Doctrinal Development and the Philosophy of History Cardinal Newman’s Theory in the Light of Eric Voegelin’s philosophy

Every theory of doctrinal development assumes a philosophy of history; this is the basic proposition which colors the following essay. But though I think it is true, it is by no means beyond the pale of controversy. This is so, first of all, because the precise nature of doctrinal development is not itself beyond controversy. Furthermore, the “philosophy of history” is a discipline with little cachet in our own time, one which has largely gone by the wayside like some of the philosophies traditionally associated with it.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that my basic proposition is true. And while I cannot argue for this broad thesis in the space of a paper, I can offer some contribution to its justification by means of a case study. I want therefore to examine some essential elements of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s theory of doctrinal development in the light of a specific view of the philosophy of history. If I am correct, a careful reading of Newman’s theory will show that the integration of the philosophy of history into the theory of doctrinal development constitutes an important part of its originality.

I will proceed as follows. First, I will sketch the problem of doctrinal development and the philosophy of history schematically, using some ideas from Eric Voegelin. Second, I will examine Newman’s theory in the light of this latter picture, while simultaneously contrasting his thought to Neo-Scholastic ideas on development. Finally, I will show that Newman’s theory exemplifies patterns characteristic of Voegelin’s philosophy of history, patterns which highlight just how groundbreaking Newman’s theory is, in contrast to his Neo-Scholastic interlocutors.


What is the philosophy of history? Understanding doctrinal development by means of the philosophy of history can seem rather like an exercise of understanding the vague by means of the obscure. This is so for many reasons. The very concept of the philosophy of history is a notoriously difficult one to define and it is further burdened by its historical connection to specific and perhaps dated philosophical theories, most notably those of German Idealism (Hegel and Schelling) and Marxian traditions. Furthermore, whatever we mean by the philosophy of history, it seems we must intend something far more encompassing than just those issues associated with religious knowledge, such as doctrinal development. Thus any link between doctrinal development and a full-blown philosophy of history can seem tenuous at best.

I begin therefore with some rough definition and description of what I understand by a philosophy of history. While my thinking depends heavily on Eric Voegelin’s work, I will not deal with the extensive literature in and on his thought, since my argument hinges only on the basic ideas outlined below.[1]

The concept of history, though itself an ancient one, rose to a new prominence in the 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a fairly straightforward reason for this: though a consciousness of history has existed in many forms and in many civilizations, and though historiography has existed in at least some civilizations from the ancient world onward, the modern prominence of historical consciousness arose specifically from the attempt to build a scholarly science of history. Both the existence of substantive, monographic studies of historical periods, eras, civilizations and the like and acknowledged critical methods of procedure, come into prominence only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Thus the modern consciousness of history appears to be associated with the recently developed scientific discipline of history.

Embedded in this latter articulation is an important characteristic of history: namely, that when we speak of “history” we typically mean two diverse though related things. On the one hand, we mean by history the mode of existence which humans and human societies and artifacts have, i.e., that these all exist “in history”; on the other hand, we mean the narrative account by which we interpret and articulate such existence in history, a narrative account often formulated as “the history of x”. This duality in the notion of “history” is not an accident.[2] It arises from the fact that history is not an “object of knowledge” in the conventional scientific or philosophical senses. History is something lived: it is experienced not as an object vis-à-vis a knowing subject, but as something integral to knowing itself.[3] Hence, both “history” as a set of temporally contiguous and potentially meaningful events and “history” as a narrative interpreting the meaning of those events are themselves a part of one and the same “history”. One does not stand outside history in order to discuss, investigate or interpret history; one participates in history, even by interpreting it.

It is this unusual duality of history, more than any other factor, which makes it such a difficult topic for traditional philosophy. Philosophical knowledge, especially as it is understood in the classical and medieval senses of the term, typically functioned on the model of the cognition of an object, where the term “object” indicates a thing-like entity, whether a sensuously perceived physical object, a Platonic “idea,” an Aristotelian “substance” or “substantial form,” or a set of principles which are understood objectually. But one cannot philosophize about history in quite that same way one philosophizes about objects. For history, as we have seen, cannot be an object, since it is a lived phenomenon: our experience of history is not of something outside ourselves but of something of which we are a part. Furthermore, history is not an object in the conventional sense because of its inherent incompleteness: history is open-ended and consequently cannot be treated as a fully determinate thing or entity. Finally, whereas the meaning of a being – its “essence” – is classically the locus of philosophical thinking, essence has traditionally been posed in terms of “necessity”, i.e., of the necessarily-having-to-be-such of an object. But just what characterizes history is that it is contingent and not necessary: historical events, insofar as they are historical, did not have to be this way, though in fact they were that way.

