An Essay on the Development of Doctrine

John Henry Newman. An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Forward by Ian Ker.  Sixth ed.  Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame, 1989/2015.  Kindle ed.


Bl John Henry Newman

Ian Ker in the Forward to the book makes a wonderful presentation of the question whether the Catholic Church has changed its teaching over the centuries. The Protestant position is that the Protestant Christians have retained the original position of the Catholic Church of apostolic times and the Catholic Church of Rome introduced corruptions is countered by Newman’s unique, classical and articulate presentation of an essay that has never been written by anyone else and in the remarkable clarity of the English language. While it has the modest title of an essay, it is one of the greatest theological tracts.

The key to understanding Newman’s presentation is the difference between implicit and explicit in the teaching of the Catholic Church from the beginning throughout its history and in its consistent and logical growth from the beginning until modern times.


Newman begins by the status questionis – the state of the question, i.e. the difference between development and corruption. Newman began his work as an Anglican and ended it in 1848. It was a personal question and problem: which Church was the true Church of Jesus Christ? Which had followed the sects and heresies of the era of the Fathers of the Church (First to Fourth Century). Which is true to the gospel and to the teaching authority given to the Apostles? Newman believed that initially the better case was made by the Protestants, especially by the Anglicans. He became a Roman Catholic before finishing the book. What if he were wrong again? In 1878 he revised his work and made a convincing argument for the authority and position of the Roman Catholic Church.

The brunt of his argument is eight “notes” which must be maintained in any change in the Church’s teaching. However, development of understanding and ideas is normal, logical and required by the truth. These eight notes are: unity of type, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, logical consequence, anticipation of the future, conservative action, chronic vigor and necessary change.

As Newman states, an acorn develops into an oak. It is normal to do so, and a logical and expected development. If it were to develop into another species, it would not retain the nature of unity, continued and assimilating development. So, it is, with the teaching of the Church.


Newman attended Vatican I in 1870. His search for the truth on the question of the teaching of the Catholic Church was largely the reason for his conversion. It is the answer to the Modernist Movement condemned by Pius X. The protagonists of Modernism were George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy. Pius clearly distinguished between advocating a change in dogma and a development in doctrine. The former is a rejection of a Church teaching on a matter clearly in the scriptures or the tradition of the Church; the latter is a legitimate growth in doctrine from implicit to explicit articulation.

Newman elaborated on this distinction in his Apologia, his Grammar of Assent, and in his Pastoral Sermons. His contribution to the Church’s understanding of its own development of doctrine was expressed in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation).