Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Destructive Influence of Tract 90

I published this reflection some time back which subsequently generated quite a bit of discussion on this subject. Later, I felt that the statements made in this post were too harsh on Mr. Newman and his school of thought. I then removed this post from the public viewing to reflect upon the points made therein. Now, I come back to this piece, slightly editing its contents but standing behind the statements I originally made here with more force now than when I first wrote them some time ago.

The Oxford Movement began in 1833 with the infamous sermon, "National Apostasy," offered by Keble in response to the reduction of Irish archbishoprcis by Parliament. Eight years later, one of the defining documents of the Movement was published. In 1841, the tract, "Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles," or "Tract 90" was published by John Henry Newman. This was by far the most controversial of the Tracts because, within its pages, Newman contended that the theological statements in the Articles, "were not directed against the authorized creed of Roman Catholics, but only against popular errors and exaggerations". Newman's work was not even wholly original, Christopher Davenport had published a treatise, titled, "Paraphrastica Expositio Articulorum Confessionis Anglicanae," in 1634, which sought to do the same thing that Newman had done in 1841. One thing that has become more clear to me after serious research on the Oxford Movement and its effects is that the full weight of disaster caused by the Movement cannot be tagged onto one tract, that being Tract 90. However, I think Tract 90 has served as a symbol of the break that occurred via the latter years of the Oxford Movement, both then and now.

However destructive and controversial this tract was in 1841, it is much more so today. For, in 1841, clergy and laity knew that Newman's ideas were innovative and contrary to the clear teaching of the Church of England and the Holy Scriptures. Nowadays, most Anglican parishioners have never heard of much less actually read the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. The folly of Tract 90 is that it tries to reconcile two conflicting views of the Christian faith and what the catholic faith actually is. Newman employs the word "Catholic" throughout all of his writings, when it is not clear what he means by this word, or worse, that it is a fancy of his imagination. The Reformation was not about abandoning the catholic faith, but restoring the Church to the purity of that faith. "[T]he Reformation debate was not one between self-designated Catholics and Protestants; it was a debate about where the Catholic Church was to be found" (Rowan Williams), as Archbishop Williams describes in this quote, the Reformation was not a debate between "Catholics" and "Protestants" but between two groups of people who equally claimed the title "catholic" for their view of the Church. The Romans defined the "catholic faith" as the faith as it had been given to the Church by Christ and written about in Scriptures, and developed through Tradition. To be a part of the faith, one must be in communion with a valid bishop ordained by bishops in communion with the See of Rome. Protestants meanwhile said that the catholic faith was the faith, "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) this excluded medieval accretions to the faith. "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same" (Article XIX).

Some of the silliest claims I hear today about the nature of Anglicanism stem from Newman's ideas present in Tract 90 (or his other works). Newman has to dance around the text of the Articles to make it mean what he wants it to mean because the Articles were written to deny the doctrines of Trent. However, Newman's goal is to say that the Articles do not really condemn the doctrines of Trent but only popular misconceptions about what the council taught. A casual reading of the Articles, much less a systematic reading, will show how fanciful his initerpretation is. Read more

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