Tuesday, January 10, 2006

High Church Calvinist

D.G. Hart’s John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist is an interesting book. It is well written and easy to read. It is not a traditional biography, so do not expect to see the depth of Nevin’s friendship with Philip Schaff or discover what his married life was like. That was not Hart’s purpose in writing the book. It is more of a theological biography to show the reader the circumstances that aided Nevin in the creation of his unique brand of theology. The goal of the book is to show the reader John Nevin, and re-introduce him into the public world along with his theology, mainly the belief of the church as the mediator of grace. It is therefore a decidedly pro-Nevin biography.

I have several critiques of this book. The first is the scholarship of the book. I do this with great trepidation because Hart is an extraordinary scholar and historian. Yet, I felt that he neglected some major sources that should have been dealt with more carefully. I mentioned in a previous post that Hart fails completely to recognize the German Reformed Church known as the Reformed Church in the United States continues on today. He assumes the tradition disappears into the United Church of Christ, but that is simply untrue. I do believe that the book would have benefited by at least addressing the perspective of the continuing RCUS. You Shall Be My People, a book written to commemorate the 250th Synod of the RCUS in 1996, could have been consulted. Or even an interview with Rev. Robert Grossmann, who has written on the history of the RCUS and whose father led the Eureka Classis when it refused to merge and continued as the RCUS, would have been appropriate and helpful. It seems a good idea to define the German Reformed Tradition by talking to those who still speak German and minister in that church. I also think that James I. Good, a early 20th century historian in the RCUS, should have been consulted and his critique of Mercersburg Theology dealt with during this biography. Or at least references to Benjamin Schneck’s objections to the Mercersburg theology as outside of Protestantism. Both are listed in his biblographic essay at the end of his book, but he seems to write James Good off as a historian with a score to settle (pg. 258). Hart never concedes that Nevin may have been outside of the Reformed and Calvinistic traditions completely with his theology. He never really defends it either, and both Schneck and Good argue it rather well in their respective books. If Hart’s goals was to recommend Nevin to us, and I believe it was, then he needed to do a better job dealing with the actual controversy around his theology.

I also wonder if Hart completely sees Nevin’s High Church argument. Hart seems to argue for a return to the High Church conception of Nevin and then faults Nevin for neglecting preaching while he tried to re-emphasize the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Hart thinks if Nevin had emphasized preaching he would have won some Old School Presbyterian converts. Yet, it seems to me that Nevin would never have emphasized preaching. In fact, Nevin has no trouble saying a pulpit-based liturgy is ineffective and a source of problems. Nevin argues for an altar-based liturgy as the only way the church can be saved. This is not a neglect of preaching by accident, this is a neglect of preaching on purpose. Hart seems reluctant to admit that Nevin openly wanted a return to an altar-based liturgy, which is clearly out of accord with the Protestant Reformation. Hart believes that emphasizing the preaching of the word would have still fit with Nevin’s theology of the church as a mediator of grace, and attributes this failure to Nevin’s obsession with sacramental theology. Hart’s critique on page 214 even says that the Reformation used the pulpit over the table, and not an altar. Nevin was clear that he wanted an altar, and that the Reformation was wrong. Preaching did not fit his view of the church as mediator of grace. The sacraments were objective and the preaching was not. Nevin’s High Church argument revovled around this point, at least in the Liturgical Controversy portion of his career. Hart seems to miss this point, and view it as an oversight in Nevin rather than a direct result of his theology.

The rest of my objections are more minor points of disagreement. Hart seems to cast dispersions on opponents of Nevin such as Bomberger and Berg as insignificant reactionaries. These men did not produce great scholarly works, but they were hardly insignificant. They were major pastors of influence within the church. Hart only views other academic challenges to Nevin as real challenges. I also think he underplays the victory of Mercersburg Theology. In fact, he concludes that it lost out after the peace commission finished in 1887. I would argue that Mercersburg won. Hart admits the Mercersburg Liturgy was allowed to stay, but it was no longer mandatory. This is not a defeat, but a victory for Mercersburg. The German Reformed Church’s merger with a Lutheran denomination that had an altar liturgy and a sacramental view closer to that of Mercersburg than to the Old Reformed is telling of who really won in the peace commission.

The book as a whole is good, but I do not believe presents every side of the controversy surrounding Nevin and his theology.