Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Newman: Calvinism Becomes Unitarian

Newman asserts several times in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that Calvinism leads to Unitarianism. E.g., "Calvinism has changed into Unitarianism: yet this need not be called a corruption, even if it be not, strictly speaking, a development; for Harding, in controversy with Jewell, surmised the coming change three centuries since, and it has occurred not in one country, but in many" (p.175).

And later, "Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine. Heretics are true to their principles, but change to and fro, backwards and forwards, in opinion; for very opposite doctrines may be exemplifications of the same principle. Thus the Antiochenes and other heretics sometimes were Arians, sometimes Sabellians, sometimes Nestorians, sometimes Monophysites, as if at random, from fidelity to their common principle, that there is no mystery in theology. Thus Calvinists become Unitarians from the principle of private judgment. The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting" (181).

These claims were not supported by a citation, and Newman's contemporary knowledge is long lost to me. So I put the following question to the historically adept Tertium Quid (via e-mail), "Cardinal Newman proclaims on several occasions in his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" that Calvinism has led to Unitarianism. Do you know what he's talking about?"

For his fascinating and beautifully written reply, see here. This must have taken some time, so I am grateful (and at a lawyer's billing rate, I probably owe T.Q. a cold one or two...).


Bob said...

The link to Tertium Quid would be here

Thos said...

Ha! Thanks Bob, I fixed the link, and I apologize for sending you far afield. I'm not sure how that happened.

Peace in Christ,

Kevin said...

Hmm...an interesting opinion. I'll have to read this more in detail but my initial thoughts are that this sort of argument could be used against any communion.

And, I freely admit that some sectors of Calvinist churches have tended in this direction - Mercersburg is an especially recent example that was very close to Newman's day.

But when we remember that the people of Israel constantly found themselves in a cycle of repentance, forgiveness, faithfulness, forgetfulness, and finally apostasy it should be no surprise that Christian communions face similar challenges.

Kevin D. Johnson

Oso Famoso said...

Thos...in short I would say that Calvinism emphasizes the transcendence of God - His "otherness". It focuses on "eternal decrees".

As a result, the historical and physical elements become relativised and lose importance. This is why the American Puritan/Calvinist movement quickly became Unitarian. If it's all about God's eternal decrees, why would you need the incarnation, sacraments, etc. It's just about "God". Thus Unitarianism.

Go to any of the old stalwart Calvinist congregation in the northeast and you'll see that they are all Unitarian Universalist....

If you don't believe me take a look at the Presbyterian Church USA...they weren't always so liberal....

I haven't yet read TQ's assessement but will when I get a moment.

Thos said...


Thank you for sharing, and my initial take was also that it was an approach that could be leveled in many directions. It was, however, a good explanation of what Newman was getting at. It was such a bold claim he (Newman) made that it took me aback. It's nice to get a perspective at least of where he might have been coming from.

Oso Famoso wound up with a very similar theory on his own. It is interesting to study the differences between Reformed Presbyterian bodies and Reformed Congregational bodies (esp. the Puritan New England sorts). But on its face, this could should be a criticism of Congregational polity more than support for the conclusion that Calvinism leads to Unitarianism as a law.

But I will think more on it. I note that my denomination (PCA) has strong congregational tendencies (e.g., in how the congregation calls a new pastor, not the session), and I think that's ultimately improvident.

Kevin, you also raise the repetition-of-the-Old-Covenant-People perspective. I wrestle with this: certainly their behavior manifested an inherent part of fallen man's nature. Where they became apostate and idolatrous, so can we. But then Christ refers to the new wineskin that is His New Covenant. Is there a better promise to the Church than was given to the firstborn race? That's all an aside, I suppose.

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

I became a Catholic because the Church is what comes back, but schismatic movements gradually move out of orthodoxy into heresy.

I became a Catholic because I wanted any children and grandchildren I might have to have something to come back to other than a denomination younger than granddad.

I became a Catholic when I realized that whenever the Church appears most corrupt and lost (beginning with Judas' betrayal), grace through Christ himself and his saints will soon appear to seize victory from total defeat. The Church should have been defeated by the Jews in Jerusalem, the might Roman Emperors, the fall of Rome, the marauding of the Vikings, the scandal of the Great Schism, the despair of the Bubonic Plague, and the corruption of the Renaissance, not to speak of anything since 1517. The Church lives because God won't let the all the keepers of the Real Presence die.


Oso Famoso said...


I definately think that it has to do with theology and not church government.

And as you said before most Presbyterian Churches are more congregational than truly "Presbyterian."

Thos said...


I'll have to think more about it; it's very nebulous to me. I see that an excessive emphasis on the monergistic soveriegnty of God could lead to such mistakes, but only where it is unchecked by a reliance on the early church councils, and their definitions on Trinity. Not to mention Scripture.

I was referring to the PCA as not Presbyterian, not Presbyterians in general as not Presbyterian. I think that largely has to do with the PCA's southern roots (and perhaps some subtle Baptist influences). The Dutch Calvinist denomination "Christian Reformed Church" is much more Presbyterian in polity (and Calvinistic) than is the PCA.

Peace in Christ,