Studies in the 
History of Science and Christianity




A Different Voice from the Eve of The Origin: Reconsidering John Henry Newman on Christianity, Science, and Intelligent Design


Mark A. Kalthoff*

Hillsdale College

Hillsdale, MI 49242

Remembered for his role in the Oxford Movement and for his 1845 conversion to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) remains famous for his spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua (1864) and his seminal collection of lectures, The Idea of a University. Newman's ideas about science and religion have received comparatively little attention, however, despite their inclusion in The Idea of a University. In 1855, as Rector of the new Catholic University in Dublin, Newman delivered two lectures: "Christianity and Physical Science" and "Christianity and Scientific Investigation." Although much scholarship treats Newman's thought and Victorian science separately, little has been written about both; and no historian of science and religion has provided a focused study of Newman's 1855 lectures. This paper contributes to such a study. After a brief introduction to Newman and the context of his 1855 lectures, this paper provides a critical summary and analysis of Newman's thought on science and Christianity as presented in those lectures. It concludes by suggesting ways Newman's thought may contribute to contemporary discussions of Intelligent Design theory.

What a singular break-down of a noble instrument, when used for the arrogant and tyrannical invasion of a sacred territory! What can be more sacred than Theology? What can be more noble than the Baconian method? But the two do not correspond; they are mismatched.

Many a man will live and die upon a dogma;
no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.
--John Henry Newman

Evangelicals who uphold their traditionally high view of Scripture often look to the first chapter of Romans for St. Paul's imprimatur upon the natural theologian's project: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."1

Of course, not all conservative Christians have considered this passage as a mandate to press either natural theology or the design argument into the service of Christian apologetics. Prominent among such dissenters was the controversial Victorian cleric John Henry Newman (1801- 1890). As historian Frank M. Turner has observed, Newman even "believed it likely that the study of nature without a previously attained religious outlook on the part of the investigator would lead to atheism."2

Well then, does scientific knowledge of the created world lead to religious belief or not? If not, why not? If it does, what approximation will that religious belief have to orthodox Christianity? These questions, of course, beg that others be answered first. What, for example, do we mean by science? By theology? How do the two relate? And so on.

Now these questions are very much at the fore of contemporary discussions, in the academy, in the churches, in school boardrooms, and wherever the great conversation continues--so much so, in fact, that historically myopic interlocutors have recently boasted their creation of a new discipline called "Science-and-Religion."3    They are certainly wrong on both counts. "Science-and-Religion" is neither their creation nor a new discipline. That such a silly mistake can be made at all demonstrates the proposition that far too few invite voices from the past to the table of current debate. This ever-consuming presentism prevents them from considering their predecessors as worthy contributors to the discussion. But I am reminded of Chesterton's plea for "the democracy of the dead" and of Kirk's warning that we imperil ourselves if ever we ignore the "eternal contract" binding us to our ancestors and obligating us to our posterity.4 In this spirit of mindfulness of the past, I accept with this essay the modest proposal that we invite to the table of discussion a different voice, one from the past, one rarely listened to these days.

Too few Protestant Christians today know the life and mind of John Henry Newman.5 After all, he was vociferously Roman Catholic by the eve of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) when he wrote most explicitly about science and religion. But this is no reason for Protestant Christians to dismiss Newman and to close the door of contemporary debates to his ideas. My object is not to force an unqualified rehabilitation of his Victorian voice. Rather, mine is the more modest task of introducing his thought on science and religion to the twenty-first century discussion in the hope that his old ideas might fruitfully season our views of things.

Newman's Life and Thought: Preliminary Considerations

Born into a mildly evangelical, Anglican family during the winter of 1801, John Henry Newman underwent a religious conversion at age fifteen. A studious young pupil at the private Ealing School, he gained admittance to Trinity College, Oxford, from which he took his degree in 1820. He was elected a fellow of Oriel College two years later and then ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1824. In 1828 he became vicar of the Oxford University church, St. Mary the Virgin, a position he held until 1842. Ten volumes of sermons resulted from his preaching during these years at St. Mary's.6

During these same years, Newman became a major player in the so-called Oxford Movement or Tractarian Movement that gained momentum with the publication of the Tracts for the Times, many of which Newman himself wrote. Increasingly attracted to Roman Catholic forms of piety and theology, Newman's most infamous step came in 1841 when he published his Tract 90 which implied compatibility between the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and Roman Catholic theology.7   Within two years, he had resigned his pulpit at St. Mary's. Then, in October 1845, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After a period of study in Rome, Newman was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1847.

