Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best of 2010

Best CD's on the mellow side:
1. Train: Save Me, San Francisco (released late 2009). Just a lot of fun!

2. Mumford and Sons: Sigh No More. I love the cd, but the language means I can't listen to it at church or with the kiddo's in the care. Makes me want to drink a stout.

3. Zach Williams: Story Time. Best CD of the year for me. I love it. Don't know how to describe it, so just go and listen to it (for free at NoiseTrade)

Best CD's on the harder side:
1. Stone Sour: Audio Secrecy. Good, especially the hard stuff. I can leave the 'ballads'.

2. Stone Temple Pilots: Stone Temple Pilots. Fun. Groovy. Rockin.

3. Pearl Jam: Backspacer (actually released late 2009). There's only an album or two of Pearl Jam that I haven't really liked.

4. Apocalyptica: 7th Symphony. Didn't think I'd like this, but it's great. Cello rockers!?! The guest vocals make the album especially good.

5. 30 Seconds to Mars: This Is War Technically, it came out in Dec. 2009, but I got it in 2010. Great album. Creative

Best Christian CD's:
1. Caedmon's Call: Raising Up The Dead. Good.

2. Red Mountain Music: All Things New. Fantastic! This has some wonderful hymns - some I knew, others I wasn't familiar with. I love it.

Books (Fiction):
1. King Raven Trilogy (Hood, Scarlet, Tuck), Stephenen Lawhead. I loved these books and flew through them. Caleb also liked them very much. Wish there were three more books in the series!

2. Night Angel Trilogy, (The Night Angel Trilogy), Brent Weeks. This series is not in my typical genre. Filled with ninja type stuff, and magic. I loved it. Ok, so I'm not a classics kind of guy - that much we know.

Books (Theology, Spiritual, etc):
1. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, Tim Keller. Really good. Our small group studied through it. We dragged it out too long - it's a book to read in a week or less. We took 3-4 months. Still, great book.

2. Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to "The Passion of the Christ", by Stephen Nichols. Eye opening. It's witty, insightful, at times very depressing. Very good - wish every Christian in America would read it.

3.American Evangelical Story, The: A History of the Movement, Doug Sweeney (reread). I like history, especially the history of the church. Filled with blunders, heretics (Finney!), and screwballs, but still it's Christ's church and it advances. If you wonder how we, the church in America, got to be how we are, this is a great book.

4. The Pilgrim's Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come, John Bunyan. Classic. Rereading it, this time with the kids on Sunday afternoons before nap. Thanks Aunt Mary for the gift.

5.The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. Wonderful, practical, simple. No need to reinvent the wheel of ministry - just keep doing what the church as always done.

6. The Masculine Mandate: God's Calling to Men, Richard Phillips. Manly stuff. Good, not over the top, pound your chest and live wildly crap. Made me want to be a better father, husband and see my boys grow up to be godly men too.

7. The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism, Kevin DeYoung. I had little to no exposure to the Heidelberg Catechism till this year. DeYoung writes a great intro to it. We're not done with it, but faithfully plodding along in the mornings.

10. Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, DH Williams. We read this as a staff. It was a wonderful reminder of how indebted we are to tradition and how we should embrace it as a way forward.

11.Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany's Premier Biblical Theologian, Werner Neuer. I am in awe of Schlatter - his humble piety and his immense ability as a theologian (among other things). Wish I could find more about him and by him.

12. John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist, DG Hart). A great intro to Nevin's life and thought. Of the bio type books on Nevin I read, this was the best. Nevin is so out of step with American Evangelical Christianity, his alien perspective is a welcome corrective.

13. Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet, Jason Stellman. Ok, I have to be honest here - all the talk about the church transforming the world sound overly triumphalistic (and exhausting) to me now-a-days. The 'steady as she goes' approach to church and ministry; the doctrine of the two kingdoms and the spirituality of the church as won me over. Stellman's book is a great introduction to the two kingdom approach to church and life. I highly recommend it.

14. The Mystical Presence, John Nevin. This is a hard, dense book, but for a rich theology of the incarnation, the church and the sacraments, it's fantastic. If you can get through it, you'll be enriched, big time. You won't (shouldn't) agree with everything Nevin presents, but even where you disagree, you'll be challenged to rethink things you've probably just assumed. Oh, and it's free on GoogleBooks!

Movies (I saw in 2010 - often I'm slow in seeing movies, so most are from 09 or even 08):

1. I Love You Beth Cooper. Childish, and I laughed hard.

2. Hurt Locker. Great movie. I usually hate movies that are up for awards, but his was awesome.

3. ZombieLand. Great movie. Again, laughed hard.

4. Ninja Assassin. Ok, not high art - but people get their skulls cut in two. Makes for a great movie.

5. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I liked this a lot better than HP7.

6. Iron Man 2. As good as the first - and a great soundtrack.

7. Toy Story 3. I liked it better than TS2.

8. Clash of the Titans. Not as good as the original, but still a good movie.

9. Kick Ass. Guilty pleasure. What kid hasn't wanted to be a superhero!

10. Inception. Really cool. Reminded me of Jacob's Ladder from 1990.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Song of the Week

This song is from the latest episode of Smallville - still one of my favorites!

Paul Taneja, "City Lights"

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.


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.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On The Lord's Supper (part 2)

Several more points of contrast between the old Reformed view and “modern Puritan” view gives us a fuller appreciation for Nevin’s position. First, Nevin points out that in the Calvinistic view, the communion of the believer with Christ occurs which is beyond that experienced in common worship. Believer’s commune with Christ in the Supper in a unique way that is available in no other place. This is denied by in the Puritan view and Christ is held to be present in all aspects of Christian worship equally. Second, in the Reformed view the Supper is a mystery and indeed an actual miracle (11). The Puritan view empties the Meal of its supernatural element, eliminating the mysterious and miraculous.

