Early Newman Redivivus

The chief merit of Geertjan Zuijdwegt’s commendable new book on John Henry Newman’s theology is that it meticulously revisits the contemporary record to delineate how Newman bore and worked to repel the ramifying assault of liberalism in his time.

Detail from "Portrait of Newman" (1881) by John Everett Millais [Wikipedia]

In his sprightly tour d’horizon, The Victorian Age in Literature (1911), G.K. Chesterton remarked that “the great Victorian rationalism” had “succeeded in doing a damage to religion” because it had “driven it entirely into the power of the religious people” with the result that “Men like Newman… who would have been mystics in any case, were driven back upon being much more extravagantly religious than they would have been in a religious country,” while “Men like Huxley, men like Kingsley, men like most Victorian men, were equally driven back on being irreligious; that is, on doubting things which men’s normal imagination does not necessarily doubt.” Whether or not Newman was “extravagantly religious” is arguable. After all, he delighted in many things that were not religious–the string quartets of Beethoven, the comedies of Plautus, the novels of Thackeray–but what is not arguable is that the manifold errors of rationalism did involve his formative years in decades of theological enquiry.

An Evangelical Adrift: The Making of John Henry Newman’s Theology by Geertjan Zuijdwegt is a close reading of the theological enquiry in which Newman engaged between his teenage conversion to evangelicalism in 1816 and the start of the Tractarian Movement in 1833–a restless period in which Newman adopted a rather rarefied form of Evangelicalism, flirted with the Noetic liberalism of Oriel, savaged Protestantism in all its Latitudinarian and Broad Church manifestations, and began to seek out an apostolic Anglicanism that would always elude him.

But mostly he fought rationalism, which he saw issuing in both liberalism and infidelity. How so defining a fight took shape in Newman’s work is the author’s main theme and he does it admirable justice. One can quibble with the book’s title–Newman was not an “Evangelical adrift” before he threw in his lot with Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism: he was a disappointed Anglican hungry for Catholic truth–but one cannot quibble with the quality of the scholarship that gives so much of the book its élan.

Besides drawing on much hitherto unmined source material, this well-researched and well-written monograph nicely refutes Frank Turner’s revisionism, which contended that Newman’s work did not exhibit any coherent opposition to liberalism. Evangelicalism, not liberalism, according to Turner, was Newman’s bête noir. For those scholars convinced that Newman’s lifelong fight against liberalism was one with his lifelong championship of the dogmatic principle it is gratifying to see the revisionist idol repudiated by someone as closely associated with the Turner School as Geertjan Zuijdwegt, a school which made the Yale professor’s derisory claim the cardinal article of its revisionist faith.

“The Tractarian Newman began to attack evangelicalism wholesale,” Dr. Zuijdwegt writes, “primarily because he believed that, like most Protestant theology, it tended towards liberalism. When created a cardinal in 1879, Newman stated: ‘For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.’ Measured by the tools of the historian, this contentious claim must be judged as true. It might not have been the only thing he resisted, but it was the crucial thing.” If there were anything so improbable as a prize for intellectual honesty among our current academics, Geertjan Zuijdwegt, on the strength of this disavowal alone, should have to win it.

In making reference to the “tools of the historian,” the author calls attention to the method he has chosen for the book, which is astringently chronological. He only looks at first editions and allows himself little cross-referencing between Newman’s Anglican and Catholic works. Retrospection, which is usually an indispensable element of any good intellectual history, is ruthlessly eschewed. In the book’s conclusion, the author admits that readers might see in the theological enquires of Newman’s formative years foreshadowings of his later Catholic work but he rather comically confesses to being unable to enter into such things. “Much could be said about each…” he says, “but to do so here would be to flout the rule of careful and detailed analysis by which this study has abided.” In other words, gentle reader will have to wait until the author’s sequel is released before finding out whether there is, in fact, any connection between Newman’s Anglican and his Catholic work.