In 1851 Newman accepted an invitation from Archbishop Cullen to preside over the new Roman Catholic university that was being founded in Dublin, Ireland. The following year as rector-elect of the new Catholic University of Dublin, he delivered a series of lectures on the nature of a university. These were the first of many lectures treating university subjects and the nature of liberal education. Ultimately, under significant revision, they would grow into a single volume with the lengthy title, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated, I. In Nine discourses delivered to the Catholics of Dublin, II. In Occasional Lectures and Essays addressed to the members of the Catholic University. Newman persisted in ongoing revisions of The Idea of a University (as the book became widely known) until the year before his death in 1889.8

Among the ten lectures and essays on university subjects that constitute the second half of The Idea of a University, there stand two that directly address the relationships of science and religion. Both were delivered in the year 1855. The first, "Christianity and Physical Science," was an address Newman delivered to the School of Medicine in November. The second, "Christianity and Scientific Investigation," was a lecture written for the School of Science. These were first published in November 1858 in an anthology titled Lectures and Essays on University Subjects. So these reflections on science and religion by a "superb and original" Christian mind appeared for public consumption just on the eve of Darwin's Origin.9  Consequently they give us some insight into thoughtful Christian views on science and religion in the age of Darwin--views that were not, however, influenced by Darwin's monumental 1859 work.

Although sizable bodies of scholarship deal separately with Victorian science or with Newman's life and thought--in fact, there is something of a small Newman industry fostered by a community of Newman scholars--very little has been written about Newman's views regarding science and religion.10  Moreover, with respect to the present concern--Newman's two 1855 lectures on science and religion--only Peter Hodgson's obscure article offers any substantive discussion; and even this is only three pages long.11 Hence this essay aims at the modest goal of contributing to an understudied dimension of Newman's thought. Though I opened with a teaser revealing Newman's suspicion of the natural theological enterprise, I also noted that certain other questions require prior attention. To those I now turn. What, we may ask, did Newman have to say, in general terms, about Christianity and science?

Newman's Assault on the Conflict Metaphor

Newman started with the simple fact that perceptions, even utterly false perceptions, have, when they are shared widely enough, a certain reality of their own and a genuine power to shape our world of discourse. Newman believed that one particular false, although widely shared, perception demanded his first attention. The perception was a supposed "antagonism" between "Physics and Theology." Newman had detected within both "the educated and half-educated portions of the community" what he called a "surmise or misgiving, that there really is at bottom a certain contrariety between the declarations of religion and the results of physical inquiry."12 He sought, first, to show that no such antagonism really existed, that it was a "groundless imagination"; and second, he proposed to explain how it could be that such a fallacious opinion could have been held in the first place. In short, he proposed to explain why "Physical Philosophers [as he called natural scientists] and Theologians have quarrelled in fact, and quarrel still" (331).13

[Newman] believed that
[the] perception of incompatibility between science and religion
had damaged human relationships and deterred clear understanding
of the right relationships between science and theology.

This task was no mere academic exercise for Newman either. He believed that this perception of incompatibility between science and religion had damaged human relationships and deterred clear understanding of the right relationships between science and theology. It had produced a "certain contempt of Theology" among natural scientists; and among theologians "a disposition to undervalue, to deny, to ridicule, to discourage, and almost to denounce, the labours of the physiological, astronomical, or geological investigator" (322). Newman also hoped that his attempt to dissolve the appearance of tension between science and religion may give positive aid "in attaining clearer ideas than before how Physics and Theology stand relatively to each other" (322).

Newman's first step toward these ends was to offer a "broad view" of the terrain by dividing knowledge into two categories "natural and supernatural." Natural knowledge is knowledge of nature, by which Newman meant "that vast system of things, taken as a whole, of which we are cognizant by means of our natural powers" (323). Supernatural knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge of what Newman called "that still more marvellous and awful universe, of which the Creator Himself is the fulness, and which becomes known to us, not through our natural faculties, but by superadded and direct communication from Him" (323).

Here an important epistemological point requires attention. Newman established very early in The Idea of a University that knowledge of the supernatural is genuine knowledge, that theology is an authentic "branch of knowledge," and that, "Religious doctrine is knowledge, in as full a sense as Newton's doctrine is knowledge" (31). Among Newman's principle foes stood the opposite doctrine which he referred to as liberalism or modernism and which he expounded in his lecture, "A Form of Infidelity of the Day." According to Newman's description, the liberal would say:

You may have opinions in religion, you may have theories, you may have arguments, you may have probabilities; you may have anything but demonstration ... It is not that you have not a right to your own opinion, as you have a right to place implicit trust in your own banker, or in you own physician; but undeniably such persuasions are not knowledge (290-1).

