I finished up a paper on John Williamson Nevin today. I don't always share my papers, but Nevin was very challenging, and very encouraging to me. So, with modifications, I'll share my paper over a series of posts.
John Williamson Nevin is a nineteenth century theologian little known in the contemporary evangelical world. If he were well know, it is quite unlikely he would be liked. Though his personality does seem to have been a bit contentious, it is his theology, his views of the church, and his views on the state of Protestantism in the middle of the nineteenth century that would make him unlikeable to many. He was an intellectual and evangelicals have a deserved reputation for being anti-intellectual. He liked order, tradition, and liturgy; contemporary evangelicals favor freedom and spontaneity. He viewed the church as an indispensible institution mediating God’s grace to the world; evangelicalism has treated the church as a voluntary institution and little more. He was Reformed; evangelicalism of the last century has been dominated by Arminianism. Even in Reformed circles, it is unlikely he would be received well by all. He was no fan of the Puritans, not even the beloved Edwards. He shared sharp words with Hodge and other Reformed theologians. Evangelicalism today, even Reformed evangelicalism, is radically out of step with the vision Nevin pursued in his ministry and writing.
That is not to say, however, that Nevin should be neglected. If Nevin’s critique of 19th century revivalistic, low church, anti-sacramental evangelicalism was at all correct (and in large measure I believe it was), it should be heard all the more today. Those aspects of evangelicalism that Nevin found troubling have ripened in the contemporary American church. Moreover, from Nevin’s pen aspects of theology were presented for reflection that have been largely, and to our detriment, ignored. The issues he wrote extensively on – the church, the sacraments, and the incarnation – are not themes that are often treated today. Evangelical thought is dominated by the atonement over the incarnation, church growth over the nature of the church, and serious contemplation of the sacraments is usually left to the Roman Catholics.
On occasion an alien perspective can be a much needed corrective. Nevin may provide just such an alien perspective. His theology is sometimes beyond comprehension, “quirky”, and possibly even mistaken. However, he was an astute spokesman for a churchly style of Christianity, and there have been few of them in the American church.
Since context is important, I'll start by offering a brief outline of Nevin’s life, especially as it affected his theology. The second grouping of posts will examine three interrelated loci of Nevin’s theology: the incarnation, the church, and the sacraments. Lastly, we'll evaluate Nevin’s theological and ecclesiastical contributions and contemplate how the 21st century evangelical church should respond to Nevin.