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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


IT is pretty clear that most persons of this day will be disposed to wonder at the earnestness shown by the early bishops of the Church in their defence of the Catholic faith. Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory, and Ambrose resisted the spread of Arianism at the risk of their lives. Yet their repeated protests and efforts were all about what? The man of the world will answer, “strifes of words, perverse disputings, curious questions, which do not tend to advance what ought to be the one end of all religion, peace and love. This is what comes of insisting on orthodoxy; putting the whole world into a fever!” Tantum religio potuit, etc., as the Epicurean poet says.

Such certainly is the phenomenon which we have to contemplate: theirs was a state of mind seldom experienced, and little understood, in this day; however for that reason, it is at least interesting to the antiquarian, even were it not a sound and Christian state also. The highest end of Church union, to which the mass of educated men now look, is quiet and unanimity; as if the Church were not built upon faith, and truth really the first object of the Christian’s efforts, peace but the second. The one idea which statesmen, and lawyers, and journalists, and men of letters have of a clergyman is, that he is by profession “a man of peace:” and if he has occasion to denounce, or to resist, or to protest, a cry is raised, “O how disgraceful in a minister of peace!” The Church is thought invaluable as a promoter of good order and sobriety; but is regarded as nothing more. Far be it from me to seem to disparage what is really one of her high functions; but still a part of her duty will never be tantamount to the whole of it. At present the beau idéal of a clergyman in the eyes of many is a “reverend gentleman,” who has a large family, and “administers spiritual consolation.” Now I make bold to say, that confessorship for the Catholic faith is one part of the duty of Christian ministers, nay, and Christian laymen too. Yet, in this day, if at any time there is any difference in matters of doctrine between Christians, the first and last wish—the one sovereign object—of so-called judicious men, is to hush it up. No matter what the difference is about; that is thought so little to the purpose, that your well-judging men will not even take the trouble to inquire what it is. It may be, for what they know, a question of theism or atheism; but they will not admit, whatever it is, that it can be more than secondary to the preservation of a good understanding between Christians. They think, whatever it is, it may safely be postponed for future consideration—that things will right themselves—the one pressing object being to present a bold and extended front to our external enemies, to prevent the outward fabric of the Church from being weakened by dissensions, and insulted by those who witness them. Surely the Church exists, in an especial way, for the sake of the faith committed to her keeping. But our practical men forget there may be remedies worse than the disease; that latent heresy may be worse than a contest of “party;” and, in their treatment of the Church, they fulfil the satirist’s well-known line:—

“Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.”

No wonder they do so, when they have been so long accustomed to merge the Church in the nation, and to talk of “Protestantism” in the abstract as synonymous with true religion; to consider that the characteristic merit of our Church is its “tolerance,” as they call it, and that its greatest misfortune is the exposure to the world of those antagonistic principles and views which are really at work within it. But talking of exposure, what a scandal it was in St Peter to exert his apostolical powers on Ananias; and in St. John, to threaten Diotrephes! What an exposure in St. Paul to tell the Corinthians he had “a rod” for them, were they disobedient! One should have thought, indeed, that weapons were committed to the Church for use as well as for show; but the present age apparently holds otherwise, considering that the Church is then most primitive, when it neither cares for the faith itself, nor uses the divinely ordained means by which it is to be guarded. Now, to people who acquiesce in this view, I know well that Ambrose or Augustine has not more of authority than an English non-juror; still, to those who do not acquiesce in it, it may be some little comfort, some encouragement, some satisfaction, to see that they themselves are not the first persons in the world who have felt and judged of religion in that particular way which is now in disrepute.


However, some persons will allow, perhaps, that doctrinal truth ought to be maintained, and that the clergy ought to maintain it; but then they will urge that we should not make the path of truth too narrow; that it is a royal and a broad highway by which we travel heavenward, whereas it has been the one object of theologians, in every age, to encroach upon it, till at length it has become scarcely broad enough for two to walk abreast in. And moreover, it will be objected, that over-exactness was the very fault of the fourth and fifth centuries in particular, which refined upon the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and our Lord’s Incarnation, till the way of life became like that razor’s edge, which is said in the Koran to be drawn high over the place of punishment, and must be traversed by every one at the end of the world.