The specific challenges to philosophizing about history have met with various responses. To some, this situation implies that there is no such thing as a philosophy of history because the classical methods of philosophy cannot access this phenomenon.[4] For others, there has been a tendency to turn history into a quasi-object, as when Hegel (at least at times) reduces historical contingency into a necessitation of the Idea. But a still different response would be to say that history does indeed have meaning, but “meaning” in this case must be understood differently from the manner one thinks of meanings or essences in objects. Following Voegelin, we might say that history has a meaning, at least insofar as human beings seek meaning in history and construe history in meaningful ways.[5] That is to say: human beings are meaning-seekers and the fact that they seek meaning in history is itself a meaningful event in history. Though history is incomplete, and does not have an “essence” in the classical sense, it is nonetheless susceptible to philosophical analysis insofar as interpretations of history tell us something about the meaning-seeking which appears as an essential feature of human beings and communities. Thus the duality of history, that it consists not only in historical existence but also in the narrative interpretation of its meaning, makes the philosophy of history possible and poses the first basic pattern in classical philosophies of history.

If I may be permitted now to offer a rough and ready definition of the philosophy of history, I would say that it consists in understanding the meaning of historical events within the various narrative interpretations of history. In other words, the philosophy of history is the attempt to understand how and why human beings and communities construe historical events meaningfully and to understand what those construals tell us about those human beings and communities. Human beings are “self-interpreting animals,” to use the language of Charles Taylor.[6] The philosophy of history studies the ways in which human beings and human communities interpret themselves as participating in history.

With this understanding, the philosophy of history always has an empirical dimension. For we are not seeking to express a priori the entire meaning of history, since that is not available to us for the reasons set out above. Rather, in the philosophy of history we are trying to understand the patterns which typically emerge in civilizations where historiography appears, patterns associated with persons and communities seeking meaning by interpreting history and their place within that history.[7] Consequently, the philosophy of history need not be performed in the grand style of the 19th century, but can be undertaken in the more modest style of a philosopher understanding the meaning-seeking dimension of some concrete person or community. When this is done well, one finds that patterns emerge among different persons and communities, even in different times and places in the world. We shall see below that, besides the duality in the meaning of history mentioned above, Newman’s theory of doctrinal development displays two more of those basic patterns.

On this basis, we can already shed light on one of the problems raised above. It might seem that something as purely a religious, intellectual and scholarly problem as that of the development of doctrine would not have much to do with the philosophy of history. And such a view might seem plausible in part because we think of history in terms of the full drama of human existence through time. However, the duality in history, such that history refers both to the events in history and to the narrative interpretations of those events, gives us the clue as to why a religious, intellectual and scholarly problem might be essentially linked to the understanding of history. Narrative interpretations of history may appear in many guises: in an epic poem of Homer, in a medieval ballad, in a scholarly investigation, or in a doctrinal innovation which attempts to interpret historical revelation, to name a few. What is essential is not the style of the interpretation but only whether a person or community is attempting to interpret historical reality and their place within it. If we find that Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine can be construed as an articulation of how a community interpreted an historical event or events in order to understand itself, it can potentially include a philosophy of history.


Doctrinal development and the philosophy of history: a preliminary sketch. It should come as no surprise that the emergence of the philosophy of history in the 19th century was itself a dramatic historical event, implying a radical change in how philosophy itself was understood. For it suggested that there was meaning in history, even if that meaning was not to be understood in the manner of an essence, and that philosophy was itself a part of that meaningful history. These changes in the conception of philosophy posed a quite specific challenge to Catholic thinkers of the 19th century. At the time that the philosophy of history came into being, the philosophers associated with it – principally Idealists like Schelling and Hegel – were important influences on some Catholic theologians.[8] Simultaneous with this influence, however, was what would become a powerful reaction to German Idealism within Catholicism, the movement known as “Neo-Scholasticism”.[9]

Whatever value Neo-Scholasticism had for offering a metaphysical basis for Catholic doctrine, it certainly did not have the tools to deal with 19th century philosophies of history or with doctrinal development in the sense proffered by Newman (or the Tuebingen School). For the Scholastic method’s strength consists in its ability to pick out essences, i.e., the relatively stable dimensions of reality not susceptible to historical change. But the same method can do little to articulate contingent meanings, such as those which might be present in history, since these are not reducible to the characteristics of essence alone. In practice, therefore, the neo-Scholastic movement was not only a reaction to the metaphysics and epistemology of German Idealism, but amounted – intended or otherwise – to a rejection of the philosophy of history. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Roman theologians, influenced as they were by Neo-Scholasticism, could not see or accept Newman’s account of doctrinal development at first.[10]

For if we admit something like the notion of doctrinal development in the sense in which Newman articulates it, we must hold that it includes a philosophy of history. Why so? First, because doctrinal development presupposes not only the fact of historical variations and dynamism in doctrine, but that those historical variations are themselves meaningful, at least insofar as they are important and valuable for understanding the experience of revelation within an historical community, i.e., the Church. Though the revelation of God in Christ is itself an historical event, one which is classically understood to be complete with the death of the Apostles, the meaning of that event need not be exhausted in the event, but can expand (or contract) throughout the expanse of time in the religious experiences engendered in people and in religious communities by that event, through history. Doctrine in the usual sense, therefore, is not identical with the revelation of Christ but represents, among other things, a response to revelation and an expression of the experience and interpretation of revelation by individuals and communities: it is an expressive formulation, no doubt aided by divine light but nonetheless human in its generation, a phenomenon which expresses an experience more fundamental than the doctrine itself. Thus doctrinal development assumes that the stream of human experience with reference to the divine, in history, may express itself variously, but also meaningfully precisely in the variation. It therefore assumes a philosophy of history to the extent that grasping contingent, historical events and the narratives interpreting them is essential for understanding the religious value of real or purported doctrinal development.

