Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Enthralling Power: History and Heresy in John Henry Newman

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Enthralling Power: History and Heresy in John Henry Newman

Article excerpt

John Henry Newman occupies a unique place in the religious history of the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. In the Victorian Church of England, the Oxford Movement which Newman helped to create effected a transformation of the spiritual and clerical life of Anglicanism. Within the Roman Catholic Church, Newman's conversion, primarily on the basis of his understanding of Scripture and revelation as properly interpreted through the tradition of the church, has served as a powerful apologetic for Catholicism.

The scholarly literature on Newman is voluminous and widespread; his place within his two traditions has undergone constant interpretation. Within the Roman Catholic Church Newman has served as a cipher for understanding the struggle with rationalism and authority which absorbed the late-nineteenth-century church.1 The relevant portions of Newman's biographies2 describe the Anglican period of his life with particular emphasis on the development of his religious thought, preparing the way for his conversion in 1845. This is Newman's own attitude towards his Anglican years in his autobiography, the Apologia pro Vita Sua.

My goal in this paper is to look at a particular aspect of Newman's work which is largely overlooked: namely, Newman as historian. Newman's place as theologian and preacher has been duly recognized; his historical work much less so.3 In particular I will examine Newman's understanding of heresy and its influence on the two most critical moments in his life. First I will explore Newman's treatment of Arianism, highlighting the significance of his The Arians of the Fourth Century by showing how his treatment of that heresy prepared the way for the Oxford Movement. Second, I will show how Newman's foray into Monophysitism, still operating from the hermeneutic established in his work on Arianism, helped to pave the way for his conversion.

Newman is not only significant for the history of the nineteenth-century church. The Arians of the Fourth Century helped to establish the historiographic attitude towards heresy in British Arian scholarship. It paved the way for H. M. Gwatkin's Studies of Arianism, published some fifty years later. Gwatkin, while differing with Newman over the origin of Arianism, nonetheless continued his predecessor's line of argumentation by seeking to uncover the pagan influences on heresy, in order to explain its failure. Such an interpretation governed the study of Arianism, in various ways, until recent decades. After presenting Newman's historical work, I will conclude by examining his influence on the study of heresy.

Church and Society in the Time of Newman

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the Church of England found itself in the same predicament as the rest of English society, namely, faced with responding to the demands of modernity with an essentially outdated system of governing the country and the church. The integration of Ireland into Great Britain resulted in the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Likewise the demographic shift to the burgeoning industrial cities of the north created the demand for a reformed electoral system, which resulted in the Reform Act of 1832.

The push for reform in England was everywhere present; in this sense it was only natural that reform of the Church of England would be included in such discussions. Indeed, there were some parties in the Church of England which advocated reform of the church, with some even calling for disestablishment. The bickering between various parties and the clamor for reform led to dire predictions. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the Rugby School and proponent of reform of the Church of England, wrote in 1829: "The Church, as it now stands, no human power can save."4

It was in this atmosphere that the Oxford Movement had its beginnings, set into motion by the Church Temporalities Act of 1833. Having reformed the electorate in 1832, the government turned its attention towards the established church, in this case the Church of Ireland. …

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