How Newman Convinced me of the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church

John McAlpine (left), who started me pondering Newman and Catholicism; sponsor at my reception into the Catholic Church: 8 February 1991

As a committed evangelical Protestant with a great respect for the history of Christian doctrine, I subscribed to a fairly widespread non-Catholic view of Church history: a vague, ethereal, semi-legendary conception of the early Church as quasi-Protestant, and lacking those elements which are now termed "Catholic distinctives." If the early Christians weren't technically & exhaustively Protestant (as defined theologically and ecclesiologically by the revolutionary movement in the 16th century), they certainly (in the main, anyway) weren't Catholic - or so I had casually assumed.

Many Protestants (particularly evangelicals) date the downfall of the early Church at 313, with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine and the subsequent "paganization" of institutional Christianity. Others will place this alleged calamitous event around 440, with the beginning of the papal reign of Pope St. Leo the Great, who - in the eyes of many Protestant historians - was the first pope in the full-blown jurisdictional sense (however that is defined by these same historians). Still another school of thought believes that the derailing of the young Christian Church occurred soon after the last Apostle's death and the cessation of the writing of New Testament books, around the year 100, or else sometime during the course of the second century A.D. at the latest.

This whole endeavor to date the "apostasy" of institutional, historic Christianity strongly reminds me of arbitrary attempts to maintain that human life or personhood in the womb begins at a time other than conception, which is clearly the determinative biological event. It simply can't be done with any logical or historiographical rigor. The Church, like a human soul and body in the womb, organically develops from the beginning in a gradual, consistent fashion, and it is altogether futile to try and assign a date to its supposed demise. Like the preborn child, the essence is there from the first.

Intuitively sensing this, I myself took a more complex, nuanced view that the ostensible "Church" was truly Christian all through this period, down through the early Middle Ages, up to the period of the Inquisition and Crusades (roughly 1100-1500), at which time it did, however, lose much of its integrity and moral authority, if not the title and claim "Christian" altogether. I was reluctant to go the whole way and deny that Catholicism was Christian, because I knew too much about what it had always taught on the "central doctrines" of Christianity, such as the Trinity and all the Christological doctrines, and its indispensable role in preserving both medieval culture and the Bible itself. To deny Christian status to Catholicism at any point of its development would be to cut off the limb on which Protestantism sits: in effect, this would logically reduce to a very curious and self-defeating standpoint that Christianity is not an historical religion by its very nature.

Rather, I believed that the Catholic Church had "passed the baton," so to speak, to the Protestants in the sixteenth century, who succeeded in reforming the Church universal. In other words, I held to an "organic" conception of Church history, somewhat like the Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff, and many Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran theologians and historians, whereby Protestantism was a legitimate development of, heir to, and legatee of, historic Catholicism. Henceforth, in my thinking, Protestantism became the superior and more "biblical" form of Christianity, since the Catholic Church had "obviously" compromised itself both morally and theologically with its reactionary and extremely harsh, "un-ecumenical" Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

This was the background of my ecclesiological thinking when, in early 1990, I began to moderate an ecumenical discussion group in my home. A friend of mine, John McAlpine, whom I had met in the pro-life movement, and with whom I enjoyed conversing, stunned me one night when he claimed that the Catholic Church had never contradicted itself in any of its dogmas. This, to me, was self-evidently incredible and a priori implausible, and so I embarked immediately on a research project designed to debunk once and for all this far-fetched notion that any Christian body could even claim infallibility, let alone actually possess it.