Second, doctrinal development supposes a philosophy of history because it assumes not only what we might call the vertical relationship between revelation and human souls who receive it, but also the horizontal relationship such that certain human, social practices meaningfully affect the nature and form of the experience of revelation. Doctrine in the typical sense grows not only out of the experience of revelation but also affects, in its turn, how revelation is understood by the community who experiences it. It is not surprising, for example, that one does not find the language of “transubstantiation” prior to the advent of the social practice of medieval Scholasticism. We would expect the language expressing doctrine to be bound up with the theological communities experiencing the phenomenon in question, since the language of doctrine not only posits something to be the case (i.e., as “true”) but expresses the experiences of the divine as revealed to a specific community. Only within a community in which faith experiences could meaningfully be articulated within modified forms of Aristotelian ontology, such as the medieval university, would we expect to find such a formulation. What we would expect to find outside such a community is not the same language, symbols or concepts, but something with the character of linguistic, symbolic or conceptual equivalence to (and not identity with) the idea of transubstantiation.[11]

This is, in fact, a well-established pattern which historical communities have displayed and constitutes a second basic pattern in the philosophy of history, namely, the dual factors of an experience of transcendence to history (e.g., the experience of the divine through revelation or its equivalent) and the articulation of that experience as constitutive of the meaning of a given community within history.[12] It would appear, then, that doctrinal development, insofar as it is interpreted as historical development, is linked to the philosophy of history, at least to the extent that the historical emergence of such development manifests the characteristic pattern of how a community (in this case the Church), undergoing the vicissitudes of history, interprets its relation to the divine in history.

This outline should be adequate for expressing the generic linkage between doctrinal development and the philosophy of history. We can now turn to Newman’s theory as a specific case.


Doctrinal development in Newman In order both to highlight the significance of Newman’s teaching and to show its philosophically significant components, I will develop some distinctions concerning the notion of “doctrine” and then discuss Newman in a kind of dialogue with the Neo-Scholastic thought of his time. This should, in turn, begin to illuminate both how Newman’s theory of doctrinal development is philosophically important and how it assumes a philosophy of history in contrast to the lack of sense for history in Neo-Scholastic thought.

What exactly do we mean by “Christian doctrine”? The question is more difficult than it may appear. We can at least say that, in common speech, the notion of doctrine seems to have two related but significantly different acceptations. On the one hand, “doctrine” means what it is that Jesus or the Church or Christianity “teaches”. In this first sense of the term, “doctrine” simply means all that we know about what we should do, how we should think, how we should live, as Christians; indeed, in practice, this sense of doctrine is equivalent to revelation insofar as the latter has been experienced and received by those of us trying to live as Christians. Let’s call this “revelatory doctrine,” meaning revelation to the extent that it has been experienced, received and understood by the Church.

The second sense of “doctrine” is narrower and focuses directly on propositions or propositional formulae, typically held to express equivalent content to revelation or revelatory doctrine. Here the model is not so much the teaching of Jesus, but doctrine found in the creeds or the catechism, i.e., sets of propositional formulae expressing what it is that one is to believe. Let’s call this “propositional doctrine”. In the first case, revelatory doctrine is “true” not in the sense of a proposition making a truth-claim, but “true” in the sense of “genuine” or “authentic”, i.e., in the sense of something which “in truth” or “authentically” expresses the divine to us. In the second sense of the term, doctrine is “true” in the sense a statement or proposition is said to be true: propositional doctrine is a truth-claim in the straightforward sense and it is true to the extent that it posits something which is really so.

This distinction can be made evident on several grounds. For, first of all, the revelation of Jesus is not a body of propositions, but an entire way of life:[13] it was a life which no doubt included teachings, but it was much more; it was “a wisdom and a way”.[14] But clearly a wisdom and a way is more than a set of propositions. We may be able to express some of this propositionally, but it hardly makes sense to say that wisdom can be had by understanding a set of propositions or that a way of life is equivalent to positing truth-claims. Furthermore, Jesus himself, as we say, spoke the truth. But his actual speaking and teaching was by no means exhausted or even well described in terms of propositional formulae. Can we actually think of the Beatitudes as simply a set of true statements rather than challenges and imperatives concerning how to live? Or the parables as really just a body of truth-claims rather than a way of expressing wisdom beyond knowing propositions? Can we imagine Jesus meaning to say “I am the Way, the Truth – of propositions, that is – and the Life”?