Newman attacked this position applied to theology as unsustainable diabolical hogwash.

The prescience of Newman's worry demands acknowledgment too. Nearly a century and a half after his denunciation of this liberal position, we still encounter the same sort of assertion. Consider Stephen Jay Gould who would have readers of his book, Rocks of Ages, believe that only science deals with facts, with the "domain of factual inquiry," i.e. with knowledge, and  that religion deals only with squishy matters of opinion like ethics and meaning that have no firm grounding in any factual data.14 Here Gould distinguishes between science which, he asserts, deals with facts and "the factual construction of nature" (54) on one hand, and religion (which Gould speaks of in terms of "human purposes, meanings, and values") whose concerns cannot be answered "by factual data of any kind" (55). And since, reasons Gould, religious and ethical principles "can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science" (5), such principles must be something other than genuine knowledge, something like subjective opinion. Hence Gould asserts that humans navigate between two exclusive "domains," one "ethical" the other "factual" (58). This contention that ethical claims are not matters of fact is one manifestation of the "form of infidelity of the day" to which Newman so strongly objected.

Cardinal Newman 1885

Although Gould's picture of science and religion as "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" begs for refutation at this point, the temptation to do so must be resisted in deference to the present concern. That concern is simply to make explicit Newman's vigorous affirmation of the proposition which so many others then and now deny; namely, that real factual knowledge of the supernatural can be had with certitude and that, Gould's assertions notwithstanding, others besides natural scientists can rightly say what counts as real knowledge. So if science and religion are to be distinguished, it is not, insisted Newman, on the ground that religion somehow fails to qualify as bona fide knowledge.

It is the case, however, insisted Newman, that theology and science are different kinds of knowledge. Theology is "the philosophy of the supernatural world" and science is "the philosophy of the natural" (323-4). In Newman's terms, these were the "two great circles of knowledge," which occasionally may intersect, but rarely do: "The two worlds and the two kinds of knowledge respectively are separated off from each other," he insisted. Therefore, "they cannot on the whole contradict each other" (323).15 This was probably Newman's mildest expression of the matter. As he developed his argument, his vehemence grew. He spoke of science and theology as "incommunicable, incapable of collision, and needing at most to be connected, never to be reconciled" (324). And if this separation was true of theology and science generally, how much more so, contended Newman, of the distinction between theology and physical science:

As well may musical truths be said to interfere with the doctrines of architectural science; as well may there be a collision between the mechanist and the geologist, the engineer and the grammarian; as well might the British Parliament or the French nation be jealous of some possible belligerent power upon the surface of the moon, as Physics quarrel with Theology (326-7).

Science and Theology:The "Two Great Circles" of Genuine Knowledge

What were the features of these distinct circles of knowledge that rendered genuine quarrel such an impossibility? Physical science, explained Newman, is "the philosophy of matter." As such, "With matter it began, with matter it will end; it will never trespass into the province of mind." In short, physical science "ascertains, catalogues, compares, combines, [and] arranges" the phenomena which meet the senses so as to determine "the order to which they are subservient," i.e. to determine the laws of nature (324-5). And no more, period. He said: "When it has reached those first elements, principles, and laws, its mission is at an end." For Newman physical science "never travels beyond the examination of cause and effect" (324-5).

But we human creatures want so much more. Very well, replied Newman. Just do not ask it from the scientists. If they have views on other than scientific issues and questions--

what that ultimate element is, which we call matter, how it came to be, whether it can cease to be, whether it ever was not, whether it will ever come to nought, in what its laws really consist, whether they can cease to be, whether they can be suspended, what causation is, what time is, what the relations of time to cause and effect, and a hundred other questions of a similar character (325)

--their answers to such questions are not properly those of physical scientists but of religious men, "not because physical science says any thing different [about these kinds of questions], but simply because it says nothing at all" about them, nor can it do so (325).

Newman sought
neither to disparage nor to elevate either science or theology
above the other.

