This is the conclusion of “Obedience the Remedy.” Part one is here.

Newman not only claims that we can develop infused acquired virtue through our Spirit-inspired efforts, but also lays out a program for how this can be accomplished in the companion work to the Lectures on Justification, the Parochial and Plain Sermons. These sermons, also given at St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, preceded the lectures, and were published in 1834, 1835, and 1836. They provide a more pastorally oriented development of many of the same ideas that Newman presents in theoretical form in the lectures. The sermons are not published in the order in which they were delivered, but rather arranged in a new order by Newman, an order not incidental but intentional. In this second part of this paper, I will consider how reading the two volumes together provides a practical mediation on how Christians can develop the virtues, through the guidance of the Church.

Newman begins the first volume with an epigraph from Hebrews 12:14: “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”[21] This sets the tone for the entire collection, which is intended to lead us in holiness, directed to the Lord. The sermons in the first volume are arranged in a cyclical manner, bookended by two sermons that reflect on virtue, and containing in the middle a consideration of the challenges to our growth in virtue and presenting resources within the tradition for pursuing holiness.

In Sermon 1, Newman focuses on the end of enteral life, and the theme of human happiness. “Even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”[22] This is not surprising, since we see that spiritual ends do not make happy the unsanctified in this life either. Here, in line with traditional virtue theory, we see that the goal of developing virtue is, in fact, our happiness; not an earthly happiness, but our true happiness: union with God.

Having established the goal, in Sermon Two Newman lays out the difficulties. In our unsanctified nature, we do not truly understand what it means to have an immortal soul. We have to change and become people who do not simply strive toward the natural ends of our physicality but toward supernatural ends. This will require suffering and relinquishment:

all things that we have to learn are difficult at first; and our duties to God and to man for His sake, are peculiarly difficult, because they call upon us to take up a new life and quit the love of this world for the next. It cannot be avoided; we must fear and be in sorrow before we can rejoice. The Gospel must be a burden before it comforts and brings us peace. No one can have his heart cut away from the natural objects of its love, without pain in the process and throbbing afterwards …. [R]eligion is in itself at first a weariness of the world mind, and it requires an effort and self-denial in every one who honestly determines to be religious.[23]

In Sermon 3, Newman considers the unsanctified person who may intellectually know God’s will but does not yet walk in obedience. Here we see the difference between acquired and infused virtues. Possessors of acquired virtue are ideally well educated, with few challenges, in good health, and will tend to “go on respectably and happily with the same general tastes and habits which they would have had if the Gospel had not been given them. They have an eye to what the world thinks of them; are charitable when it is expected. They are polished in their manners, kind from natural disposition or a feeling of propriety. Thus, their religions are based upon self and the world.”[24]

Rather than focusing on our righteousness and our self-presentation to the world, we have to instead come to acknowledge our deficiencies and sinfulness, and our need of the Holy Spirit for true transformation and righteousness. In short, as Sermon 4 points out, we have to own our secret faults. Until we can see and acknowledge our deficiencies that are buried deep in our heart, we do not see that the habits governing us are the secret sins: in other words, our vices. Until we know our weaknesses, we cannot see the power of God. In order to begin to grow in virtue, we must earnestly, according to Sermon 5, engage in self-denial in answer to God’s commands. The Holy Spirit frees our will so that we can deny ourselves, but it is only through self-denial that we can practice and develop the habits of obedience. While we are free, our freedom leads us to desire to keep God’s laws in all ways.[25]

Through this examination and recognition of our faults and development of practices of self-denial, we can begin to develop the spiritual mind (Sermon 6). The epigraph for this sermon, from 1 Corinthians 4:20, reminds us that “the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.”[26] Here we find an even more explicit discussion of a virtue ethic. The sign of a spiritual mind is not that one has some orientation to the good on the spiritual level, but that the choice of the good and the right has become so integrated into who we are that “a righteous man, in proportion as obedience becomes more and more easy to him, will doubtless do his duty unconsciously. It will be natural to him to obey and therefore he will do it naturally, i.e. without effort or deliberation.”[27] This is, in fact, “obedience in habit.”[28]

But what does this habit look like? There are undoubtedly praiseworthy actions made out of a person’s own power without the grace of God. For the Christian, this is not sufficient: “We must indeed be just, honest, temperate and religious before we can rise to Christian graces, and to be practiced in justice and the like virtues is the way, the ordinary way, in which we receive the fullness of the kingdom of God.” To these must be added something more. It is plain that gospel obedience “is a very different mode of obedience from any which natural reason and conscience tell us of — different, not in its nature, but in its excellence and peculiarity.”[29]

Sadly, this habit of obedience can be undermined by “any one deliberate habit of sin [which] incapacitates a man from receiving the gifts of the Gospel.”[30] Because the virtues are habits, they do not develop all at once. Rather, God gradually gives us the principles, through his commandments, which allows us gradually to develop the habit of obedience. “They come upon us, while the safeguard of virtuous principle is forming naturally and gradually in our mind by our very deeds of obedience.”[31]

