"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Donald Graham on Newman's Pneumatology

Earlier I drew attention to a new book by the Canadian scholar Donald Graham: From Eastertide to Ecclesia (Marquette Studies in Theology), a book that looks at the theology, and especially patristic (particularly Alexandrian--i.e., Athanasian) influences on the greatest English theologian of the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman. Another recent work looking at similar influences on Newman was noted here. I asked the author for an interview, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

Michele and I have been married for 26 years, and we have six children between the ages of 10 and 20.  We make our home in Peterborough, ON.  In terms of my educational background, I hold undergraduate degrees in history (Trent, Peterborough ON) and education (Queen’s, Kingston ON), masters degrees in ministry and theology (MA, Steubenville, OH; MA USMC, Toronto ON; STL Toronto ON) and a PhD in Catholic Studies (Maryvale Institute and the Open University, Birmingham UK).   I have taught at the elementary, secondary and tertiary levels.  Currently, I wear several hats:  I am an adjunct professor of systematic theology at the Institute of Theology of St. Augustine’s Seminary, which is a member of the Toronto School of Theology affiliated with the University of Toronto; I am a faculty member of Sacred Heart, an emerging Catholic College in Peterborough ON; and,  I am also an academic advisor for postgraduate studies at Maryvale Institute and Liverpool-Hope University in the UK.

AD: What led you to write this book?

The short answer is that this book is a reworking of my dissertation. The longer answer is that, for years, I have been, and continue to be, fascinated by the intersection of Christology, pneumatology and ecclesiology.  Though I grew up in a solid Catholic family, and grew to love my faith under the tutelage, and through the example, of my loving Mom and Dad, my catechesis in local Catholic schools was wholly inadequate to questions which arose in my mind and heart about how Christ and the Church were properly ‘related’ and ‘distinguished’.  At some level, my young mind knew, even then, that ecclesiology sits on faulty foundations if it is not fundamentally the outgrowth of Trinitarian theology.  Also, as a young man, the person and power of the Holy Spirit came to the fore in my prayer life and, experientially, I knew the truth of the ‘two hands of the Father’ long before I became a theologian.  A 1983 encounter with  Bl. John Henry Newman during a British history course began a lifelong affair with his thought and theology, which became the place where some answers to my questions about the relationship between Church, Christology and Holy Spirit congealed.

AD: Your introduction begins by quoting Alexander Schmemann and Nikos Nissiotis at Vatican II where they told Yves Congar that any treatment of ecclesiology needed only two chapters: pneumatology, and theological anthropology. Why do you think they said that, and what do you think Newman would have said in response?

It is dangerous to speculate about why another has said something.  I am unsure if these significant Orthodox theologians literally meant ‘just two chapters’.  However, since you have asked me to speculate, I will oblige.  By this remark, I think they intended to put into relief other ecclesiological concerns being raised at the Council, like the pilgrim nature of the Church, the role of the laity, the ecclesial motherhood of the Blessed Virgin, and the meaning of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff in relation to episcopal collegiality.  Over and against such matters, I think that they wished to emphasize the fundamental, enduring, indispensable ecclesial  reality which is effected by the pentecostal dynamism of the person of the Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in his sacred body across time and space:  at once uniting, restoring and elevating men, women and children by divinizing them.  Without this penetrating sense of a pneumatic Church other aspects of ecclesiology experience limitation, distortion, misalignment and alike. This was the message I think Schmemann and Nissiotis were signaling by their remarks.

AD: In your introduction you quote the late C.S. Dessain that Newman was deeply influenced by the Greek Fathers. Tell us about that influence, and which Fathers in particular.
Newman was most influenced by St. Athanasisus and St. Cyril of the Alexandrian tradition. They especially mentored him on understanding how divinity and humanity were reconciled in the person of the eternal Word, on trinitarian personhood, on divine transcendence, divine sympathy and divine philanthropy, the value of reserve and antinomy in speaking of God, and the analogy of faith.  Additionally, and from the same tradition, Newman learned how to ponder the Pauline theme of the role of the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer.  