Then, again, although the author calls his book “a theological biography,” he is constrained to admit, as he says, that “I focus on what Newman believed and taught more than on who he was, or what he did,” a methodological choice that altogether discredits the primacy to which Newman accorded action in the devout life. Indeed, the author is convinced that “thought is relatively autonomous” and that “convictions can have their own integrity and rationale,” presumably separate from the demands and responsibilities of action. Nevertheless, he concedes that Newman “was a social thinker, that is, one who thought in encounter with others, his family (his parents and sisters, his brothers Charles and Frank, his aunt Elizabeth), his mentors, guides, friends and pupils (Mayers, Whately, Hawkins, Pusey, Keble, Froude, the Wilberforces, and his authors (Scott, Sumner, Erskine, Butler, Clement, Origen).” He also says that much of his book focuses on “the ways these dead or living people influenced the development of Newman’s thought.”

Yet, when it comes to the figures alive in Newman’s time, the author rarely interests himself in anything other than what he regards as their theological positions, which cannot alone explain their influence on Newman. In the case of Blanco White, for example, the Anglo-Spaniard who left Catholicism for Anglicanism before ending his days attending a Unitarian chapel in Liverpool, where the mountebank James Martineau held forth, Newman took an interest in his liberalism not out of any disputatious interest in the liberalism itself but out of love for a friend who had come to a grievously unbelieving end. When Blanco and Newman were at Oriel they loved playing Beethoven on their violins together. Like Newman, Blanco had an exquisite ear. After Blanco died, Newman wrote Catherine Ward before Christmas in 1848: “He was a most engaging, interesting man—with warm sensibilities and affections—full of imagination, and gentle in his manners — but he had no principle of stability in him he died a Pantheist almost an Atheist. What a contrast to the satisfaction of mind which the convert to Catholicity experiences!”

Lack of proper biographical context also affects Dr. Zuijdwegt’s treatment of Newman’s relationship with his brother Charles, who convinced himself that in what he contrived to see as a kind of contest of ideas the Christianity of St Paul could be no match for the socialism of the utopian Robert Owen (1771-1858). While there is much in the book about the differing positions the two brothers took on religious matters, there is nothing about the love they bore each other, which made the irreconcilability of their positions so lacerating. One should also call attention to the author’s treatment of Newman’s occasionally fractious relationship with his father, which makes no allowance for the abiding delight that both took in the poetry of George Crabbe (1754-1832), who proved himself, especially in his narrative poem, The Borough (1810), a trenchant critic of Evangelical zeal.

Looking back on the tensions between father and son–in which the father found fault with what he thought the excessive zeal of the son’s youthful faith, while maintaining that he would soon outgrow it–Newman might very well have turned against this Evangelical phase of his, when he did, in response to his father’s prescience. In fine, there might be much to be said for Dr. Zuijdwegt’s method–it certainly enables him to reject the fundamental errors spawned by the ineffable Turner–but it sacrifices a good deal of the rounded, rich, and, yes, retrospective fullness that we need from any truly incisive handling of intellectual history.

Coincidentally enough, Chesterton is good on whether one can do intellectual history faithfully in accordance with a strictly chronological method. “Now in trying to describe how the Victorian writers stood to each other, we must recur to the very real difficulty… of keeping the moral order parallel with the chronological order,” he writes in The Victorian Age in Literature. “For the mind moves by instincts, associations, premonitions and not by fixed dates or completed processes. …Thus Wordsworth shrank back into Toryism, as it were, from a Shelleyan extreme of pantheism as yet disembodied. Thus Newman took down the iron sword of dogma to parry a blow not yet delivered, that was coming from the club of Darwin. For this reason no one can understand tradition, or even history, who has not some tenderness for anachronism.”