Indeed, if what we meant by doctrine were merely the statements we make in propositional form and which are true in the usual sense, it would seem doubtful that our “doctrine” could be all it claimed to be.[15] The classical teaching on “truth” in propositional statements is usually called the “correspondence theory”, i.e., the theory that a statement is true insofar as it “corresponds” to a fact or state of affairs or dispositio rei. Such a theory works rather well concerning issues of mundane life, because it requires that human thought actually could in some way “correspond”, in a literal and straightforward way, to the reality in question. A proposition like “The grass is green” therefore “corresponds” to the fact that the grass is actually given as green.

But most of the tradition at least since pseudo-Dionysius, as is well known, has required significant limits on the validity of talk of this kind about God and of things divine, because the latter transcend the limits of our finite minds and are therefore not susceptible to a corresponding human knowledge in the manner of the green grass. Indeed, because of our limits, our talk about God is by nature more false than true, because God superabounds all human concepts and thought. In practice, this implies that our talk about God is “true” only in a very derivative sense. By extension, it would seem that anything which transcends our understanding because of its religious sublimity – e.g., the central mysteries of Christianity, including some about which there are “doctrines” – must in some fashion fall outside the correspondence theory, since the concepts that enter our propositional statements seem unable to correlate to the phenomena to which they refer. Thus the truth of propositional statements in the case of doctrine is founded not on a correspondence but on the fact that such statements act as a shorthand for a more fundamental kind of knowledge, some sort of experience which validates our knowledge beyond the limits of correspondence. This knowledge is the experience of revelation or what I have called revelatory doctrine.

Now it is fairly evident that Newman not only saw this distinction but that he depended on it to formulate his Essay on the Development of Doctrine – even if he uses different terminology. For Newman, revelation is an ‘idea,’ a term he uses to express something which transcends an individual’s concepts and notions and transfixes the minds of a community on something above it. (We shall discuss ideas in more detail below). In so doing, the idea captures the imagination, inspires the mind, motivates new ways of life and thinking, engenders vitality and creativity. The idea of Christian revelation is equivalent to what I termed “revelatory doctrine” above. It is the very life Jesus lived, which included teachings, as it was experienced, received and understood within the community of the Church. That this idea or, in other words, revelatory doctrine is not equivalent to propositional formulae or creedal statements is clear from the examples Newman gives. He certainly does speak of developments based on the logic of propositions, as in the case of the attribution of Theotokos to Mary.[16] But he also speaks of practices, such as distributing the Eucharist under only one species. In these cases, “doctrine” is not a set of propositions from which one derives logical conclusions, but a different kind of “consequence” based on a logic of the Christian response to revelation in history and the historical vicissitudes of the time.

The distinction between these two senses of “doctrine” is also important from the standpoint of Christian life. What I have called revelatory doctrine is more closely associated with wisdom than knowledge. The former is a question of living and understanding, of deepening and enriching, not merely of knowing truths. As important as knowing the truths of the faith are for the exercise of faith, they work primarily as a propaedeutic, preparing the ground for the seeds of deeper faith filled with wisdom and understanding. But the knowledge of propositional doctrines as such is no closer to wisdom, understanding and living Christ Jesus than following the law as the Pharisees did amounted to their being dedicated to YHWH. If we think that Christian life includes a process of deepening that life, then propositional doctrine is only helpful as guidepost; it is not that life itself.

It is the idea of revelation or revelatory doctrine which energizes the religious life of the Christian and also impels the formulation of propositional doctrine, a formulation which is often necessary because of heresy or lack of subtlety in the community, but which is not the same as the experience of revelation. “Ideas” themselves are not propositions and are therefore not “true” in the sense that propositions are. For Newman, doctrinal propositions analyze the idea of revelation, they break revelation into parts, as it were, because the human mind is not capable of grasping entire ideas at once.[17] Hence the idea of revelation is not “true” in the sense that a proposition is true. It is “true” in the sense that it authentically expresses the divine Word to us.


Neo-Scholasticism and problems of propositional thinking. A stress on propositional doctrine is characteristic of many ways of thinking, but none more so than Neo-Scholasticism.[18] Neo-Scholasticism – like any philosophical movement – was developed with definite problems and interests in mind. Among those problems was that of history and how and to what extent history should be integrated into philosophy and theology. For though the Neo-Scholastics were sensitive to history to the extent that they aspired to modernize what appeared as an historically obsolete philosophy (Scholasticism), they quite intentionally resisted integrating history into the actual subject matter of their philosophy and theology. Whereas much of German Idealism – Neo-Scholasticism’s chief philosophical rival – aimed to make history the form of all philosophizing, the Neo-Scholastics thought they sensed historicism in the Idealistic theories. Consequently, a driving philosophical concern for the Neo-Scholastics was to gain a trans-historical concept of truth and knowledge in order to defend theological truth and immutability of doctrine as well as the basic principles of metaphysics and epistemology by which they attempted to articulate the faith against the popular Idealist philosophies. As a consequence, they emphasized the propositional over the revelatory (and therefore necessarily historically bound) sense of doctrine, even to the point of collapsing the latter into the former.[19]

