck Collins

Center for Reformation Anglicanism

John Henry Newman

By Revd Canon Chuck Collins

John Henry Newman published Tract 90, entitled Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-nine Articles, February 27, 1841. This last tract in the series was an attack on the high status of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in Church of England history, and their universally accepted Protestant interpretation. Newman attempted to show that those who “aim at being catholic in heart and doctrine” can in good faith subscribe to Anglican’s confessional statement, but this required a torturous bending of their literal and grammatical sense. For example, Article 21 states that general councils “may err and sometimes have erred” – but Newman qualified this to say that this applied only to councils called by princes, not councils called “in the name of Christ.” Likewise, Article 22 rejects the Romish doctrines of purgatory, worshipping and adoring images and relics, and praying to saints with “no warrant of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God” – but Newman, in a rush to interpret the Articles “in the most Catholic sense they will admit,” tried to show that Romish doctrines meant the abuses of Roman Catholic dogma, not the understandings of contemporary Catholics or even the Council of Trent. The Protestant strategy to attack Tract 90 was simple: bring it to the attention of as many people as possible. Charles Golightly, Oxford’s gadfly for Protestantism, wrote Strictures on No. 90 addressing each of Newman’s claims one-by-one (170 pages!), finally calling Newman an “apologist” of the Church of Rome.  

John Henry Newman was the most influential leader of the 1830s-40s Oxford Movement (also called the Tractarian Movement) that attempted to redefine the core beliefs of the Church of England. Anglicanism was founded on the 16th century Edwardian and Elizabethan ideals of the historic formularies that uphold the supremacy of Holy Scripture, justification by grace through faith alone, universal priesthood (of all believers), and an understanding of “real presence” as Christ’s spiritual presence located in the hearts and affections of those who receive the grace of the sacraments by faith. The Oxford divines challenged each of these with their own pre-Reformation ideas. In fact, Newman and many others in the movement ended up abandoning the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church, leaving in their wake the ruins of a mish-mashed self-identity that is constantly in search for new ways to define itself independent from the traditional Anglican formularies (E.g., three-legged stool, lex orandi lex credendi, three-streams, instruments of unity, etc). 

According to Newman, the Oxford Movement was launched by a sermon in 1833 (“National Apostasy”) in which John Keble fussed at the nation for not being more like the prophet Samuel. This was followed by a series of 90 “Tracts for the Times” (1833-1841), 27 of which were written by Newman himself. The Oxford Movement concerned itself with apostolic succession (by this they primarily meant the tactile succession of ordained leaders traceable back to St. Peter, not the succession of apostolic teaching – 2 Tim 2:2), the antiquity of the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons as the essence (esse) of the church rather for the well being of the church (bene esse), revival of the practice of sacramental confession, a view of the sacraments as automatic conveyers of divine grace (whether there is faith or not), the duel authority of the Bible and the church (making tradition the interpreter of Holy Scripture and equal in authority), and a call to holy living (Laudian Arminianism). They defended the rise of moralism in the church from the Reformation and Pauline understanding of “imputed righteousness” (Christ’s own righteousness given to sinners as a free gift) to “infused righteousness” (sinners incrementally becoming innately righteous and worthy of salvation) – what Newman called in a sermon the “holiness necessary for future blessedness.”

The path he was on was obvious; Newman was received as a Roman Catholic in 1845. After his Thirty-Nine Articles faux pas, he lived another forty-eight years in retreat as a monk and professional academic.  On October 13, 2019, with England’s Prince Charles looking on as a special guest, Pope Francis canonised (sainted) Cardinal John Henry Newman in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Rome. To become a saint in Roman Catholicism a miracle has to be attributed to prayers made to them after their death.

Anglicans today either tread water in the big sea of competing and conflicting ideas, or we find solid ground in the Edwardian and Elizabethan Settlement (Reformation Anglicanism) that sees its foundation as Holy Scripture that is supported and explicated by Anglicanism’s formularies. When the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference) were forming, they recognised the historic formularies in their original and plain meaning as the foundation on which this church is built. Without this foundation, the church that stands for nothing will fall for anything.

The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.  (www.anglicanism.info)

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