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III. Doctrinal Development and Tract Ninety.

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

The average Englishman had a difficult time comprehending the idea of the Via Media and the idea of the Church of England being Catholic rather than Protestant. For many, this sort of language appeared to be a threat to the nation and English identity. A call to suppress such thought was beginning to take hold. For those who held on to the views of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was viewed as the ‘scarlet woman’. “Fear of Rome was deep-seated in the English mind.”1

The thought of a more ‘Catholic’ Church of England raised an interesting question. If the Church of England was in reality the Catholic Church in England, where did this leave the Roman Church, especially now as they were becoming more involved and influential since the passing of the Emancipation Act of 1829.

Newman, in the 1830’s, believed that the Roman Church was corrupt, and that it had introduced doctrines and practices that had not been part of the primitive church. It was his view that Rome had relinquished any further claim to catholicity and that it was certainly no more Catholic than the Church of England.

But various forces were beginning to affect Newman’s thought processes. In 1839, Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, a zealous Roman Catholic Priest, was sent to England and began publishing articles on the ‘Dontanist Schism.’2 He hypothesised that the Church of England was schismatic in the same manner as the Dontanists were in the fourth century.

Newman was impressed with both Wiseman and a small group of radical thinkers among the Tractarians, including W.G. Ward (1812-82) and F.W. Faber (1814-63) who were becoming drawn into his point of view, not in the same way as Froude, who seemed inspired by medieval Rome, the Church out of which the Anglican Church had emerged, but more to the Rome of the Counter-Reformation and Post-Tridentine theology and practice.

Newman was now introduced to the Doctrine of Development. As early as 1834, in a private letter, Newman expressed an awareness of doctrinal development. For him, the vast amount of theological and ecclesiastical system, which is implicitly contained in Scripture “was developed at various times according to circumstance’.3

Newman believed that Christ had promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the church into all truth. However, the primitive church did not possess absolute truth. This could only be revealed gradually over time. Therefore, the primitive church could not be a model of perfection.

New doctrines had developed over time, such as the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, and the Roman Church claimed that these new doctrines were authentic developments rather than additions to the primitive church. Newman decided to tackle this issue in his final Oxford University sermon in 1843.

In The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine, Newman preached “that developments were not simply explanations of doctrines already formulated but further doctrines implied by and arising out of these original dogmas.” 4 However, these new doctrines must, “support, extend, and refine the truth that was previously known.”5

The church, over time, displaying the signs of holiness, and of being the true body of Christ would be that model. Every dogma expresses an authentic aspect of Christian revelation. However, the manner in which it is revealed depends on cultural conditions of that particular era. “Thus ‘irreformability’ of dogma does not prevent its reformulation and further refinement”.6

In other words, the church is not stagnant, but lives and grows throughout history, until the return of Christ. The Apostles had an implicit understanding of the whole of revelation, and that, what was implicitly understood, became explicitly expressed in Church doctrine and teaching.

For example, “St. Paul could hardly have understood what was meant by the ‘Immaculate Conception’, but ‘if he had been asked, whether or not our Lady had the grace of the Spirit anticipating all sin whatever, including Adam’s imputed sin, … he would have answered in the affirmitative”.7 This is a concept of a church that is alive and growing over time, from generation to generation, building on the Deposit of Faith. It is at this point, that Newman began to look on Rome in a new and more positive way.

Meanwhile, there remained the problem within the Church of England of the dichotomy between the Catholic and Protestant parties. Writers like Newman could make more of a case for Rome than others thinkers, and this affected Protestantism within the Anglican Church. However, the evangelicals felt they had a safeguard with the Thirty-Nine Articles Of Faith, one of the pillars of the reformation church and protestant England.

For the Tractarians, the articles were feared to be a stumbling block, but Newman decided to work on creating a bridge between Catholicism and the Thirty-Nine Articles. In February 1841, Tract 90, ‘Remarks On Certain Passages In The Thirty-Nine Articles’ was produced by Newman. In this amazing pamphlet, Newman deals with fourteen of the articles, especially those which appear to be Anti-Roman. He shows that the articles do not really condemn the official teaching of Catholicism, but only particular ‘unreasonable positions’ which have crept into the Roman Catholic Church.

He wanted to show that while the “Prayer Book is acknowledged, on all hands to be of Catholic origin, our Articles also, the offspring of an un-catholic age, are, through God’s good providence, to say the least, not un-catholic, and may be subscribed by those who aim at being Catholic in heart and doctrine”.8

In this way, Newman, and those within Oxford Movement, demonstrated that Anglo-Catholics are “the successors and representatives”9 of the moderate reformers who helped frame the Thirty-Nine Articles. In essence, this Protestant Confession was created to include Catholics and that they created it “in accordance with the general background of Catholic doctrine”.10

Protest soon followed the publication of Tract Ninety. Four Oxford tutors, including A.C. Tait (1811-1882) a future Archbishop of Canterbury, sent a letter of protest to the ‘Times of London’. The heads of the houses at Oxford met and openly condemned the tract. It caused such a stir that Richard Bagot (1782-1854), the Bishop of Oxford, extracted from Newman a promise that no more tracts should be written. Tractarians had always proclaimed loyalty to the Church of England, but from this point on, they would have great difficulty convincing the critics of their fidelity to the church.