Now this emphasis carried with it several important implications. For first of all, however valuable propositions might be for articulating a normative formulation of doctrine, they carry the unavoidable problem that they are not by their nature historical at all. That is to say, propositions, because of their innate structure, posit things to be the case independently of the historically conditioned minds which state them or the historical experiences and context in which such propositions are used. By way of example – let’s take a theological doctrine for our purposes – the proposition expressed in the sentence “God is tri-personal” is true in itself, quite independently of any human being’s experience or thought about the proposition. For a proposition’s truth value is intrinsic to it, since it posits something to be the case – it posits its own truth – just by virtue of its structure as a proposition. This is the case for any proposition and is so, in fact, even for false propositions. So., e.g., a false proposition, such as “There are three unicorns in my backyard” claims to be true, because that is what propositions do. Its falsity consists in the fact it claims to be true, i.e., it claims, of itself, that something is the case, which is in fact not the case, and it does so whether or not I or anyone else holds it, believes it, asserts it, etc. Since a proposition is true (or false) without reference to human purposes and contingencies, it is by nature a-historical in its truth-claim.

It follows from this that, if propositions are understood to be the essential bearers of doctrine, development of doctrine becomes quite impossible, except in the very restricted sense of purely logical consequents of propositions, because history is thereby banished from the nature of doctrine as such. And, as Chadwick points out, this is just what the Roman theologians of Newman’s time thought. The Roman theologians with whom Newman dealt simply could not understand any sense of doctrinal development other than logical implications of propositional truths. The combination of Neo-Scholastic assumptions and ignorance of the advances in historical research of the time made understanding Newman largely impossible. In contrast, Newman not only understood the fact that at least one kind of doctrine is historical, but thought that theology required some understanding of doctrinal development, because historical research led to the unavoidable conclusion that there had in fact been changes in various doctrines and that therefore one had to know what counted as authentic or genuine development (“true” development) and what not. The upshot of the issue here seems to be that Newman understood both revelatory and propositional senses of doctrine outlined above, whereas the Neo-Scholastics could only clearly conceive of the second and tended to interpret revelatory doctrine as another form of propositional doctrine.

Needless to say, the Neo-Scholastics quite rightly insisted on the importance of not falling into historicism. But it is equally important that one not throw the baby of history out with the bathwater of historicism. The problematic that Newman saw and his Neo-Scholastic interlocutors did not is that development is a fact and in need of explanation, not something that one can deny a priori because it does not accord with one’s own theological and philosophical method. Part of the genius of Newman’s solution is that it introduces a philosophy of history into the problem – just what the Neo-Scholastic movement sought to exclude.[20]


Revelation, doctrine and history. How does Newman integrate a philosophy of history into his theory of doctrinal development? To understand this point, we need to spell out the difference between revelatory doctrine, i.e., the Church’s experience of revelation, and the propositional doctrine which sometimes emerges at the end of an historical process by which the Church works through what revelation means.

As we have seen, Newman describes revelation in terms of a categorial notion he uses, the notion of an “idea”. The term “idea” has a long pedigree, being traceable back at least to Plato. For Plato, ideas are not “concepts”, as is the typical English usage of the term since the Empiricists, but paradigmatic types of what entities could be. By “paradigmatic” I designate not only the notion that Ideas are eternal “forms”, i.e., structural paradigms of the essences of things, but also that they are perfect models of entities, i.e., archetypal expressions of perfection. Thus, e.g., the idea of justice for Plato is not just a “universal” (as an Aristotelian might put it), but more importantly was a perfectly designed blueprint of all that any example of justice is or could be. On this reading, therefore, Plato’s idea of justice is something more than a time-transcendent abstraction, since it implies not only the core meaning of justice but also a range of potentialities of more or less perfection, expressing how justice might or might not be embodied in all possible cases in historical time. In other words, Plato’s concept of the idea actually suggests something like a philosophy of history.

For Newman, an idea has many of these same overtones.[21] Newman does not think of ideas as time-transcendent in the manner of Plato, to be sure. But Newman’s ‘idea,’ like Plato’s, is a complex totality grounding a range of potentialities which can in principle be realized in historical time. An idea, for Newman, is a socially shared and sensed phenomenon which acts as an influence and spiritual force on a community. Newman describes this characteristic of the idea as an ethos,[22] i.e., as a social complex of meaning and value which motivates potential ways of thinking and acting within a community in history.

Ideas come in various kinds, according to Newman: there are political, moral, cultural and other kinds of ideas. There are also religious ideas, the most important of which would be Christian revelation itself. And, in fact, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that ideas can have implications which are complexes of any or all these kinds of ideas. For example, there are political, moral and cultural implications to the idea of Christian revelation. Now, for Newman, there is no question that there has been doctrinal change and alteration. Rather, the question he raises is whether such alterations in doctrine are specific developments arising out of the original idea, the original experience of the revelation of Jesus Christ and the consequent Christian ethos, or whether they are rather accretions or deviations from that original idea.