Now I cannot possibly deny, however disadvantageous it may be to their reputation, that the Fathers do represent the way of faith as narrow, nay, even as being the more excellent and the more royal for that very narrowness. Such is orthodoxy certainly; but here it is obvious to ask whether this very characteristic of it may not possibly be rather an argument for, than against, its divine origin. Certain it is, that such nicety, as it is called, is not unknown to other religious dispensations, creeds, and covenants, besides that which the primitive Church identified with Christianity. Nor is it a paradox to maintain that the whole system of religion, natural as well as revealed, is full of similar appointments. As to the subject of ethics, even a heathen philosopher tells us, that virtue consists in a mean—that is, in a point between indefinitely-extending extremes; “men being in one way good, and many ways bad.” The same principle, again, is seen in the revealed system of spiritual communications; the grant of grace and privilege depending on positive ordinances, simple and definite—on the use of a little water, the utterance of a few words, the imposition of hands, and the like; which, it will perhaps be granted, are really essential to the conveyance of spiritual blessings, yet are confessedly as formal and technical as any creed can be represented to be. In a word, such technicality is involved in the very idea of a means, which may even be defined to be a something appointed, at God’s inscrutable pleasure, as the necessary condition of something else; and the simple question before us is, merely the matter of fact, viz., whether any doctrine is set forth by Revelation as necessary to be believed in order to salvation? Antecedent difficulty in the question there is none; or rather, the probability is in favour of there being some necessary doctrine, from the analogy of the other parts of religion. The question is simply about the matter of fact.

This analogy is perspicuously expressed in one of the sermons of St. Leo:—“Not only,” he says, “in the exercise of virtue and the observance of the commandments, but also in the path of faith, strait and difficult is the way which leads to life; and it requires great pains, and involves great risks, to walk without stumbling along the one footway of sound doctrine, amid the uncertain opinions and the plausible untruths of the unskilful, and to escape all peril of mistake when the toils of error are on every side.”—Serm. 25.

St. Gregory Nazianzen says the same thing:—“We have bid farewell to contentious deviations of doctrine, and compensations on either side; neither Sabellianizing nor Arianizing. These are the sports of the evil one, who is a bad arbiter of our matters. But we, pacing along the middle and royal way, in which also the essence of the virtues lies, in the judgment of the learned, believe in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”—Orat. 30.

On the whole, then, I see nothing very strange either in orthodoxy lying in what at first sight appears like subtle and minute exactness of doctrine, or in its being our duty to contend even to confessorship for such exactness. Whether it be thus exact, and whether the exactness of Ambrose, Leo, or Gregory be the true and revealed exactness, is quite another question: all I say is, that it is no great difficulty to believe that it may be what they say it is, both as to its truth and as to its importance.


But now supposing the question is asked, are Ambrose, Leo, and Gregory right? and is our Church right in maintaining with them the Athanasian doctrine on those sacred points to which it relates, and condemning those who hold otherwise? what answer is to be given? I answer by asking in turn, supposing any one inquired how we know that Ambrose, Leo, or Gregory was right, and our Church right, in receiving St. Paul’s Epistles, what answer we should make? The answer would be, that it is a matter of history that the Apostle wrote those letters which are ascribed to him. And what is meant by its being a matter of history? why, that it has ever been so believed, so declared, so recorded, so acted on, from the first down to this day; that there is no assignable point of time when it was not believed, no assignable point at which the belief was introduced; that the records of past ages fade away and vanish in the belief; that in proportion as past ages speak at all, they speak in one way, and only fail to bear a witness, when they fail to have a voice. What stronger testimony can we have of a past fact?