Newman truly believed that “if the Church of England would remember that she was a Holy and Apostolic Church, and not rely so much on worldly support and worldly authority, her voice would be listened to. There was need of a second reformation!”11

After the furor, created by the publication of Tract Ninety, Newman retired from public life. He was now obsessed by the idea of holiness as the only mark of the true Church. By 1843, the pull to Rome was becoming unbearable and in September of that year, he resigned the Benefice of St. Mary’s. He was losing faith in the Church of England. “Conversion became imperative for Newman once the Anglican hierarchy had explicitly rejected as unacceptable his attempt of a Catholic interpretation”12 of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Edward Pusey now became the leader of the Movement at Oxford. In 1843, he “was suspended from preaching before the University for two years because of a sermon he had delivered on the subject of the Eucharist.”13 In spite of this, his loyalty to the Church of England was unshakable, and not even the venomous and ignorant diatribes of his opponents would persuade him to leave.

Dr. Pusey’s pamphlets were not trivial, “but were thick, solid and learned.”14 He also helped the Movement by translating the works of the early Church Fathers and holding evening parties at his house, in which theological papers were read and discussed. Once Newman left the Church of England, many Tractarians, and certainly those within the Oxford Movement, acknowledged Pusey as the ‘true prophet of the movement’. He was a man whose temperament was ‘ascetic’ and ‘contemplative’. His life was nourished by the writings of the great Catholic mystics whose influence can be detected within his sermons. “Indeed, the modern recognition and restoration of the mystical element in religion, in so far as it is a factor in the Anglican Revival, began with this scholar-saint.”15

Other parties in the Church of England simply looked down upon the Tractarian movement, with Evangelicals suspecting it of having Roman Catholic tendencies. They felt that the publication of Newman's Tract 90, Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles justified their suspicions. For them, this Tract interpreted the Articles of Religion as acceptable to, and even in line with, the body of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Nevertheless, the tracts, their writers and supporters left their mark on both Oxford and the Church of England as a whole. Over the next century Tractarian thought and Anglo-Catholic faith would affect the theology, worship, and life of the Anglican Communion. The church would never be the same again.

Ninety Tracts for the Times appeared over an eight-year period. It called on Anglicans to a revitalize their Catholic heritage, including a new look at Apostolic Succession, Prayer Book liturgy and theological discourse. The Movement's programme paid serious attention to the ascetic life; the liturgical year; the works of the Fathers; parish sisterhoods for women and the writings of both the Caroline Divines and Non-jurors. “The greatest thing which they did…is… in the restoration of this other-worldly temper, and with it the essential link between adoration and sacrifice.”16

Sources for this Article

  1. A History of the Church in England - Chapter XIX - sect 1 - page 343

  2. Catholic Encyclopedia - The Donatist schism in Africa began in 311 after the Diocletian persecutions and flourished just one hundred years, until the conference at Carthage in 411, after which its importance waned. Its name is derived from Donatus, bishop of Carthage, one of the leaders. Donatists held that sacraments were invalid outside the one visible Church, that sinners should be excommunicated, and that the state has no rights in ecclesiastical matters. The schism drew from St. Augustine his lasting definition of the nature of the ministry and sacraments of the Church. Obviously, Fr. Wiseman was pointing toward the nature of the Church-State relationship of the Church of England and Parliament

  3. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine - Forward (From the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman - volume IV - Ian Kerr) - Page 17

  4. IBID - Page 19

  5. The Craft of Theology. Theology and Philosophy; The Broadening Dialogue - Chapter VIII - Page 131

  6. Systematic Theology- Roman Catholic Perspectives - Faith and Revelation - Volume 1 - Chapter II - Page 124

  7. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine - Forward Page - Page XXV

  8. Documents of the Christian Church - Section XII - Tract XC - Page 449

  9. IBID - Tract XC - Page 453

  10. A History of the Modern Church - The Oxford Movement - Chapter XVII -Page 215

  11. Snapdragon - The Story of John Henry Newman - New Friends - Chapter V - Page 46

  12. Anglicans and Roman Catholics: The Search for Unity - The ARCIC documents And their reception - Chapter 22: Expert Opinion Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; Anglican-Catholic Dialogue -Its Problems and Hopes (1983) - From the Church of England’s the Rev. William Ledwich’s 1984 Article: With Authority not as Scribes - Page 275

  13. A History of the Modern Church - Chapter XVII - The Oxford Movement - Page 216

  14. Home Again; To the Oxford Movement; Page 69

  15. Worship - The Anglican Tradition - The Tractarian Movement - Pusey-His Spiritual Greatness Chapter XV Part III - Pages 331-332

  16. IBID - The Leaders - Page 33o

Next Article: Government Reforms on the Church of England

This article was taken from the Master's thesis The Oxford Movement: Anglo-Catholicism and the Birth of Anglican Catholic Identity. The link for the complete thesis can be found at Library and Archives Canada: extension://elhekieabhbkpmcefcoobjddigjcaadp/https://centr X6UzP3r74_R AQh3MhGkYbLi7crXkUyMK4FAUYBpKs

© Dr. Charles Warner 2005

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