It is important to stress the factor of “experience” here, both because it is expressive of Newman and because the notion of an “idea” can sound more rationalistic than Newman intends. Early on in the Essay Newman speaks of ideas as being present to or in the mind, but having reference beyond the mind, i.e., suggesting an experiential basis to the idea.[23] Therefore ideas can have more or less objective validity or “truth”. Of the various possible ideas, some are living ideas, i.e., those which, at some given time, capture the imagination of a people or community. The more such an idea captivates minds, the greater its impact. And this impact leads to contemplation of the idea, to the working out of its implications, to making elements of it explicit which are as yet implicit, in time and history.[24] Yet this process of positing truths rooted in the idea, of sifting through the various propositions and notions used to speak of the idea, of the pressure of argument on various sides, leads to a building up of what I termed propositional doctrines, i.e., statements which are true in the appropriately qualified sense concerning the idea.[25] This formulation of doctrines, this sifting through and modifying, is what Newman calls “development”: the germination and maturation of revelatory doctrine which results in propositional thought about the idea of revelation. A propositional doctrine expresses genuine or authentic development to the extent that it is rooted, both in content and historically, in the idea from which it must originate.[26]

What is crucial for the theory of doctrinal development, then, is the idea of revelation, the original experience of Jesus Christ, given to the Apostles, and how that experience, with all its richness and incomparable depth, could diffuse itself into the minds and hearts of the community of the Church. This indeed seems to be Newman’s central point.[27] Revelation is an irruption, an in-breaking, of divine being and life into the human and cosmological order, which is expressed first in Jesus Christ and which, in turn, is communicated to the Apostles as a wisdom and a way. This irruption redounds in the souls of those associated with that revelation and, due to the natural development of ideas through time and due also to the needs of the community of the Church in history, that original irruption crystallizes into a propositional doctrine.[28] Interpreting the irruption of the divine into human souls and the dynamic process through which the Church internalizes it as a mere system of propositions and their consequences, characteristic of some Neo-Scholastic theology, runs the risk of rendering the great mystery of the divine presence in time as little more than a Baltimore Catechism. The latter has a definite value, to be sure; but it is no substitute for the divine presence in history.

Newman’s understanding of this issue follows a further common pattern often found in history, a pattern Voegelin describes as the “movement from compact to differentiated experience”.[29] The original spiritual experience which constitutes history, i.e., which constitutes the experience of time in terms of a Before and an After, is, as it were, a compacted experience: it is measured, so to speak, on the axis of spiritual and psychological intensity, in that it is an experience of an idea in something like its totality, an idea which contains an entire set of potentialities and implications communicated by the divine, far too many and too intensely experienced to be understood articulately by one person or even an entire community at one time. But the experience of sensitive individuals and of the community as a whole through time can sift through that original experience. Indeed, having some distance from the original experience is in some ways to their benefit, in that members of the community can partake of the original idea without being, as it were, overwhelmed by it. Through this process the community can begin to take what was a compacted experience and differentiate it, i.e., reduce it to propositional formulae expressing analytically distinct aspects or moments of what was experienced compactly at first. It is a movement from compacted experience to differentiated doctrine.[30]

Newman’s analysis follows this pattern. For example, the original experience of the divine in Jesus Christ includes the revelation of the Father and the Spirit in and through that experience: this describes part of the compacted experience of the Apostles. But through time, that which begins as a compacted experience becomes differentiated and formulated; it moves from the axis of experiential intensity to the axis of notional articulation. As Newman writes, the (propositional) doctrine of the Trinity is then “made up of a number of separate propositions, each of which, if maintained to the exclusion of the rest, is a heresy”.[31] In other words, the original, non-propositional experience becomes articulated into a constellation of propositions, held together in their sense by the original experience which engendered them.[32] Indeed, the original idea is, so to speak, controlling, in that the propositions which express the doctrine and their unity only make sense in the light of the experience of the idea which constitutes their sense, because if we take them separately without reference to the others, we fall into error.[33]

Newman also offers the doctrine of the incarnation as an example. “The Word became flesh” poses questions about what the meaning of “Word”, “became” and “flesh” might be. In many senses of these terms, this sentence could be false or nonsensical. Hence the inspired sentence raises three questions right away: “what is meant by ‘the Word’? What by ‘became’? What by the ‘flesh’?”[34] And these in turn raise secondary questions which attempt to clarify the primary ones. “…and thus at length a multitude of propositions is the result, which gather round the inspired sentence of which they come, giving it externally the form of a doctrine, and creating or deepening the idea of it in the mind”.[35]

This quotation illuminates doctrinal development significantly. Newman’s theory assumes that revelation founds not only actual propositionally posed doctrines but, more precisely, engenders an historical process by which this clarification occurs. Otherwise put, revelation has the character of an irruption of the divine into human souls living historically, whose consequences, among others, are the doctrinal implications worked out in the life of the community of the Church. These implications are differentiations and, as it were, crystallizations of the dynamic phenomenon we call revelation. Revelation is not “dynamic” in the sense that it is itself a process. It is dynamic in the sense that responsive souls and communities, attuned to the divine, experience and respond to this irruption with an historical process which motivates the various directions of thought and action in the history and life of the Church which Newman terms “doctrinal development”.


