Newman, Aquinas, and the Development of Doctrine

The question of the development of doctrine, and his investigation of its implications, was crucial to John Henry Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church. The question with which he struggled was this: how can it be that the Christian faith seems to put great emphasis on various articles which are neither stated explicitly in Scripture nor by the councils and creeds of the early Church? Are not all these new doctrines distorting accretions which have in one way or another sprung into existence over time, obscuring the clarity of the apostolic faith without any true precedent or Scriptural warrant? As Ian Ker puts the question in his introduction to Newman’s essay: “Were specifically Roman Catholic doctrines illegitimate accretions and additions, or were they authentic developments from scriptural and apostolic doctrines?”1 Newman’s answer is definitive: the development of doctrine is both legitimate and necessary.

While Newman is rightly hailed as one of the first major figures to articulate the matter, the ideas expressed in the lauded Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine are not woven out of whole cloth. One may find the antecedent work already accomplished in the work of none other than the Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose understanding of the virtue of faith and that which is proper to it are the foundation upon which Newman constructed his own theory. There is a distinction St. Thomas makes which is of unique importance for any consideration of Newman’s thesis, which Aquinas lays out in explicit terms: the distinction of the nature of the object of faith, from the act of faith itself. Thus, St. Thomas’ account of the theological virtue of faith provides the necessary framework upon which Cardinal Newman was able to construct his account of the development of doctrine nearly 600 years later.

St. Thomas’ Account of Faith

The idea that doctrine develops over time seems to necessarily involve the proposition that those things which are to be held by faith progressively increase in quantity. In order to judge if this is truly the case, let us first consider the virtue of faith properly, in both its object and its act.

The object of faith is understood with reference to both its material and formal aspects: the material object is “what” is known, and the formal object is that “by which” it is known. Simply put, the formal aspect of faith’s object is God himself as the “first truth,” whereas the material aspect is all those things which follow upon their relation to God (Church, sacraments, etc . . .).2 The act of faith, as distinct from faith’s object, is “to think with assent,” provided that this is understood correctly. In this definition, “to think” must be taken for “that consideration of the intellect which is accompanied by some kind of inquiry, and which precedes the intellect’s arrival at the stage of perfection that comes with the certitude of sight.”3 In other words, the act of faith does not arrive at the perfection proper to sight — as this is had only by the blessed in heaven—but is yet more than the simple intellective faculty. The knowledge gained by this kind of act is true knowledge, yet it does not attain to perfect, comprehensive clarity.

When confronted by the condescension and revelation of God, the will makes a judgment: shall I assent or not? When the will makes the choice to render its assent, it then determines (i.e. it moves) the intellect to its object, the first truth, who is God. As Thomas puts it: “The intellect of the believer is determined to one object, not by the reason, but by the will, wherefore assent is taken here for an act of the intellect as determined to one object by the will.”4 This is how the act of faith can be both intellectual and voluntary (in the proper senses of the terms): it is both an act of the will and an act of the intellect. As such, it is neither rationalist, involving only the intellect, nor fideist, involving only the will.

What is it, then, to which the act of faith assents? The final aspect of this particular inquiry is to determine how the act of faith relates back to the object of faith, considered under multiple aspects. Thomas clarifies the three aspects of the act of faith: to believe in a God (credere Deum); to believe God (credere Deo); to believe in God (credere in Deum). The act of faith as far as it believes “in a God” corresponds to the material object of faith, the act of faith as far as it “believes God” corresponds to the formal aspect of the object, and the act of faith as far as it believes “in God” corresponds to the act whereby the intellect is moved by the will.5 Ultimately these are not separate acts whereby faith is operative, but are simply one act which has different relations to the object of faith.6

As we will see below, the material object of faith is the first truth whereby faith attains to its first principles so to speak (e.g. that there is a God, that he is provident). The formal object is that whereby we believe a particular article of faith or revealed doctrine: we believe God because he is Truth, and we believe in God because our will directs our intellect to Him as to our last end. It needs no mention that at this point we can see how the virtue of faith is crucial to the question of how we are to understand divine revelation as it is mediated to us. Faith reaches out to God as the first truth, as Truth itself, and as the provident creator who works all things for good; because we know that God is that truth which our intellect seeks, we believe in God and, as Truth itself, all that he reveals.

Let us now return to the principal inquiry: do the articles of faith increase over time? In his treatment of the object of faith, St. Thomas asks this question directly, and the objections he raises are formidable. First, since the same things are always to be hoped for, the same things must have been always believed. Second, since God’s knowledge is perfect, any knowledge he has imparted must have been perfect from the start. Third, since grace was present from the beginning, which is perfect, should not knowledge have been perfect from the beginning as well? Finally, the apostles were taught most fully and directly by Christ, so their knowledge must have been most perfect.7 These objections seem to be eminently reasonable, and any solution must provide a way to answer them in a satisfactory manner.