Newman recognized an important corollary to this conclusion, that neither the most brilliant scientist nor the most studied theologian had any basis, by virtue of his respective expertise in science or theology, from which to form sound judgments about the facts and truths in the other's field of knowledge. Each when viewed as scientist or as theologian was as "ignorant as the rest of mankind" on matters in the other's circle of knowledge. Hence Newman identified a great need for self-restraint and for liberal education, in short, for an appreciation of what he called "the philosophy of an imperial intellect" (346-7), an adequate exposition of which would require a separate essay. It must suffice, therefore, to say that Newman sought neither to disparage nor to elevate either science or theology above the other. He knew that failure to accord each its rightful place, but no more than its rightful place, would lead to real problems.

Newman defended the well-ordered University as the representative of the imperial intellect. Such a University, he described, "acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order of precedence" (345). Such an imperial intellect should prevent the improper intrusion of one discipline into another, while simultaneously facilitating the proper contact and interaction between all disciplines. That so many of our universities today have purchased wholesale Newman's "infidelity of the day" should be clear. The methods and modes of the natural sciences have become for many the only acknowledged path to real knowledge. Thus in the modern view we have either knowledge, i.e. natural science, or opinion, i.e. religion, which may be helpful for some folk but which can never be accorded along with science the status of genuine knowledge. Even (perhaps especially) within departments of Religious Studies, many today start with the premise Newman so clearly denounced, that, "Religion is just one of those subjects about which we can know nothing" (291). Therefore such academic practitioners study about religion and examine what others have claimed as their religious belief, but never presume (in the name of tolerance and diversity) to adjudicate between competing theological claims, as if doing so would be either foolish, impolite, or just epistemologically naive. In such an atmosphere, everyone, scientists included-- some with names like Gould, Dawkins, Lewontin, or Crick--feels free to play the theologian by making religious truth claims, whether or not they acknowledge that this is what they are doing.

Newman also recognized that the converse problem emerged whenever theologians sought to derive physical truths from Revelation, especially by forcing Scripture to speak to matters about which it is either silent or unclear. For example, as Hodgson relates, in later life Newman would dismiss the claims of Bible-citing anti-evolutionists on the ground that "such creationists ... are trapped by the superficial meaning of the words, which inevitably leads them to a position that is antithetical both to theology and science."16 Hence the supposed conflict between science and theology surfaced because, as Newman said, "neither of them has been quite content to remain on its own homestead" (331). It is this kind of disproportion that Newman feared would come from not properly drawing distinctions between the circles of knowledge.

Newman's Methodological Distinction between Science and Theology

Especially important for Newman, in this light, was the restriction of final causes to the domain of theology. "The physical philosopher has nothing whatever to do with final causes," he insisted, "and will get into inextricable confusion, if he introduces them into his investigations" (325). In fact, for Newman, theology was defined as "just what such Science is not. Theology begins, as its name denotes, not with any sensible facts, phenomena, or results, not with nature at all, but with the Author of nature" (326). The distinction he drew seems nearly exhaustive:

[The Physical Philosopher] contemplates the facts before him; the Theologian gives the reasons of these facts. The physicist treats of efficient causes; the Theologian of final. The physicist tells us of laws; the Theologian of the Author, Maintainer, and Controller of them; of their scope, of their suspension, if so be; of their beginning and their end (326).

But as we have seen, all of these differences have not left theologians and scientists contented to remain on their respective homesteads. Newman explained that this reality stems from the fact that each has become so enamored of his own method that he seeks to apply it inappropriately beyond its proper sphere. Newman argued that theology is deductive, "advancing syllogistically from premises to conclusion," and that physical science is, "just the reverse," viz. inductive. For the physical scientist, "a vast and omnigeneous mass of information lies before the inquirer, all in a confused litter, and needing arrangement and analysis." The theologian's situation is altogether different: "No strictly new truth can be added," insisted Newman, "to the theological information which the Apostles were inspired to deliver," though it is possible, he said, "to make numberless deductions from the original doctrines" (331). He summarized, then, by contrasting physical science with theology in a list of distinctions. Physical science, said Newman, is "experimental ... richer ... bolder ... progressive ... [and] has visions of the future." Theology, on the other hand, is "traditional ... more exact ... surer ... stationary ... [and] loyal to the past" (332).

Newman argued that
theology is deductive
and that
physical science is inductive.

For Newman, the difference between the respective paths to each kind of knowledge remained central to his critique of science-religion difficulties. Knowledge of theological truths, argued Newman, comes from revelation which is the "direct interference from above, for the introduction of truths otherwise unknown ... gained, not by any research into facts, but simply by appealing to the authoritative keepers of them. ... Faith cometh by hearing" (335). Thus although the natural sciences properly appeal to Baconian and inductive methods, Newman insisted that "it was nothing more than a huge mistake to introduce the method of research and of induction into the study of Theology at all" (336). Here we may ask, what might this "inductive theology" against which Newman protests look like? And why does he hold it in such low regard?

