|Professor John Williamson Nevin, an edgy and Confessionalist Presbyterian|
J. W. Nevin on the Sectarian Mind
Lessons from Mercersburg for Modern Evangelicals
by S. M. Hutchens
Mercersburg is still there, but there is little about it to show its importance in the theological history of America. It is a town of sixteen hundred or so about ten miles southeast of McConnellsburg and twenty miles southwest of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The seminary of the German Reformed church it once contained has long since moved and merged with the one in Lancaster now belonging to the United Church of Christ. Given the character of that denomination, one would expect the Mercersburg of the mid-nineteenth century to hold little more than antiquarian interest for its institutional heirs, and not even much of that. It is no surprise that the six projected volumes of the Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology to have been published by the United Church Press was begun more than twenty-five years ago but has never been finished.
Despite this, no student of American church history has ever treated Mercersburg lightly, for in the 1840s and 1850s this little seminary housed two of the most powerful and provocative minds in America. Marching against the broad stream of revivalism and "puritan" theology that held sway in the majority of American churches, they held up a catholic standard for the reformation of a Protestantism that had lost touch with history and forgotten the Church. John Williamson Nevin summarized this standard in three precepts:
(1) Jesus Christ, in his person, is the Principle of Christianity.
(2) The Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world.
(3) The Church as the Body of Christ in the world is objective and historical.1
As unremarkable as these may sound to the catholic ear—or, may I say, to Protestants who have profited from the work of Karl Barth—American Protestantism of the mid-nineteenth century found them profoundly unsettling, especially when advanced by men with the depth and breadth of Mercersburg’s principal teachers, J. W. Nevin and Philip Schaff. From rural Pennsylvania Nevin and Schaff addressed the American churches with a message that has not and should not be forgotten.
I have found that the attempt to assert these principles among modern Evangelicals meets with the same resistance that Nevin and Schaff encountered from their nineteenth-century forebears. This is evidence that many of the changes in American Evangelical Protestantism in the last century and a half have not touched its deeper structure. While busy building the righteous kingdom, evangelizing, and resisting the grosser heresies, it has shown great reluctance to consider a more catholic form of Christianity such as that embodied in the three Mercersburg principles. Perhaps this is because the movement senses its debt to its distinctive eccentricities. Where would it be without revivalism and rationalistic biblicism? One need not deny reason or the experience of grace in conversion to insist, as did the Mercersburg theologians, that Christianity rests upon the person of Christ, the Church as the pillar and foundation of his truth, and the Creed as the universal symbol of the Church’s faith. Christian theology and practice call for a consuming interest in these things, merely for the truth’s sake. Where the message of Mercersburg is resisted it bears repeating until it is finally heard.
When Nevin said that Jesus Christ, in his person, is the principle of Christianity, he was pointing to a distinctly sacramental idea that he knew had been lost to most of his American Protestant contemporaries. It had become foreign to revivalism because the coming of Christ in the experience of salvation was almost entirely equated with evangelical conversion, and to the Scholastics because personal categories were perceived as less decisive and satisfactory than the logical and propositional. The preaching of the revivalists and the theology of the Scholastics complemented each other nicely. Both had a strong tendency to subjectivize Christian experience, to make the sinner the principal actor in the drama of salvation—the visceral man in the case of the revivalists, the intellectual in the case of the theologians. These two men combined to make the "puritan"—surprisingly enough, a distinctively modern man—who had forgotten too much, a man who, in a sense similar to that of which C. S. Lewis spoke in The Abolition of Man, has a large belly and brain, but nothing between them. Christ, to be sure, was professed to be the founder, object, and content of faith. But the faith itself, perceived subjectively as possession of a set of experiences and beliefs, was being identified as the goal and meaning of Christian life rather than phenomena that arise from the life of Christ within and among us—who is in his person the goal and meaning of life.
The temptation to reduce Christ to dogma and experience is understandable and common to all Christians, for his presence to us is invariably a mediated presence, and it is perilously easy to mistake the medium for the message. (As Calvin noted, the heart is a veritable factory of idols.) Early nineteenth-century American Protestantism had its own peculiar tendency to mistake the gift for the Giver, the creation for its Creator. This is the problem to which Nevin was attempting to point his fellow Protestants by saying that Jesus Christ is in his person the Principle of Christianity.
How does one receive Jesus Christ? This is where the reference to Jesus Christ in his person took on sacramental overtones, for it is the whole Christ who was to be received by the whole man, not simply Christ as apprehended by the cognitive and aesthetic2 faculties. Nevin and Schaff did not identify the conversion experience as invariably bogus, but pointed to the real presence of Christ in the sacraments as the principal means of grace—not simply because that is what the Church had always taught, but because these were providentially given signs involving the whole Christ and the whole sinner. Nevin’s demonstration that Luther and Calvin had not departed from the catholic understanding of the sacraments was one of the most difficult things for his Protestant contemporaries to digest. Baptism and the Eucharist as given by the Lord were endangered in a religious atmosphere where the products of the regenerative act of God were supplanting institutions the Bible explicitly identifies as means of grace among those who believe.