In response, Aquinas begins by drawing an analogy between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge gained in the natural sciences: as all the teachings of a science are contained virtually in those self-evident principles upon which it is founded, so it is in faith that “all the articles are contained implicitly in certain primary matters of faith.”8 Crucial to the argument is the definition, as found in Hebrews 11:6, of that which is required of the person who would approach God: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” As Aquinas makes clear, the two primary doctrines of faith are “the existence of God,” which entails belief in the theologia (God as he is in himself) and “belief in his providence,” which entails belief in the oikonomia (God’s relation to all things which he creates in time and space). Sharpening his reflection to a point, he concludes the following:

[A]s regards the substance of the articles of faith, they have not received any increase as time went on; since whatever those who lived later have believed, was contained, albeit implicitly, in the faith of those Fathers who preceded them. But there was an increase in the number of articles believed explicitly, since to those who lived in later times some were known explicitly which were not known explicitly by those who lived before them.9

Here we see the key distinction, which Newman will use to great benefit in his reflection on the idea of the development of doctrine: that which is believed implicitly must be distinguished from that which is believed explicitly. The answers which St. Thomas gives to each objection he raises are quite instructive, but can be passed over for our purposes here.

Newman and the Development of Doctrine in Modernity

Newman’s insistence on the supraintelligibility of the divine mysteries — that they are intelligible and yet incomprehensible in the fullness of their existence — is at the heart of his theory of doctrinal development. He is always keen to insist that reality is deeper than the human person’s capacity to search its depths: “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea.”10 When the mind begins to search the depths of the mystery that is the living God, it necessarily begins to form true propositions and yet, at the same time, is never able to have comprehensive knowledge of the Divinity. Giving a very basic example of this process, Newman comments on what is set down in John 1:14, “and the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He remarks:

When it is declared that ‘the Word became flesh,’ three wide questions open upon us on the very announcement. What is meant by ‘the Word,’ what by ‘flesh,’ what by ‘became’? The answers to these involve a process of investigation, and are developments.11

A claim is made by divine revelation, and yet, what does this logos mean? The investigation into what any particular proposition means, and thereby what is true, is nothing other than the process of the development of doctrine; the simple doctrine, in seed form, is what we find stated in Scripture, and the development occurs when that statement is fleshed out and explained in ever greater detail and clarity.

Here is where the distinction made by St. Thomas comes into play, the distinction between what is held implicitly and what is held explicitly. In his own words, Newman sums up the implicit/explicit concept succinctly: “in the sacred province of theology, the mind may be employed in developing the solemn ideas which it has hitherto held implicitly, and without subjecting them to its reflecting and reasoning powers.”12 Newman begins to draw this out with a reflection on Scripture itself, concerning himself with prophecy in particular. One sees a development of sacra doctrina even within the prophetic corpus, where prophecies build on one another, commenting on and explaining previous prophetic texts. “It is not that first one truth is told, then another,” he says, “but the whole truth or large portions of it are told at once, yet only in their rudiments, or in miniature, and they are expanded and finished in their parts, as the course of revelation proceeds.”13 An early prophecy can hold within itself both explicit and implicit truths, and later prophecy can both echo what was explicit in the earlier prophecy and draw out more explicitly what was implicit in that same prophetic claim.

One could supply numerous examples here, but let us consider just one: the relationship between the prophecies of Zechariah and those of Ezekiel. The prophecies of Zechariah continually draw on those given by Ezekiel, drawing out their implications. Ezekiel prophesies both a new David (cf. Ezek 34-37) and a new Temple (cf. Ezek 40-48), while Zechariah draws on these by proclaiming first that the servant to come would be the one to build the temple — “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall grow up in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord, and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule upon his throne” (Zech 6:12,13) — and, second, that the house of David would one day be so exalted that it would be quasi-divine: “and the house of David shall be like God” (Zech 12:8). As with those things that had been revealed “of old to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1), so too with that which is revealed to the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). This same dynamic holds true when speaking of development in the doctrine of the Church, both in the apostolic age and in the ages which followed, all the way down to the present day.