The Critique of Inductive Theology or Newman Contra Paley

An "inductive theology" would require, as does inductive natural science, some collection of phenomena from which to draw generalizations. Newman admits that among so-called inductive theologians "three principle stores have been used": Scripture, antiquity, and nature. When each is made the foundation for an inductive theology, the results are called respectively: scriptural religion, historical religion, and natural theology or physical theology (335, 337). Newman's principle critique of these three inductive theologies rests in his fear of being mislead by a method that never can give with certainty the whole truth. At best it can lead to "a strong probability, not to a certainty, or again, proving only some things out of the whole number which are true" (339). Here he deserves to be quoted at greater length:

And it is plain that if such investigations as these are taken as the measure of the whole truth, and are erected into substantive sciences, instead of being understood to be, what they really are, inchoate and subordinate processes, they will, accidentally indeed, but seriously, mislead us (339).

Newman briefly applied this critique to both scriptural religion and to historical religion. But he trained his greatest critical guns upon natural theology which he confessed to having long viewed "with greatest suspicion" (340).

While granting that physical theology may claim some merits and that it has rendered "great services" to faith generically conceived, Newman doubted whether genuine Christian faith really owed anything to the work of physicists. To begin with, he argued that the Design Argument owed nothing to Baconianism or modern science. Its force today, he maintained, is no different than is was in ancient Greece. To make the point, Newman deferred to Thomas Macaulay's 1840 essay on Van Ranke's History of the Popes from the Edinburgh Review:

As respects natural religion, it is not easy to see that the philosopher of the present day is more favourably situated than Thales or Simonides. He has before him just the same evidences of design in the structure of the universe which the early Greeks had. We say, just the same; for the discoveries of modern astronomers and anatomists have really added nothing to the force of that argument which a reflecting mind finds in every beast, bird, insect, fish, leaf, flower, and shell. The reasoning by which Socrates, in Xenophon's hearing, confuted the little atheist, Aristodemus, is exactly the reasoning of Paley's Natural Theology. Socrates makes precisely the same use of the statues of Polycletus and the pictures of Zeuxis, which Paley makes of the watch.17

Well then, so much for Paley, or (perhaps for that matter) for Michael Behe's "irreducibly complex" bacterial flagellum or, maybe even, for William Dembski's "explanatory filter."18

According to Newman, it is all "pretty much what it was two thousand years ago" (339). Is it really such a big problem if contemporary design theory is not much different than that of the ancients? In the case of natural theology, Newman the Christian theologian said yes. If it really is the same natural theology for Behe and Dembski that it was for Socrates, then, to use Newman's words, "It cannot tell us anything of Christianity at all" (341). Elsewhere Newman quipped: "The material world, indeed, is infinitely more wonderful than any human contrivance; but wonder is not religion, or we should be worshipping our railroads."19

"The material world, indeed,
is infinitely more wonderful than any human contrivance;
but wonder is not religion,
or we should be worshipping
our railroads."
--John Henry Newman

Newman deeply feared the hitching of Christian apologetic wagons to any natural theological horses because physical theology taught "exclusively" three divine attributes: the power, wisdom, and goodness of God; but it remained silent regarding divine justice, mercy, providence, et al. Insisting that "half of the truth is a falsehood," and that natural theology scarcely offered that, it remained for Newman "a false gospel" (340-1). Consider Newman's own words:

What, on the contrary, are those special Attributes, which are the immediate correlatives of religious sentiment? Sanctity, omniscience, justice, mercy, faithfulness. What does Physical Theology, what does the Argument from Design, what do fine disquisitions about final causes, teach us, except very indirectly, faintly, enigmatically, of these transcendently important, these essential portions of the idea of Religion? ... What does Physical Theology tell us of duty and conscience? Of a particular providence? ... what does it teach us even of the four last things, death, judgment, heaven, and hell, the mere elements of Christianity? ... I say Physical Theology cannot, from the nature of the case, tell us one word about Christianity proper; it cannot be Christian, in any true sense, at all ... How can that be a real substantive Theology, though it takes the name, which is but an abstraction, a particular aspect of the whole truth, and is dumb almost as regards the moral attributes of the Creator, and utterly so as regards the evangelical? (341).

