Saturday, December 18, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On the Incarnation (part 2)

Beyond the question of the purpose of the incarnation, Nevin also showed concern for a proper understanding of the nature of the incarnation. He was concerned that the popular Christian notions of the incarnation were actually sub-Christian and heretical. In The Mystical Presence he shows alarm that the church’s understanding of the person of Christ is more Gnostic (Docetic) or Nestorian than Christian. This was especially true of how Protestants had come to view the risen and ascended Christ and understand their communion with him. Nevin repeatedly insisted that Jesus was a whole, unified, genuine person with a true human nature as well as a true divine nature. He condemns the gnostic tendency of popular Protestantism to make Christ a mere “phantasm” or “theophany” or “avatar”. He warns against falling into the “condemnation of Nestorius” – the division of Christ into two separate persons, one divine and the other human (1). Likewise, he guards against any type of Apollinarianism, arguing “to divide Christ’s humanity is to destroy it”(2) and that the human nature cannot be divided into soul and body, but constitute together “but one life.”(3)

A proper understanding of the incarnation – two natures inconfusedly and indivisibly meeting in the one person of Christ – played a major role in Nevin’s understanding of the mystical union (as well as the church, and the Lord’s Supper). Nevin argues that true communion with the Word-made-flesh means communion with his human nature as well as his divine. “The mystical union includes necessarily a participation in the entire humanity of Christ.”(4) On the flip side of this truth, Nevin also contends that we too are “embraced by it [the mystical union] not in a partial but whole way.”(5) The implications of this will be fleshed out more fully below in the discussion on Nevin’s theology of the church and the sacraments.

Before moving past Nevin’s understanding of the incarnation, we must take note of his innovative notion of a generic assumption of humanity in the incarnation. Here Nevin made a distinction “between the person of Christ in an individual view and his person considered generically.”(6) He writes in the Mystical Presence, “The Word became flesh; not a single man only, as one among many; but flesh, or humanity in its universal conception.”(7) This is Nevin at his most creative (or “quirkiest”), possibly his most heterodox, and his most indebted to the Romantic and Idealist philosophers and theologians from Europe. Nevin acknowledged that Calvin and the Reformed tradition had not made this distinction, calling the lack a “source of embarrassment” for Calvin and his followers(8). Yet he maintains “the entire scheme of the Christian salvation requires and assumes throughout this view of the incarnation and no other.”(9) In his presentation of Wilberforce’s work on the atonement, which he asserts is in substantial agreement with his own presented in The Mystical Presence, Nevin writes, “Humanity, as a single universal fact, is redeemed in Christ, truly and really, without regard for other men, any further than as they are made to partake of his redemption by being brought into living union with his person.”(10)

While this seems to lead inevitably to some version of universalism, Nevin makes a key distinction between “All” and “Whole” that rescues, maybe, his position. Nevin suggests that most have a view of humanity that is simply a collection of particular individuals – or a “living sand-heap.”(11) However, Nevin puts forward a view of humanity that is more organically united – united in such a way that the “parts of the whole draw their being from the universal.”(12) Wentz explains, “Wholeness is very present, very concrete, but points to a reality greater than the individual parts separately or collectively considered.”(13) Nevin uses the illustration of a forest multiple times. All the oak trees in a forest are simply an “expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn” (14); likewise, each individual person is also an involved in the generic principle or root. As Adam was the root of humanity, so Christ is the root of the new humanity; not just a man, but the man, from which the new humanity springs. Viewed from the generic standpoint, Christ is the man “in whose person stood revealed the true idea of humanity” and so “his life is carried over…continually into the persons of his people.” (15)
For Nevin, this organic understanding of humanity, emphasizing “wholeness” and not “allness,” had impact on one’s understanding of imputation. It was, he believed a healthy corrective to the cold, legal, federal theology prevalent in the day. He writes,

“The Word became flesh; not a single man only, as one among many; but flesh, or humanity in its universal conception. How else could he be the principle of a general life, the origin of a new order of existence for the human world as such? How else could the value of his mediatorial work be made over to us in a real way, by a true imputation, and not a legal fiction only…He [Adam] stood in the case as their federal heal, because he was their true organic head…Christ too is the federal head and representative of humanity as a whole…Not in the way of a mere outward imputation…but on the ground of a real community of life.”(16)

The notion of Christianity as a life lay near the center of Nevin’s theology, and is teased out more fully in his writings on the church, which I’ll post soon.


(1) Nevin, Mystical Presence, 170.
(2) Ibid, 170.
(3) Ibid, 171.
(4) Ibid, 169.
(5) Ibid, 170.
(6) John Williamson Nevin, “The Mystical Union,” Weekly Messenger (October 8, 1845): 2091. Quoted by Richard E. Wentz, John Williamson Nevin: American Theologian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 70.
(7) Nevin, Mystical Presence, 210.
(8) Ibid, 160.
(9) Ibid, 211.
(10) Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incartaion,” 175
(11) Nevin, Mystical Presence, 164.
(12) Wentz, John Williamson Nevin, 72.
(13) Ibid, 72.
(14) Nevin, Mystical Presence, 160.
(15) Ibid, 161.
(16) Ibid, 211-212.

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