Saturday, August 2, 2014


Peter Leithart writes about "Tradition and the Individual Theologian" on the First Things blog:

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy argued that traditions always grow from seeds sown by singular individuals. Before there was a Franciscan order, there was the man Francis. Once there was only Luther; now the world is peopled with Lutherans. What is a tradition if not the persuasive claims of an individual, repeated?

Appeals to tradition become deeply unhistorical when they treat doctrinal formulations, creeds, and confessions as if they were permanent features of the landscape, as natural as falling apples and the rising sun. To be deeply historical is to be open to the possibility of another Francis, another Luther, another homoousion. It is to be open to the idiosyncratic individual scholar. Newman was mistaken: To be deep in history is to be open to the possibility of Protestantism.

It's rather unusual to see Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy cited in an article, but Leithart has written about him for First Things before.

I don't really see how being "deeply historical is to be open to the possibility of another Francis" equates with being "open to the possibility of Protestantism." And I don't accept Leithart's argument about time and revelation, because all Truth must be eternal, it is one and unchanging--it is our discovery of Truth that is time-bound and subject to change and time.

Newman's brief remark has to be placed in greater context--he was writing about the fact of how Protestants in his era rejected historical Christianity:

Meanwhile, before setting about this work, I will address one remark to Chillingworth and his friends:—Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. It is shown by the long neglect of ecclesiastical history in England, which prevails even in the English Church. Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nic├Ža and Trent, except as affording one or two passages to illustrate its wild interpretations of certain prophesies of St. Paul and St. John. It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon. To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

Note that he does not say that "To be deep in history is to become a Catholic", since he cites the example of Edward Gibbon. Newman goes on:

And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether the latter be regarded in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear its Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period. I have elsewhere observed on this circumstance: "So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that 'when they rose in the morning' her true seed 'were all dead corpses'—Nay dead and buried—and without grave-stone. 'The waters went over them; there was not one of them left; they sunk like lead in the mighty waters.' Strange antitype, indeed, to the early fortunes of Israel!—then the enemy was drowned, and 'Israel saw them dead upon the sea-shore.' But now, it would seem, water proceeded as a flood 'out of the serpent's mouth, and covered all the witnesses, so that not even their dead bodies lay in the streets of the great city.' Let him take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial {9} of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it. No; he must allow that the alleged deluge has done its work; yes, and has in turn disappeared itself; it has been swallowed up by the earth, mercilessly as itself was merciless." 

That Protestantism, then, is not the Christianity of history, it is easy to determine, but to retort is a poor reply in controversy to a question of fact, and whatever be the violence or the exaggeration of writers like Chillingworth, if they have raised a real difficulty, it may claim a real answer, and we must determine whether on the one hand Christianity is still to represent to us a definite teaching from above, or whether on the other its utterances have been from time to time so strangely at variance, that we are necessarily thrown back on our own judgment individually to determine, what the revelation of God is, or rather if in fact there is, or has been, any revelation at all.

This is just another example of how careful you have to be when quoting Blessed John Henry Newman.


  1. Half of what Peter Leithart writes these days seems to be an uncomfortable and slightly awkward attempt to justify his remaining a Protestant.

  2. I really did not understand his definition of Protestant! He seemed to equate any theological development, orthodox or not, as Protestantism.