Newman did not end with this naming of natural theology's sins of omission. He continued by suggesting that physical theology could be positively evil. "If it occupies the mind," he asserted, "it [tends] to dispose it against Christianity." Natural theology proper can only trade in laws. Accordingly, it cannot contemplate miracles, which, argued Newman, "are of the essence of the idea of a Revelation." In short, the god of physical theology was likely to become an "idol." Powerful? Yes. Good? Yes. Wise? Yes. But no more; and, therefore, concluded Newman, the god of natural theology "is not very different from the God of the Pantheist. ... I really doubt," he ended, "whether I should not prefer that [the natural theologian] should be an Atheist at once than such a naturalistic, pantheistic religionist. His profession of theology deceives others, [and] perhaps deceives himself" (342).

In the final analysis Newman pled for the scientist and the theologian each to respect the other's turf and to remain on his own homestead. He truly believed that natural science afforded no good basis for theology; and that natural scientists were unlikely to produce orthodox theology if they began with their science alone. Conversely, he was deeply committed to the reliability of modern science for finding out how the world worked. Because of his commitment to the unity of all Truth, he also knew that the Christian faith had nothing to fear from the progress of science. The man of Faith "is sure," insisted Newman,

and nothing shall make him doubt, that if anything seems to be proved by astronomer, or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or, secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to any thing really revealed, but to something which has been confused with revelation (351).

So confident was Newman that truth can never be contrary to truth that he could happily accord the scientist full freedom: "However [the scientist's] line of investigation may swerve now and then, and vary to and fro in its course, or threaten momentary collision or embarrassment with any other department of knowledge, theological or not, yet if he lets it alone, it will be sure to come home" (357).

Newman Ponders the Intelligent Design Movement

This essay began with a statement of hope that Newman's thought may fruitfully season our views of things. Although it would require another essay to tease out the many ways Newman's thought might find contemporary application, I will indulge in a speculative conclusion regarding one question of present concern to which I have already alluded: How might Newman react to the contemporary Intelligent Design (ID) Movement associated with such people as Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Michael Behe, and certain Fellows of the Discovery Institute? I think, the answer is, with genuine ambivalence.20

The ID Movement is at least three things (perhaps it is several more). First, it is a critique of and protest against philosophical naturalism in science and culture. Second, it is a program for investigating divine action and intelligent causation in the created order; i.e. for reinstating design and final causality in science. Third, it is a studied denunciation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. How might Newman react to each part of this three-fold agenda?

With the anti-naturalism plank, there is good reason to suspect that Newman would find broad, though qualified, grounds for agreement. For example, Johnson's latest contribution to the ID book industry, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism, includes portions that bear striking resemblance to Newman's ideas and mode of argument. Consider the similarity between Johnson and Newman on the proper limits of science:

A science which is founded in reality will always remember the fundamental distinction between persons and things, and will never imagine that it can understand the former by methods which are appropriate only for the latter. True science will also remember that only some aspects of reality can be understood through observation and experiments, and so it will never aspire to such an absurdity as a "theory of everything," nor will it attempt to explain thought itself as a product of physical forces. In a word, it will practice the theological virtue of humility. When you find scientists insisting that there are no limits or demanding that all human thought must be restricted to scientific categories, you can be sure that you are in the presence of pseudoscience.21

I can hear Newman applauding. Like Johnson, one of Newman's primary protests was against this tendency of some scientists to go off the homestead by uttering heterodox philosophical and theological claims in the name of science. Too often, complain both Johnson and Newman, such utterances qualify neither as real science nor as orthodox theology. But where Johnson calls for the practice of a different type of science--a science that starts from the affirmation of God's objective reality--something he has called "theistic realism," Newman simply wanted science to stay off the theologian's turf.22

Newman remained content to leave the scientist free to pursue his investigation of nature in terms of nature alone, a technically atheistic methodological limitation which some ID proponents decry as capitulation to metaphysical naturalism. Newman was satisfied, however, with his separationist view which carefully proscribed the kinds of utterances and claims scientists could rightfully make.

While Newman would sympathize with ID theorists' attacks on metaphysical naturalism,
he would reject their attempt to reinstate design in science, 
and consider their assault on evolution much ado about a red herring.