Conclusion. Newman’s theory of doctrinal development displays the three definite patterns characteristic of a philosophy of history discussed above.

We saw that the essence of the notion of history lies in the duality of its being. On the one hand, history is a mode of existence in which humans, human communities and human artifacts exist; on the other hand, history is also the interpretation of these historically existing realities in terms of meaning. Newman integrates this pattern into his analysis of doctrinal development by insisting on the significance of the historical event of revelation and reading the historical process which ends in propositional doctrine as an interpretation of what that original event meant. Propositional doctrine is therefore not equivalent to doctrine as such, nor is propositional doctrine merely a set of a-historical propositional formulae set outside of history, but is an endpoint of an historical process interpreting the meaning of revelation in history. Indeed, we might say that propositional formulae are, in the end, shorthand statements for narrative accounts of the meaning of the historical event of revelation as it has been received and developed through pilgrimage of the Church in history.

Newman’s theory also exemplifies the pattern of vertical and horizontal elements of a philosophy of history. History in some way implies both a vertical transcendence of mere historical contingency toward meaning in the divine and, simultaneously, the working out of that meaning horizontally in the life of the community. In the case of Newman’s theory, the idea of revelation – what I termed revelatory doctrine – implies the experience of transcendence while the language, symbols and concepts by which revelation is given propositional form is the horizontal working through of that irruption of the divine in the life of the community, in the face of the vicissitudes of history, such as confusion, doctrinal conflict, heresy and the like.

Finally, Newman understands doctrinal development according to a standard model of the development of historical meaning, a movement from compacted experience to differentiated propositional doctrine. The idea of revelation, compact with transcendent meaning and potentiality and intensely experienced by the original community, becomes differentiated and enriched in historical time, through developing the potentialities of meaning which could not all be grasped at once. Propositional doctrine analyzes revelatory doctrine into a more differentiated understanding of the original compacted experience. Indeed, it is at this point that the danger of error and heresy looms, as Newman stresses when he says that an overemphasis on any proposition with respect to another can produce heresy. Thus even the doctrines which exist in propositional form cannot themselves be understood in a purely propositional form because their sense requires a reference back to the original idea of revelation and the mysterious process by which the Church comes to propositional formulae, more or less adequate to the original experience. In this sense, we might say that propositional formulae are in some measure both illuminating and obscuring, in that they both articulate the experience but never encompass its totality. Newman notes this himself in his statement that even a most essential doctrine of Christianity, such as “The Word became flesh”, is always to some extent known but to some extent unknown.[36] This movement from compacted to differentiated understanding is, for Newman, part and parcel of the interpretation of revelation, because, as he emphasizes, the style of Scripture itself is not propositional but “figurative”.[37]

It appears, therefore, that for Newman, the movement of the community of the Church through history results in an interpretive sense of the revelation of Jesus Christ given to the Church once and for all. Revelation is an irruption of the divine into history whose meaning crystallizes, among other ways, in a conception of propositional doctrine, which is an historically engendered and God-inspired manner of interpreting, articulating and teaching the authentic meaning of that revelation. Thus:

…from the first age of Christianity, its teaching looked towards those ecclesiastical dogmas, afterwards recognized and defined, with (as time went on) more or less determinate advance in the direction of them; till at length that advance became so pronounced, as to justify their definition and to bring it about, and to place them in the position of rightful interpretations and keys of the remains and the records in history of the teaching which had so terminated.[38]

As Ker suggests, the idea is held by the Church as a kind of normative function which illuminates understanding and doctrine. Indeed, its power is sufficient to illuminate the truth of things, even when they are explicitly held to on poor or inadequate reasoning.[39]

Newman’s original contributions with regard to the problem of doctrinal development include many things, but among them is the integration of a philosophy of history into his theory. Unlike the Neo-Scholastics, who focused on propositional formulae in abstraction from history, Newman looked directly at revelation and at the meaningfulness of the lived experiences of revelation in the community of the Church within history. In this, I suggest, he achieved a most important philosophical and theological insight: that the theory of doctrinal development assumes a philosophy of history.[40]

© 2011 John White

© 2011 The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

[1] The most important texts of Voegelin’s which impact my understanding are his “What is history?” in What is history? and other late unpublished writings, edited with an introduction by Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella, (Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University, c1990); “Configurations in history” and “Equivalences of experience and symbolization in history”, both in Published Essays, 1966-1985. Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 12, (London and Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990).

[2] Voegelin, “What is history?” 10 ff.

