religious history

“Doctrine according to need”: John Henry Newman and the History of Ideas

By guest contributor Burkhard Conrad O.P.L.

Any history of ideas and concepts hinges on the observation that ideas and concepts change over time. This notion seems to be so self-evident that the question of why they change is rarely addressed.

Interestingly enough, it was only during the course of the nineteenth century that the notion of a history of ideas, concepts, and doctrines became widespread. Ideas increasingly came to be seen as contingent or “situational,” as we might phrase it today. Ideas were no longer regarded as quasi-metaphysical entities unaffected by time and change. This hermeneutic shift from metaphysics to history, however, was far from sudden. It came about gradually and is still ongoing.


John Henry Newman in 1844, a year before he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (portrait by George Richmond)

The theologian and controversialist John Henry Newman (1801–1890) must be regarded as one of the intellectual protagonists of this shift from metaphysics to history. An eminent intellectual within the high-church Anglican Oxford Movement, Newman decided mid-life to join the Church of Rome, eventually to become one of the foremost voices of nineteenth century Roman Catholicism in Britain. Newman exerts an influence well into our time with figures such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) paying tribute to his thought. Benedict eventually beatified Newman in 2010.

Rarely quoted in any non-theological study in the history of ideas, Newman’s work is eminently important for understanding both the quest for a historical understanding of ideas and the anxious existential situation of those thinkers who found themselves in the middle of a momentous intellectual revolution. In Newman’s day, it was not uncommon for such intellectual and personal queries to go hand in hand.

In Newman’s case, this phenomenon becomes particularly obvious when we look at his contribution to the history of ideas. In 1845, during his phase of conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman wrote his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I wish to focus on two of Newman’s central claims within the Essay. Firstly, he states that it is justifiable to argue that doctrines and ideas change over time. Confronting a more “scriptural”—i.e. Protestant—understanding, Newman affirms that ecclesiastical doctrines hinge not only on the acknowledgement of divine, biblical revelations, but also on a tradition of teaching that has evolved since the early church. Newman writes in one of his sermons that “Scripture (…) begins a series of development which it does not finish; that is to say, in other words, it is a mistake to look for every separate proposition of the Catholic doctrine in Scripture” (§28). He complements this thought by adding in the Essay that “time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas” (29), which is to say that doctrine is not something given only once, but rather possesses a dynamic quality.

But why does doctrine evolve in the first place? Why is it important to speak of a history of ideas? It is remarkable that Newman answers those questions in much the same way as we would do today. Doctrine, according to Newman, is ever-evolving because there is a need for such transformation. Ideas are simply “keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful” (56).

Newman speaks of “a gradual supply [of doctrine] for a gradual necessity” (149). The logic behind doctrinal change may thus be explained as follows: a given or conventional doctrine comes into contact with or is challenged by alternative expressions of doctrine. These alternative expressions come to be regarded as false, as heresy. Hence, an adequate doctrinal reaction is necessary. This reaction may take the form either of a doctrinal change through the absorption of novel thought, or of a transformation through counter-reaction. Hence, Newman is even able to rejoice in the fact that false teaching may arise. He writes in the aforementioned sermon: “Wonderful, to see how heresy has but thrown that idea into fresh forms, and drawn out from it farther developments, with an exuberance which exceeded all questioning, and a harmony which baffled all criticism”(§6).


Hans Blumenberg © Bildarchiv der Universitätsbibliothek Gießen und des Universitätsarchivs Gießen, Signatur HR A 603 a

The necessity for doctrinal development, hence, is born within situations of discursive tension. These situations—the philosopher Hans Blumenberg once called them “rhetorical situations” (Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, 417)—demand a continuous, diachronical stream of cognitive solutions. The need has to be answered. As Quentin Skinner once noted, “Any statement (…) is inescapably the embodiment of a particular intention, on a particular situation, addressed to the solution of a particular problem, and thus specific to its situation in a way that is can only be naïve to try to transcend” (in Tully, Meaning and Context, 65). The need for development and change, thus, is born in distinctive historical settings with concrete utterances and equally concrete counter-utterances. That is why ideas and concepts change over time: they simply react. “One proposition necessarily leads to another” (Newman, Essay, 52). This change is required in order to come to terms with new challenges, both rhetoric and real.