One undeniable virtue of Dr. Zuijdwegt’s book–and it transcends whatever qualms we might have about the advisability of its method–is that it delivers insights galore. The deep reading that has gone into its composition yields much that will enlighten even the most well-informed Newmanian. Evelyn Waugh praised P.G. Wodehouse because he managed to adorn nearly every page of every novel with a startlingly funny, brilliant analogy. The author of this study packs his book with an array of equally brilliant insights. If one of the reasons why Newman deplored liberalism, for instance, is that it had no respect for mystery, the author shows that Newman might have first encountered this objection in Thomas Scott’s Force of Truth (1808), the vade mecum of the convert’s youth, in which the biblical scholar observed:

when reflecting men, in order to avoid those mysterious, and as they imagine, unreasonable conclusions, which, according to the true meaning of words, the Scriptures contain, have become Arians, it is wonderful they do not, for the same cause, embrace the Socinian system. This is the natural progress of unhumbled reason; from Arianism to Socinianism; from Socinianism to Deism, and thence to Atheism.

This was a bedrock axiom of Newman’s when it came to the objectionableness of rationalism–the epitome of “unhumbled reason”–and in his commentary the author shows that he fully understands how important it was for Newman’s understanding of what became his “dogmatic principle.” Once we demand “perspicuity in doctrine,” Dr. Zuijdwegt says of what Scott held and Newman adopted in his own developing theology, “there is no end to the intellectual objections we can level at religious truth.” This is why, for Scott, Scripture “requires submission,” a truth Newman extended to show that mystery is an inalienable constituent of Revelation per se, though, here, a little twist of retrospection would have shown that it was to attain a properly tenable “perspicuity in doctrine” that Newman converted. After all, it is the sacramental vision of the Catholic Church alone that is the true guardian of mystery.

With the writing of Arians of the Fourth Century (1833), Dr. Zuijdwegt points out, Newman had come to the realization that “the encounter with mystery pervades our cognitive relation to all of reality with God,” but it pervades “the world as well.” Hence, Newman’s interest in turning Joseph Butler’s musings on probability to account to demonstrate the practical certainty of belief. In sum, those nineteenth-century Anglican churchmen, like the Oriel don Richard Whatley, who could not abide mystery and insisted, instead, on faith being preeminently rational subscribed to what Dr. Zuijdwegt nicely calls the “civilized religiosity of liberalism,” a faith, as he says, with no room for “’zeal and quick-eyed sanctity’–because it was, at bottom, indifferent to religious truth.”

It followed from this that Newman was never simply opposed to liberalism in religion, though this was obviously the area in which its depredations were most conspicuous. No, as Dr. Zuijdwegt admits, Newman “believed that liberalism entailed a misconception of just about everything: human nature, God, religion, morals, doctrine, truth.” Indeed, it was “the massive danger… of liberalism” that inspired Newman to form the Tractarian movement and ultimately to abandon what he called the “wreck” of Anglo-Catholicism for the one true fold of the Redeemer. This is hardly an original insight, but Dr. Zuijdwegt shows again and again in his trolling of Newman’s early work that it was one his subject defended frequently in his formative years before launching the Oxford Movement.

Here, I should conclude where I began: with Chesterton. “Liberalism (in Newman’s sense),” the most entertaining of intellectual historians perceived, “really did strike Christianity through headpiece and through head; that is, it did daze and stun the ignorant and ill-prepared intellect of the English Christian.” Newman, of course, was stunned, too, though he recovered his senses sufficiently to repel what he would later call “the great Apostasia.” The chief merit of this commendable book is that it meticulously revisits the contemporary record to delineate how Newman bore and worked to repel that ramifying assault. In the process, the recovering historicist in Dr. Zuijdwegt actually becomes something of a hagiographer, in the best sense of the word, an irony which would have delighted his book’s hero.

An Evangelical Adrift: The Making of John Henry Newman’s Theology
By Geertjan Zuijdwegt
Catholic University of America Press, 2023
Hardcover, 365 pages


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About Edward Short 37 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

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