The third point of contrast is extremely significant. Nevin contended that the old Reformed view held there was an objective force in the sacraments. Nevin explains, “The sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified is real, and holds in virtue of the constitution of the ordinance itself, not in the faith simply or inward frame of the communicant.”(12) The Roman Catholic Church, and to a lesser degree the Lutheran Church, err in merging the sign and the thing signified. Yet, the Puritan view errs in denying the thing signified has any real connection to the sign itself. Nevin is quick to remind his readers that the union of signified and sign only benefits the communicant who partakes in faith; yet, that it remains ineffective in some due to unbelief is in no way an argument against the connection of the signified with the sign. Moreover, the old Reformed position holds that the sacrament is a seal, not just a pledge of grace, and so “makes good the grace it represents, as actually communicated at the time.”(13) Over against this robust view, Nevin labels the elements in the Puritan view “bare signs”.

Despite the harsh critique, even from those within the Reformed tradition and Nevin’s own denomination, Nevin maintained this he was promoting the true Reformed position as articulated by Calvin (with some metaphysical modifications). Moreover, he defended his position stating, “There is no opposition between Christ and the Church, or between individual piety on the one hand and sacramental grace on the other; but just the reverse. Christ becomes full only in and by the Church, and personal experience is made solid and real, only as it rests on grace and appropriated from abroad.”(14) He was not against piety, only piety that disregarded the role of the church and the sacraments (just as he wasn’t against revival, only revival that was manipulative, and false).

In the end, the debate between Hodge and Nevin hinged upon who the Reformed community should look to on the Eucharist question. Many in Nevin’s denomination considered Zwingli the true founder of the German Reformed Church, and so Zwingli carried great weight with those so persuaded. Nevin argued, however, that in Calvin the doctrine of the Eucharist reached maturity, and so, though Zwingli preceded Calvin, Calvin’s thought was superior to Zwingli’s (15). Nevin writes, “It was not the Zuinglian [sic] view of the Lord’s Supper, but the Calvinistic view, in all its length and breadth …which was now recognized as the proper doctrine of the Reformed Church.”(16)

If Calvin is taken as the one to look to with regards to the Eucharist question, it does appear that Nevin had a better handle on Calvin than did Hodge. Doug Sweeney concludes, “Most people who studied the matter concurred that Hodge was more conservative in doctrinal demeanor but the Nevin was closer to Calvin on the Eucharist.”(17)

We can wrap up this series on Nevin soon, with a few concluding remarks by way of evaluating Nevin's theology and legacy.
11. Ibid, 118.
12. Ibid, 120.
13. Ibid, 121.
14. Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” 189.
15. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 117.
16. Nevin, Mystical Presence, 85.
17. Sweeney, Douglas A. “’Falling Away from the General Faith of the Reformation?’ The Contest over Calvinism in Nineteenth-Century America,” in John Calvin’s American Legacy, ed. Thomas J. Davis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 125.

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.
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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On the Church (part 2)

Regarding the catholicity, Nevin articulates his position clearly in a sermon preached in 1844, “Catholic Unity.” Walter Conser Jr. explains Nevin’s vision, “Not the Church divided and splintered but the Church unified, emerging out of its necessary organic development, encompassing its historical past, and pressing forward to its future accomplishments, this was Nevin’s vision of the true Church.”(17) Nevin was quick to emphasize the unity of the church is a fact that already exists, not a fact that must be brought into existence. The imperative “keep the unity” assumes and is grounded in a real objective unity. There is one body and one Spirit. Consistently, the unity of the church is, for Nevin, an organic unity, springing from the common life Christians share. He writes, “Every Christian, as such, is the subject of a new spiritual life, that did not belong to him in his natural state…The Christian has his life from Christ.”(18) Nevin opposes any sort of individualism or particularism, arguing “The members of the actual body are united to the head, only by belonging to the body itself. Separated from this, they cease to have any proper existence. And so it is here. We are not Christians, each one by himself and for himself, but we become such through the Church.”(19)

Nevin was not blind to the various divisions in the church, yet maintained that what is objectively true will only be realized subjective and experientially gradually. So it is in the individual Christian that the image of Christ will reveal itself more and more through life – that the seed of the new life which has already been implanted in the believer will grow slowly over time – and only at the glorification will the full fruit be manifest. Likewise, the inner reality of church unity will press itself outward only slowly. The ideal of church unity might fail to be realized for a time, but the state of disharmony and division will not prevail; indeed, it cannot. Nevin suggests, “The life with which it is animated does indeed seek an outward revelation in all respects answerable to its own nature; and it can never be fully satisfied, till this be happily secured.”(20) Nevin goes on to warn of several potential, yet erroneous responses to current divisions in the church. The first incorrect response is to treat divisions as necessary or good. Against this apologetic for denominations Nevin contends “Our sects, as they actually stand at this time, are a vast reproach to the Christian cause.”(21) Secondly, Nevin warns against attempts to force unity in an outward fashion by renouncing denominations and creeds. True unity must not be coerced, but must be free, spontaneous and the fruit of Christian love; consequently, it is the express duty of every Christian to strive for and pray for unity in the Body of Christ (22). Third, he does not allow Christians to simply retreat to a claim on the real unity of the invisible church. True unity must, according to Nevin, be expressed outwardly and visibly as well. “It belongs to the proper conception of it,” writes Nevin, “that the unity of the Holy Catholic Church should appear in an outward and visible way; and it can never be regarded as complete, where such development of its inward power is still wanting.”(23)