[3] See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany NY: State University of New York, 1996), especially paragraphs 44, 68a, 72-77.

[4] For example, much of Leo Strauss’ work seems to aim at this conclusion. Karl Loewith draws the different though related conclusion that there can be no Christian philosophy of history, because Christianity thinks there is no meaning to history immanent to history but only in a trans-historical salvation. Lowith has many perceptive points on this but his identification of the Christian view with that of Augustine seems questionable. See his Karl Loewith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1949).

[5] This is my shorthand summary of Voegelin’s “Configurations of history” [hereafter “Configurations”]. See note 1.

[6] See Charles Taylor “Self-interpreting animals,” in Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1985). Voegelin makes a parallel point in “Configurations”, 97.

[7] Voegelin, “Configurations”, 95-98.

[8] Gerald R. McCool, Nineteenth Century Scholasticism. The Search for a Unitary Method, (New York: Fordham University, 1989), 18-21, 59-81. Thomas F. O’Meara, Romantic Idealism and Roman Catholicism: Schelling and the Theologians, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1982).

[9] McCool, Nineteenth Century Scholasticism, 129 ff. See also White, “Ockham and Nominalism. Toward a New Paradigm” in The Catholic Social Science Review, VI, 2002, 271-288.

[10] Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman. 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1987), esp. chapter 8.

[11] Voegelin, “Equivalences”.

[12] Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation. Order and History, vol. 1 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1956), 121-4.

[13] Mitchell interestingly introduces a comparison of Newman with Wittgenstein concerning rationality embedded in ways of life which cannot be seen outside them. See Basil Mitchell, “Newman as a Philosopher” in Newman after a Hundred Years. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 223-246 at 239-240.

[14] I borrow this expression from James Ross, professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

[15] Nichols notes that Newman always admired the early Church because of the way they saw nature and sacrament as mediating truth that cannot be stated in language. My distinction between two meanings of “doctrine” attempts to put this point into a theoretical language. Compare Aidan Nichols, From Newman to Congar, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 27.

[16] Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981) [Hereafter, Dev.]: 54.

[17] Dev.: 55-6.

[18] However, Neo-Scholasticism was only the 19th century version of an already existing problematic. See Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman, chapters 1-3.

[19] The Neo-Scholastic conception of theology as a deductive propositional system and Neo-Scholasticism’s opposition to integrating history into theology are themes developed throughout McCool’s Nineteenth-Century Scholasticism. See especially the illuminating chapters on Joseph Kleutgen S.J., 167-214.

[20] Nichols suggests that, for Newman, the need to formulate what I have called “propositional doctrine” indicates something amiss in the life of the Church. See Nichols, Newman to Congar, 27-28.

[21] Lash is perhaps not as nuanced as he needs to be concerning the exact sense of the ‘Platonic’ influence on Newman’s notion of ‘idea’. Compare my exposition to Lash, Newman on Development, (Shepherdstown WV: Patmos Press, 1975), 48-51.

[22] Dev., 99-100.

[23] Dev., 33-4.

[24] Dev., 36.

[25] Dev., 37-8.

[26] Dev., 38.

[27] Compare Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman, 149 ff.

[28] These points are closely connected with the distinction between “implicit and explicit reason” in Newman, the importance of which Ker has emphasized in many places. See, e.g., his “Newman’s Theory – Development or Continuing Revelation” in James D. Bastable (Ed.), Newman and Gladstone. Centennial Essays, (Dublin: Veritas, 1978), especially pp. 145-148.

[29] See, e.g., Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, 59-63.

[30] Chadwick, I think ambiguously, describes Newman as holding ecclesiastical definition as “equivalent” to revelation. Chadwick does not seem to have clear equivalents to the notion of “compacted” and “differentiated” and it is therefore difficult to know if he is claiming simply what I am claiming or accusing Newman of giving too much credit to ecclesiastical formulations.

[31] Dev., 14-5.

[32] Dev., 35-6.

[33] I have given a somewhat more optimistic reading of “Idea” than is typical. See e.g., Thomas Vargish, Newman. The Contemplation of Mind (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 45. My impression is that many scholars assume Newman’s skeptical attitude toward propositional knowledge is equivalent to a skeptical attitude toward knowledge as such. The comparison of Newman’s Idea with Plato’s above is meant to suggest a less skeptical reading.

[34] Dev., 59.

[35] Dev., 59.

[36] Dev., 59-60.

[37] Dev., 71-2.

[38] Dev., 122.

[39] Ian Ker, “Forward” to Newman, Essay on the Development of Doctrine, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981): xxiv.

[40] I dedicate this paper in gratitude to Dr. Peter V. Sampo, former president of Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, on the occasion of his retirement. I would also like to thank the National Institute of Newman Studies in Pittsburgh PA for awarding me a summer fellowship, which accorded me both the financial support and the leisure to do the research for this paper.


John R. White

Profesor filosofie a analytické psychologie, dlouhá léta působil na Františkánské univerzitě ve Steubenville, později v Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center na Duquesne University Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.