Prophetic Voices: John Henry Newman the Saint, Sage, and Scholar

Posted Fri, 11/26/2021 - 09:55 by Avigail

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This Advent, our blog posts will reflect on ‘prophetic voices’; people who, in the spirit of the prophets, may inspire us to action, challenge our preconceptions, refocus our religious practices, or forge a new path forward for our communities. Sea Yun Pius Joung begins this series with ‘A Prophet Heralding Moderning: John Henry Newman the Saint, Sage and Scholar’.


A Prophet Heralding Modernity: John Henry Newman the Saint, Sage, and Scholar

Sea Yun Pius Joung


The prophet is frequently characterized as a voice crying out in the wilderness, and in the history of Israel, as an antithesis to the monarchical and priestly authority centred around the hierarchy of Jerusalem and the Temple. The prophets are those that are not necessarily heard, but often make accurate predictions, and in the Christian tradition, prophets are regarded as heralding the hope that comes in the form of Christ. The advent message, that Christ should be born anew in our hearts every day, and that we must be mindful of the final judgement, is reflected in a prophet that is unafraid to challenge even the greatest of our worldly institutions.


The greatest hero for many of the young people is St John Henry Cardinal Newman – the saint that explains the meaning of prophecy in our modern age through championing the conscience. Through his sensitivity and kindness, he sought an holistic, liberal education within a Catholic framework. He was a sage that did not let his academic work slip into the oblivion of abstractness and theory, but followed it to its logical conclusion and taught us that the love of God seeketh not its own. Finally, his legacy, on the development of doctrine, on the conscience, and the logical consequences of these for the interfaith and ecumenical movement, would be enshrined almost a century after his death at the Second Vatican Council, showing that he was a prophet well ahead of his times.


Newman was born in 1801 and matriculated into Trinity College, Oxford in 1816, reading for Classics and Mathematics. It was at this point that he began to be acquainted with the Church Fathers. In 1822, he was elected as a fellow of Oriel College, where he took residence and taught for twenty years. It was here that he led the Oxford Movement with Edward Pusey and John Keble, who were also fellows of the College. During his time at Oriel, Newman studied the Church Fathers closely and began to realise the value of tradition, both in interpreting and elucidating the Scriptures. For Newman at this time, the Church of England was one of the three branches of the Church following the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. After an extensive study on the Arian controversy, Newman writes, “should the hand of Satan press us sore, our Athanasius and Basil will be given us in their destined season, to break the bonds of the Oppressor, and let the captives go free”. In other words, Newman had confidence that the Anglican communion would return to a more Catholic direction, the acceptance of tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers being crucial in such an enterprise. At this point, Newman was a prophet because he realised that, as the great Hebrew Bible scholar, Hindy Najman would put it, the work of prophecy had not ceased, despite declarations of closure. Despite the canon of Scripture being declared closed, for Newman, doctrine could develop, precisely because the work of inspiration did not necessarily cease with apostolic times, but rather matured. At this time, Newman preached at the University Church, on the famous image from the Gospel of Luke: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19) to argue that Mary, as a type for the Church is consistently pondering the meaning of that initial revelation and much like Ezra and the Levites, the Church continues the activity of interpreting, and therefore, perhaps, I might add, the institution of Prophecy.


Yet further, Newman would follow this initial academic spark to its logical conclusion, which for him, was Catholicism. The conscience was a key theme in Newman’s life, such that famously, after having written An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman resolved to become a Catholic. Newman is a prophet because he allows for prophecy to be possible and accessible, as the divinity is directly accessible. In his intellectual thought, he termed the conscience the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ, perhaps following St Paul’s notion of following the law of God inscribed within our hearts. However, this notion of conscience was not a mere intellectual exercise for Newman, but a fundamental aspect for his own life, which is why despite the manifold sacrifices he had to make because of the anti-Catholic sentiment present at the time, he followed his conscience to its logical conclusion.


However, for the Council of Christians and Jews, a more relevant aspect of Newman’s life might lay in his influence upon the Second Vatican Council, as Newman’s thought has been instrumental in fostering interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. At one level, the emphasis on conscience was taken directly from Bishop Butler, from the Anglican tradition – and the many treasures that Newman brought into the Catholic tradition from the Anglican should never be underplayed. I would argue that Newman also pivotally influenced Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, the two documents for Catholics most significant for the possibility of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue in a way perhaps unimaginable before Vatican II.


Parts of Nostra Aetate merit extensive quotation, and display how prophetic Newman indeed was:

Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going? (1)


And again:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. (4)


Newman precedes all of this in a special way because the notion of the conscience is the reason that the Church can declare this. Newman, when read faithfully, is the greatest advocate of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue possible in his generation. He cannot say what is untrue for the Catholic Church or for the wider notion of Christian orthodoxy: the Church can hardly make everyone happy as it were through following the trends of the time – but Newman shows a way for meaningful interfaith dialogue because the conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.


This advent, Newman’s legacy should shine as brightly as ever. His cry in the wilderness was met by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council – and through dialogue with other traditions in a respectful way that does not merely diminish or belittle differences, but acknowledges them and even discusses them – we can remember Newman the prophet this Advent. We must, like Newman, allow our conscience to guide our will – and refuse the temptation of lawyers to twist the inner, primaeval call of the conscience. Perhaps it is time to recover this beautiful interior call: to contemplate in silence to listen to this primeval call, and God’s cry deep within our souls, exhorting us to be prophets in our age.


Sea Yun Pius Joung is a CCJ Student Leader at the University of Oxford where he is the Christian Chair of the Interfaith Scriptural Reasoning Society and a student at Oriel College.