This stance anticipates Newman's reaction to ID's second plank, the attempt to infer design and intelligence; to reinstate final causes in science. Here Newman would be most unwilling to join forces with the ID movement for reasons spelled out in the previous section. This is an important point of divergence between Newman and the ID theorists, however. Dembski explicitly states that the "burden" of his book Intelligent Design is to show that natural and final causes "can operate in harmony without doing violence either to science or to theology." Elsewhere Dembski has argued that "design should be readmitted to full scientific status."23    Newman would certainly squirm. Here also would surface Newman's distrust of the connection between design theory and Christian apologetics, a connection endorsed by more than one ID leader, including a director of The Discovery Institute and the publishers of Touchstone magazine.24

Finally, when confronted with ID's anti-evolutionary plank Newman would probably yawn. Although our attention has been directed at his pre-Darwinian utterances, on this point we must move post-1859. When we do, we find Newman saying this:

There is as much want of simplicity in the idea of the creation of distinct species as in those of the creation [of] trees in full growth (whose seed [is] in themselves) or of rocks with fossils in them. I mean that it is as strange that monkeys should be so like men, with no historical connexion between them, as that there should be, or the notion that there was no history or course of facts by which fossil bones got into rocks. ... I will either go the whole hog with Darwin, or, dispensing with time and history altogether, hold, not only the theory of distinct species, but that also of the creation of the fossil-bearing rocks.25

Unlike ID theorists, Newman was simply uninterested in specified and complex scientific arguments about evolutionary theory. He did not believe this to be the best front upon which to level an assault against the real enemy, metaphysical naturalism. Not that he was either a supporter of Darwin or of any other theory of evolutionary transmutation; he simply did not care much about it and was content to leave the matter to the biologists, whom he expected to stay on their own turf. Newman was sure that God could work as well through secondary causes as he could by immediate fiat. As he wrote in one letter, "Mr. Darwin's theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill."26

At this point design theorists quickly raise the issue of evidence. They might counter Newman's indifference to evolution with a query something like this: "Suppose that biologists cling to Darwinism even if some day the weight of the evidence clearly mitigates against evolutionary theory? Might we then not conclude that such biologists no longer functioned as legitimate scientists, but rather as illegitimate defenders of metaphysical naturalism?" As far as I know, Newman never directly confronted these specific questions. Had he, no doubt he would have conceded the point while insisting that such hypothetical questions could only become real after the evidence did, in fact, weigh against evolution. He did not believe, however, that such a point had been reached. Moreover, Newman's primary contention was that Christian orthodoxy could accommodate biology wherever the evidence ultimately led. "I see nothing in the theory of evolution inconsistent with an Almighty Creator and Protector," he told the Rev. David Brown in 1874.27

What to do with heretics who defend their naturalism by waving sabers of bad biology might become a real problem somewhere or sometime, Newman would concede; but it was a different problem than whether Christianity could withstand the prospect of evolution's legitimate triumph. He believed that it could. And until the evidence against evolution was in, Newman viewed theologically motivated anti-evolutionism as a waste of time usually driven by hyperliteralist readings of Scripture according to some commonsense Protestant notion of private interpretation.

So while Newman would sympathize with ID theorists' attacks on metaphysical naturalism, he would reject their attempt to reinstate design in science, and consider their assault on evolution much ado about a red herring. The upshot, then, when rating Newman on Intelligent Design remains mixed; apparently one count for, one against, and one shoulder shrug. This ambivalence is important to acknowledge in our day of polarized conversation between parties often bent on dichotomizing for selfish reasons. It is good to grapple with minds who are neither wholly for us nor fully against us; for they may stand among our helpmates. Newman, like many, should be viewed as a sympathetic critic of the ID movement. Were its members, indeed all interested parties, to give his voice their ear, perhaps our views of several things might be fruitfully seasoned and the discussion advanced.

Mark Kalthoff lives in rural southern Michigan and is Associate Professor of History at his alma mater, Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 1989. Following his undergraduate study in biology, mathematics, and history, he completed his Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University with a doctoral dissertation on the history of the American Scientific Affiliation entitled The New Evangelical Engagement with Science. He teaches history classes on a variety of topics including courses on political culture, the history of science and Christianity, and the history and literature of liberal education. He and his wife homeschool their five young children who bring joy and noise to the homestead as they help tend the family's many animals.



1Rom. 1:20, New International Version. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

2Frank M. Turner, "John Henry Newman and the Challenge of a Culture of Science," The European Legacy 1 (1996): 1700.

3The primary case that comes to mind was a Templeton Foundation Science and Religion Course Program Workshop hosted in Berkeley, California, by the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences a few years ago. During one of the sessions, leaders suggested that the work with which they were occupied in this field constituted the emergence of a "new discipline."

4See G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; rpt. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, n.d.), 53; and Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1989), 237.