Now evidence such as this have we for the Catholic doctrines which Ambrose, Leo, or Gregory maintained; they have never and nowhere not been maintained; or in other words, wherever we know anything positive of ancient times and places, there we are told of these doctrines also. As far as the records of history extend, they include these doctrines as avowed always, everywhere, and by all. This is the great canon of the Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, which saves us from the misery of having to find out the truth for ourselves from Scripture on our independent and private judgment. He who gave Scripture, also gave us the interpretation of Scripture; and He gave the one and the other gift in the same way, by the testimony of past ages, as matter of historical knowledge, or as it is sometimes called, by Tradition. We receive the Catholic doctrines as we receive the canon of Scripture, because, as our Article expresses it, “of their authority” there “was never any doubt in the Church.”

We receive them on Catholic Tradition, and therefore they are called Catholic doctrines. And that they are Catholic, is a proof that they are Apostolic; they never could have been universally received in the Church, unless they had had their origin in the origin of the Church, unless they had been made the foundation of the Church by its founders. As the separate successions of bishops in various countries have but one common origin, the Apostles, so what has been handed down through these separate successions comes from that one origin. The Apostolic College is the only point in which all the lines converge, and from which they spring. Private traditions, wandering unconnected traditions, are of no authority, but permanent, recognised, public, definite, intelligible, multiplied, concordant testimonies to one and the same doctrine, bring with them an overwhelming evidence of apostolical origin. We ground the claims of orthodoxy on no powers of reasoning, however great, on the credit of no names, however imposing, but on an external fact, on an argument the same as that by which we prove the genuineness and authority of the four gospels. The unanimous tradition of all the churches to certain articles of faith is surely an irresistible evidence, more trustworthy far than that of witnesses to certain facts in a court of law, by how much the testimony of a number is more cogent than the testimony of two or three. That this really is the ground on which the narrow line of orthodoxy was maintained in ancient times, is plain from an inspection of the writings of the very men who maintained it, Ambrose, Leo, and Gregory, or Athanasius and Hilary, and the rest, who set forth its Catholic character in more ways than it is possible here to instance or even explain.


However, in order to give the general reader some idea of the state of the case, I will make some copious extracts from the famous tract of Vincent of Lerins on Heresy, written in A.D. 434, immediately after the third Ecumenical Council, held against Nestorius. The author was originally a layman, and by profession a soldier. In after life he became a monk and took orders. Lerins, the site of his monastery, is one of the small islands off the south coast of France. He first states what the principle is he would maintain, and the circumstances under which he maintains it; and if his principle is reasonable and valuable in itself, so does it come to us with great weight under the circumstances which he tells us led him to his exposition of it:

“Inquiring often,” he says, “with great desire and attention, of very any excellent, holy, and learned men, how and by what means I might assuredly, and as it were by some general and ordinary way, discern the true Catholic faith from false and wicked heresy; to this question I had usually this answer from them all, that whether I or any other desired to find out the fraud of heretics, daily springing up, and to escape their snares, and to continue in a sound faith himself safe and sound, that he ought, by two ways, by God’s assistance, to defend and preserve his faith; that is, first, by the authority of the law of God; secondly, by the tradition of the Catholic Church.”—Ch. 2.

It will be observed he is speaking of the mode in which an individual is to seek and attain the truth; and it will be observed also, as the revered Bishop Jebb has pointed out, that he is allowing and sanctioning the use of personal inquiry. He proceeds:—

“Here some man, perhaps, may ask, seeing the canon of the Scripture is perfect, and most abundantly of itself sufficient for all things, what need we join unto it the authority of the Church’s understanding and interpretation? The reason is this, because the Scripture being of itself so deep and profound, all men do not understand it in one and the same sense, but divers men diversely, this man and that man, this way and that way, expound and interpret the sayings thereof, so that to one’s thinking, ‘so many men, so many opinions’ almost may be gathered out of them: for Novatian expoundeth it one way, Photinus another; Sabellius after this sort, Donatus after that; Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius will have this exposition, Apollinaris and Priscilian will have that; Jovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, gather this sense, and, to conclude, Nestorius findeth out that; and therefore very necessary it is for the avoiding of so great windings and turnings, of errors so various, that the line of expounding the Prophets and Apostles be directed and drawn, according to the rule of the Ecclesiastical and Catholic sense.

