Newman as Complex and Influential: A Review of Eamon Duffy’s "John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History"

John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History

By Eamon Duffy

London: SPCK, 2019. xxi + 145 pages. Hardcover: $16. ISBN: 9780281078493

Eamon Duffy's recently published, John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History, provides a concise and well-articulated introduction to who Newman was and who Newman was perceived to be in scholarship. The first five chapters provide a portrait of Newman as a complex historical and theological figure, and the last chapter introduces some of the reception of history of Newman's key theological insights beginning with the Modernist Crisis.

This book is an excellent addition to the library of anyone seeking to explore the equally controversial and influential figure of John Henry Newman. This text is accessible enough to use in a college classroom, but in-depth enough to use as an introductory text for a doctoral seminar dedicated to Newman. Duffy's acumen for Newman scholarship allows him to subtly introduce and dispel two common, but controversial, tropes in Newman scholarship without getting bogged down in the politics of the field.

One trope that Duffy challenges is the notion that when Newman converted, he left much of his Anglican theological imagination behind. In more than one place, Duffy mentions that Newman systematically republished many of his Anglican writings (mostly sermons) nearly untouched late in his life as a Catholic, the result of which was essentially to "baptize," so-to-speak, much of his Anglican thought as a Catholic. This helps to quell the idea that Newman's theology shifted to a more neo-scholastic tenor upon his conversion. In fact, as Duffy notes, Newman was theologically challenging, though highly influential, to both Anglicanism and Catholicism, though the latter took longer to realize.

A second, more controversial, historiographical trope Duffy contextualizes is the notion that Newman's "Apologia was both more and less than an autobiography: it was a highly selective account of his intellectual journey towards Catholicism, not a general history of his life as an Anglican" (16). Duffy successfully demonstrates that Newman's Apologia "is a product of 1864, not 1834," though he is careful to point out the shortcomings of the reductive conclusion about Newman's intent: "His [Newman's] emphasis in the Apologia on his perfectly genuine life-long opposition to 'liberalism' undoubtedly had a strategic element, coloured by concern about the repressive ethos of Pio Nono's papacy. But to treat the relative lack of emphasis on Evangelicalism in the Apologia as a smokescreen seems a crassly reductive characterization of one of the world's masterpieces of confessional writing" (109).

Two additional features of this book that are quite useful are the detailed chronology of the main events that affect Newman and the section dedicated to further readings. The chronology is more detailed than most, and the further readings, though brief, is more than a bibliography; it also provides reasons for why the suggestions are useful to Newman scholarship. The affordability and length of this book should not deter the most ardent of Newman scholars from exploring this text. It is incredibly well-researched and provides an excellent compendium to contemporary Newman scholarship. 

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