The Certitude of Faith According to Cardinal Newman

The Certitude of Faith According to Cardinal Newman December 6, 2018

One “Caminus” — who frequents a prominent radical Catholic reactionary forum, regards it as his mission in life (or so it would lately seem, anyway) to disparage my arguments at every turn. He tried in vain to bash my apologetic + ecumenical viewpoint in my book about Martin Luther (without even having read the book, and clearly without understanding its premises, which are openly laid out in the Introduction, posted online), only to be (in addition to my refutations of his silly charges) rather decisively contradicted on his main premise and point by two fellow “traditionalists” on his home turf.

Shortly before that, he made out that I was clueless regarding the nature of Cardinal Newman’s version of development of doctrine. Development is my favorite topic in theology; the biggest reason for my conversion, and something I have written a ton of things about, including a book. Cardinal Newman is my “intellectual hero.” I maintain an extensive web page devoted to development. I’m not trying to “brag” (which I’ll probably be boorishly accused of, too); I’m simply stating the fact that I know quite a bit about this topic. The “critique” was too ridiculous to even waste time replying to.

The general drift of his charges is that I am an ignoramus, unequipped to even present Catholic teaching, let alone defend it. And so here we go again, in a post that critiques one statement I made (his words in blue):

It took me all of three seconds in reading his newly posted dialogue with a “traditional Anglican” to discover a serious error. Dave says in response to a question on certainty and infallibility:

It depends on how one defines “certainty.” I would say, briefly, that Catholics and any Christian who accepts apostolic succession, can have the certainty or certitude of faith, which is not absolute (being faith, after all), but is highly dependable and sufficient for a person to know the truth of the matter beyond a reasonable doubt.

On the contrary, the certitude of faith is of the highest order because it rests upon the authority of God revealing. It is because the Church possesses the authority of God to define matters of faith and morals that it does not vitiate this certitude via the exercise of merely human authority. The certitude of faith is antecedent to any infallible act of the magisterium.

I really wish if laymen were going to engage in public disputes with heretics, they would first check their sources. It is embarrassing statements like these which only serve to muddy the waters and further increase the hostility of intelligent opponents. 

I see. Of course, this was a statement written in the midst of three simultaneous debates taking place in recent days (in addition to my work as moderator at the Coming Home Network and feverish work trying to complete a new book), that was not meant to achieve impeccable exactitude. I was replying to an inquirer about infallibility, not trying to present a philosophically precise definition of certitude or the nature of faith, etc.

Nevertheless, what I wrote is not inaccurate at all if one understands the philosophical / religious background from which it derives. And, sure enough, that leads one back to Cardinal Newman, since that great teacher’s perspective on the nature of faith and religious assent is indeed, my basis for arguing as I do.

There is a basic distinction to be made between reason and faith. They’re two different things. Philosophy is different from religious faith. Faith goes beyond reason. Faith cannot prove things in the same sense that philosophical or mathematical or scientific systems often claim to prove or demonstrate propositions. That is not to denigrate faith at all. I believe certitude is achievable in that realm as well. All I was saying is that it is different from reason alone.

When I said it was not “absolute,” I was referring to the sense in which philosophy claims to be “absolute.” Faith goes beyond that (without contradicting it or being unreasonable). It is a spiritual thing, and ultimately a mystery. The phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” was obviously an allusion to “legal-type” proof. I was speaking in terms of the common man, or the secular man. This is the usual mode of the apologist, since we are trying to speak to the present culture in terms it can understand (1 Cor 9:19-23).

The background to my own developed thought on this matter is extremely complex and not at all given to brief summary (nor are my own epistemological opinions, drawn from many great Catholic theologians and philosophers and apologists). Venerable Cardinal Newman’s masterpiece An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is perhaps the “heaviest” and most profound philosophical book I’ve ever read. Rather than delving into the book itself (readers may follow the link and do so themselves if they wish), I’ll quote the Introduction to the Doubleday Image paperback edition by noted Thomist Etienne Gilson:

The third and last mistake to avoid in interpreting Newman’s doctrine is to see it as a rational probabilism redeemed by a belated appeal to religious faith . . . this Essay . . . is precisely and exclusively about our assent to that kind of truth which, because it is accepted on the strength of the word of God alone, cannot possibly be received otherwise than by religious faith. Here again, let us not attribute to Newman a fideism entirely foreign to his authentic thought. He knows very well that we cannot assent to a proposition unless we have some intelligent apprehension of its meaning; only, because the Grammar of Assent is about religious dogma, the propositions which it discusses are not susceptible of proof properly so called. Newman himself makes this clear at the very beginning of his book: ‘In this Essay I treat of propositions only in their bearing upon concrete matter, and I am mainly concerned with Assent; with Inference, in its relation to Assent, and only such inference as is not demonstration: with Doubt hardly at all” (p. 28). The importance of the effort pursued by reason, even in matters whose very nature excludes demonstration, could not be overlooked by Newman. It was at the very core of his subject. (p. 15)

Gilson goes on to refer to “matters whose very nature excludes demonstration.” On the previous page, he references St. Thomas Aquinas:

According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 8), theology is “argumentative.” Starting from its own principles, which are the articles of faith, theology proceeds from them to prove something else, but it does not argue in proof of its principles. This assent of the mind to the absolute truths of what it believes lies at the very center of Newman’s doctrine.

Further down the page, he decries:

. . . objections directed against the doctrine of Newman by those who reproach him with a leaning to fideism or with an ingrained mistrust in the validity of theological demonstrations.

Here is the entirety of Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 8:

Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?

