John Henry Newman: A Biography

Article by   January 2015
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Ian Ker. John Henry Newman: A Biography. 1988. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Due to his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, there is a renewed interest in the life and thought of John Henry Newman.

Among Protestants especially John Henry Newman is enjoying something of a renaissance. Noted Protestant scholars are revisiting Newman's arguments for the unification of faith and reason in his Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford. Several historically Protestant universities, including my own Houston Baptist University, are taking a fresh look at what Christian higher education truly means guided, in part, by Newman's The Idea of University. There is even the revelation that Newman was something of a patron saint in the youths of that trifecta of Roman Catholic visionaries, Karol Józef Wojtyła, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Two of these went on to the throne of St. Peter and the other wrote the seminal book of theological aesthetics for our, and perhaps all, time. I don't think it is overreaching to suggest that the overwhelming sense of affinity Protestants have for these three Catholics has to do with our shared son in the Church, John Henry Newman.

Ian Ker's revision and rerelease of his beautiful, thorough and ultimately correct biography from 1988 marks this interest especially well. One of the unique advantages of reviewing a book from the vantage point of two and half decades is that one is able to see the history of the book: its reception, scholarly vetting, and staying power. By this criteria, Ker's biography is the leader in a crowded and partisan field. Both for its detail, and sympathetic reading of his subject, this biography should continue to serve as the standard life of Newman for some time to come. Every few years, another stab at a life of Newman arrives on the scene, promising fresh interpretations of this most enigmatic and unfathomable of men--but like few subjects, Lincoln and Washington come readily to mind, the subject overwhelms his interpreter. This is why Ker's book is both so important and so necessary. A little freshening up of a solid staple is also appreciated.

Again, though, the problem of reviewing a rereleased book is a vexing one. Should one merely summarize the book in the hopes that an audience unfamiliar with the work will check it out? Should one descend into the debates stirred up from other reviews both original and recent? I have decided to take a different route--to examine one particular discussion in Ker's biography in some detail because I believe it shows the biography's unique virtue while bringing to the forefront of the contemporary discussion of Newman what I believe for our times is his most critical statement, in a long lifetime of important statements, his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

In many ways, Ker's Newman reads as an intellectual biography culminating in the synthesis of argument that is the Grammar of Assent. I don't think this is a bad way of working through the 750 pages of the life. This arch gives the biography structure and it focuses the reader's attention in the maze of what other reviewers have rightly pointed to: the excessive detail in which Ker describes the never-ending debates and societal arguments of the Victorian era of which Newman was centrally involved. Ker's Newman is both a feisty fighter and a workaholic--always willing to go deeply into the controversies of his time and of all time.

I am desperate for the day that philosophy departments embrace the Grammar of Assent for what it is, the most far-reaching, profound, and life changing book on Christian epistemology in action we have. Ker's narrative of the Grammar's genius and development is masterly. In it, Newman gives a rich account of why it is we believe what we do--both in an investigation of the relationship between evidence and belief and in a relationship between belief and understanding. Ker places these questions, rightly, in their proper Victoria context, and, as I said earlier, shows how the book was the culmination of all the reading, thinking, and arguing Newman had done in an overly busy life lived in an overly busy and rapidly changing time.

In this, the biography's length and level of detail aid the reader. We too have waded through unremitting public and private debates in which Newman participated. One can see the final culmination of his early study of the Arian heresy which led directly to Newman's break with the Anglican Church. One can see his deep concern for the realities of living the Christian life as really lived, the product of his many years of pastoral work in the dual capacity as professor and priest. And lastly, one can see Newman's answer to the pervading doubt of his time.

Ker writes, "It is in fact, Newman argues, the cumulation of probabilities, which cannot be reduced to a syllogism, that leads to certainty in the concrete. Many certitudes depends on informal proofs, whose reasoning is more or less implicit." Instead, Newman famously posits the illative sense, that part of our thinking that leads us to a firm assent to a position based on the totality of reasonable evidence--even without definitive and absolute proof for our assent or even a full and complete understanding. The concept of the illative sense allows Newman to embrace the positive positions of each Victorian position: the reasonableness of common sense philosophy, the trust in logic and empirical knowledge of the emerging sciences, the respect for tradition of the Oxford Movement, and the subjection of a position to one's own experience and emotion and ultimately the belief through action of faith. By embracing all and privileging none, Newman's approach to the journey of faith allows us to rely on the grace of God while fully exercising all of our rational and emotional faculties in this journey. In it, he synthesizes the Victorian mind. Ker reminds us that "Such implicit reasoning is too personal for logic." It is his choice of the word personal as opposed to subjective where we see his deep sympathy with Newman's approach. In doing so, we understand that Newman's argument is not an argument from subjective or relativistic grounds. It is an argument straight from the soul of St. Augustine--the personal world, where heart speaks to heart. 

Ker's summation of the book may serve as an example of both his judgment and his prose:
In the last analysis, then, the Grammar is not a 'metaphysical' work. But that does not mean it is a 'psychological' study. Rather, it is a philosophical analysis of that state of mind which we ordinarily call certitude or certainty and of the cognitive acts associated with it; and, as such, it has come to be recognized as a classic by philosophers of religion. Religious certainty becomes one of many kinds of certainty which are not 'proved' in the formal sense of the word. The justification of religious belief merges into a much more general justification of the validity of ordinary processes of thought leading to conviction. Finally, it must be said that no attempt to summarize the book can do justice to the richness of the examples adduced of variegated intellectual activity, which, far from being mere illustrations, to a considerable extent constitute the matter and movement of the argument itself (649-650).
What Ker says of the book may also be ascribed to the man. No attempt to summarize Newman can do justice to the richness of his life and thought.


Matthew Boyleston is Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Assistant Professor of English and Writing at Houston Baptist University
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