“To witness was not to unveil the self, but to stand in as the spokesman for revealed truth, exhibiting in one’s own rhetorical demeanor the self-sufficiency of the Gospels as action, just as a set liturgy was sufficient for communal prayer” (Chapter 3).


n seeking the best way to characterize this work of exemplary scholarship the word that comes to mind is “fair-minded.” Although a wonderfully effective advocate for Newman, Poston readily admits his flaws, pointing out, for example, that “despite his rhetorical powers, Newman was often something of a naif when the issues, however technical, ultimately resonated across denominational boundaries” with the result that he “failed in 1836, as he was to fail with Tract 90 in 1841, to realize that adverse reaction was predictable in the overheated theological atmosphere of the day” (92). Similarly, he was disingenous about important matters, explicitly stating that he had “‘given up his place in the [Tractarian] movement’ in 1839” (114) when in fact he remained “a spiritual counselor” (115) to some of his followers. Far more important, however, are the many ways in which Poston explains the modes of thought that reveal how Newman “could tell both friends and foes that he had not been fully conscious of the processes going on in his mind; logic followed where sympathy led him, but that took time. Only belatedly does an individual recognize whither his mind and prospects have been tending” (133). Poston convincingly explains complex, often controversial, matters with such clarity that I have tried, but failed, from preventing this review to become a mosaic of his words.

After an introduction that opens with the statement that “John Henry Newman was a divided and at times divisive personality” (1), The titles of his chapters give a good indication of how he will explain the role of Newman's ideas of person and personality: “Self and Others,” the first chapter, introduces “Doctrine and the Difficulty of Knowing,” comparing Newman to Carlyle and Pater, after which a second chapter, “The Journey from Evangelicalism” proceeds with sections on the movement “from the Atonement to the Incarnation” and “Incarnational Preaching.” “Polarities,” chapter three, takes us through the early days of the Tractarian movement, and chapter four, “Notes of the Church,” examines The Prophetical Office of the Church (1837) and Lectures on Justification, ending with Newman’s “attempts to explain the provisionality of the English church by linking it to the Grand Hebraic narratives of estrangement and redemption” (11). “Anglican Deathbeds,” chapter 5, relates the events and relationships that immediately preceded Newman’s movement to Rome, and the following one, “Deliverance from the Nightmare,” covers the reactions of his Anglican friends and associates, his novel Loss and Gain, and his brother’s two novels, The Soul, Her Sorrows, and Her Aspirations (1849) and Phases of Faith (1850). “Building Community,” chapter 7, explains Newman’s attempts to define, locate, and live in a religious community in the years before he published the Apologia. This chapter also discusses The Idea of a University, and the next, “Reconstituting the Self,” provides a fine analysis of the Apologia, which includes an examination of Newman’s conception of “development.” “Oppositions and Resolutions,” which includes a discussion of the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), also examines Newman’s complex relation to Cardinal Manning and the Roman hierarchy. Poston’s “Afterword” surveys his reputation among contemporaries and later biographers, closing with the author's own final judgment:

Newman’s confidence came after many years of personal struggle with two different communions. But come it did. No less certain of his honest intentions than his illusions, we must take him for what he was: a formidable spiritual presence, a fallible human being. [246]

The most interesting and indeed central point for anyone attempting to understand this most powerful polemicist’s life and career is Newman’s fundamental skepticism about the role of the human intellect in matters of religion. As Poston points out, “Newman seems to see the formulation of a creed as a Fall from the original innocence of the Church, which was compelled to resort to definitions and distinctions as a hedge against heterodoxy. Creeds, like Carlyle's ‘clothes’ in Sartor Resartus, would appear to be a postlapsarian necessity” (55). For this reason he “stresses the superiority of personal communication over books for religious instruction, as he was to do more broadly in his writing on liberal education. Personality is better experienced by its physical presence than on the page” (55). But even such “personal communication” has has severe limits in Newman’s eyes. Take for instance his idea of how a clergyman should act when visiting the ill and dying.

Imagine a situation, Newman said, in which a clergyman of the "modern school" visits a dying parishioner. He probes her conscience with leading questions about the state of her mind, rather than drawing on the service for the Visitation of the Sick, which begins with the articles of the Creed and continues with an exhortation to repentance, forgiveness, and the making of amends. In Newman's view, recourse to ritual and set words of prayer provided privacy more charitable than a personal appeal to arouse the sufferer to weigh her own state. The well-known words of the Book of Common Prayer, he thought, carried their own sufficient earnestess and reflected a shared, communal tradition in which others have preceded us. Recourse to such aids is far more consoling, and more Christian, than demands that the dying person fall back on her own resources for self-examination and preparation for death (Letters and Diaries 6:131—32). [79]

This conception of a clergyman's role, so fundamentally different from that of the evangelicals, also produces his distrust of preaching precisely because, as Jonathan Swift pointed out more than a century earlier in The Tale of a Tub, emotional preaching, personal testimony, and the public statement of personal matters inevitably tend towards egotism that eclipses the mainstays of religious faith. “Preaching,” as Poston points out, “carried with it the temptation to curry favor and enhance one’s reputation” . . . . Newman regarded preaching as subordinate to catechesis, prayer, pastoral care, and the administration of the Sacraments” (82, 84). "Newman felt that the function of the sermon was to witness to hearers rather than to convert them” (80). “His audience, Newman makes clear, is not those who need to be convinced, but the committed who need to understad their ground for trusting their own beliefs” (233).