The understanding of the Mercersburg theologians that the Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world was an uncomfortable reminder to many, for its use in Protestant services had in many places ceased. The problem was not disbelief in the Creed—that was the case only for a minority—Unitarians, freethinkers, cultists, and the like. Rather, the problem was that the proliferation of confession and counter-confession among the churches and the partisan vigor with which they were wielded had rendered "credalism" dark and divisive. "No Creed but the Bible" seemed to solve that. But of course, far from settling, it exacerbated the problem. Nevin saw this clearly, and insisted the Creed of the undivided Church is precisely the confessional glue that holds Christians together when their clashing and sometimes idiotic interpretations of Scripture drive them apart. This misconceived precept, he noted, lends itself to exploitation by power adepts: Every time you hear it, be prepared to step right up for the pitch of an ecclesiastical mountebank whose interpretive scheme is de facto the final authority in the sect he has founded on the principle of the Bible alone and no creed but the Bible.
Sola scriptura is not correct as a final principle of authority anyway, Nevin said, because the Church as the body of Christ in the world is objective and historical. I do not see the problem here as excessive "spiritualization" of the Church as much as ignorance that the Spirit is incarnate in the Communion of Saints and speaks authoritatively through it to every generation. This was as problematic for the preacher who had little grasp of history as the confessionalist professor who regarded his denomination’s theological constitution as the summa of all prior orthodoxy and through which he read the history of dogma. It was not the idea of the Church as "invisible," that is, as a manifestation of the life of the Spirit whose boundaries are beyond our sight, against which Nevin and Schaff saw themselves struggling. Rather, it was a pervasive agnosticism about the relevance of the work of the Spirit among all believers of every time—about the one, holy, and catholic wisdom of the whole and living Church. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura was increasingly being used as if it meant the Spirit had confined himself in Scripture and could escape only when the hermeneutical door was opened by a reliably in-house exegete who knew nothing of and cared little for what he had said to faithful men of years past.
At this point one can see not only how the principles of the Mercersburg theology fit together, but why they made and continue to make Evangelicals uncomfortable. Evangelicalism (in the sense the term is most commonly used in North America) can be pretty well defined in terms of its negation of the Mercersburg principles—as that aggregate of Protestant religious movements that, while generally orthodox because of their high regard for Scripture, radically subordinate Church, sacrament, and Creed as expressions of the life of the living Christ to emphasis on his appropriation by the rational and aesthetic faculties of individuals.
I would hesitate to accuse Evangelicalism in either its revivalist or scholastic aspects of denying that the person of Jesus Christ is the principle of Christianity, but I do think that wherever the faith becomes perceived primarily in these terms there is a great temptation to reduce the Lord to only part of his epiphanic reality, a reality represented in the traditional sacraments more perfectly than it can be within the revivalism or rationalism of the Evangelical movement. Not that individual reason or conversion should be held suspect, mind you—just that they should be regarded as parts of a larger, more objective whole, and not as the substance of the Faith. Numerous writers both within and outside of the movement (James Barr, John Jefferson Davis, Thomas Howard, and Robert Webber, for example) accuse Evangelicalism of culpable ignorance of the Christian past—no surprise, perhaps, when a fair-minded study of this past would place it where Evangelicals would not like to see themselves: in a sectarian backwater, far from the catholic mainstream, far even from the churchly, sacramentarian Reformers whose spiritual heirs they imagine themselves to be. The inherited mistrust of the Creed is a product of the intuition that credal authority rests on that of a Church it neither recognizes nor appreciates. All of these traits—anti-sacramentalism, anti-credalism, and the inability to recognize the Church and its authority—were, to the Mercersburg theologians, unmistakable traits of the sectarian mind.
Although the eminent Swiss-American church historian Philip Schaff is of equal importance for the history of the Mercersburg movement, our main interest here is in John Williamson Nevin and his message to Evangelicals of his century and our own. Space does not permit treatment of all the major areas of Nevin’s interest—his sacramental theology, his work on the Creed, liturgics, and the history of the early church. Rather, I would like to concentrate here on his thinking about the sectarian mind and the sectarian church it engenders by looking at his best-known writing, "The Sect System," which appeared in the first issues of the Mercersburg Review in 1849.
Nevin was a Presbyterian who grew up in farm country in southeastern Pennsylvania around Sharpsburg, was born on the centennial of John Wesley’s birth (1803) and died the year Karl Barth was born (1886). His father was a college graduate, but remained a farmer all his life. Nevin attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, and entered Princeton Seminary in 1823 at the age of twenty. There he studied under Archibald Alexander and the young Charles Hodge, who remembered him as one of his most able students. Nevin excelled in Hebrew, taught it at Princeton during Hodge’s sabbatical in Germany, and thereafter moved to the new Western Theological Seminary near Pittsburgh where he taught for ten years, developing a reputation for learning and high pedagogical competence. In 1840 he accepted a call to the struggling young seminary of the German Reformed church at Mercersburg.
Appended to this invariable profession of allegiance to the Bible as its sole authority is the exaltation of the right and necessity of private judgment in interpretation.