Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Old is new: Cardinal Newman's thoughts speak today

Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman Sunday, Sept. 19 in Birmingham, England. Traces of the thought of Newman, who died in 1890, remain relevant to the issues of today, as noted in an editorial in this week's Catholic Standard and Times.

His writings are voluminous, and no one passage neatly addresses the hidden benefits of the recent worldwide condemnation of a Florida pastor’s plan, since dropped, to burn copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The following passages of Sermon 22 by Newman, as collected on the web site Newman Reader, address the role of the Church in society. The site also offers a full topical index to Newman’s writings. The unanimity of many Christian and Catholic leaders rejecting the plan reflects some of Newman’s thought on the topic. The writing style may sound dated, but the content remains instructive.

Sermon 22. Outward and Inward Notes of the Church

"I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." 2 Tim. i. 12.

{324} IT is not to be supposed that any of us, in this fallen time, should be able to use these words of the great Apostle as he used them. God who made us, has given to each of us his own place. Some He places in heathen countries, some in Christian; some in the full light and grace of the Gospel, others amid shadows; some He visits almost with sensible tokens of His presence, others He barely supports with the hope and surmise of it. Some He leads forward only by intimations, and, as it were, whispers; as the old Saints, who "went out, not knowing whither they went;" and "died in faith, not receiving the promise." And others, like St. Paul, have before now been granted visions of the third heaven, that full and intimate Presence of Christ, which enables the Apostle to say, in the words of the text, "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." {325}

Yet in spite of these great differences in God's dealings with man and man, there is this one thing the same in all cases, that He has dealt with each. I mean that religion is a personal, private, and individual matter, that it consists in a communion between God and the soul, and that its true evidences belong to the soul that believes, are its property, and not something common to it and the whole world. God vouchsafes to speak to us one by one, to manifest Himself to us one by one, to lead us forward one by one; He gives us something to rely upon which others do not experience, which we cannot convey to others, which we can but use for ourselves.

Now that there is much in Scripture agreeable to this statement, no one I suppose will deny; but this question arises, which is worth considering, whether the Gospel Dispensation does not, even more than the Law, in one respect modify it, or even run counter to it and reverse it? For if there be a distinction of the Gospel plainly laid down in Scripture, it is that it is a social religion, and addresses individuals as parts of a whole. And, being social, it must have all things in common, and its evidences and tokens in the number. And, further, if it is social, it must be a public religion, "a city set upon a hill;" and its evidences will be in a measure public. Nay, further, its great note, as announced by the Prophets, is not only that it is social, that it is public, but that it is both social and public in the very highest sense, because it is Catholic, universal every where; and this note is insisted on as something special in itself, of a nature to dazzle and subdue the mind, like a miracle, or like the sun's light in the heavens. It was to be the {326} characteristic gift of the Christian Church, that she herself was to be a great public evidence of her mission, that she was to be her own evidence. Her very look, her bearing, her voice, were to be her credentials. As Adam had sovereignty over brute animals on his creation, or as the second Adam, her Lord and Maker, "spake as one having authority, and not as the Scribes," so she was to win or to awe the souls of men generally; not this one or that, but all, though variously, by the manifest royalty of her very presence. She received this gift from her Lord in the beginning—to claim and command obedience when she spoke, because she spoke; and that not from any thing special in the mind of the hearer, but from the voice and tone of the speaker.


These of course are but a few out of the multitude of passages in the Prophet Isaiah, descriptive of the Christian Church; they speak of tokens outward, visible, common to all; and yet, in spite of these, St. Paul in the text, when about to die, and contemplating the judgment, speaks, not of them, of an evidence not outward, not visible, not common, but inward, private, incommunicable. "I know," he says, "whom I have believed." I bear about me "the marks of the Lord Jesus" in my own person; I have assurance that He has "stood by me," because He has "strengthened me;" His tabernacle is not only "with men," but "the grace of Christ tabernacles upon me." In other words (could we doubt it?), in his instance the general had become particular; the external had flowed into his secret soul; {328} the universal gift had been appropriated; the visible glory had kindled a light in his own breast; and thus, just as we need not read a friend's writing when we hear his voice, so, though Christ had gone forth into the wide world, and had been lifted up aloft to draw men to Him, and had lodged among them the power and the presence of His Atonement, yet the blessed Apostle needed not seek Him abroad, who had graciously condescended to "come under his roof," and manifest Himself unto him.

Now this is a distinction very necessary in all ages of the Church, for different reasons: when her outward glory is great, by way of turning our attention to our own hearts, and our personal responsibility; and when it is obscured, in order to keep our faith from failing, and to revive our hope; at all times, to hinder our being engrossed by what is external to the loss of what is inward in religion.

I observe, then, this: that the public notes of the Church, which are the common property of all men, are rather a sign to unbelievers than to the faithful, and to the world than to Christians; and a sign to members of the Church in proportion as they are without, and till they gain those truer and more precious tokens, to which the external notes lead, and by which they are practically superseded. This I conceive to be the Scripture doctrine concerning them, in the very passages which promise them to us.


What is told us in the New Testament is to the same purpose. For instance: consider the very precept of Christ, which binds us together in one body, and observe the reason it gives for doing so. "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another; by this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another." You see it was to be a sign to the world, not to the Church herself. Still more clearly is this implied in our Lord's intercessory prayer: {331} "As Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me." You see, unity was for the sake of the world; He repeats it: "I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfect in one, and that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me, and hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me." The visibility of the Church was rather for her proclaiming the truth, than for her dispensing grace.

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