Having abandoned his early evangelicalism with its central emphasis upon conversion, Newman seems so to shy away from encouraging conversion to the extent that he often seems interested only in those who already share his belief. This fundamental — one may say radical — conservatism, appears in his notion of conversion, which Poston describes as “more Augustinean that Pauline; but rather than turning to a new faith, it describes a new comprehensiveness bringing to light what has been there all along. The result is a homecoming” (202; my emphasis). Two observations come to mind, the first of which is that Newman's notion of conversion thus appears not only Augustinean but also, to go further back, to match Aristotelean conceptions of character that hold that experience and decision do not so much create a new self but merely realize the potential self that had always been there. Second, although Poston quite properly cites Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine with its central metaphor of life as a voyage back to God as an influence upon Newman here in this matter of conversion, we might also note that, like Augustine in the Confessions, he sees his life in terms of The Aeneid’s structure or topos of the voyage to a safe harbor.

Newman’s awareness of the limits of human reason combines with his intense dislike of expressing emotion, which he believes easily becomes prideful self-display that in turn inevitably undercuts the already limited rationality available to human beings. In fact, many of Newman's attitudes towards evangelical preaching and religious enthusiasm seem to descend in a straight line from Swift, and although Newman is too much of a gentleman, prude, or both to associate (as Swift does) evangelical public expressions of religious emotion with sexuality or flatulence he certainly sees them with great suspicion as evidence of egotism and pride. According to Poston,

this "modern system" of self-contemplation, Newman believes, disparages both the Gospel and the Creeds because of its emphasis on "a certain state of heart" as its main object. Though its practitioners may argue that “the existence of right religious affections” is a security for adherence to sound doctrine, the conviction of one's righteousness before God will lead to a disparagement of orthodox standards, an ignoring of the "strict and technical niceties of doctrine" that cannot be said to induce any change in the heart and that therefore become unnecessary, or at best secondary, to faith. The result is an emphasis on the "work of Christ" rather than on His person, and the Incarnation loses its centrality in the Gospel while the doctrines of Justification and the Atonement assume its place. . . . In short, to argue that "inspiration speaks merely of divine operations, not of Persons" is to relocate the center of truth to the mind of the individual believer. The result is an obliteration of "the great Objects brought to light in the Gospel... and thus to frustrate the design of Christ's Incarnation, . . ." (336). In Newman's thinking, such a system risks a highly selective approach to scripture itself. It has not been sufficiently noted that one of the complaints Newman lodged against the Evangelicals was that they concentrated on the Pauline epistles at the expense of the Gospels. [88]

The degree to which Newman closely associated Tractarian reserve with notions of behavior associated with a particular social and economic class appears in one of his remarks that at first encounter might seem to demand ridicule: “I should say that the Apostles were gentlemen — not that they could make a good bow, wore kid gloves, or spoke Attic Greek, but their minds and their hearts were refined. I have always maintained that St. Paul in his Epistles was the first of gentlemen” (172). Both readers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were not particularly sympathetic to Newman or downright suspicious of him might take such a statement to be an absurd intrusion of class interests into something more important, more central, more spiritual. But if one does so one can not ignore his deep suspicion of human attempts to speak the ineffable and to explain the inexplicable.

In her recent study of Protestant theology and the Bildungsroman, Kelsey L. Bennett places great importance upon the debate about whether faith or deeds lead to salvation. Newman, who dates his religious life to his Evangelical conversion, turns away from this Protestant debate when he accepts that the focus of Christian belief should be the Incarnation rather than Christ's Atonement, for this movement from atonement to incarnation undercuts all worries about faith vs deeds. As Poston explains,

As Newman’s early Calvinism receded, the Atonement gave way to the Incarnation as the central doctrine in his theology. Intrinsic to this development, as Placid Murray has put it, were Newman’s "gradual acceptance of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration as a substitute for his earlier evangelical belief in conversion; the eventual supremacy of the mystery of the Eucharist in his own spiritual life, [and] his growing reserve about preaching on the Atonement" (Sermons, 1824-1843 I.xv). In High Church theology, the pouring of water at baptism, the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination, the reception of bread and wine in the Eucharist were all outward and visible signs of the transmission of grace, and thus an analogue to the Incarnation, for in their very materiality they confirmed the translation of sensory phenomena into vessels for the sacred. [49]

Everything here derives from a radical scepticism that comes to rest in a belief that an organization no matter how corrupt is better than individual decision: “A book theology cannot compete, in Newman's mind, with a living system, however corrupted” (96). For this reader the greatest importance of The Antagonist Principle: John Henry Newman and the Paradox of Personality lies in its convincing, sympathetic, yet clear-eyed explanation of the fundamentally coherent development of Newman's thought. At the same time, Poston, who wears his wide knowledge with grace and clarity, also makes us see often unexpected similarities and other connections between Newman, Carlyle, Tennyson, and Pater.

Selections from the book under review and other related material


Bennett, Kelsey L. Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. [review by George P. Landow].

Poston, Lawrence. The Antagonist Principle: John Henry Newman and the Paradox of Personality. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Last modified 12 December 2014