To be frank, Newman would hardly agree with Skinner on the last part of his statement, namely, that statements are never able to transcend their particular context. For all his historical consciousness, Newman was, like most his contemporaries, fixated on the idea that, despite its dynamic character, the teaching of the Church forms a harmonious, logical and self-explaining system of thought, a higher truth. He writes, “Christianity being one, and all its doctrines are necessarily developments of one, and, if so, are of necessity consistent with each other, or form a whole” (96).

Newman was also convinced—again contrary to Quentin Skinner—that the history of theological ideas had to be looked at with a normative bias. He identified certain “corruptions” in the history of theological ideas (169). It was important to Newman to be able to distinguish between “genuine developments” and these “corruptions.” A large part of his Essay is devoted to setting out apparently objective criteria for such a normative classification.

Who is to decide what is genuine and what is corrupted? Newman’s second claim in the Essay deals with this question. According to Newman, the only true channel of any genuine tradition is found within the Roman Catholic Church, with the pope as the final and supreme arbiter. Newman could not do without such a clear attribution of doctrinal decision-making power. It was necessary “for putting a seal of authority upon those developments;” that is, those which ought to be regarded as genuine (79).

In consequence, Newman mobilized his first claim about the dynamic nature of doctrines with regard to his second claim, the idea of papal infallibility in deciding matters of doctrine. It was clear even to the nineteenth-century theologian that the notion of papal infallibility was not explicitly contemplated by anyone in the early Church. But, according to Newman, the requirement for an “infallible arbitration in religious disputes” became more and more pronounced as centuries of doctrinal disputes passed (89). And Newman says of his own century that “the absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favour of the fact of its supply” (89). The idea of infallibility thus came into existence because, according to Newman, it was needed to settle doctrinal uncertainty within his own time.


Cardinal John Henry Newman, painted in 1889 by Emmeline Deane

Having admitted the pope’s supremacy in matters of doctrine, a consequent existential decision by Newman had to follow. He had no choice but to leave Canterbury for Rome. It is only fair to say that Newman required the idea of a final arbitrator, someone to decide on genuine doctrinal development, in order to fulfill his own need for certainty and a spiritual home. Even a sympathetic interpreter like the historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan had to concede “that here Newman’s existential purpose did get in the way of his historical vision” (Development of Christian Doctrine, 144).

And so Newman’s account of a history of ideas developing according to need was born as much out of an intellectual interest in the history of theological ideas as it was triggered by biographical motives. But which twenty-first-century scholar in the humanities could claim that his or her research interests had nothing to do with personal circumstances?

Burkhard Conrad O.P.L., Ph.D., taught politics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is now an independent scholar working for the archdiocese of Hamburg. Among his research interests are political theology, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Oxford Movement. He is a lay Dominican and writes a blog at

Fathers Strike Back: The Revenge of Zoharic Trinitology

by guest contributor Mark Marion Gondelman

In 1713, a rebellious Kabbalist named Nechemiah Chayun published a book called ‘Oz le-Elohim. The tract immediately incited a scandal: In it, Chayun argued, in good Rabbinic Hebrew and on the basis of established Kabbalistic sources, that the main secret of the Zoharic conception of the Godhead was a trinity. Chayun was working within the conception of the Divinity of the Zohar, which sees God as comprising various emanations or sefirot that interact with the creation in different ways. According to Chayun, the emanations of Atiqa Qadisha, Malqa Qadisha, and Shekhinah animate the other sefirotic entities and comprise “three that are one” (‘Oz le-Elohim, p. 60). The compatibility of this idea with the Orthodox Christian notion of the trinity was not lost on Chayun’s contemporaries. What contemporaries and scholars have not noted, however, is that Chayun’s interpretation of the Zohar was rooted in a teaching by a more well-known kabbalist, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, who has been the focus of many scholarly studies over the last decade. Interestingly, while this teaching functions in Cardozo’s work as part of his polemic against Christianity, it somehow came back around in Chayun’s teaching as a means of making Christian and kabbalistic conceptions of God compatible.