Nevin’s concern for the visibility of the church extends beyond a visible unity. While not dismissing the notion of the invisible church, he argues strongly that if the invisible be at all real, it must manifest itself visibly. He writes, ““The life of Christ in the Church, is in the first place inward and invisible. But to be real, it must also become outward…the Church must be visible as well as invisible. In no other way can the idea become real”(24). He draws a parallel between man and the church: a man’s body is not the sum total of the man – there is a soul to be considered also; yet, without a body there is no real man. “Humanity,” writes Nevin, “is not a corpse on the one hand, nor a phantom on the other.”(25) So, the inward life of the church and the outward form must go hand in hand – “Religion must have forms, as well as an inward living force.”(26)

Indeed, this emphasis on the visible church is connected to Nevin’s teaching on the mystical union of believers with Christ. This union, according to Nevin, involves not just a union with his divine nature, but his human nature also. Nevin posits, “We must not sunder the supernatural in Christ, form the life of his body which is the Church.”(27) The natural and the supernatural have been joined forever, originally in Christ and now in the church. The church in its mediatorial role does stand between Christ and his people, but “only as the body of a living man is between one of his limbs and the living soul by with it is quickened and moved.”(28) D.G. Hart summarizes, “The church, in other words, was the manifestation in the natural world of the resurrected Christ, literally and supernaturally the body of Christ.”(29)

Nevin understood that, rightly appreciated, the “theantropic” character of the church must have impact on ones perception of the sacraments. Nevin’s controversial understanding of the sacraments will be covered in the next couple of posts.


17. Walter H. Conser Jr. “Nevin on the Church,” in Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth-Century America, Sam Hamstra Jr. and Arie Griffioen, ed., 97
18. John Williamson Nevin, “Catholic Unity,” in The Principle of Protestantism by Phillip Schaaf (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1845), 195. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
19. Ibid, 200.
20. Ibid, 202.
21. Ibid, 204.
22. One could reasonably ask if Nevin lived up to this call. Nevin’s polemic was often heated, often uncharitable, often loaded with labels such as heretic, gnostic, Pelagian, Ebionite, docetic, “bastard protestantism”, etc.
23. Nevin, “Catholic Unity,” 201.
24. Ibid, 201.
25. Ibid, 201.
26. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench, Second Edition (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1844), 51. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
27. Nevin, Mystical Presence, 246.
28. Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” 187.
29. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 75.

Monday, December 20, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On the Church (part 1)

Turning to John Williamson Nevin's understanding of the church, we are approaching an area of his thought that I found particularly convicting. His understanding of the incarnation was thoughtful, interesting, quirky. Though it gave me a lot to meditate on, his view of the church and critique of modern (19th century) Protestantism was devastating. It is all the more so today. I'll cover this in two posts.

One of Nevin’s constant themes was that Christianity is no system of doctrines or moral code as such, but a life – the life of Christ lived out through his people in the church (1). The new life which Christ particularized is now made manifest in the church, his Body. Nevin contended that a belief in the “one, holy, catholic Church” flowed necessarily from a belief in the incarnation of Christ. In his Vindication of the Revised Liturgy he maintains that true Christian theology rooted in the Creed must be “churchly” since “it [the Church] flows with necessary derivation from the coming of Christ in the flesh.”(2) Likewise, he argued that “a doctrine of Christ which brings with it no doctrine of the Church, as an article of faith in the order of the ancient Creed, must for this very reason be counted incomplete and unsafe.”(3) Thus we see the inextricable link between the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the church in Nevin’s mind.

In 1858 Nevin saw that “in almost every denomination we have, if not an open, at least a sort of quiet and silent war, going forward between the less churchly and the more churchly…involving still as far as it may reach the old conception of the Holy Catholic Church.”(4) The church question was not just a matter of specifics on the “periphery” of the church system, but went instead to the very heart of Christianity. The question, as Nevin formulated it was “what the Church itself must be held to be in theory or idea.”(5) In addition, it must be determined, “Is the Church really and truly a constituent part of Christianity, the necessary form of its existence or being in the world?”(6) The answer to these questions must precede, and will in large measure determine answers to questions regarding the sacraments, episcopacy, liturgy, etc. Such particular questions are invested with a great significance if the church is determined to be essential to the heart of Christianity; on the other hand, if the church was deemed dispensable, then the secondary questions faded in importance dramatically. How this question is answered, moreover, sets a gulf, a gulf between a churchly and an unchurchly system, that is deeper and wider than any other theological question in the church – leading in fact to “two Christianities.”(7)

The question of the essential nature of the church to Christianity, hotly debated in Nevin’s day, was according to Nevin a non-issue in the early church. Nevin writes, “They answered the question in the affirmative, and considered treason to the Christian faith to think of answering it in any other way.”(8) As evidence, Nevin holds up the ecumenical creeds which hold up the church “as being of the essence of Christianity.”(9) Nevin argues that it the significance of the church in the Apostle’s Creed goes beyond its appearance as an article of faith, contending instead that the whole structure of the Creed would be undone if the church was not present. In a sentence few evangelicals would accept today Nevin declares, “The Church was for them a fact deeper, and wider, and nearer to the proper life of Christianity than the Bible.”(10) The church, for Nevin, played a role in God’s scheme of salvation. Nevin charges “Puritanism” with failing to acknowledge the interdependence of the articles of the creed and their logical order; consequently, they fail to see how faith in Remission of Sins or the Resurrection of the Dead are dependent upon “the supernatural constitution of the Church.”(11) For Nevin “all the benefits of the Christian Salvation “…are, in the view of the Creed, fruits of the Spirit, which are to be found only in the Church, the home of the Spirit.”(12)

