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Earnest-Tracey edition of John Henry Newman’s “Oxford University Sermons”

January 26, 2012

John Henry Newman is not only an intellectual giant; he is especially interesting because his spiritual thought developed over time.  The story of Newman’s spiritual evolution has been elegantly told by Newman himself in Apologia Pro Vita Sua:  Being a History of His Religious Opinions, a work that demands to be read.  (I read the Norton Critical Edition which has the advantage of notes and extensive additional material reflecting the debates in the Oxford Movement and writings that show his extraordinarily vicious clash with Charles Kingsley.)  But Apologia has a serious failing:  it is a reconstruction of the movement of Newman’s mind – and thus is a bit too neat in parts.  In contrast, Newman’s Oxford University Sermons – a selection of fifteen sermons preached at Oxford between 1826 and 1843 – has “the immediacy of a journal.”

Newman wrote to his friend J. R. Hope on 3 February 1843 (around the time of its publication) that the Oxford University Sermons as “the best, not the most perfect, book I have done.  I mean there is more to develop in it ….”  The joy in reading in these sermons is not simply watching Newman’s development from “noetic liberalism” to what he called “Apostolic Catholicism” to the threshold of Roman Catholicism.  The joy is also in seeing a young man of 25 develop his intellectual powers, his powers of expression, until they reached full flower in his mid-30s and approached his now familiar voice in his early 40s.  These sermons are not merely a proleptic Apologia but snapshots of a growing mind – and a distinctive style.

They sermons are certainly appreciated by later readers.  In 1973 (The Survival of Dogma) Avery Dulles claimed that “perhaps the useful analysis of the relationship between faith and reason, for our time, remains that of Newman in his Oxford University Sermons.”  In 2002, in his intellectual biography of Newman, Dulles claimed that the “personalist apologetic” of Newman’s fifth sermon“Personal Influence:  The Means of Propagating the Truth” (1832) would ensure that “Newman stands with Origen and Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal, as one of the great apologists of all time.”

And, even if we know how the story ends, there is a palpable excitement in these sermons because at the time they were given, Newman could not know how they would turn out.  As Newman writes in his thirteenth sermon (1840):

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation.  It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule….  It is not too much to say that the stepping by which great geniuses scale the mountains of truth is as unsafe and precarious to men in general, as the ascent of a skillful mountaineer up a literal crag.  It is a way which they alone can take ; and its justification lies in their success.

[Jean Guitton recognized in 1933 that this passage was a self-description of Newman:  “il s’est peint lui-même tout entier” in La Philosophie de Newman.]

The modern reader of Newman’s sermons faces two challenges:  Newman’s academic sermons, unlike his Parochial and Plain Sermons are rigorous and demanding in terms of language, theological concepts, and philosophy.  As if that were not enough, we are more challenged by our distance from the academic controversies that swirled around Oxford and in the Oxford Movement in the last days of the Georgian era and the first days of the Victorian era.  For this type of reading, an annotated version is mandatory.

James David Earnest and Gerard Tracey (the latter died in 2003, before this volume was completed) address this need with an overflowing volume published by Oxford University Press.  Their annotations include an analytical 118 page introduction and front matter, 26 pages of appendices, and 155 pages of editors notes (because the latter are set in small type, the editorial matter dominates Newman’s original text, which only extends for 235 pages).   The only serious fault I find with this volume is its price (Amazon lists it for $170 – I was fortunate to find a copy being sold for far, far less than that.)  The elegance and immediacy of Newman’s language, combined with the annotations explaining each point of contemporary interest to Newman’s original listeners, has the effect of transporting one back to the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign, when Newman delivered these lectures to his Oxford audience.

I would still put Newman’s Apologia and his Essay in Aid of Grammar of Assent as higher priority reads by Newman.  But if you happen to find this Earnest-Tracey edition of the Oxford University Lectures on sale, please do not hesitate to snatch it up.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Esteban Lanfear permalink
    May 17, 2012 4:27 am

    Thx for information.

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