Chayun was a member of the Sabbatian movement, a movement of Jews in the seventeenth-to-eighteenth century that  held the Turkish-Jewish mystic Shabtai Tzvi to be the messiah. Tzvi was a tortured soul who, in 1665, had sought out the mystic Nathan of Gaza to seek a remedy for his inner turmoil. Contrary to Tzvi’s expectations, Nathan claimed that his insight into the root of Tzvi’s soul revealed that Tzvi was the messiah and was destined to travel to the court the Sultan Mehmed IV the Hunter and turn him into his slave by the power of his songs and words. Tzvi amassed a tremendous following and Jews as far as Eastern Europe sold their properties to finance their imminent return to Israel. However, when Tzvi was taken before  Mehmed IV the Hunter in the summer of 1666 and was offered a choice between the death and Islam he chose the latter. Despite Tzvi’s Tzvi’s conversion, a large minority of Jews, led by Nathan of Gaza and others continued to see him as the messiah.

Chayun’s mentor was another renegade Kabbalist who devoted himself to Shabtai Tzvi,  Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Cardozo was born a Marrano Catholic family in Spain and converted to Judaism as an adult once he left the Iberian Peninsula. However, both Cardozo’s critics in his lifetime (including his own brother) and scholars today assert that Cardozo was never able to fully leave behind his Christian theological background.

Unlike the Dönmeh Sabbatians, who converted with Tzvi to Islam, Cardozo never left Judaism. Immediately after Tzvi’s conversion he warned both his friends and enemies that they must stay within the Jewish fold and to cease following Tzvi (though they still considered his teachings authoritative). His subsequent writings continue to use a conceptual framework based on Tzvi’s teachings and often criticize Christianity. I believe that Chayun’s theology is grounded in a previously untranslated and unnoticed passage by Cardozo that shows the latter’s dependency on– and betrays his efforts to grapple with– Christian Trinitology.

In his massive work Raza de-Razin, “Secret of the Secrets,” which I will quote here as it appears in manuscript JTS 2102 (from the Dropsie collection, Ms. Deinard 315), the old lone wolf Cardozo, just several years before his death, continues longstanding feuds with two sworn enemies: Shmuel Primo, the former secretary of Shabtai Tzvi, and his student Haim Angel. He accuses these two of having developed strange doctrines that are incompatible with Raza de-Mehemanuta, Shabtai Tzvi’s theological compendium. He therefore chrages them with heresy. (In fact, Cardozo, composed the work himself — Jewish mysticism scholar Yehuda Liebes demonstrates that Raza de-Mehemanuta is a forgery). Cardozo acknowledges, however that his own theology differs from Tzvi’s on a crucial point: He writes that he believes that the First Cause did not create the God of Israel and the Shehinah together, but that they both follow from another entity. The reason Cardozo gives for this conclusion is the dictum, “from the simple follows the simple.” Therefore, he argues, a twofold essence that comprises the God of Israel together with the Shehinah could not possibly follow from The First Cause:

And before all [other] things, I will write down accepted principles: The first is that from simple follows simple and there is no sage of the sages of the truth who will not agree with that and so you will find in the Pardes [Rimonim] of R. Moshe Cordovero and the Ar”i (blessed be his memory!) and Avraham ben David of Posquieres in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah gave us a [principle] that form the Infinity (Ein Sof) necessarily follows an infinitely simple Intellect that bears no difference to the First Cause (Sibah Rishonah), except this is cause and this is effect [ze ‘ilah we-ze ‘alul].