During the course of this study, I gleefully discovered many of the standard "anti-infallibility" works, which are cited again and again: the Anglican George Salmon's The Infallibility of the Church (originally 1890), Johann von Dollinger's Letters of Janus and Letters of Quirinus (1869-1870) and Hans Kung's Infallible?: An Inquiry (1971). Salmon's work has been refuted decisively twice, by B.C. Butler, in his The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged "Salmon", and also in a series of articles in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, in 1901 and 1902 (1)

Yet Protestant polemicists Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie still claimed in 1995, in a major critique of Catholicism, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, (2) that Salmon's book has "never really been answered by the Catholic Church." I was amused recently by the accusation of a prominent professional anti-Catholic, that I must have never been familiar with the best Protestant arguments against infallibility and Catholicism in general - hence my eventual conversion on flimsy grounds! The truth was quite otherwise: the above works are the cream of the crop of this particular line of thought, as evidenced by Geisler and MacKenzie's citation of both Salmon and Kung as "witnesses" for their case (3). And the Church historian Dollinger's heretical opinions are also often utilized by Eastern Orthodox polemicists as arguments against papal infallibility. I know this well as a result of my own ongoing dialogues with Orthodox Christians over the Internet.

George Salmon revealed in his book his profoundly biased ignorance not only concerning papal infallibility, but also with regard to even the basics of the development of doctrine:

Here Salmon is quixotically fighting a straw man of his own making and seeking to sophistically force his readers into the acceptance of a false and altogether logically unnecessary dichotomy: that development of doctrine implies change in the essence or substance of a doctrine and therefore is utterly contrary to the claims of the Church to be the Guardian and Custodian of an authoritative tradition of never-changing dogma. But this is emphatically not the Catholic notion, nor that of Newman, to whom Salmon was largely responding. Nor is it true that development was a "new" theory introduced by Cardinal Newman into Catholicism, while the "old theory" was otherwise. This is unanswerably proven by the writing of St. Vincent of Lerins, one of the Church Fathers, who died around 450 A.D., in his classic patristic exposition of development, The Notebooks:

St. Augustine (354-430), the greatest of the Church Fathers, whom Protestants also greatly revere, expressed similar sentiments in his City of God (16,2,1), and On the 54th Psalm (number 22), so this concept predated Newman by at least fourteen centuries, Salmon's claims notwithstanding. George Salmon thus loses much credibility as any sort of expert on Christian history, papal infallibility, or development, for this and many other reasons, as demonstrated by his Catholic critics. Yet Geisler and MacKenzie, while presenting a fairly accurate picture of Newman's (and Catholic) development themselves, state that Salmon's book is "a penetrating critique of Newman's theory." (6)

It is beyond our purview here to examine the faulty and jaundiced reasoning employed by the above-cited "anti-infallibility" works, and my own ambitious and zealous adoption of them, in my effort to refute the Catholic Church on historical grounds. Suffice it to say that it is largely a matter of misunderstanding or misapplying the true doctrine of infallibility, as defined dogmatically by the First Vatican Council in 1870, or else a conveniently selective and dishonest presentation of historical facts and patristic citations. These practices run rampant throughout the current anti-Catholic literature, and always have. And I, too, was guilty of it. Bias has a way of blinding one to even basic logical errors.

The First Vatican Council of 1870 defined papal infallibility as follows:

Thus, the conciliar definition was careful to limit absolute infallibility to very specific and strict parameters, and it is these which anti-Catholic polemicists almost always overlook or distort when bringing to the table such famous examples of supposed papal fallibility as Honorius, Vigilius and Liberius. None of them succeed when subjected to the proper historical and logical scrutiny. They only "work" when presented in isolation without the Catholic counter-replies which reveal their utter inadequacy.

Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) did not change this teaching in the slightest, despite the claims of heterodox self-proclaimed "Catholics" and misinformed non-Catholics and nominal, undereducated Catholics. Referring to the decree on the Pope from Vatican I, the Council declared:

Returning to my own intellectual and spiritual journey; to give one example as an illustration of faulty "anti-Catholic" reasoning: I quickly realized that the early Christians held a very "high," literal view of the Eucharist (the Real Presence), as does the Catholic Church today. The historical and patristic evidence supporting this fact is so overwhelming that even the most vehement opponents of the Catholic Church rarely seek to deny it. But, undaunted, I stooped to the level of special pleading, in claiming that St. Augustine, the greatest of the Fathers, adopted a symbolic view of the Eucharist. I based this on his oft-stated notion of the sacrament as "symbol" or "sign." I failed to realize, however, that I was arbitrarily creating a false, logically unnecessary dichotomy between the sign and the reality of the Eucharist, for St. Augustine - when all his remarks on the subject are taken into account - clearly accepted the Real Presence. The Eucharist - for Augustine, and objectively speaking - is both sign and reality. There simply is no contradiction.

