John Henry Newman thoughts on the Mosaic Law, the Catholic Church, and “legalism”

John-Henry-Cardinal-NewmanNow it is a very common charge against the Ancient and Catholic view of the Gospel, that it throws us back into a Jewish state, and subjects us to the dominion of the Law. On the other hand, from various remarks made in the course of these Lectures, it may be seen that that modern system, whose very life and breath (as I may say) consist in the maintenance of this charge, is itself not altogether free from the error which it denounces. Rather, as I would maintain, it is deeply imbued with it, having fallen, after the usual manner of self-appointed champions and reformers, into the evil which it professed to remedy. This, then, shall be our subject in this concluding Lecture, in which I shall suggest some remarks on the imputation of legalism, as it is called, wrongly urged against Catholic Truth, rightly urged against Protestant error;—not that I propose to enter upon a formal discussion of it, which would carry us far away from our main subject.

It may be objected, then, that as Judaism interposed the Mosaic Law between the soul and Christ, turning a means into an end, a resting-place into an abode, so the Christian Church, Ancient and Catholic, also obscures the sight and true worship of Him, and that, by insisting on Creeds, on Rites, and on Works;—that by its Creeds it leads to Bigotry, by its Rites to Formality, and by its doctrine concerning Works to Self-righteousness. Such is the charge.

Now here I most fully grant that those who in their thoughts substitute a Creed, or a Ritual, or external obedience, for Christ, do resemble the Jews. Nay, I do not care to deny (what, however, I leave it for others to prove), that there are, and have been, Catholic Christians open to the charge of forgetting the “One Thing needful,” in their over-anxiety about correct faith, ceremonial observances, or acts of charity and piety. But I will say this:—that, on the face of the case, such an error is a great inconsistency; and no system can be made answerable for consequences which flow from a neglect of its own provisions. When, for instance, the Church bids us be accurate in what we hold concerning the Person of Christ, she is thereby declaring that Christ is the Object of our worship; when she bids us frequent His House, she implies that He is in it; when she says, good works are acceptable, she means acceptable to Him. The Church has never laid it down that we are justified by Orthodoxy only, or by Baptism only, or by Works only; much less by some certain spiritual feelings or experiences; and less still has she decided that to believe this was the one fundamental truth of religion. And if this be turned into a charge against her, that whereas there is One only Saviour Invisible, she has made the visible instruments and means of approaching Him many, and so by their very multiplicity has hidden Him, I reply, that if this were a fair argument, it ought to tell against the Mosaic Law also, as if its divinely appointed ceremonies themselves were to blame for the blindness of the Jews; but if the Jews themselves were in fault, and not their Law, so there is no antecedent objection against Catholic Christianity, (and such objections only have I here to consider), for its insisting on Baptism and Orthodoxy and Works, and many things more, even though in individual cases it has occasioned forgetfulness of Him, by whom these conditions and channels of grace have been appointed.

John Henry Newman, Lectures on Justification #13: On Preaching the Gospel


Disclaimer – This blog post is just that: a blog post with my personal thoughts. I am not a Catholic apologist or theologian. What I say here is not official doctrine of the Catholic Church. I am still learning and am susceptible to error. Don’t take anything here as Gospel. Don’t be stupid. Do your own research and learn for yourself what the Church teaches.

Catholics: if my understanding of Catholic doctrine needs adjustment, please point out my error.


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