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Quoting in Context: A Practical Consideration for Evangelization 

October 27, 2023

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How can Catholics invite their Protestant brethren to enter the fullness of the Catholic faith? There are many good answers to that question, as well as some basic principles underlying these various approaches. One of these principles can be expressed in negative form as “don’t oversimplify” and in positive form as “pay attention to context.” I’d like to explore this with one very specific example: the often-quoted statement from St. John Henry Newman that “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” 

This pithy phrase from Newman is often quoted by Catholics to indicate that any serious study of the history of Christianity by a Protestant will necessarily result in that person ceasing to be a Protestant (and, by implication, subsequently becoming a Catholic). After all, Newman’s own journey from Anglicanism to Catholicism was deeply influenced by his study of the Arian controversy in the early Church; we could say that he went deep into history, and eventually ceased to be a Protestant. Likewise, many Catholics have personally had the experience of studying Church history and becoming convinced that the Catholic Church is the one Church. Quoting Newman’s line is an attractive way of concisely describing an intellectual and spiritual journey of conversion. 

The problem is that this interpretation is simply not true, and it’s not what Newman means. 

As it happens, the problem comes from quoting out of context, as it so often does.

If it were true that to go deep into the study of history is perforce to abandon Protestantism as a viable Christian tradition, then what are we to make of Protestant historians of the early Church, and the many other Protestants who have read deeply in the Church Fathers, and yet remain unshaken in their Protestant convictions? Are they all disingenuous, or self-deceiving, or simply unable to understand what they are reading? Whenever we find it necessary to assume such states of mind in those who haven’t come to the same conclusions that we have, it’s essential to stop and consider where we’ve gone wrong. Are we being triumphalistic, taking hold of anything that can be used as a “gotcha!” for our Protestant interlocutor?  

As it happens, the problem comes from quoting out of context, as it so often does. Rarely is a thinker well-served by a single sentence taken in isolation, especially when he is, like Newman, a writer whose style is complex and nuanced. 

The sentence appears in the introduction to his An Essay in the Development of Christian Doctrine, where it concludes section 5. Newman has been discussing the tendency in his day to reject the idea that Christianity (broadly speaking) is even worth considering in historical terms. In section 2, he writes:

The hypothesis, indeed, has met with wide reception in these latter times, that Christianity does not fall within the province of history, —that it is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else . . . Or again, it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles . . . or that, allowing true Christianity still to exist, it has but a hidden and isolated life, in the hearts of the elect, or again as a literature or philosophy, not certified in any way, much less guaranteed, to come from above, but one out of the various separate informations about the Supreme Being and human duty, with which an unknown Providence has furnished us, whether in nature or in the world.  

Newman notes that “All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with, or at least to prevail against, any number whatever of free and independent hypotheses concerning it,” and that some writers “find its doctrines so variously represented, and so inconsistently maintained by its professors” that they find it “useless” to look at history for any understanding of the Christian revelation.

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Specifically, he points out that these writers say,

“There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age:”—Hence they are forced, whether they will or not, to fall back upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation, and upon their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine. 

Thus far, Newman has been sketching a Protestant line of thought, and it is vitally important that we attend to what he says next: “This is a fair argument, if it can be maintained, and it brings me at once to the subject of this Essay.” He recognizes that whether it can be supported or not, it is at any rate a “fair” (that is, legitimate) line of argument, and that he will be addressing it in his book. He does not merely dismiss it out of hand. 

Now we arrive at the relevant passage for our quote. He declares that “before setting about this work,” he will “address one remark” to these critics: 

Let them consider, that if they can criticize history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. . . . And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.

And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every writer on the Protestant side has felt it . . . but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination already referred to of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone: men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

Newman’s argument is that when we look at Christianity throughout history, we do not find the expression of characteristically Protestant doctrines and practices. This, he argues, is precisely why Protestant Christians focus on “the Bible alone” as the basis for Christian practice: because they cannot find historical precedents for their denominational practices. Notice, as well, that he is not arguing here that historic Christianity is Catholic, but, more modestly, that whatever it may be, it is not Protestant. 

. . . we should take the time to understand the context of a quote that we’re using, and make sure we understand what the author means by it.

Newman’s famous line, then, is not a statement of cause and effect, but rather a historical observation. Coming at the beginning of his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, it is an opening for thoughtful engagement with a question, not a conclusion. 

What, then, can we take away from this careful examination of the immediate context of “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant”? 

First, on a practical level, we should take the time to verify that any quote we share is accurate, and ideally to determine where it came from. In this instance, at least Newman really did make this statement, but there are a horrifying number of faux-quotes from C.S. Lewis and others circulating on the internet, many of which badly misrepresent the author’s views. By sourcing the Newman quote to The Development of Doctrine, we can be sure that we’re presenting his words and not someone else’s, and that we’re presenting an accurate quote and not a paraphrase. 

Second, on a rhetorical level, we should avoid triumphalistic language, as it doesn’t help to convince those who disagree (and can indeed be off-putting); it only serves to bolster the confidence of those who are already part of the in-crowd. 

Third, on an intellectual level, we should take the time to understand the context of a quote that we’re using, and make sure we understand what the author means by it. In the case of Newman’s quote, this has the benefit of taking us from the shallow surface engagement with a single quote to the deeper waters of encountering his writings in their fullness. Even if we only read the introduction to The Development of Doctrine, we have gained something of value: an authentic encounter with one of the greatest Catholic intellects of all time. 

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Fourth, on a spiritual level, we should pause to ask if we feel resistant to doing any, or all, of the first three items on this list. Do we find excuses for cutting corners with the truth, telling ourselves that it’s too much work to verify a quote or its context, or that even if it’s not exactly true, it’s at least useful? These are temptations to falsehood, cloaked in convenient fictions of evangelistic piety. 

Taking the time to tell the truth is never wasted.