A cursory glance at Scripture confirms this general principle. For instance, Jesus refers to the sign of Jonah, comparing the prophet Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the fish to His own burial in the earth (Matthew 12:38-40). In this case, both events, although described as signs, were quite real indeed. Jesus also uses the terminology of sign in connection with His Second Coming (Matthew 24:30-31), which is believed by all Christians who adhere to the Nicene Creed, and who have not denied biblical authority or the possibility of miracles, to be a literal event, and not symbolic only.

Protestants tend to use the same flawed analysis when they find the abundant patristic citations extolling the greatness and centrality of Holy Scripture, and thus assume that these Fathers believed in the Protestant formal principle of Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura), when in fact, further objective study reveals that they accepted Tradition and Scripture as part of a unified whole. The historical centrality of Scripture in the contention against heretics, for example, did not mean that Tradition was divorced from Scripture, since the Church Fathers routinely appealed to apostolic Tradition in order to decisively counter heretical claims. In actuality, that was the bottom line for the Fathers, the coup de grace. And this appeal was an historical, rather than a biblical argument, based on apostolic Church authority, as opposed to the methodological approach of Scripture Alone.

Examples in the Fathers are legion. For instance, St. Augustine makes many remarks which show that he regarded the authority of the Church as supreme, all the while accepting the primacy of Scriptures. In other words, they were two sides of the same coin for him and the early Church, not opposed in terms of ultimate authority, as in Protestantism:

Not knowing facts such as the above, or else refusing to acknowledge them, I proceeded with my hostile research, cavalierly assuming beforehand that the early Church was much more Protestant than Catholic, and that the Catholic Church had become corrupt over time (even while technically remaining Christian by the minimalist, Protestant criterion of "central doctrines"). Such is the standard view of Protestants, especially those most in line with "Reformation thought." They assume, usually almost without any direct analysis, that the Catholic Church has added to the Christian faith, that faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

My Catholic friend John, confronted with the mass of jaded, highly selective historical evidence I had compiled, and my relentless polemics, was understandably frustrated. He kept urging me to read John Henry Cardinal Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. What little familiarity I had with Newman had shown me that he was a very impressive figure. I knew that he was a brilliant Church historian, and highly respected by all, regardless of theological affiliation.

So I started reading the Essay in October 1990, after having been somewhat "softened" in the previous months by my reading of Catholic books by the cultural historian Christopher Dawson, pro-life heroine Joan Andrews, the famous Trappist monk and convert Thomas Merton, and the marvelous, unparallelled summary The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, which has been described by Lutheran historian Jaroslav Pelikan as the best single volume written for the purpose of explicating and defending Catholicism. The timing - in God's Providence, and in retrospect - was perfect. A few months before, I had also concluded, as a result of intense discussions in my ecumenical group, that the Catholic Church possessed the highest and most sublime moral theology of any Christian group. Furthermore, I had been convinced (around July 1990) of the wrongness of contraception, after involved arguments and the dumbfounded realization that all Christians of all types had opposed it until 1930, when the Anglicans adopted it at their Lambeth conference for "hard cases" only. This was my first overt change of opinion, but little did I suspect what was yet to come.

Charles Harrold, the editor of an anthology of Newman's writings, described the Essay as follows:

One can see, given the above description of my views and methodology in 1990, that the Essay was probably the most appropriate and relevant work I could have read at that time, regardless of whether I was going to be convinced by it or not. It provided the "best shot" that the Catholic Church was likely to give, in defense of its doctrines which showed marked "growth" (a neutral term) throughout history, to the dismay of Protestants.