As we return to the main track of our argument thus far, we see that even Scripture itself witnesses to the reality of development in matters of that which is to be believed, or held in hope. There is in fact no hard line to be drawn between the eras of doctrinal progression and the eras of doctrinal crystallization. Newman himself states that no matter how diligently we apply ourselves to the difficulty, “we shall find ourselves unable to fix an historical point at which the growth of doctrine ceased, and the rule of faith was once for all settled.”14 Even those forms which we would often consider to be most ancient and programmatic are themselves caught up in this same pattern, as the organic nature of the faith is on full display without break or seam as surely as roots turn into branches. There is no terminus to this growth:

Not in the Creed, which is no collection of definitions, but a summary of credenda, an incomplete summary, and, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Decalogue, a mere sample of divine truths, especially of the more elementary. No one doctrine can be named which starts omnibus numeris at first, and gains nothing for the investigations of faith and the attacks of heresy.15

One could argue that this commentary of Newman’s is echoed in one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s most famous statements that dogma is simply the Church’s infallible interpretation and elucidation of Scripture.16

For Newman, as for Aquinas, the Christian faith is not a kind of intellectual coordination in which various propositions are understood and consciously held to as outside one’s self and existing in some pristine form, sterile and exhausted. Rather, the faith is living and active because it does not find its locus in a system, but in a person; when one prays, one does not pray to a concept of God, but to the living God Himself. This is precisely the mode in which those objections to the concept of doctrinal development must be answered. If we understand the faith as communication — and as communication with the source of all life and existence itself, at that — then we are equipped to understand the relationship between implicit and explicit acts of faith. As two friends who are able to deepen their knowledge of one another as their relationship grows and ages, so the Church is able to receive the ever wider unfolding of the deposit of faith delivered to her by her divine bridegroom without contradiction or confusion.

In sum, it is the teaching on the distinction between faith’s act and its object which leads to the conclusion regarding the legitimate increase in the articles of faith, as elucidated and systematized by Cardinal Newman’s theory on the development of doctrine. Since faith holds that God exists and that he is trustworthy, the virtue of faith allows the will to direct the intellect to God as its final end. This intellectual character of faith which is able to apprehend and receive divine revelation is characteristic of the Catholic insistence that faith is not mere “belief,” and that God is reasonable. The reality of explicitly held articles of faith being contained virtually in the first propositions of faith, this is the key insight which Aquinas’ specificity and Newman’s creativity allow us to behold.

The letter to the Hebrews begins by stating that God revealed himself in many ways to the prophets and the patriarchs of old, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:2). The revelation of the Son in the world, the Word of God, brought to humanity the fullness of the divinity and, by his words and actions, Jesus revealed the Father (cf. Jn 14:8–11). The fullness of this revelation in Christ could not be defined fully in the days of the Apostles, even in their writing of the inspired Scriptures. The infinite depths of this mystery will continue to be sounded until the day when Our Lord returns in judgment. Until that day, however, the sacra doctrina of the Church will continue to be sharpened by prayer and contemplation, and the Church will seek ever greater clarity of insight by which she might know her beloved. The Church, as Christ’s true bride, continues to say, “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Song of Songs 3:2).

  1. Fergus Ker, “Introduction” in John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), xviii.
  2. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne), II-II, q. 1, a. 1, resp.
  3. ST II-II, q. 2, a. 1, resp.
  4. ST II-II, q. 2, a. 1, ad. 3.
  5. Cf. ST II-II, q. 2, a. 2, resp.
  6. Cf. ST ii-II, q. 2, a. 2, ad. 1.
  7. Cf. ST II-II, q. 1, a. 7, objections 1–4.
  8. ST II-II, q. 1, a. 7, resp.
  9. ST II-II, q. 1, a. 7, resp.
  10. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: W. Blanchard & Sons, 1845), 34.
  11. Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, 97–98.
  12. Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, 54.
  13. Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, 103.
  14. Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, 107.
  15. Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine, 107.
  16. See Joseph Ratzinger, “Crisis in Catechesis,” in Canadian Catholic Review 7 (1983): 178.
Dr. Joshua Madden About Dr. Joshua Madden

Joshua Madden is Lecturer in Theology with Maryvale Institute, International Catholic College, as well as Lecturer in Theology with St. John Vianney College Seminary & Graduate School of Philosophy. His research and teaching interests are focused on Scripture, Thomas Aquinas, Christology, and Christian anthropology.


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Joshua,

    The Peace of Christ.

    A good way of putting the point about the nature of dogma: ‘One could argue that this commentary of Newman’s is echoed in one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s most famous statements that dogma is simply the Church’s infallible interpretation and elucidation of Scripture.’

    In other words, the “Immaculate Conception” is the definite expression of Eve’s realization that ‘I have gotten a child with the help of God’ (Gn 4: 1) at the first instant of fertilization (see “Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration” and “Conception: An Icon of the Beginning” (both published by En Route Books and Media).

    God bless, Francis.

  2. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Dear Dr. Madden,
    Thanks be to God for your ability to help all who wish to learn more about our one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
    Tom Showerman