Wednesday, December 22, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On the Lord's Supper (part 1)

Nevin’s theology of the incarnation and the church struck many as mystical and Romanist. Those charges were redoubled when it came to Nevin’s view of the sacraments. According to Nevin, the American church, even the Reformed branches, had veered away from a Calvinistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper in favor Zwingli’s memorialism – a move that qualified as a “serious defection from the original Protestant orthodoxy at this point.”(1) While Nevin’s claims and call for a return to the high views of Calvin over Zwingli were controversial, bringing him into sharp conflict with his Princeton mentor Charles Hodge, it was not to Nevin a minor point, but stood close to the heart of genuine Christianity. Nevin writes,

“The Question of the Eucharist is one of the most important belonging to the history of religion. It may be regarded indeed as in some sense central to the whole Christian system. For Christianity is grounded in the living union of the believer with the person of Christ; and this great fact is emphatically concentrated in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper; which has always been clothed on this account, to the consciousness of the Church, with a character of sanctity and solemnity, surpassing that of any other Christian institution.”(2)

For Nevin, the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was inextricably linked to ones doctrine of the church and the incarnation: “Low views of the sacrament betray invariably a low view of the mystery of the incarnation itself, and a low view of the Church also, as that new and higher order of life, in which the power of this mystery continues to reveal itself through all ages.”(3)

In The Mystical Presence, Nevin defines the Calvinistic view of the sacraments as involving a “real participation” with Christ’s living person. This participation is “not with the divine promise merely, not with the thought of Christ only, not with the recollection simply of what he has done and suffered for us, not with the lively present sense alone of his all-sufficient, all-glorious salvation; but with the living Saviour himself, in the fullness of his glorified person by the power of the Holy Ghost.”(4) Nevin is quick to point out that this fellowship is not merely with the Holy Ghost as Christ’s representative, but through the Holy Ghost a fellowship with the person of Christ. Nevin stands firm on this, “Here Christ communicates himself to his Church; not simply a right to the grace that resides in his person, or an interest by outward grant in the benefits of his life and death; but his person itself…Christ first, then his benefits.”(5) This emphasis on a real participation with Christ’s person Nevin found missing entirely from the “modern Puritan view”, having been replaced with a moral union only.

In addition, and consistent with Nevins understanding of the incarnation, Nevin argued that participation with the person of Christ meant participation with the whole person of Christ, including not only his divinity but also his humanity. “It is,” explains Nevin, “not figurative merely and moral, but real, substantial and essential.”(6) This old Reformed view the modern Puritan view “utterly repudiates, as semi-popish mysticism.”(7)

Despite taking great pains to distance himself from both Lutheran and Roman views of the Supper, the charge was persistent. He states plainly, “The Reformed doctrine admits no change whatever in the elements. Bread remains bread, and wine remains wine.”(8) Likewise, he did not want his view confused with Luther’s consubstantiation – the belief that Christ’s body was corporeally present “in, with, and under” the elements. In rejecting these two errors, the American Church had committed a completely different error – utterly denying the presence of Christ in any real way in the Supper. There is a way between these two opposite errors. The Reformed position that Nevin championed held that Christ’s body remained physically in heaven and that communion with his person was in no way local or corporeal, but spiritual. This does not mean unreal or that the believer’s commune is with the divine nature of Christ only. The believer who partakes in faith (no opus operatum), in the act of eating partakes of the body and the blood of Christ. Nevin unpacks this,

“[The Reformed position] allows the presence of Christ's person in the sacrament, including even his flesh and blood, so far as the actual participation of the believer is concerned … A real presence, in opposition to the notion that Christ's flesh and blood are not made present to the communicant in any way. A spiritual real presence, in opposition to the idea that Christ's body is in the elements in a local or corporal manner. Not real simply, and not spiritual simply; but real, and yet spiritual at the same time. The body of Christ is in heaven, the believer on earth; but by the power of the Holy Ghost, nevertheless, the obstacle of such vast local distance is fully overcome, so that in the sacramental act, while the outward symbols are received in an outward way, the very body and blood of Christ are at the same time inwardly and supernaturally communicated to the worthy receiver, for the real nourishment of his new life. Not that the material particles of Christ's body are supposed to be carried over, by this supernatural process, into the believer’s person. The communion is spiritual, not material. It is a participation of the Saviour's life.”(9)

Nevin makes it clear that Christ’s body and blood are not received orally or mechanically, but by faith.

Still aware that this view would sound un-Protestant to many, Nevin launches into an apt historical defense of the “real, spiritual presence.” Establishing his view in Calvin, Nevin continues to trace it through many of the early framers of the Reformed Church as well as several important confessions, including the Helvetic Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Belgic Confession, and especially the Heidelberg Catechism. Nevin even gives space to John Owen, a Puritan with a low view of the church, yet one who upheld that “Christ is present with us in an especial manner”(10) in the Supper.

More on the Lord's Supper in the next post.
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1. Nevin, Mystical Presence, 53.
2. Nevin, 51.
3. Ibid, 247.
4. Ibid, 57.
5. Ibid, 122.
6. Ibid, 58.
7. Ibid, 125.
8. Ibid, 59.
9. Ibid, 60-61
10. Ibid, 101.

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