5Hopefully this situation might be changed when evangelicals read the brand new book by James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), which devotes considerable space to the life and thought of Newman (see especially chapters 2 and 3).

6There are numerous good sources of biographical information on Newman. The best is the massive authoritative biography by Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). In addition to Ker, I have also relied on other brief but serviceable introductory sketches of Newman's life and thought: See the annotated bibliography, critical essays, and biographical sketch in the Yale edition of The Idea of a University edited by Frank M. Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); I. T. Ker, "Editor's Introduction," in John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), xi-lxxv, and critical notes; Martin J. Svaglic, "Introduction," in John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), vii-xxvii; James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 29-70; and "John Henry Newman (1801-1890)," The Catholic Encyclopedia, on-line at

7See J. M. Cameron, "John Henry Newman and the Tractarian Movement," in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, vol. II, ed. Ninian Smart, et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 69-109.

8Citations for the three most common editions of The Idea of a University have been given already (see note 6 above). For more on Newman's educational thought, see, e.g., A. Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect: A Study of Newman's Educational Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955); and John E. Wise, The Nature of the Liberal Arts (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1947), 138-57.

9Sire, Habits of the Mind, 34.

10Beyond Frank Turner's article on Newman and a culture of science (see note 2 above) only two obscure articles are devoted to Newman's views of science: Peter E. Hodgson, "Newman and Science" Sapientia 54 (1999): 395-408; and Stanley Jaki, "Newman and Evolution," Downside Review (January 1991). Otherwise, the sparse literature that does mention Newman and science does not have Newman's thought as its primary subject: See J. M. Cameron, "Newman and the Empiricist Tradition," in The Rediscovery of Newman: An Oxford Symposium, John Coulson and A. M. Allchin, eds. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 76-96; Walter F. Cannon, "The Normative Role of Science in Early Victorian Thought," Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 487-502; and Joan L. Richards, "The Probable and the Possible in Early Victorian England," in Victorian Science in Context, Bernard Lightman, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 51-71.

11Hodgson, "Newman and Science," 401-3.

12John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin In Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 322. All subsequent quotations from The Idea of a University will be taken from this edition and cited parenthetically in the text by page number only.

13It is worth mentioning as an aside that John William Draper (1811-1882) would not publish his History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science until 1874 and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) would not publish his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom until 1896. Although Draper and White are sometimes credited with first casting the relationship between science and religion in terms of antagonism, they should not be. The notion was already current nearly two decades before the appearance of Draper's book when Newman took up his pen in opposition to the conflict interpretations.

14See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballentine Publishing, 1999).

15Newman allowed for intersection in these terms: "These two great circles of knowledge, as I have said, intersect; first, as far as supernatural knowledge includes truths and facts of the natural world, and secondly, as far as truths and facts of the natural world are on the other hand data for inferences about the supernatural. Still, allowing this interference to the full, it will be found, on the whole, that the two worlds and the two kinds of knowledge respectively are separated off from each other ..." (323). 

16Hodgson, "Newman and Science," 405.

17Quoted in Newman, 338-9. For the original see Thomas Babington Maculay, Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems (New York: John W. Lovell, n.d.), 467. For a brief sketch of the history of design arguments and their presence in classical times see William A. Dembski, "The Design Argument," in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 65-7.

18See Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996); William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 36-47; and idem, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 127-34.

19  John Henry Newman, (in Geoffrey Tillotson, ed. Newman: Poetry and Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 106, quoted by Turner 1700.

20For The Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture see php3.20

21Phillip E. Johnson, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 155. See also Johnson's Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

22For Johnson's notion of "Theistic Realism" see Johnson, Reason in the Balance, 48-50.

23Dembski, Intelligent Design, 46; idem, "Reinstating Design within Science," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1 (Winter 1998): 503.

24See Jay Wesley Richards, "Proud Obstacles & a Reasonable Hope: The Apologetic Value of Intelligent Design," Touchstone 12 (July/August 1999): 31-2. See also other articles in this "special issue" of Touchstone devoted to Intelligent Design. That the Fellowship of St. James, the publisher of Touchstone, has supported the ID movement without tending more carefully to the criticisms of Newman is somewhat surprising given their orientation toward more traditionalist forms of piety and theology.

25John Henry Newman, unpublished papers at the Birmingham Oratory, note of 9 December 1863, quoted in J. M. Cameron, "Newman and the Empiricist Tradition," 90.

26"Letter to Pusey," in Letters & Diaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 25.137, quoted in Hodgson, "Newman and Science," 405.

27"Letter to Rev. David Brown," in ibid., 406.