The disregard into which the doctrine of the church had fallen among American Protestants in Nevin’s day was due to a failure to conceive properly the connection between “Christ in the flesh” and the church; consequently, Nevin writes, “the true idea of the Church and its relation to the Saviour’s living person, is in truth the great question of the age.”(13) Nevin sought to reestablish the truth that the church is Christ’s ongoing presence in the world – the medium of communication between Christ and his people. Nevin writes, “a living Christianity, as distinguished from a doctrinal theory or philosophical school, necessarily implies the church, which is the Body of Christ, the organ and medium of his presence in the world, and in this view ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ as well as the channel of all spiritual blessings to his people.”(14)

Nevin uses the “allegory of the body” to unpack the nature of the union between Christ and his Church in The Mystical Presence. He writes, “the ground of unity in the Church is always represented by Paul to be of a far deeper nature than is to be found anywhere else; nothing less, in fact, than the life of Christ himself, mystically flowing through its entire constitution.”(15) He continues, “The new human life in Christ reaches over, as a central uncompounded force, by the Spirit, into the persons of Christ’s people.”(16) Likewise, the image of the vine proves very useful for Nevin his attempts to articulate the organic unity of Christ and the church in which the life of the church, the branches, is none other than the life of Christ, the vine. Two important thoughts regarding the nature of the church flow from Nevin’s teaching, namely the catholicity and visibility of the church - both will be covered in the next post.


1. John Williamson Nevin, “The Sect System,” in Catholic and Reformed, 153.
2. John Williamson Nevin, “Vindication of the Revised Liturgy,” 378.
3. Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures”, 605.
4. John Williamson Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” Mercersburg Review 10.2 (April 1858), 181. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
5. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” 187.
6. Ibid, 189.
7. John Williamson Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church, Second Article, Mercersburg Review 10.3 (July 1858), 396. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
8. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” 191.
9. Ibid, 192.
10. Ibid, 193.
11. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church, Second Article,” 391.
12. Ibid, 392.
13. Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” Mercersburg Review 2.2 (March 1850): 169.
14. Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures,” 604.
15. Nevin, The Mystical Presence, 230.
16. Ibid, 231. In this section, Nevin also warns against separating Christ from the Spirit so that we assume we fellowship with the Sprit and not with Christ through the Spirit. He insists that Christ’s promise to send a comforter (John 16:7) is the same, in essence, as his promise “I will come to you” (John 14:18). He writes, “The whole glorified Christ subsists and acts in the Spirit. Under this form his nature communicates itself to his people” (229).

Song of the Week

This song comes off Zach Williams 'Storytime' - an album I found on NoiseTrade.com. It may be my favorite album of the year. This isn't the best song on the album, but it's a good one, and it was available to embed. Check out the full album on NoiseTrade.

Zach Williams, "Names That Fell"

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.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Catechism #55-58

I've gotten behind in posting.

Question #55: What do you understand by "the communion of saints"?

Answer: First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members (Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 6:17; 12:4-7, 12-13; 1 John 1:3; Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:20-27; 13:1-7; Phil. 2:4-8).

Question #56: What do you believe concerning "the forgiveness of sins"?

Answer: I believe that God, because of Christ's atonement, will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, in his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment (Ps. 103:3-4, 10, 12; Mic. 7:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:18-21; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; Rom. 7:21-25l John 3:17-18; Rom. 8:1-2).

Question #57: How does "the resurrection of the body" comfort you?

Answer: Not only my soul will be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head, but even my very flesh, raised by the power of Christ, will be reunited with my soul and made like Christ's glorious* body (Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Cor. 15:20, 42-46, 54; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2)

*The first edition had here the German word for "holy." This was later corrected to the German word for "glorious."

Question #58: How does the article concerning "life everlasting" comfort you?

Answer: Even as I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, so after this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God eternally (Rom. 14:17; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 2:9).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

John Williamson Nevin: On the Incarnation

John Nevin’s writings on the incarnation elucidate the central role the incarnation plays in genuine Christian theology. Between the years 1845 and 1851 Nevin’s engaged the doctrine of the incarnation extensively, first in the publication of his major work The Mystical Presences as well as in a series of articles that appeared in the new Mercersburg Review – “Wilberforce on the Incarnation” (1850), “Trench’s Lectures” (1850), “Liebner’s Christology” (1851), and “Cur Deus Homo?” (1851). After this, it appears as though the doctrine of the incarnation drops from Nevin’s attention entirely. One commentator on Nevin’s theology asserts that after his engagement with Müller in “Cur Deus Homo?” Nevin’s whole doctrine of the incarnation “ran out into a question mark and remained unresolved.”(12) While it is true that there remain questions regarding Nevin’s exact understanding of the necessity of the incarnation, it is not correct to assume that the doctrine was lost for Nevin. In fact, all of Nevin’s future writings on the church, the sacraments, and the liturgy should be seen as an outworking of his doctrine of the incarnation. These were inseparable in Nevin’s mind. So Nevin would write, “A theology which is truly Christocentric, must follow the Creed…with this, must be churchly’ and with this again, must be sacramental and liturgical.”(13)

For Nevin the incarnation was not just important for the doctrine of the church, but foundational for the whole Christian system of doctrine. In The Mystical Presence, Nevin asserts, “The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s revelations. It is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s works, and brings to light the true meaning of the universe.” (14) He continues, “All nature and all previous history unite, to form one grand, universal prophecy of his presence.”(15) Nevin understood all creation in its “lower forms” to be looking up to man as its culmination. “The inorganic struggles towards the organic; the plant towards the animal; and the animal nature, improving upon itself from one order of life to another, rests not till it is superseded finally by the human.”(16) Man is the capstone of creation, or in Nevin’s words “the centre of nature.” For Nevin, this pattern of “looking up” does not truly terminate with man, but man himself anticipates Christ in its incompleteness. Nevin’s contends that humanity “is never complete till it reaches his person.”(17)

