Theories of Development in the Oxford Movement
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IN HIS important study Ethos and the Oxford Movement (2007), James Pereiro underlined the fundamental importance of “ethos” for the Tractarian understanding of religious epistemology. In this new book, he expands some of the chapters of that work to provide important background to Newman’s Essay on Development.
This not only set out the theological rationale for Newman’s secession to Rome, but also provided the first significant English theological exposition of the nature and character of doctrinal development, wrestling with the question how a claimed revealed religion maintains identity and continuity in the flux and change of history; with the nature of tradition; and with the teaching authority of the Church.
In his classic study of the idea of doctrinal development, From Bossuet to Newman (1957), Owen Chadwick saw Newman as reacting to the challenge of the bishops’ condemnation of Tract 90, the Jerusalem bishopric, and the theological stance of W. G. Ward, as the catalysts for his conversion to the need for a theory of development.
Pereiro believes that Newman’s wrestling with development began earlier, and was rooted in the epistemology of religious knowledge summed up in the concept of “ethos”. This drew on Bishop Butler’s doctrine of analogy and his understanding of probability as the guide to life (developed particularly by Keble), and held together doctrine and the moral quest for holiness: “he who lives the life will know the doctrine.”
In particular, it is the discovery of an 1835 paper by Newman’s friend and pupil the young barrister Samuel Francis Wood, uncle of Charles Lindley Wood (later the 2nd Viscount Halifax), which — together with associated correspondence with Manning and Newman, and a recognition of the important influence of Hurrell Froude — undergirds Pereiro’s reassessment of the development of Newman’s theology of development.
Baron Bunsen, the Prussian lay theologian and future Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, referred to Wood as “the working-hand of the High Church Newman party”. Wood’s paper and the associated letters form important appendices of Pereiro’s book.
Pereiro emphasises that the Oxford Movement was not just a movement of the heart. “Any kind of divorce between doctrine and ethics was alien to the minds of Keble, Froude, Newman, and their friends.” They sought to enable the recovery of the Catholic ethos by the Church of England. This meant an exploration of the way in which the creeds had been framed to articulate a deepening understanding of the nature of Christian faith in God as Trinity, an understanding of the dynamic nature of tradition, and a recognition of the limitations of rationalism, and those of a faith reduced to feelings. As Newman put it, “To say that Christianity is a revelation is not to deny that it is also a mystery.”
Pereiro’s study sheds fresh light on the development of Tractarian theology, but also reminds us that the parroting of “development” as a justification for change in the Church is dangerous without a correspondingly rigorous exploration of what development means. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I handed on to you what I also received.” What is “received” is paradosis, “tradition”, and the faith that is handed on is grounded in scripture, but is understood by the Church, reflecting on the faith by which it lives.
As Pereiro comments: “Only truth is capable of shaping man into the likeness of Christ, which is the object of man’s sanctification.” That truth, grounded in scripture, cannot simply be read off the face of scripture, and cannot be known except by a praying faith seeking understanding. In many ways, the leaders of the Oxford Movement wrestled in an earlier generation with issues that we still face today. We are indebted to Pereiro for his exploration of these wrestlings, from which we still have much to learn.
The Rt Revd Dr Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.