The title of the 1962 (two-part) article by Charles Stephen Dessain indicates the penetrating influence of these Fathers upon Newman’s thought:  “Cardinal Newman and the Doctrine of Uncreated Grace.”  In this article, and in his posthumously published Newman's Spiritual Themes, Dessain brought out in an original manner how Newman (in contradistinction to his evangelical contemporaries who overemphasized the doctrine of the atonement) understood the Holy Spirit to apply the merits of Christ’s entire life to the believer, and mystically to reiterate his sacred life in us, and to do so, not in some forensic manner, but by indwelling.  In explicating this sacred theme, Dessain drew widely upon Newman’s corpus, but favoured his Parochial and Plain Sermons and his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification.   

AD: In your research, have you come across much evidence that Newman was also influenced by Fathers further East--i.e., the Syriac tradition?

No.  What comes to mind in this regard are Newman’s essay on “The Theology of St. Ignatius,” of Antioch in Essays Historical and Critical II, his opening consideration of “The Church of Antioch,” in  The Arians of the Fourth Century and his longish essay on “The Trials of Theodoret” in his Historical Sketches ii.  However, Newman never, to my knowledge appealed to someone like St. Eprahaem, the ‘Lyre of the Holy Spirit’, even in his most pneumatologically intense passages.  I do not think his knowledge of this strain of the patristic tradition ever rivaled his mastery, love and feel for, the Alexandrian tradition. 

AD:  Your third chapter spends some time discussing Newman's understanding of Arianism. How well has that treatment of Arius stood up, do you think, in the wake of scholarship on the Nicene period--from people like John Behr, Khaled Anatolios, and others? 

In response, let me re-orientate the question slightly to focus upon Khaled Anatolios and his latest work, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine
The opening line of his preface states, “The composition of this book has been animated by a double conviction:  that the development of trinitarian doctrine is key to its meaning, and that the contents of this meaning constitute the entirety of Christian faith" (xv). This is a line which I believe Newman would have affirmed unhesitatingly.  More specifically, when Anatolios speaks of Athanasius:   (i) anticipating Basil’s argument in On the Holy Spirit that the baptismal formula is the primary touchstone for trinitarian reflection (132); or, (ii) noting that the pro nobis of the Son is located in his economic self-abasement, which in turn is grounded in the philanthrōpia of the divine nature rather than in a putative secondary divinity” (121); or, (iii) asserting that the “incarnate Word is conceived as having a double relation to the Spirit; he is giver of the Spirit according to his divinity and receiver of the Spirit in his humanity.  The soteriological yield of this double transaction is that humanity becomes sanctified through its reception of the Spirit, which drives from the incarnate Word’s reception of it” (134), I leap out of my chair as if I were reading passages from Newman--albeit with the cadence and idiom proper to Anatolios.   Still there is a big difference in their approaches.  Whereas Anatolios carefully shifts the positions of what he calls Trinitiarian theologians of the will – Arius, Asterius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eunomius of Cyzicus (41-79) – to understand their inner logic and relatedness, prior to showing their inadequacy, Newman’s tendency with Arius et al is to associate their erroneous theological positions with improperly disposed spiritual lives, and to advance his view that the Antiochene theological tradition and schools which transmitted it were somewhat predisposed to lead to error.    

To be fair to Newman, he was neither a professional theologian nor a full-time patrologist.  His work in these areas was almost always in medias resArians of the Fourth Century was originally part of a prospective series on councils, starting with Nicaea; but Newman didn’t really get any further in this particular project.  His return to Athanasius, in various moments of his life, deepened his love and knowledge of this great saint.  While I would continue, almost implicitly, to trust Newman’s instinct and conclusions on dogmatic matters, I think it fair to say that on matters of in-depth historical research, there is much in this area where his findings are dated, in need of revision, or significant qualification.  What is amazing, however, is that his work has driven the work of so many others and remains to have a qualified, historical value even today.

AD: Ian Ker's foreword refers to "Newman's Athanasian Christology." What drew Newman to Athanasius in particular? 