What is true of nature is also true of history – it is pointing to Christ as its culmination. Nevin writes, “History, like nature, is one vast prophecy of the incarnation, from beginning to end.”(18) History is the moving forward towards the union of divine and human as the completion of humanity. It is, as one commentator on Nevin summarized, “the arena within which the divine discloses itself dynamically through the human.”(19) In addition, other religions, though “essentially false” carry sparks of truth which bear witness to Christ. Nevin writes, “All prophesy of Christ; for all proclaim the inmost want of humanity to be a true union with God, and their character is determined simply by the form in which it is attempted in each case to bring this great life problem to its proper resolution.”(20) Of Judaism, Nevin suggested, “It might be said in some sense to carry the Gospel in its womb.”(21)

This raises the question which seems to have preoccupied Nevin for some time: is the incarnation necessitated by sin, or was the idea of the incarnation in God’s mind before and apart from the entrance of sin into the world? This question is raised in The Mystical Presence (1846) as well as in several articles in the Mercersburg Review in 1850 – 1851. Discerning clearly Nevin’s own view on this question is difficult, in part due to the writing style of the three articles on Trench, Liebner, and Müller. These three theologians had different answers as to what made the incarnation necessary, and it is difficult to ascertain clearly where Nevin is simply summarizing the contents of their material and when he is in agreement. In the 1850 presentation of Richard Trench’s works The Hulsean Lectures and The Star of the Wise Men, Nevin heaps commendation on Trench and his work: “They are works which we are able to commend with a good conscience, to all who take an interest in theology and religion…we look upon it as no small gain for the cause of our common Christianity, if the ministry generally, not of one denomination only but of all, might be brought to give them their serious and patient attention.”(22) Throughout the article there is a summary presentation of Trench’s main ideas with little (no) critique. Thus, one could assume that Nevin is in agreement with Trench’s understanding of the incarnation. In the midst of a lengthy extract from Trench, of which there are many, we read:

“It is oftentimes considered the chief purpose of Christ's Incarnation, that it made his death possible, that it provided him a body in which to do that which merely as God he could not do, namely to suffer and to die ; while some of the profoundest teachers of the past, so far from contemplating the Incarnation in this light, have rather affirmed that the Son of God would equally have taken man's nature, though of course under very different conditions, even if he had not fallen—that it lay in the everlasting purposes of God, quite irrespective of the fall, that the stem and stalk of humanity should at length bear its perfect flower in Him, who should thus at once be its root and its crown.”(23)

Trench makes it clear that, in his estimation, the view that makes the incarnation simply a means to the atonement to be a “slighting” of the doctrine.

Similarly, though with a different nuance, Liebner suggests that the incarnation is “the true heart and core of all religion,” and “the principle or foundation of the whole scheme of thought.”(24) Nevin quotes Leibner at length,

“God creates humanity, to communicate himself to it as his personal creature, in the way of real revelation, and so to bring it into perfect communion with himself, which is the full idea of religion. This real self-manifestation, self-communication of God to humanity, completes itself and finds perfect satisfaction only in the central and universal person of the God-man, which forms accordingly the completion of humanity itself. The purely harmartological, soteriological method of accounting for the incarnation…is no longer sufficient…Sin served only to bring in this modification, which indeed reaches far and deep, that now Christ appears also as a Redeemer and Sacrifice.”(25)

Liebner identifies a real dilemma for theologians. On the one hand, most would assert that man’s telos is full and perfect communion with God. At the same time, most would accept as true that this is only realized through the incarnation. “The incarnation becomes thus the absolute and unconditional centre of God’s free purposes of love towards the world.”(26) So, in Liebner’s scheme of thought, one must accept either that the incarnation was in God’s mind prior to and independent of the fall, or that God purposed the fall to facilitate the incarnation (which runs the risk of making God the author of sin), or finally that God’s plan hinged entirely upon chance (would man sin or not)? Again, Nevin offers little by way of critique in his presentation of Leibner (other than the confusing style of writing). At the same time, he exuberantly praises Liebner’s work as “a most valuable addition to modern scientific theology.”(27)

The third article that must be considered is the presentation of Julius Müller’s doctrine of the incarnation from later in the same year, 1851. According to Nevin, Müller
“allows a large merit to Liebner’s work, and considers it an important contribution to theological science…but he rejects as unsound and unsafe the thought on which it rests throughout, that the necessity of the Incarnation lies primarily not in the fall of man but in his creation…Müller refuses to acknowledge any necessity for the Incarnation, beyond the existence of sin and the idea of redemption.”(28)

Once again, the article is a simple re-presentation of Müller’s main points and not a review or critique.

