Friday, December 24, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: An Evaluation

Evaluating Nevin and his theological scheme is quite difficult because, by and large, few of his ideas took hold and few have been tested over decades or centuries of church life. However, dismissing them as wrong simply because they did not attract a large following, reshape the evangelical landscape, or “work” would be utterly pragmatic – a way of evaluating truth Nevin warned strongly against. (On the flip side, accepting them because they “worked” would also betray a pragmatism unlikely to gain acceptance by Nevin).

The reasons for Nevin’s tepid reception are many. Several scholars have blamed, at least in part, Nevin’s unpopularity to his German ties. Ironically, Nevin was not German by nationality, but had adopted the German Reformed Church as his ecclesiological home. The German Reformed Church’s institutions were small and relatively non-influential in the grand scheme of American evangelicalism (especially compared to the theological giant Princeton, home of his greatest critic, Charles Hodge). Moreover, “The German influence on Nevin’s thought was one of the largest reasons for the unpopularity of his theological program.”(1) America was enamored with “common sense” as Mark Noll explains,

“Negatively, common sense was one of the few authorities that survived the Revolutionary assault on inherited privilege. Positively, common sense opened up whole realms of verifiable knowledge to ordinary men (and sometimes women) who had previously been considered incapable of discerning truth for themselves…Influence, interests, factional prejudices, loyalty to the clan, respect for experts, the sacredness of traditional churches, eve deference to parents – all had been compromised by the intellectual history of the American founding…almost everyone agreed with what Timothy Dwight told generations of Yale students: common sense was ‘the most valuable faculty…of man.’”(2)

Into such a context Nevin spoke of mystery, historical rootedness in creeds and confessions, and the authority of the church and its ministers. It is little wonder his idiosyncratic blending of patristic thought, sixteenth-century Reformed Confessionalism, and German idealism and romanticism did not receive a warm welcome.

Even in the German context, Nevin’s ideas did not carry the day. This was evidenced by the controversy over the Revised Liturgy for the German Reformed Church. The liturgy was, by and large, framed by Mercersburg theologians sympathetic to Nevin and his theological scheme. D.G Hart points out that “the theological rationale for the liturgy brought all of Nevin’s previous theological writings together and as such revealed that the liturgical controversy was in effect a referendum on Mercersburg teaching.”(3) In the end, a controversy that lasted nearly four decades ended in the failure of the Mercersburg theology to win over the German Reformed Church where it really mattered – worship.

Setting aside his connection to the German church (and theologians and philosophers), Nevin had made enemies with one of the most influential Reformed scholars of his day. The rift between Hodge and Nevin continued till the end of their lives, and that certainly did not help Nevin’s cause. Hodge was the uncontested leader of Princeton and editor of the “strongest theological journal in the English speaking world.”(4) By comparison, The Mercersburg Review was a weak and insignificant.

On the merits, however, there is much to commend Nevin and his theology. Nevin’s diagnosis of the malady plaguing American Protestantism, though it often sounded alarmist, was essentially correct. The American Protestant Church, in the process of disestablishment and democratization was losing its hold on important articles of the faith, especially the church, and becoming increasingly sectarian and individualistic. In this condition, Nevin did not see how the church could last. In 1848 John Winebrenner published his History of all the Religious Denominations in United States. At the time, Winebrenner (a former German Reformed pastor who left to found his own denomination, the Church of God) listed approximately fifty denominations existing in the United States. That number has exploded in the past century(5). While many treated the birth of so many denominations as inevitable or even positive, Nevin considered it a “plague” and “vast reproach to the Christian cause.” In addition, Nevin correctly saw that the system of Christianity represented by the anxious bench was a dangerous slippery slope. By today’s standards, many of the innovations associated with Finney and the New Measures are quite tame. Nevin, it could be argued, would not be at all surprised by that. He understood that “no satisfactory stopping place can be found in the system of the New Measures… [it naturally flows] to the very worst excesses.”(6) He saw correctly that the pulpit was being transformed into a stage and that the people were developing a “morbid thirst for excitement.”(7) Those conditions continue to characterize large swaths of American evangelicalism.

Certainly, Nevin was not alone in his critique of sectarianism and revivalism; however, his prescription was distinctive. Nevin called for a return a church system with deeper roots. This too, I believe, should be applauded. In Doug Sweeney’s The American Evangelical Story, he concludes “…evangelicalism is not enough. We must stay rooted in the ground of Christian tradition. The eighteenth century twist [revivalism] was a boon to Protestant faith and witness, but insofar as we have parted from the rest of the Christian church, and the best of its resources, we have severed our own roots and starved our membership…we simply must sink more and deeper roots in Christian history.”(8) Nevin is another voice calling for the same.

On particular points, Nevin fails to convince me. Nevin’s conception of the incarnation is novel and owes much to his idealism and romanticism, more so than to his Bible or to a reading of church history. This is especially true regarding his notion of the generic principle and the overarching purpose of the incarnation. On the other hand, I believe Nevin was correct in seeing that systems of theology that reduces the incarnation simply to a prerequisite for the atonement slight the doctrine of the incarnation. There is more to meditate upon in the incarnation than its simply being a vehicle for God’s suffering and death.

In addition, I believe Nevin was right that the doctrine of the church must be allowed to play a central role in our understanding of piety and the Christian life. An appreciation of the church as the Body of Christ, his ongoing presence in the world, and the mediator of divine grace has been almost entirely lost in American evangelicalism. Nevin is certainly correct that we cannot hide behind a notion of the invisible church but must rekindle a deep love for the visible church. Furthermore, I agree with Nevin on the sacramental nature of the church and the essential role the sacraments play in the Christian life, individually and corporately. However, I remain unconvinced that a churchly system must be liturgical. In Nevin I found little in the way of solid reasoning on this point and simply a host of dogmatic statements regarding the necessity of a liturgical system.

While most will not agree with Nevin on every point, all would be enriched from a reading of his works. Nevin, through his historical theology and exegesis of passages like John 6, reawakens us to the beauty and mystery of the believers union with Christ. He adds a level of warmth and beauty to a Calvinism that has been seen as cold and merely legal. Moreover, he reminds us that Christianity is not lived in isolation, but in community with others in the Body of Christ. He reorients us away from individualist, “God and me” piety towards the deeper piety of the church and the sacraments. His theology, while at times straying, is robust and historical. It can only be hoped that the lessons Nevin tried to teach the church in the nineteenth century will be learned by the church heading into the twenty-first century.

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1. Jonathan G. Bonomo. Incarnation and Sacrament (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010),
2. Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University, 2002), 233.
3. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 217.
4. James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology, 1.
5. According to a study cited by Walter Conser Jr. in “Nevin on the Church,” there were 1,347 different religious groups in the United States. Obviously that would include non-Christian groups as well, but the vast majority are Christian denominations. Moreover, that is a pretty conservative number. Other estimates are less credible, but approach ten thousand.
6. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, 107.
7. Ibid, 117.
8. Douglas Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 184-185.

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