Before I begin my review, allow me one caveat: the casual reader, to be sure, who stumbles upon this work after seeing it quoted in popular apologetics books (i.e. Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism), risks being in over his/her head completely. Such was the case with me about 3 and a half years ago when I was starting out my study of doctrine and history. For 3 years this book sat on my shelf, all attemts that I made to read it having failed because I lacked the proper foundation. It was only after I spent considerable time studying history and especially the ancient heresies that I was able to grasp what Newman was saying. The following example, taken from a passage found on pages 314-315, should demonstrate my point:
"It is very observable that, ingenious as is their theory and sometimes perplexing to a disputant, the Monophysites never could shake themselves free of the Eutychians; and though they could draw intelligible lines on paper between the two doctrines, yet in fact by a hidden fatality their partisans were ever running into or forming alliance with the anathematized extreme. Thus Peter the Fuller the Theopaschite (Eutychian), is at one time in alliance with Peter the Stammerer, who advocated the Henoticon (which was Monophysite). The Acephali, though separating from the latter Peter for that advocacy, and accused by Leontius of being Gaianites (Eutychians), are considered by Facundus as Monophysites. Timothy the Cat, who is said to have agreed with Dioscorus and Peter the Stammerer, who signed the Henoticon, that is, with two Monophysite Patriarchs, is said nevertheless, according to Anastasius, to have maintained the extreme tenet, that "the Divinity is the sole nature of Christ." Severus, according to Anastasius, symbolized with the Phantasiasts (Eutychians), yet he is more truly, according to Leontius, the chief doctor and leader of the Monophysites. And at one time there was an union, though temporary, between the Theodosians (Monophysites) and the Gaianites."
That being said...
The premise of this book is to examine the developments of doctrine that have occured both within and without the Catholic Church since the earliest times. In the earlier part of the book, Newman spends considerable time discussing the methods used by the Anglican Divines to discern developments from corruptions, and shows how their methodology is flawed, and how in many cases they rejected things which had more early concensus than things they accepted.
Other points he makes throughout the book is the treatment of the Catholic church by the various heretical sects and dissident groups. He shows how despite their disagreements with each other, they were usually united in opposition to the Catholic Church, using the same blasphemous phrases to describe her as the Reformers did and many Protestants continue to this day, while the latter group would generally accept the body accused of these things as orthodox in earlier times.
After his rather long introduction, so to speak, Newman lays out his seven principles which will serve to distinguish developments from corruptions: 1. Preservation of Type, 2. Continuity of Principles, 3. Assimilative Power, 4. Logical Sequence, 5. Anticipation of its Future, 6. Conservative Action on its Past, and 7. Chronic Vigour. Newman then goes on to examine each of these in detail (though the first 4 are examined in far greater detail than the latter 3), showing how doctrinal developments in the Catholic Church throughout history, as well of those proposed by groups deemed heretical, have fared when these 7 principles are applied to them.
The details of his agruments are covered well in other reviews, and indeed a thorough examination of them cannot be done justice here in my 1,000 word limit. Suffice to say that this book will be guaranteed to give the informed reader, be he symathetic or skeptical, something to ponder seriously, as this is indeed the most comprehensive work written on the subject of the development of doctrine.
John H. Newman wrote four magisterial works (not including his large body of sermons) of which this Essay is one of the most important and influential. It is perhaps the most accessible of J.H.N.'s works, and the most significant.
The problem that Newman wants to resolve is how can Christian doctrine develop, if, as is commonly believed, Jesus embodied all revelation, once and for all. Another way of attacking the same problem is to determine how certain doctrines not stated in an overt manner in the Bible (e.g., purgatory) can be shown to be a licit and legitimate development based on scriptural integrity. Newman doesn't hold the view that the Bible itself is the only form of revelation, but he does hold the view that subsequent development of doctrine cannot repudiate biblical statements. Broadly and coherently developed, Newman shows that development of Christian doctrine under certain restrictions is both necessary and fundamental to the Christian dispensation.
Where Newman is less convincing is with more recent papal doctrines like the immaculate conception and the assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary. While these latter two doctrines have different aetiologies, one clearly developed in a manner consistent with scripture while the other is plainly contradictory. The Assumption (or else, Dormition, Glorification, etc.) of Mary has very ancient traditions and is the manifestation of the doctrine of our own glorification on the Last Great Day. Conversely, the immaculate conception was determined by Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor and preeminent theologian of the church, to be inconsistent with the sacred deposit once and forever revealed and directly contradicted by scripture.
What do these two doctrines have to do with Newman's book? Newman wants to insist the doctrine continues to "evolve" or "develop," but that this growth, be be licit and legitimate, must be consistent with the initial sacred deposit once received, and that this development must grow organically out of that which the Church has inherited and must not be a novation or innovation. The doctrine of Papal primacy has likewise remained consistent with some form of belief from the Church's earliest beliefs, but the notion of papal "supremacy" is of recent origin and not consistent with scripture or church history. Both papal supremacy and the immaculate conception are at odds with the Church's earliest positions, was repudiated in the Middle Ages, and is contrary to Scripture's insistence.
So Newman's task is a difficult one. He wants to defend the Roman tradition, but the Roman tradition, especially as it embarked on the nineteenth century, created a few novations that and innovations it heretofore had repudiated. Newman, I think, succeeds in walking this fine line of showing how the sacred deposit fully and for all time singularly received does develop over time by the synthesis of episcopal collegiality, consensus fidelium, sacred scripture, and venerable tradition. Newman's hermeneutic allows for the Spirit to breathe multiple understandings of the same ostensible dogma in such a way as to be said to "grow," but it remains consistent with the original deposit through the four-fold synthesis through which the Holy Spirit operates.
Where a chasm occurs is with doctrinal novations, such as the immaculate conception and papal supremacy. The dogma of the immaculate conception is not only INCONSISTENT and INCOHERENT, it is also CONTRARY, to the received tradtions; likewise, the magisterial belief in the primacy of the Petrine See having been remade into the supremacy of Papal infallibility. In all candor, it is Newman who remains consistent, while the Church that has breached its historical deposit.
Newman, except for these two important exceptions, shows how development of doctrine is not only consistent, but necessary, over time. To keep the Church static in one solitary interpretation or understanding is to deny the Church's variety of charisms. Perhaps more importantly, to deny an evolving and developing plethora of understandings is to stifle the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, which is the Person guiding and governing the Church since Pentecost, from expressing its kerygmatic and paraclitic mission.
These exceptions set aside, this wonderful book can be profitably read by all Christians of all stripes to great personal and collegial benefit and enlightenment.