Finally, I was now reading some sort of response to the research I had been doing for months, under the influence of thoroughly Protestant presuppositions. Newman wrote, near the beginning:

I was already quite intrigued and looking forward (intellectually) to what Newman was going to say. The very premise of his approach was so novel and curious to me that it guaranteed my continued avid interest. He went on to assert, shortly after this statement:

This was clearly now a frontal attack on the entire edifice of my Protestant ecclesiology: a turning of my argument on its head, with the forceful assertion that it was Catholicism, not Protestantism, which had the historical record on its side. And I respected history enough to shudder at this prospect. I also knew full well that Newman would bring to bear an enormous weight of historical evidence to support his case, as the book before me was 445 pages long!

After summary statements such as the above, Newman proceeded to make brilliant specific analogies in order to bring home his point. The first had to do with the doctrine of purgatory, vis-a-vis the doctrine of original sin, which is, of course, accepted by Protestants as well:

Newman then recounts no less than sixteen Fathers who hold the view in some form. But in comparing this consensus to the doctrine of original sin, we find a disjunction:

This is a crucial distinction. It is a serious problem for Protestantism that it by and large inconsistently rejects doctrines which have a consensus in the early Church, such as purgatory, the (still developing) papacy, bishops, the Real Presence, regenerative infant baptism, apostolic succession, and intercession of the saints, while accepting others with far less explicit early sanction, such as original sin. Even many of their own foundational and distinctive doctrines, such as the notion of Faith Alone (sola fide), or imputed, extrinsic, forensic justification, are well-nigh nonexistent all through Church history until Luther's arrival on the scene, as, for example, prominent Protestant apologist Norman Geisler recently freely admitted:

On the other hand, Protestants clearly accept developing doctrine on several fronts: the Canon of the New Testament is a clear example of such a (technically "non-biblical") doctrine It wasn't finalized until 397 A.D. The divinity of Christ was dogmatically proclaimed only at the "late" date of 325, the fully worked-out doctrine of the Holy Trinity in 381, and the Two Natures of Christ (God and Man) in 451, all in Ecumenical Councils which are accepted by most Protestants. So development is an unavoidable fact for both Protestants and Catholics.

The trick for Protestants (granting Church history an important and legitimate role, whether it is considered normative and authoritative or not), is to determine a non-arbitrary rationale for accepting some doctrines while rejecting others. It will not do to simply say that certain doctrines are "unbiblical" and thus unworthy of Protestant allegiance, since it must immediately be explained why the majority of early Christians believed in them, and why beliefs such as the Canon of the New Testament and Scripture Alone are adopted despite the absence of biblical rationale, or why (chances are) many other strands of Protestantism disagree with the one making the claim, when Scripture is allegedly so "clear" and able to be interpreted in the main without difficulty by the layman.

Newman writes, regarding the New Testament Canon:

Newman makes another brilliant analogy between the "lateness" of the development of the papacy and the Marian doctrines, and the Creed and the Canon:

The venerable Cardinal then defines seven characteristics of all true developments:

After consideration, especially, of Newman's analogies between Protestant developments and distinctively Catholic ones, and his "Seven Notes," it became clear to me that Protestantism represented a massive corruption of historical Christianity, rather than a consistent development, as I formerly believed, and my thinking underwent a paradigm shift of massive proportions. For Protestantism undeniably introduced radically new doctrines such as sola fide, sola Scriptura, sectarianism, private judgment, the notion of an invisible, non-hierarchical church, and symbolic baptism and Eucharist, which were sheer novelties, rather than reforms, supposedly hearkening back to the alleged state of affairs in the early Church. But they simply cannot be found in the early Church.

Newman builds his case to its climax, with the following lucid comment:

In other words, the early heretics were the ones who usually operated on the basis of the so-called perspicuity, or clearness of Scripture, without authoritative interpretation by authoritative ecclesiastical bodies. Protestants look back today with the benefit of hindsight and speak of the "early Church" or simply, "the Church," yet fail to recognize that this "Church" which they tacitly assume was one and unified, is none other than the organically-connected ancestor of the present-day Catholic Church, which operates on the same principles (apostolic succession, a certain understanding of the organic relationship of Church, Bible, and Tradition, sacramentalism, sacerdotalism, papacy, conciliarism, episcopacy, the communion of saints, etc.).