The principle min ha-pashut yotzeh pashut is not a very commonly applied principle but it is invoked by several other Jewish scholars in their writings, among them Shabtai Sheftel Horowitz, the author of the book called Shefa‘ Tal and Maimonides. Cardozo’s wording shows that he relied on Horowitz’s work and his omission of Maimonides’ example shows that he was probably unaware of the similar dictum in the latter’s Guide to the Perplexed. Indeed, Maimonides uses a different wording to express the idea and voices doubt about this principle. Both Maimonides and Horowitz use this idea to explain how God is connected to the intermediaries of the creation — sefirot in Horowitz’s vision and intellects in Maimonides’. Cardozo, on the other hand, uses this principle to elucidate the problem of internal theogony, i.e. how the twofold bipolar and bigender. God of Israel is created the nature of his inner workings. Cardozo is far from the only Jewish thinker to ruminate on the workings of God but no other conventional Jewish thinkers propose that He is created.

Cardozo then goes farther, arguing that God must emanate from two distinct essences based on another idea, namely that “from two simple things follows a complex thing:”

And there is another principle that from two simple things, (i.e. from the first simple and from the second [thing] that exists from the first) if they produce an existing [thing], it will not be a simple, but  complex (Hebrew: meshutaf) and this way from the Primordial light that is from the second simplex sparkle together two lights and they are Bright Light and The Brightest Light (or tzah we-or metzuhtzah) like geonim and R. Shimon Bar Yohai told: that the Cause of Causes that extends from the simple Cause Above All Causes and it is not a simple intellect, but a complex one. Despite that “from the simple follows simple” and the Cause Above All Causes is simple like Upper Infinity (Ein Sof ha-`Elyon) that is the root of all roots, because it does not exist only from the Cause Above All Causes, but from the unity with the Infinity.

To Cardozo then, the First Cause, the God of Philosophers who has no interest in our world, creates the second cause. The twofold entity of God of Israel/ Shechinah emanates from this second cause.

Cardozo’s analysis here reflects a similar analysis in Augustine’s De Civitas Dei, which is the only text I’ve found that deals with this problem. In describing the creation of the Trinity, Augustine writes:

“Created,” I say, — that is, made not begotten. For that which is begotten of the simple Good is simple as itself and the same as itself. These two we call the Father and the Son; and both together with the Holy Spirit are one God; and to this Sprit the epithet Holy is in Scripture as it were, appropriated.

Augustine and Cardozo’s theologies in these two texts are quite different: Cardozo would not accept the idea that God is actually the simple Good itself (in other words that the God of Philosophers is trifold). Indeed, as historian David Halperin notes in his biography of Cardozo, Cardozo charged in his works that Christianity misunderstood the true trinity that exists in Judaism. There is, however, an important point of proximity in these two texts in that both treat the problem of the emergence of God’s personae and both employ the same philosophical principle to explain technical aspects of this emergence.

Cardozo’s opposition to Christianity was part of his own painful process of overcoming the trauma of his Marranism and his teachings were an attempt to create a Jewish theology. Chayun’s own theological research makes them visible. Later, Chayun’s ideas evolved into something which was much more grim: they were used by Yakov Frank during the famous dispute of 1759 in Kamieniec where he and his adherents demonstrated that Zohar’s true Judaism, as opposed to “false Talmudic” is about Trinity, and therefore, Jews must embrace Christianity.

Mark Gondelman was born in Riga and has lived in Moscow and Jerusalem. He is now based in New York where he is a doctoral fellow at NYU in Hebraic and Judaic Studies focusing on early modern Jewish mysticism. Mark is currently working to understand Abraham Miguel Cardozo’s legacy within the broader context of early modern thought, philosophy and Jewish and Christian mystical traditions.