“Again, within the Catholic Church itself we are greatly to consider that we hold that which hath been believed everywhere, always, and of all men: for that is truly and properly Catholic (as the very force and nature of the word doth declare) which comprehendeth all things in general after an universal manner, and that shall we do if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. Universality shall we follow thus, if we profess that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world acknowledgeth and confesseth. Antiquity shall we follow, if we depart not any whit from those senses which it is plain that our holy elders and fathers generally held. Consent shall we likewise follow, if in this very Antiquity itself we hold the definitions and opinions of all, or at any rate almost all, the priests and doctors together.”—Ch. 2, 3.

It is sometimes said, that what is called orthodoxy or Catholicism is only the opinion of one or two Fathers—fallible men, however able they might be, or persuasive—who created a theology, and imposed it on their generation, and thereby superseded Scriptural truth and the real gospel. Let us see how Vincent treats such individual teachers, however highly gifted. He is speaking in the opening sentence of the Judaizers of the time of St. Paul:—

“When, therefore, such kind of men, wandering up and down through provinces and cities to set their errors to sale, came also unto the Galatians, and these, after they had heard them, were delighted with the filthy drugs of heretical novelty, loathing the truth, and casting up again the heavenly manna of the Apostolic and Catholic doctrine: the authority of his Apostolic office so puts itself forth as to decree very severely in this sort. ‘But although (quoth he) we or an Angel from heaven evangelize unto you beside that which we have evangelized, be he Anathema.’ What meaneth this that he saith, ‘But although we?’ why did he not rather say, ‘But although I?’ that is to say, Although Peter, although Andrew, although John, yea, finally, although the whole company of the Apostles, evangelize unto you otherwise than we have evangelized, be he accursed. A terrible censure, in that for maintaining the possession of the first faith, he spared not himself, nor any other of the Apostles! But this is a small matter: ‘Although an Angel from heaven (quoth he) evangelize unto you, beside that which I have evangelized, be he Anathema,’ he was not contented for keeping the faith once delivered to make mention of man’s weak nature, unless also he included those excellent creatures the Angels … But peradventure he uttered those words slightly, and cast them forth rather of human affection than decreed them by divine direction. God forbid: for it followeth, and that urged with great earnestness of repeated inculcation, ‘As I have foretold you (quoth he), and now again I tell you, If anybody evangelize unto you beside that which you have received, be he Anathema.’ He said not, If any man preach unto you beside that which you have received, let him be blessed, let him be commended, let him be received, but let him be Anathema, that is, separated, thrust out, excluded, lest the cruel infection of one sheep with his poisoned company corrupt the sound flock of Christ.”—Ch. 12 and 13.


Here, then, is a point of doctrine which must be carefully insisted on. The Fathers are primarily to be considered as witnesses, not as authorities. They are witnesses of an existing state of things, and their treatises are, as it were, histories,—teaching us, in the first instance, matters of fact, not of opinion. Whatever they themselves might be, whether deeply or poorly taught in Christian faith and love, they speak, not their own thoughts, but the received views of their respective ages. The especial value of their works lies in their opening upon us a state of the Church which else we should have no notion of. We read in their writings a great number of high and glorious principles and acts; and our first thought thereupon is, “All this must have had an existence somewhere or other in those times. These very men, indeed, may be merely speaking by rote, and not understand what they say; but it matters not to the profit of their writings what they were themselves.” It matters not to the profit of their writings, nor again to the authority resulting from them; for the times in which they wrote of course are of authority, though the Fathers themselves may have none. Tertullian or Eusebius may be nothing more than bare witnesses; yet so much as this they have a claim to be considered.

This is even the strict Protestant view. We are not obliged to take the Fathers as authorities, only as witnesses. Charity, I suppose, and piety will prompt the Christian student to go further, and to believe that men who laboured so unremittingly, and suffered so severely in the cause of the Gospel, really did possess some little portion of that earnest love of the truth which they professed, and were enlightened by that influence for which they prayed; but I am stating the strict Protestant doctrine, the great polemical principle ever to be borne in mind, that the Fathers are to be adduced in controversy merely as testimonies to an existing state of things, not as authorities. At the same time, no candid Protestant will be loth to admit, that the state of things to which they bear witness, is, as I have already said, a most grave and conclusive authority in guiding us in those particulars of our duty about which Scripture is silent; succeeding, as it does, so very close upon the age of the Apostles.

