Cardinal Newman: 3 – The Grammar of Assent

Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 21 November 2010

21 November 2010 at 10:00 am


The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

A Fulcrum series

in partnership with Westminster Abbey

This month, in the sermons at Morning Prayer, I am looking at some of the central ideas of John Henry Newman. The high point of the Pope’s recent visit to Britain was a great service in Birmingham at which Newman was officially declared ‘Blessed’, just one step away from being declared a Saint. This is the way the Roman Catholic Church recognizes people of outstanding holiness. Anglicans also recognize Saints, but we don’t have the same official procedure for doing so. In both traditions Newman is greatly respected - but for slightly different reasons. Today I want to talk about one of the reasons Newman is respected by Anglicans and Catholics, though it is not directly concerned with the question of holiness. It is his extraordinary insight into what it means to believe – to give our assent to – God’s truth.

All his life, Newman was passionately interested in truth. He was interested in the different sorts of truth that we find in the world, and in the different ways we believe in these truths. Newman believed that Christian belief forms our whole sense of who we are, and that because the Christian Faith is true, it sets us free to become most fully ourselves. To believe in this way is to recognize the truth of something, which is not the same thing as being persuaded that it is true by logical argument or by the accumulation of evidence.

There are some truths we can be persuaded of logically: - we rightly accept them intellectually. To accept them in this way is to give notional assent - as we might to the statement that thirty-seven and forty-one makes seventy-eight. We know this to be true because it is a matter of mathematical logic, but it doesn’t make any difference to us personally. ‘So what?’, we might say.

However, if I say that ‘Tomorrow at high tide the Thames will overflow its banks in the centre of London,’ you can’t be absolutely sure whether this is true or not. You will want some evidence and if, on the basis of the evidence, you are persuaded that what I say is true, you won’t be visiting Westminster Abbey tomorrow! If the statement has becomes ‘real’ for you – and you give real assent, believing the warning is actually true – then you are pretty sure to make plans to avoid the disaster. And tomorrow we shall both find out whether the statement was true or not.

Newman made much of the difference between ‘notional assent’ and ‘real assent’. One way of talking about the difference would be to say that in the first case our emotions are not affected and in the second they are. In each case we experience certainty, but it is a different kind of certainty. In each case we know the statement can be proved to be true but the way we go about proving it is quite different.

With religious belief it is different again. To believe is to give real assent to the teachings of Christianity. You can bring evidence that they are true, just as you could bring evidence if you thought the Thames will overflow its banks tomorrow. There may be a whole range of evidence for and against belief, but there is not going to be one decisive event that proves or disproves the truth of the Christian Faith forever. It is not irrational to give real assent to the truth of the Christian Faith – even though such assent does not in the end depend on the supporting evidence. In the end, we give our assent to the Christian Faith because we recognize it to be true.

To give assent to the teachings of the Christian faith is to believe the Faith to be true with head and heart, and, in accepting it as true, to be changed. There is no way of proving it to be true scientifically: it is a Faith, not an experiment. The only way we can, in a rather different sense, prove the Christian Faith is by living it. We can prove it to ourselves – in the sense of test it – but we cannot prove it as we can prove the truth of statements based on logic or we can prove the truth of statements about the world. Newman uses a distinctive word for what can happen when we give assent to the truth of the Christian faith. He says that when we give real assent to the teachings of the Christian Faith we can have certitude – which is our own personal certainty that they are true. ‘Certitude’ (which in the Bible is called ‘assurance’) comes when we give ‘real assent’ to the teachings of the Christian faith and let them change our lives.

There are three important points that strike me here:

The first is that there is always something about accepting the Christian Faith which comes to us as a gift. Much can be done to make the Faith more understandable, to provide evidence in support of belief, to answer people’s questions and to remove obstacles to faith, but in the end we either ‘recognize’ that the central teachings of Christianity are true and accept them for themselves, or we do not. We cannot make others see; we cannot make them give ‘real assent’. When we ourselves do see and when we do give real assent, when the truth of the Christian faith dawns on us with such clarity and conviction that it changes our lives, there is always something about it which comes to us as gift.

The second thing is that discerning religious truth is not a matter for the head alone. When in the story of the two disciples going to Emmaus the Risen Christ drew close to them as a stranger and expounded to them, unrecognized, all the things in Scripture concerning him, they later realised that their hearts were burning within them (Lk 24:32). Newman’s motto was ‘heart speaks to heart’. His point was that when we are confronted with God’s truth, and when we accept it, it is the whole person that recognizes it to be true and the whole person that is transformed. Recognizing God’s truth is a matter not just of the head but of the heart as well. God’s truth is truth that at the same time brings light to the believer’s intellect and joy to the believer’s heart.

The third thing is that we have a God-given faculty for recognizing God’s truth. We might use the word ‘intuition’ or even ‘imagination’. Newman talked of ‘the illative sense’. By this he meant the ability of the mind actively to grasp, to seize hold of truth and make it our own. For Newman, the mind is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with truth, but an active organ with an instinct for truth, which is quick to recognize and to grasp God’s truth if we will only let it do so. We may seize the truth of God with the intellect but our hearts also play their part in the discerning of God’s truth; the truth brings its own certitude, or assurance, that it is true; and confident living in truth shapes and transforms our whole lives.

Newman thought it was important to understand this – he called his book about believing The Grammar of Assent. He wanted us to know that real truth is not something human beings make up. There are statements which can be proved logically to which we give intellectual or notional assent. We can be certain they are true. There are statements which can be proved experimentally to which we give real assent – because we have tested them and we know them to be true: of these things we can also be certain. There are statements about God and humanity which are true and to which we give real assent, but which can only be proved in our personal experience: of these we can have certitude - if we reach out in faith to grasp with our whole mind this truth that comes to us from God. Newman believed with his heart and his intellect - with his whole mind - the promise of Jesus, given to us in the Fourth Gospel, ‘You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ (Jn 8:32).

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