One need not posit an absolute break of continuity in order to equate the present Catholic Church with the "Church" of the early centuries. One need only understand the true nature of development, whereby doctrines can grow in the sense that they are more clearly understood, and more deeply and thoroughly explicated, while not undergoing any essential transformation. But Protestantism requires a radical change of principle, and hence, fails the test of what constitutes a true development, in Newman's analysis. Besides, corruption can just as easily consist of subtraction as addition. Corruption entails a departure from normalcy and precedent.

Furthermore, it is instructive to realize that what we now consider orthodox in early Christianity, is simply the position of the Roman apostolic see, which was proven right again and again on this score, far beyond coincidence, given the multiplicity of heretical sects in the early centuries, and the thousands of competing Christian denominations today.

This fact and the others recounted above in Newman's Essay and my own commentary upon it, are what basically compelled me to become a Catholic (along with the profundity and beauty of unchanging Catholic moral teaching). I had too much respect for logic, historical theology, and Church history to resist what I felt to be an utterly unanswerable argument. I discovered, with the inestimable assistance of Cardinal Newman, that the Catholic Church had far and away the most cogent, consistent claim to ecclesiological and apostolic preeminence, and this, coupled with my simultaneous intensive study of what happened in the sixteenth century (especially the stated reasons for the Protestant Revolution, and the motivations of its leading proponents) and the theological and moral views of the major Protestant Founders (such as: sola fide, sola Scriptura, libertine views of clerical vows and divorce, lying, filthy language, disrespect for authority and precedent, plundering and violence, iconoclasm, anti-intellectualism, etc.) made any further resistance to Catholicism on my part equivalent to rearranging chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic.

Thus it was fitting that a little more than a month after completing the Essay, while reading Cardinal Newman's meditation on "Hope in God the Creator," I quietly gave up what little remaining emotional resistance I had to conversion, and realized that I had already entered the gates of Rome (and therefore, historic Christendom) for good. And, thus far, I've never had the slightest desire or inclination to look back.


1. Butler: New York, Sheed & Ward, 1954, 230 pages. A friend was recently able to obtain the articles from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in the library of a well-known evangelical seminary in the Chicago area.
2. Geisler, Norman L. and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995, p.206, which calls it the "classic refutation of papal infallibility." See also p.459.
3. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., pp.206-207.
4. Salmon, George, The Infallibility of the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House (originally 1888), pp.31-33 (cf. also pp.35, 39).
5. 23:28-30, cited from Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979), vol. 3, p.265.
6. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., p.459.
7. Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter III: "The Church is Hierarchical," sections 18, 22. From edition / translation by Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1988 revised ed., pp.370,375).
8. C. Faustus, 8,5.
9. The Trinity, 4,6,10.
10. Letter 164 to Evodius of Uzalis.
11. C. Cresconius, 1,33.
12. Harrold, Charles F., A Newman Treasury, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1943, pp.83-84.
13. All quotes from the Essay are taken from the edition published by the University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, with a foreword by Ian Ker, from the 1878 edition of the original work of 1845; pp.vii-viii.
14. Newman, John Henry, Historical Sketches, vol.1: The Church of the Fathers, London: 1872, p.418.
15. Newman, Essay, ibid., pp.7-9.
16. Ibid., p.21
17. Ibid., p.21.
18. Ibid., p.23.
19. Geisler and MacKenzie, ibid., pp.247-248,503.
20. Newman, Essay, pp.123-126.
21. Ibid., p.145.
22. Ibid., p.151.
23. Ibid., pp.170-171.
24. Ibid., pp.199-200,203.
25. Arianism: a heresy holding that Jesus Christ was a mere created being and not co-equal with the Father.
26. Nestorianism: a heresy which denied that Christ had a Divine Nature.
27. Gnosticism: a heresy which claimed a secret knowledge ("gnosis") which went beyond revelation, faith, and reason.
28. Eunomianism: akin to Arianism, it held that Jesus was inferior in essence to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit was created by Jesus.
29. Manichaeanism: a form of Gnosticism; it held to a sub-personal cosmic dualism between good and evil and was severely ascetic.
30. Newman, Essay, pp.353-354.

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