Obviously Nevin cannot agree with all three men, but which he sides with is uncertain. Hart speculates that in giving Müller the last word, Nevin may have been indicating that he had come to agree with his assessment (29). While tentative, I disagree with Hart’s assessment. Something close to Trench’s or Liebner’s understanding of the incarnation as God’s intention apart from the fall seems to follow necessarily from Nevin’s ideas of the incompleteness of humanity. This is borne out in his article “The New Creation in Christ” (written prior to “Cur Deus Homo?”) where he argues, “Christ is the sense of all previous history, the grand terminus towards which it was urged from the beginning; while in this very character, at the same time, he brings into union with it a new divine force, which was not in it before, though required from the first to make it complete”(30). Similar emphasis can be found in The Mystical Presence (also prior to “Cur Deus Homo?”) where Nevin writes, “Humanity itself is never complete, till it reaches his person…The incarnation then is the proper completion of humanity. Christ is the true ideal Man. Here is reached ultimately the highest summit of human life.”(31) Moreover, “The introduction of sin … only served to add a deeper emphasis to the meaning of life, in the view now noticed.”(32) Lastly, in a letter to Henry Harbaugh, written sometime after 1860 (and a decade after “Cur Deus Homo?”), Nevin argues, “Christ saves the world, not ultimately by what he teaches or what he does, but by what he is in the constitution of his own person.”(33) It seems the concept of the incarnation evident in Trench and Liebner was there also in Nevin prior to his engagement with them and after his engagement with Müller. To this writers knowledge, Nevin never disavowed this view.
12 James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago: University Press, 1961), 150.
13 John Williamson Nevin, “Vindication of the Revised Liturgy,” in Catholic and Reformed, Charles Yrigoyen Jr. and George H. Bricker, ed (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishing, 1978), 381.
14 John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence (Philadelphia: S.R. Fisher & Co., 1867), 199. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
15 Ibid, 200.
16 Ibid, 200.
17 Ibid, 200.
18 Ibid, 201.
19 Arie J. Griffioen, “John W. Nevin on the Mystical Presence,” Calvin Theological Journal 32.2 (1997): 337.
20 Nevin, Mystical Presence, 202.
21 Ibid, 204.
22 John Williamson Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures,” Mercersburg Review 2.6 (November 1850): 604. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
23 Ibid, 619.
24 John Williamson Nevin, “Liebner’s Christology,” Mercersburg Review 3.1 (January 1851): 55; Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
25 Ibid, 64.
26 Ibid, 70.
27 Ibid, 65.
28 John Williamson Nevin, “Cur Deus Homo?” Mercersburg Review 3.3 (May 1851): 221. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
29 D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 147.
30 John Williamson Nevin, “The New Creation in Christ,” Mercersburg Review 2.1 (January 1850): 8. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
31 Nevin, Mystical Presence, 200.
32 Ibid, 201.
33 John Williamson Nevin,”Letter to Henry Harbaugh” in Catholic and Reformed, 408.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

John Williamson Nevin - His Life

John Williamson Nevin was born in 1803 near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania to Martha and John Nevin. John Sr. was a well-educated Presbyterian (Scotch-Irish) farmer. According to his biographer Theodore Appel, John considered it “an important part of his youthful training and worthy of note” that he grew up on a farm “in the midst of a people of plain and simple manners.”(1) More important still was his baptism and catechetical training in the Presbyterian Church in Middle Springs under John Moody, who served the congregation for fifty years. The church life of the Middle Springs had retained much of its old world, Scotch-Irish heritage, and had not been dramatically Americanized during Nevin’s childhood. Appel describes the style of Presbyterianism that nurtured young Nevin as “sacramental,” “educational,” and “churchly”. He continues, “It was staid, systematic, grave and somewhat sombre, making much account of sound doctrine; wonderfully bound to old established forms, and not without a large sense of the objective side of religion as embodied in the means of grace. There was much of this manifested, more particularly in the use of the holy sacraments.” (2)

At the age of fourteen Nevin would leave home and church to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York – a privilege made possible by his uncle Captain John Williamson. Appel considers it a mistake to have sent John to college at such a young age and it certainly proved to be challenging for Nevin as a timid, small boy. The spiritual challenges were great also. At Union, Nevin came under the influence of an “unchurchly piety” that left him reeling. Appel comments,

“He had come to college as a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, pious without exactly knowing it, never doubting that he was in some way a Christian, although, unfortunately, as he says, he had not as yet made a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on him by this unchurchly system was that all this must pass for nothing, and that he must learn to look upon himself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God—in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity—before he could get into either in the right way.” (3)

During his time at Union he experienced a conversion under the revival ministry of Asahel Nettleton. By all accounts, Nettleton was a responsible itinerant and not a manipulative showman. In other words, Nettleton was the best representative of revivalistic Protestantism at the time. Indeed, Nevin held Nettleton in high esteem; however, Nevin would still refer to his experience as coming under "the torture of their mechanical counsel and talks," and of the vague notion of hope he received and which was counted as “all that the case required.”(4) The shift away from an assurance based on the objective historical facts of the gospel to an assurance based on an intensely subjective experience was not healthy for Nevin. In fact, upon graduation from Union, Nevin returned to the family farm for a two year convalescence, sick in body (dyspepsia) and soul.

In 1823, having regained a modicum of health, he took up preparation for Presbyterian ministry at Princeton. Unlike his experience at Union, Nevin would look back on his time at Princeton as “the most pleasant part of my life”(5). Nevin spoke in his autobiography of the great privilege of sitting under men like Dr. Alexander, Dr. Miller, and Professor Hodge(6). Despite his recollections of the pleasantness of his study, he still struggled in his soul between the two competing forms of piety that refused to reconcile themselves to each other. During this time, Nevin threw himself into the study of Hebrew and the continental theologians and church historians, including Augustus Neander (7). Brenner points out that Neandar’s evolutionary theory of history opened for Nevin “vast domains of thought for re-exploration.”(8) While Nevin’s exposure to Neander would prove to have a programmatic influence on Nevin’s thought life for decades, his mastery of Hebrew would also prove important as he was selected to substitute as the seminaries Hebrew teacher in Hodge’s absence, having traveled to Europe for further study. During those two years Nevin published his first book, A Summary of Biblical Antiquities.