In Sermons 9 and 10, we see the other religious affections that can impede the development of these habits. In Sermon 9, Newman considers the danger that overexcited religious feelings may substitute for “deeds of love, mercy, meekness, and holiness” that can lead to the development of these habits of obedience, and thus result in a falling of a person who lacks these habits to sustain them.[32] In Sermon 10, he considers the even worse danger of “professing without practice” that can lead both the professor and the witness to hypocrisy away from the truth of the gospel, and returns to a similar concern in Sermon 13, “promising without doing.” This is contrasted in Sermon 11 to “profession without hypocrisy” and in Sermon 12 to “profession without ostentation.” Profession without hypocrisy does not mean perfection, which is impossible, but rather the constant awareness that even though “still we fall short of our duty[,] nevertheless we must not cease to profess. We must not put off from us the wedding garment which Christ gave us in baptism. We may still rejoice in Him without being hypocrite, that is, if we labor day by day to make that wedding garment our very own; to fit it to us and so incorporate it with our very selves.”[33] This section concludes with a return to the beginning theme of emotions in Sermon 14, but here the focus is on the danger of placing too much value on religious emotion over acts, even for those who have grown as strong in their faith as St. Peter, who still let himself be carried away by emotion and fell by denying Christ three times.[34]

Other challenges may come from without: from those who question the rationality of religion and rely on their own wisdom, such as the “self-wise inquirer.”[35] Rather than being consumed with vague speculation, the infused virtues keep us on the straight track. Here Newman argues that our conscience testifies even more strongly to the trust of Scripture the more it is formed through obedience (Sermon 15). Where mysteries, such as the Trinity, reach beyond our reason, there obedience guides us through the thicket of potential doubts. “The more we are in earnest to ‘work out our salvation,’ the less shall we care to know how those things really are, which perplex us.”[36]

The solution to all of these challenges, Newman reminds us throughout the sermon and then cumulatively in a sermon at the end of the section, is that we should rely on “obedience the remedy for religious perplexity” (Sermon 18). “We are apt to forget that a Christian spirit is the growth of time, and that we cannot force it upon our minds, however desirable and necessary it might be to possess it. If we strove to obey God’s will in all things, we should be gradually training our hearts into the fullness of a Christian spirit.”[37] This obedience is assisted by and grounded in prayer (Sermons 19 and 20). Because our bodies are going to be resurrected in Christ, we focus on what we do in our body as a significant part of obedience as well (Sermon 21) and witness to Christ’s resurrection in the past and our own in the future by how we live (Sermon 22) and how we revere God (Sermon 23).

The final three sermons also serve as the capstone and culmination. In the religion of the day, Newman warns against the appropriation of natural and cultural standards of virtue and confusion of those with the calling that Christians have to live out God’s holiness. Rather, Christians need to realize that Scripture calls us to sorrow and self-denial in order to develop the virtues (Sermon 25). The result of this is growth into Christian adulthood (Sermon 26). Through the changes and growth in holiness, powered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can put off childish things and reach the full stature of holiness that God has for us.

Don’t worry, I don’t intend to go through book two at the same length, but I do think it is important to mention it briefly, because it complements the focus on the growth of individual virtue in Book 1. Book 2 is composed of sermons that focus on the feasts of the church year: both the christological and trinitarian feasts and the feast days of various saints. Reading these together with Book 1, we not only receive a practical blueprint for the development of virtue, but an understanding of what the content of this virtue should consist of. In Book One, Newman focuses in almost every single sermon upon the claim that the development of virtue serves to bring us into conformity with God’s law as revealed in Scripture. Again and again he reiterates that salvation does not mean freedom from the law, but a new ability to obey the law. The law outlines the road we must walk and provides the form of the virtues we are called to manifest. In Volume Two, we are given the examples we must strive to emulate: distinct in personality and time, but all growing in virtue through conformity to God’s law. In Sermon 7, Newman writes that “Scripture tells us what to believe and what to aim at and maintain, but it does not tell us how to do it; and as we cannot do it at all unless we do it in this manner.”[38] This is what the Church achieves for us. They give us access to the grace we receive in the sacraments and provide the structures for the discipline that makes us holy. The saints are our exemplars and guides (a key part of a virtue ethics of natural ends) and still critical to this virtue ethics, even though the end is provided more clearly for us by Scripture and the Church.

What concluding word might the foregoing suggest to us today? Is this primarily an argument of academic terminology, in which I adapt Newman to the ethical theories of the modern academy?

I sincerely hope not. Rather, growth in virtue as an integral part of our life as Christians is crucial for us and for our churches. If receiving the sacraments really does change us, and that change must be directed by Scripture, the example of the saints, and the worship of the Church, then prayer and teaching are always tied together. Our worship of God and reception of the sacraments should lead to the transformation of our every action. Our pedagogical practices and Christian enrichment should not only focus on providing knowledge, although knowledge is important, but also on linking together with spiritual disciplines and a real expectation of personal change and growth. We will see that service of the poor is crucial not only because it benefits them, but because they provide us with the opportunity to practice the self-denial necessary for growth, on the way to becoming exemplars of the virtues God provides.

All that we do is significant. Because we are growing and changing, or falling back and declining, at every moment, each choice we make has great importance for our immortal soul. Prayer, as an encounter with real holiness, should and must transform us. As it does, it will restore our sense of mission — and our awareness that the world and we along with it are being transformed in ways we cannot understand naturally, but that are real.

Footnotes

[21] John Henry Newman, Sermon 1, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 1 (Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 5.

[22] Sermon 1, p. 6.

[23] Sermon 2, p. 19.

[24] Sermon 3, p. 24.

[25] Sermon 5, p. 48.

[26] Sermon 6, p. 50.

[27] Ibid., p. 51.

[28] Ibid., p. 52.

[29] Sermon 6, p. 54.

[30] Sermon 7, p. 64.

[31] Sermon 8, p. 69.

[32] Sermon 9, p. 78.

[33] Sermon 11, pp. 96-97.

[34] Sermon 14, p. 119.

[35] Sermon, p. 17.

[36] Sermon 16, p. 135.

[37] Sermon 18, p. 148.

[38] Sermon 7, pp. 271-272.

About The Author

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is a doctoral candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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