Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A History Lesson

The next thing that needs to be examined in the Federal Vision controversy is the idea of Historical and Theological development. I believe that this belief serves as the underpinning for the entire system. To show this a little history lesson is in order.

Historical Development (which includes the idea of theology developing) was popularized by Philip Schaff, a professor of Church History in Mercersburg Theological Seminary in the mid-1800’s. He came to America from Germany where he partook of the theology of Hegel. Schaff, while verbally denouncing Hegel, used Hegel’s idea of Synthesis to make a model of church history. For Schaff history unfolded as a series of conflicts between a thesis and an antithesis, which formed a synthesis, which in turn fought with a new antithesis forming a new synthesis, and so on and so forth. The process did stop at some point, but until then theology changed as the process moved on. Schaff preferred the term develop or grow to change, but you get the idea.

Schaff and his friend and fellow professor at Mercersburg, John Nevin, promoted this idea through their teachings and writings. Schaff’s first speech was entitled the Principle of Protestantism where he unfolded these ideas. The RCUS brought him up on charges, but failed to convict him. Schaff continued with a book, What is Church History, and Nevin wrote one called, Antichrist the Spirit of Schism, in addition to several articles. Here they taught that the Reformation was the budding of the Middle Ages, and that what was needed now was a reunion of Rome and Geneva. A church with the doctrine of justification by faith, but with the sacramental teachings of Rome. This was the next and final synthesis for Schaff and Nevin.

It should not surprise us then to know that after the battles concerning history subsided with a Schaff victory, the next step in Mercersburg Theology was the sacraments. Nevin and Schaff went on with those who followed them to teach a Roman view of the sacraments, reform worship to make it follow a liturgy and look much more Roman, as well as redefine views on the incarnation, salvation including justification, and the church. Again, it all flowed from this first principle of Historical Development. Of course this story ends with the heirs of Schaff and Nevin merging the RCUS with a Lutheran denomination, and eventually with some congregational churches to form the United Churches of Christ, an extremely liberal church.

How does this tie into the Federal Vision? Well, the two groups are strikingly similar. The views on the incarnation, sacraments and salvation are almost the same, and worship in many of these churches tends toward the high liturgy that Schaff and Nevin would have applauded. So, it should not surprise us that we see a shared view of Historical development. When we read Doug Wilson’s book "Reformed" is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant we should understand that what Wilson means is that we need to find that synthesis between the subjective doctrines of the Protestant church and the objective things in the Roman church such as their sacramentalism. It should also not surprise us that we find some in this camp who actively seek an audience with Roman Catholicism to work toward union, such as those on the Reformed Catholicism blog. After all, Schaff himself said the end purpose of historical development is Christian union.


Anonymous said...

What book would you recommend to study more about this area of church history? In addition, do you know if the Mercersburg Theology was at all related to the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church? Scaff and Nevin seem to have had similar ideas to Newman and Pusey.