Upon graduation from Princeton, Nevin was licensed to preach by the Carlisle Presbytery. After a short stint in pastoral ministry, Nevin was called as professor of biblical literature at Pittsburgh’s Western Theological Seminary in 1838. During his time at Western he was ordained by the Presbytery of Ohio and threw himself into the study of church history, especially Neander, in preparation to teach on the subject at Western. In 1840 Nevin accepted, somewhat reluctantly, a call by the German Reformed Church to lead the denominational seminary in Mercersburg. Brenner describes the moves, “Nevin found himself head of a Seminary that had no money, no professors, and a student body that always reminded him of the collect ‘where two or three are gathered together.’”(9) In 1841 Nevin added to his duties the position of president of Marshall College.

Nevin did not wait long to enter into controversy. The first wave of it came in 1842 when Nevin refused to support, and for all intents and purposes blocked, the call of Williams Ramsey as pastor of the German Reformed church in Mercersburg. Ramsay had utilized the anxious bench in his candidating sermon, thus showing his revivalistic tendencies. In 1843 Nevin published The Anxious Bench, a heated polemic against the New Measure of Finney. So began Nevin’s career as a controversialist, a career that would indeed be long.

In 1844 Nevin was joined at Mercersburg by Phillip Schaff, and again controversy found Nevin after the delivery and publication of his sermon “Catholic Unity.” The charge of being too Roman began in 1844, but is one that would follow Nevin his entire life. In 1846 Nevin published The Mystical Presence, and controversy escalated as Charles Hodge became an outspoken critique of Nevin. Beginning in 1849, Nevin wrote extensively for the Mercersburg Review, contributing over 75 articles in his career (10).

In addition to controversy and poor health, Nevin was facing a spiritual crisis regarding the nature of the church, a crisis that many thought would lead Nevin to Roman Catholicism. In 1852 Nevin entered into a period of retirement in which he was free to consider his theological position in relation to Protestantism without the encumbrance of teaching and writing. The retirement would last until 1861, though during this period he was still somewhat active in the pulpit and college life. After 1861 Nevin began lecturing again on church history and philosophy. In 1866 Nevin was thrust back into the role of president and would remain in that role until 1876.
The liturgical controversy in the German Reformed Church found Nevin, as it seems bound to have. The controversy put him into conflict with John H.A. Bomberger and would, in many ways, serve as a referendum on Nevin and Schaff’s theology. The controversy over a revised liturgy would last several decades and led to the publication of Nevin’s A Vindication of the Revised Liturgy. The controversy deeply divided the German Reformed Church and in the end, the liturgy fell into disuse.

Nevin finally retired in 1876, but lived an additional ten years outside the theological spotlight, dying in 1876. Nevin’s funeral, as Hart points out, shows how obscure a theologian Nevin was even in his own day. The service was not attended by dignitaries, theological or otherwise. Of those who spoke at his funeral, only A.A. Hodge (son of Charles Hodge) was of note to those outside the German Reformed Church (11). Despite his obscurity, Nevin’s theological scheme is worth examining at some length - stick with me, it gets a lot more interesting!

1 Theodore Appel, The Life and Word of John Williamson Nevin (Philadelphia: Reformed Church Publication House, 1889), 29. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
2 Ibid, 31.
3 Ibid, 37.
4 Theodore Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin, 38. Appel quotes from Nevin’s My Own Life without citation.
5 John Williamson Nevin, My Own Life: The Earlier Years (Lancaster, PA: Historical Society of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1964, 26. Quoted in D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2005), 47.
6 Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin, 46. Appel quotes Nevin’s My Own Life without citation.
7 Scott Francis Brenner, “Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology,” Theology Today 12.1 (April 1955): 48.
8 Ibid, 48.
9 Brenner, “Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology,” 50-51.
10 Sam Hamstra Jr. and Arie J. Griffioen, eds., Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth Century America: Essays on the Thought and Life of John Williamson Nevin (Lantham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), xvi.
11 Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 226.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

John Williamson Nevin, Part 1

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.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tug of War Over Jesus

In response to a newsweek article on a meeting of moderate Christians to think through, in preparation for the 2012 campaigns, a response to the religious rights rhetoric, Jason Stellman (Creed Code Cult) raises the questions, "How ought the Reformed Christian to react to all this? What should be our response to learning that, come presidential campaign season, both the Democrats and Republicans will be playing tug-of-war with Jesus?"

First, "any proponent of two-kingdoms theology should feel very uncomfortable with the idea that the solution to the conservative politicization of the Christian faith is cheering on liberals when they try to do it."

Second, "we must remember that our Reformed doctrine of the liberty of conscience means that one man’s utopian dream is may very well be another man’s nightmarish dystopia."

Third, "America does not have any role in God’s redemptive plan for planet earth. The kingdom of Christ is manifested in this age in the visible church, not in any nation-state, regardless of how noble its history or how lofty its ideals."

Fourth, "Obama is not a socialist."

Lastly, "Lastly and most importantly, American Christians need to remember something that we so easily forget, and that is that our true homeland is an eternal, heavenly one whose allure cannot be compromised by the goings-on of the culture war."

When I finish my paper (tonight), Stellman's book Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet is the first on my list!

Song of the Week

I love "The Little Drummer Boy" and I love Bob Seger (what can I say, I'm a Chevy guy again). The video is so cool, I had to post it. If you don't like it, close your eyes.

Bob Seger, "Little Drummer Boy"

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Catechism #53 & 54

Question #53: What do you believe concerning "the Holy Spirit"?

Answer: First, he, as well as the Father and the Son, is eternal God. Second, he has been given to me personally, so that, by true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his blessings, comforts me, and remains with me forever (1 Gen. 1:1-2; Matt. 28:19; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 4:6; Gal. 3:14; John 15:26; Acts 9:31; John 14:16-17; 1 Pet. 4:14)

Question 54: What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?

