John Henry Newman as a
young Anglican clergyman
Newman had been born into a family with Calvinist lineage and a precocious reader, even by 19th century English Protestant bourgeois standards, he himself embraced evangelical Calvinism in his teen years. This gave him a firm foundation in the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and removed him from the intellectual malaise of liberal Anglicanism’s drift towards religious indifferentism. It was that same abhorrence of a non-intellectual Christianity however that drove Newman beyond evangelicalism even as it had first drawn him in. Newman, a man of the most controlled affectivity, saw that many of his fellow evangelicals had embraced the movement not for its fidelity to the core Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, but for the religious feelings that evangelical worship produced. At university Newman settled more comfortably into the intellectual Anglicanism typical of the Oxbridge Colleges of the nineteenth century.
Newman was ordained deacon and then priest in the Anglican Church in his Oxford years and undertook pastoral work as well as various tutorial and administrative posts. His passion to understand Christian dogma led him to a thorough study of the Church Fathers. His immersion into the Fathers led him to write The Arians of the Fourth Century which was published in 1833.
It was doing his research on the Arian controversy where he discovered to his shock the while Saint Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, and a only a minority of the bishops supported the doctrine that Jesus is equal in divinity to the Father, the majority of bishops accepted the Arian heresy. Arius was a priest of Alexandria who in the late third and early fourth century taught that Jesus was not equal to the Father in his divinity. The majority bishops, anxious to move slowly in articulating the evolution of the faith of the Church which was only then coming to understand the implications of the Divinity of Christ for the core dogma of the Oneness of God—that is only then questioning how if Jesus is God and the Father is God can God be One—were hedging on the Divinity of the Son, implying that Jesus’ Divinity was somehow less than the Divinity of the Father or of a lesser Divine Nature. While Athanasius and a minority of bishops were brave enough to speak out for what eventually would be defined as Christian Orthodoxy it was the overwhelming support of the laity for the Divinity of the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, that carried the day. This impressed Newman on the importance of the sensus fidelium—the consensus of the laity—not merely in passively accepting doctrine but whose acceptance of doctrine is a key element of its definition.
Years later Newman wrote an essay for The Rambler “On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine.” This article which asserts the importance of the voice of the faithful in the formulation of doctrine without confusing it with the duties of the magisterium, attracted the wrath of Pius IX and the contempt of Newman’s peers. One of those peers, a Monsignor George Talbot, said that the role of the laity was “to hunt, to shoot, and to entertain.” There are many Talbots in the Church today who think that only the hierarchy has a role in the formation of doctrine and many of them have pictures of Newman above their desks or belong to various societies named after Newman. But attracted to the glamor of a convert turned Cardinal, they don’t seem to understand how radical a thinker Newman was in his day. Had Christians of the fourth century passively accepted in intellect and will all that was taught by the bishops, we would today be Unitarians. But God inspires more than just the magisterium; he inspires the entire Church. Those voices who are questioning the "fidelity oath" in the Diocese of Arlington understand how important it is that they fully understand that to which they are swearing belief.