Thus much I claim of consistent Protestants, and thus much I grant to them. Gregory and the rest may have been but nominal Christians. Athanasius himself may have been very dark in all points of doctrine, in spite of his twenty years’ exile and his innumerable perils by sea and land; the noble Ambrose, a high and dry churchman; and Basil, a mere monk. I do not dispute these points; though I claim “the right of private judgment,” so far as to have my own very definite opinion in the matter, which I keep to myself.


Such being the plain teaching of the Fathers, and such the duty of following it, Vincentius proceeds to speak of the misery of doubting and change:—

“Which being so, he is a true and genuine Catholic that loveth the truth of God, the Church, the body of Christ; that preferreth nothing before the religion of God; nothing before the Catholic faith; not any man’s authority, not love, not wit, not eloquence, not philosophy; but contemning all these things, and in faith abiding fixed and stable, whatsoever he knoweth the Catholic Church universally in old times to have holden, that only he purposeth with himself to hold and believe; but whatsoever doctrine, new and not before heard of, such an one shall perceive to be afterwards brought in of some one man, beside all or contrary to all the saints, let him know that doctrine doth not pertain to religion, but rather to temptation, especially being instructed with the sayings of the blessed Apostle St. Paul. For this is that which he writeth in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘There must (quoth he) be heresies also, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.’ …

“O the miserable state of [waverers]! with what seas of cares, with what storms, are they tossed! for now at one time, as the wind driveth them, they are carried away headlong in error; at another time, coming again to themselves, they are beaten back like contrary waves; sometime with rash presumption they allow such things as seem uncertain, at another time of pusillanimity they are in fear even about those things which are certain; doubtful which way to take, which way to return, what to desire, what to avoid, what to hold, what to let go; which misery and affliction of a wavering and unsettled heart, were they wise, is as a medicine of God’s mercy towards them.

“Which being so, oftentimes calling to mind and remembering the selfsame thing, I cannot sufficiently marvel at the great madness of some men, at so great impiety of their blinded hearts, lastly, at so great a licentious desire of error, that they be not content with the rule of faith once delivered us, and received from our ancestors, but do every day search and seek for new doctrine, ever desirous to add to, to change, and to take away something from, religion; as though that were not the doctrine of God, which it is enough to have once revealed, but rather man’s institution, which cannot but by continual amendment (or rather correction) be perfected.”—Ch. 25, 26.


Then he takes a text, and handles it as a modern preacher might do. His text is this:—

“O Timothy, keep the depositum, avoiding the profane novelties of words, and oppositions of falsely-called knowledge, which certain professing have erred about the faith.”

He dwells successively upon Timothy, on the deposit, on avoiding, on profane, and on novelties.

First, Timothy and the “deposit:”—

“Who at this day is Timothy, but either generally the whole Church, or especially the whole body of prelates, who ought either themselves to have a sound knowledge of divine religion, or who ought to infuse it into others? What is meant by keep the deposit? Keep it (quoth he) for fear of thieves, for danger of enemies, lest when men be asleep, they oversow cockle among that good seed of wheat, which the Son of man hath sowed in His field. ‘Keep (quoth he) the deposit.’ What is meant by this deposit? that is, that which is committed to thee, not that which is invented of thee; that which thou hast received, not that which thou hast devised; a thing not of wit, but of learning; not of private assumption, but of public tradition; a thing brought to thee, not brought forth of thee; wherein thou must not be an author, but a keeper; not a beginner, but a follower; not a leader, but an observer. Keep the deposit. Preserve the talent of the Catholic faith safe and undiminished; that which is committed to thee, let that remain with thee, and that deliver. Thou hast received gold, render then gold; I will not have one thing for another; do not for gold render either impudently lead, or craftily brass; I will, not the show, but the very nature of gold itself. O Timothy, O priest, O teacher, O doctor, if God’s gift hath made thee meet and sufficient by thy wit, exercise, and learning, be the Beseleel of the spiritual tabernacle, engrave the precious stones of God’s doctrine, faithfully set them, wisely adorn them, give them brightness, give them grace, give them beauty. That which men before believed obscurely, let them by thy exposition understand more clearly. Let posterity rejoice for coming to the understanding of that by thy means, which antiquity without that understanding had in veneration. Yet for all this, in such sort deliver the same things which thou hast learned, that albeit thou teachest after a new manner yet thou never teach new things.”