Newman was very inspired by the indefatigable Athanasian defense of the truth that the person of the Eternal Word assumed our humanity, in a real, complete, fulsome albeit mysterious manner. Newman held this view at an historical moment when those of a rationalist bent in England and elsewhere (like the John Hick and The Metaphor of God Incarnate crowd in our own day) were denying, undermining, diluting, softening or otherwise obscuring this bedrock Christian proclamation.  He was convinced that Athanasius had made an enduring and, even, providential contribution; I think he saw St. Athanansius very much as a spiritual father, and not simply as an intellectual mentor.

AD: It has often been said that, at least in Western theology until recently, the Holy Spirit was often overlooked. And yet you often speak of Newman's "pneumatic ecclesiology" and "pneumatic Christology." Is he one of the relatively few Western figures not to overlook the Spirit?

Here, a qualified, ‘yes’.  It has become commonplace in the last 20 years to lament the paucity of proper theological consideration of the person, power and presence of the Holy Spirit among western writers and theologians.  Like most commonplaces, the lament contains more truth than one wishes.  However, one should not harden the generalization so that it becomes caricature.  A few counterweights come to mind. Johann Adam Möhler’s first work, Unity in the Church (1825) was shot through with pneumatology; the wonderful modern interpreter of Aquinas, Giles Emery, OP has, in several works, stressed the pneumatological dimension of the Angelic Doctor’s trinitarian thought.  Does he do so in a way that would satisfy an Orthodox interpreter? No.  But does the lament apply to his work? No.  

The pre-World War II work, The Mystical Body of Christ by Emilie Mersch SJ contains a marvelous section on “The Doctrine of the Mystical Body in the Greek Fathers”; Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work contains significant pneumatological swaths, e.g. Explorations in Theology: Spiritus Creator; John G. Arintero, OP has described and explained the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages of the spiritual life very much within the context of deification in his 2 vols., Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church. And, of course, there is Yves Congar’s monumental three vols., I Believe in the Holy Spirit. While these authors are hardly exhaustive or even characteristic, they are not part of a school; their works appear in different decades and the areas of thought cover history, dogma and spiritual theology proper.  In sum, they are suggestive of a western appreciation of pneumatology, pneumatological ecclesiology and the work of the Spirit in the life of Christians.

This having been said, I make a sustained argument in my book that Newman is peculiarly prescient and thoughtful amongst those in the west who do justice to the pneumatological dimension of ecclesia, especially wtih his integration of Greek patristic thought on the birth of the Church in and through the paschal mysteries of passion, death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Spirit.  

AD: How do you think Newman's ecclesiology can assist in the recovery of Christian unity today, especially Orthodox-Catholic unity? 

Newman’s ecclesiology can make a contribution:

         1. At times, his theology is doxological; it emerges from a life where there is no artificial divide between one’s life as a theologian involved in a disciplined reflection upon revelation and a liturgical life immersed in the sacred mysteries of Christ; this forceful unity is magnetic and an authentic hallmark of one who thinks with the mind of the Church; it is also a quality which I think many Orthodox look for in a trustworthy guide.

2.   Unity between the Orthodox and Catholics will require an acceptance of some truths which are clearly part of the Great Tradition but which need creative reframing without gutting;  and, which require creative application without skirting. Because Newman’s theology is both patristic and personalist, Catholic but not neo-scholastic; dogmatic and spiritual, I think he can be helpful in providing resources for this recovery.

3.   Newman’s vision of the pneumatic Church, his embrace of divinization, and his drawing upon the Greek Fathers probably make him amenable as a dialogue partner for many Orthodox; as well, he suffered at the hands of Roman superiors but this did not lessen his love of the Church which transcended personal hurts.  Hence theologically and personally, he has something to offer.

AD: Sum up for us what you hoped to accomplish with this book

In a modest way, I wanted others to realize that Newman possesses a fundamental pneumatic ecclesiology upon which rests the rest of his thinking about the Church.  I also wanted others to think about the very nature of the Church afresh in terms of its marvelous sacramental, mystical dimension.

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