Answer: I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member (John 10:14-16; Acts 20:28; Rom. 10:14-17; Col. 1:18; Gen. 26:3b-4; Rev. 5:9; Isa. 59:21; 1 Cor. 11:26; Matt. 16:18; John 10:28-30; Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:3-14; Acts 2:42-47; Eph. 4:1-6; 1 John 3:14, 19-21; John 10:27-28; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 1 Pet. 1:3-5)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Song of the Week

This is off the new Red Mountain Church CD "All Things New" - go buy it (I did)! As far as church music goes, Red Mountain produces my favorite rendition of old hymns. Sojourn would be a close second.

Red Mountain Church, "Come Ye Pining"

I didn't mean to post this till Monday, but oh well - two songs this week.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Conference I'll be Skipping

Just ran across this:

Providential History Festival Promo from ProvHistory on Vimeo.

Nope, don't think I'll be attending. Besides the hokeyness of it, it's promoted by the Chalcedon foundation - a "Christian educational organization devoted to research, publishing, and promoting Christian reconstruction in all areas of life." Sound good, but not so much. Here's a little more (from Wikipedia - not always the best source, to be sure):

"In presenting a theonomic view of biblical law, the foundation is often referred to as promoting theocracy and dominionism. According to the group's web site:

We believe that the whole Word of God must be applied to all of life. It is not only our duty as individuals, families and churches to be Christian, but it is also the duty of the state, the school, the arts and sciences, law, economics, and every other sphere to be under Christ the King. Nothing is exempt from His dominion. We must live by His Word, not our own.

The Chalcedon Foundation has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center."

Certainly Rushdoony, the founder, held pretty strong racist views. Besides that, he looks like Count Dooku!

<- Rushdoony :: Count Dooku ->

Zombies are on the Move

My favorite TV show this fall has been AMC's The Walking Dead - which probably means it will only last a season or two. Thanks Doug for telling me about it.

Russell Moore writes a blog on Christian Ethics that I frequent. This past week he posted about why zombies are making a comeback in American entertainment, engaging with an article in the Times, My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead, by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman contends,

"The main truth about zombies, he argues, is that zombies, dead as they are, keep coming. As soon as you “kill” one dead man, there’s another right behind him. “In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work emails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche.”

Moore goes beyond Klosterman,

"I think there’s more to it than Klosterman’s technological overload scenario. The zombie represents what it means to feel dead and yet unable to stop living. That’s, at root, a spiritual condition before it’s a sociological one. Those familiar with the Christian story know that the primal human sin brought about the sentence of death. What we don’t often note is that this death penalty was itself radically gracious. After joining the serpent in his insurrection against God, the man and the woman were spiritually cut off from the life of God. They were dead. God exiled them from the Garden of Eden not because he was spiteful toward them, but to get them away from his appointed means of their ongoing life, the Tree of Life. God sent the sinful humanity out of the sanctuary “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22)."

The whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and a note on the pic - I couldn't find a good zombie pic, so I found one of Lynn's ex-boyfriend. Remarkable resemblance!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Great Day in History

Today is a great day in US History - a day that marks the reversal of a great wrong set right. Thank you Utah for your vote!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Guarding our Faith or Being Faithless

I have sometimes considered theological studies at a liberal or secular institution like IU or Yale, but have always stayed with more evangelical institutions (Houghton, TEDS, Covenant). Part of it was wanting to be fed and to grow spiritually through my educational pursuits and the other part is not wanting to fight my way uphill all the time as a theological conservative (relatively speaking). I wonder, though, if part of the reason is fear - wanting to guard and protect my faith.

Last night I took a break from reading John Williamson Nevin (an obscure American theologian) to read a biography of Adolf Schlatter (Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany's Premier Biblical Theologian) (an obscure German theologian). I was struck by the decision making process that led Schlatter into theological studies as a University student. At first Schlatter steered clear of theological studies, arguing "Theological study is dangerous and could easily shake one's faith." Of course, German theological study was mainly of the highly critical nature, so his concern was legitimate. However, his sister was of a different opinion. She argued that to avoid theological studies for this reason was cowardly and faithless.

Schlatter eventually changed his mind and pursued theological studies, concluding that "if I avoided theological study out of fear I would not be preserving my faith but actually giving it up." Again, "I came to the conclusion that avoiding theological study to preserve faith was rank hypocrisy, and this conclusion brought decisive consequences." His biographer goes on to write that Schlatter's anxieties were not without foundation, and his studies did bring him to a crisis of faith where he even doubted the existence of God. However, "he also insisted that to act solely on the basis of this anxiety would not be an act 'from faith' because it would fail to take account of the capacity of God's preserving grace."

I understand Schlatter; yet, I think there's another truth that we must hold in tension with this. There seems to be plenty of encouragement from Scripture to 'guard your heart', to protect oneself from false teaching, etc. There is a 'garbage in, garbage out' dynamic to be on guard against.

How do you balance these two seemingly conflicting calls - the call to guard oneself vs. the call to have faith in God's ability to preserve our faith? I don't know, but it seems like a healthy dose of honest, self evaluation is important. I think it would have been unwise for me to have sat under and allow myself to be taugh by liberal/secular theologians during my undergraduate years. I had more biblical/theological training than most undergrad having grown up in a pastors home. However, it wasn't of the kind that exposed me to critical objections to the Bible and to the Christian faith. I would have been unprepared to handle them. At the same time, now, I think it would be faithless to steer away from such interactions simply out of fear of losing faith (though the fear of doing the work and not being granted a degree because of a conservative outlook is very real).

Here again, in this tension, we run headlong into the tension between God's sovereignty in preserving us and the call upon us to keep the faith and not allow ourselves to be shipwrecked. I don't think there is an easy way to remove the tension, and I think the Bible is intentional on that.