Next, “avoiding:”—

“ ‘O Timothy (quoth he), keep the deposit, avoid profane novelties of words.’ Avoid (quoth he) as a viper, as a scorpion, as a basilisk, lest they infect thee not only by touching, but also with their very eyes and breath. What is meant by avoid? that is, not so much as to eat with any such. What importeth this avoid? ‘If any man (quoth he) come unto you, and bring not this doctrine,’ what doctrine but the Catholic and universal, and that which, with incorrupt tradition of the truth, hath continued one and the selfsame, through all successions of times, and that which shall continue for ever and ever? What then? ‘Receive him not (quoth he) into the house, nor say God speed; for he that saith unto him God speed, communicateth with his wicked works.’ ”

Then, “profane:”—

“ ‘Profane novelties of words’ (quoth he); what is profane? Those which have no holiness in them, nought of religion, wholly external to the sanctuary of the Church, which is the temple of God. ‘Profane novelties of words (quoth he), of words, that is, novelties of doctrines, novelties of things, novelties of opinions, contrary to old usage, contrary to antiquity, which if we receive, of necessity the faith of our blessed ancestors, either all, or a great part of it, must be overthrown; the faithful people of all ages and times, all holy saints, all the chaste, all the continent, all the virgins, all the clergy, the deacons, the priests, so many thousands of confessors, so great armies of martyrs, so many famous and populous cities and commonwealths, so many islands, provinces, kings, tribes, kingdoms, nations; to conclude, almost now the whole world, incorporated by the Catholic faith to Christ their Head, must needs be said, so many hundreds of years, to have been ignorant, to have erred, to have blasphemed, to have believed they knew not what.”

Lastly, “novelties:”—

“ ‘Avoid (quoth he) profane novelties of words,’ to receive and follow which was never the custom of Catholics, but always of heretics. And, to say truth, what heresy hath ever burst forth, but under the name of some certain man, in some certain place, and at some certain time? Who ever set up any heresy, but first divided himself from the consent of the universality and antiquity of the Catholic Church? Which to be true, examples do plainly prove. For who ever before that profane Pelagius presumed so much of man’s free will, that he thought not the grace of God necessary to aid it in every particular good act? Who ever before his monstrous disciple Celestius denied all mankind to be bound with the guilt of Adam’s transgression? Who ever before sacrilegious Arius durst rend in pieces the Unity of Trinity? Who ever before wicked Sabellius durst confound the Trinity of Unity? Who ever before cruel Novatian affirmed God to be merciless, in that He had rather the death of a sinner than that he should return and live? Who ever before Simon Magus, durst affirm that God our Creator was the Author of evil, that is, of our wickedness, impieties, and crimes; because God (as he said) so with His own hands made man’s very nature, that by a certain proper motion and impulse of an enforced will, it can do nothing else, desire nothing else, but to sin. Such examples are infinite, which for brevity-sake I omit, by all which, notwithstanding, it appeareth plainly and clearly enough, that it is, as it were, a custom and law in all heresies, ever to take great pleasure in profane novelties, to loath the decrees of our forefathers, and to make shipwreck of faith, by oppositions of falsely-called knowledge; contrariwise that this is usually proper to all Catholics, to keep those things which the holy Fathers have left, and committed to their charge, to condemn profane novelties, and, as the Apostle hath said, and again forewarned, ‘if any man shall preach otherwise than that which is received,’ to anathematize him.”—Ch. 27–34.

From these extracts, which are but specimens of the whole Tract, I come to the conclusion that Vincent was a very sorry Protestant.

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