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Newman and Dulles: Two Witnesses to Christ

Note: This is the sixth column in our series about Cardinal Newman, who will be canonized on October 13. The previous columns on this subject may be read by clicking herehereherehere, and here.  – Robert Royal

In the book of essays he compiled shortly before he died (Evangelization for the Third Millennium), Cardinal Avery Dulles issued a caution against a growing “soteriological pluralism” in contemporary theology. He was challenging the contention that, though Christ may be, in some sense, normative for Christian salvation, such a claim should not be made normative for adherents of other religious traditions.

Dulles had also written a fine study entitled John Henry Newman. Though Dulles modestly disclaimed being “a Newman expert,” he confessed that he had read Newman “over many decades” and had been “greatly influenced by his method and teaching.”

A key area of convergence was that both advocated a critical stance toward what Newman called “Liberalism.”  In the famous speech which Newman gave in Rome in 1879, on the occasion of his being made a Cardinal, he declared: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, that one creed is as good as another. . . .It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste.”

In explicit contrast to this, Newman, throughout his life, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic, espoused what he called “the principle of dogma.” He meant by this that revealed religion enunciates truths that are objective, not mere sentiments, nor the fanciful wishes of individuals, but the fruit of real encounters with God as witnessed in the Scriptures and the Christian tradition.

For both Newman and Dulles, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ is the anchor of their faith and the abiding point of reference for spiritual life, preaching, and authentically Catholic theology.

In “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively,” the second of his Oxford University Sermons, Newman speaks of God’s economy of revelation as the “method of personation.” He declares that all the abstract principles of philosophy, Word, Light, Life, Truth, Wisdom, become personalized in Christ.

What otherwise can remain merely “notional” becomes “real” in him – concrete, vivid, enkindling affection and inspiring imitation. Newman sums up his persuasion in these words, with which Dulles would heartily concur: “It is the Incarnation of the Son of God rather than any doctrine drawn from a partial view of Scripture (however true and momentous it may be) which is the article of a standing or a falling Church.”

Thus Newman speaks of “the Idea of the Incarnation” as the heart of the Christian faith vision. But he means by “Idea” not merely a concept in the mind, but a living and life-giving image that nourishes the heart and imagination as well.

And that concept and image is the reality of Jesus presented in the Gospels. As he insists in his (perhaps most profound theological work), Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification: “The true preaching of the Gospel is to preach Christ.”

For Newman, Jesus Christ is both utterly concrete and universally significant. In his late work, A Grammar of Assent, he declares: “All the providences of God centre in Christ.” And in Lectures on Justification, Newman declares: “Christ came for this very purpose, to gather together in one all the elements of good dispersed throughout the world, to make them his own, to illuminate them with Himself, to reform and refashion them into Himself. He came to make a new and better beginning of all things than Adam had been, and to be a fountain-head from which all good henceforth might flow.”

And this not only for Christians, but for all humanity.

For Newman Christ is present not absent: he may be absent in the flesh, but he is truly present, through his Spirit, in faith. In his sermon on “The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, VI, 10), Newman asks: “but why has the Spirit come? to supply Christ’s absence, or to accomplish His presence?”

And he responds: “Surely to make Him present. Let us not for a moment suppose that God the Holy Ghost comes in such sense that God the Son remains away. No; [the Spirit] has not so come that Christ does not come, but rather He comes that Christ may come in His coming.” And he concludes: “Thus the Spirit does not take the place of Christ in the soul, but secures that place to Christ.”

For both Newman and Dulles, this real and continuing Presence of Jesus Christ finds its fullest expression in the Eucharist. If their minds led each to acknowledge the fullness of Apostolic faith in the Roman Catholic Church, their hearts found fulfillment of their ardent desire and affection in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the humblest of Catholic churches and chapels.

Christ’s Eucharistic presence is the paradigmatic instance of “heart speaking to heart” (Newman’s Cardinalatial motto): the heart of Christ addressing the heart of each disciple whom he calls by name.

In a letter to a correspondent after becoming Catholic, Newman spoke of “the surpassing privilege of having a Chapel under the very roof in which I live and Christ in it.” And he rejoiced in “the extreme, ineffable comfort of being in the same house with Him who cured the sick and taught His disciples, as we read of Him in the Gospels, in the days of His flesh.”

Avery Dulles took as his own Cardinalatial motto: “I know him in whom I have believed,” Christ, whom Dulles called, in his last McGinley lecture, “the Pearl of great price.” For both Newman and Dulles the Incarnation of God’s Eternal Word in Jesus Christ and Christ’s universal salvific significance is, indeed, the article of faith upon which the Church stands or falls.

Given the turmoil and creedal confusion in the Church today, their conjoint personal and theological witness to Jesus Christ, as unique and universal Savior, is both gift and challenge. For our pressing peril may be less schism than it is apostasy from “the faith once and definitively delivered to the Saints.”

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Robert Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Christic Imagination: How Christ Transforms Us is available from Now You Know Media.