Objection 1: It seems this doctrine is not a matter of argument. For Ambrose says (De Fide 1): “Put arguments aside where faith is sought.” But in this doctrine, faith especially is sought: “But these things are written that you may believe” (Jn. 20:31). Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

Objection 2: Further, if it is a matter of argument, the argument is either from authority or from reason. If it is from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof. But if it is from reason, this is unbefitting its end, because, according to Gregory (Hom. 26), “faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience.” Therefore sacred doctrine is not a matter of argument.

On the contrary, The Scripture says that a bishop should “embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9).

I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

Reply to Objection 1: Although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths.

Reply to Objection 2: This doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: “As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”

Historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston, S. J. best describes the exact relationship of Newman’s thought to philosophy per se:

Newman’s approach to the philosophical topics which he discussed was that of a Christian apologist. That is to say, he wrote from the point of view of a Christian believer who asks himself to what extent, and in what way, his faith can be shown to be reasonable. Newman made no pretence of temporarily discarding his faith, as it were, in order to give the impression of starting all over again from scratch . . . it was a question of faith seeking understanding of itself rather than of an unbelieving mind wondering whether there was any rational justification for making an act of faith. . . his attempt to exhibit the insufficiency of contemporary rationalism and to convey a sense of the Christian vision of human existence led him to delineate lines of thought which, while certainly not intended to present the content of Christian belief as a set of conclusions logically deduced from self-evident principles, were meant to show to those who had eyes to see that religious faith was not the expression of an irrational attitude or a purely arbitrary assumption.

. . . Newman . . . is more concerned with showing the reasonableness of faith as it actually exists in the great mass of believers, most of whom know nothing of abstract philosophical arguments . . . he tries to outline a phenomenological analysis . . .

. . . it is obvious that the belief in God with which he is primarily concerned as a Christian apologist is a real assent to God as a present reality, and an assent which influences life or conduct, not simply a notional assent to a proposition about the idea of God . . . from this it follows that Newman is not, and cannot be, primarily interested in a formal demonstrative inference to God’s existence.A History of Philosophy: Volume 8: Modern Philosophy: Bentham to Russell, Part II, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1967; 270-271, 279; my emphases in green)

He specifically details Newman’s opposition to rationalism:

He argues . . . that the rationalist conception of reasoning is far too narrow and does not square with the way in which people actually, and legitimately, think and reason in concrete issues. It must be remembered that his contention is that faith is reasonable, not that its content is logically deducible according to the model of mathematical demonstration. (Ibid., 276)

James M. Cameron weighs in on Cardinal Newman’s Christian philosophical pedigree as well:

We are inclined simply to say that he is in the tradition of Augustine and Anselm. Credo ut intelligam is the pervading maxim of his thought and to love the truth, and thus to believe or to move towards belief, is to be filled with the Divine love. Again, we may see in him an anticipation of the Kierkegaardian doctrine of the leap of faith, a leap which presupposes a cognitive gap, as it were, between what we know and what we are called upon to believe. (“John Henry Newman: Apostle of Common Sense?,” Faith and Reason, Winter 1989; my emphases)

Biographer Ian Ker highlights Newman’s goal in his Grammar of Assent:

Newman insists that his purpose is not metaphysical, like that of the idealists who defend the certainty of knowledge against sceptical empiricists, but is ‘of a practical character, such as that of Butler in his Analogy‘, namely, to ascertain the nature of inference and assent.

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. (Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 646, 649; my emphases)

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 depend on informal proofs, whose reasoning is more or less implicit. As we view the objects of sense, so we grasp the proof of a concrete truth as a whole ‘by a sort of instinctive perception of the legitimate conclusion in and through the premisses.’ Such implicit reasoning is too personal for logic. (Ibid., 645)

So it is obvious that it was not my statement, rightly understood, that was “embarrassing”; if anything, it was Caminus’ ignorance about these issues and the last 150 years of development of Catholic epistemology that might be construed (in light of the above) as “embarrassing.”

But I actually wouldn’t make that charge, myself (the previous sentence being merely a rhetorical “turning of the tables”), because I realize that not everyone has the time I have been blessed with, in pursuing my full-time apologetics apostolate and the writings and thought of Cardinal Newman and many others (currently, for example, I am finishing up reading about 42 of G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction books, in preparation for my latest book: about ten of them for the second time through).

Caminus simply needs to get up to speed on some basic apologetic issues. I trust in time that he can and will do so (i.e., presuming that he is concerned with proclaiming and defending the faith to those who don’t already hold it, rather than simply bashing fellow Catholics and Holy Mother Church).

In the meantime, I’ll get back to far more serious issues and let Caminus brush up on (or perhaps commence[?]) his reading of Cardinal Newman (I read Grammar of Assent 16 years ago and have applied its profoundly insightful principles to philosophical apologetics ever since) and St. Thomas Aquinas (in the past I had a web page devoted to him, too — as well as to St. Augustine –, but had to cut down a bit on the number of pages I kept up).

In closing, I’d like to cite Pope St. Pius X (1908), who wrote of Blessed Cardinal Newman:

Incredible though it may appear, although it is not always realised, there are to be found those who are so puffed up with pride that it is enough to overwhelm the mind, and who are convinced that they are Catholics and pass themselves off as such, while in matters concerning the inner discipline of religion they prefer the authority of their own private teaching to the pre-eminent authority of the Magisterium of the Apostolic See. . . .

Truly, there is something about such a large quantity of work and his long hours of labour lasting far into the night that seems foreign to the usual way of theologians: nothing can be found to bring any suspicion about his faith. . . .

Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them; but instead let them understand his pure and whole principles, his lessons and inspiration which they contain. They will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.


(originally 9-30-08)

Photo credit: portrait of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman by Emmeline Deane (1889) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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