Monday, July 17, 2006

History Lesson for the Mercersburg Revival

As each denomination works through the Federal Vision issue, I think it useful to step back as see where the RCUS failed to deal with it in its more original form, Mercersburg Theology. I do believe that Federal Vision is really nothing more than a revival of the Mercersburg System, and in that respect the RCUS could have done the world a favor in the mid 19th century. The failure for the ‘Old Reformed’, as the opponents of Mercersburg where then called, was twofold.

First, the top down structure that grew in the RCUS. This really began with the creation of the seminary itself, and the accompanying rule that forbid any other place of education. It gave the seminary great power, and with it all of the seminaries proponents. As Mercersburg Theology grew and spread it seldom actually made its way to disciplinary or judicial action. This is because the machinery of a top down denomination was controlled by the proponents of the Mercersburg Vision. Philip Schaff was only put on trial once for his beliefs, and that time the trial was about to be declared out of order, but Schaff waived his rights in order to have the trail. He was declared not guilty, but more proof was found the next year, and the Philadelphia Classis renewed its charges. This time Schaff did not waive his right to have the Board of Visitors of the Seminary investigate the charges before any trail would take place. And while the Board of Visitors did give him a verbal slap, and made him promise to not teach such doctrines in the Seminary, no judicial action was ever taken. After that the Board of Visitors simply refused to hear any more complaints, and with the Board of Visitors rejecting complaints, no trial could take place. Within a few years large scale debates about Liturgy would take place that had John Nevin in print rejecting the theology behind a pulpit based liturgy, and no charges were filled. Why? Because the denomination was controlled the Mercersburg men. They did not have to have a majority to run the denomination, they only had to have control of the machinery, which they did. The Presidents were always Mercersburg men, the Board of Visitors was always Mercersburg Men, the mission boards, you name it, they controlled it. A lesson well worth remembering. In a top heavy denomination, like the PCA for example, it only takes a few key positions to be held, and it no longer matters who has the majority of churches, members, delegates. It is always unimportant.

Second, the Old Reformed types often quit rather than fight, especially in the early stages. For example, in 1822, only two years after the vote for a seminary had been answered in the affirmative, a group of ministers broke off to form the Free German Synod. These ministers may have been able to turn the tide, or at least significantly change the impact of the seminary that would eventually produce the Mercersburg Theology. By the time this group rejoined the RCUS, it was far too late. The early antagonists of the Nevin and Schaff also deserted when they appeared to be stopped. Joseph Berg, the one who brought Philip Schaff up on charges, ended up leaving to join the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1853, just as the Liturgy wars were heating up, the North Carolina Classis withdrew from Synod specifically because of the “heresies of Mercersburg”. Losing an entire Classis of ‘Old Reformed’ men hindered the ‘Old Reformed’ cause in the fight that ensued. The Civil War took away more Southerners, who generally opposed the Mercersburg movement.

In the end, the Mercersburg Theology won the day. They controlled the key positions in a top heavy denomination, such as the seminary, the President, and other various posts like missions, and publications. They also succeeded in discouraging political and theological battles, which eased their path to victory. These are lessons that every denomination should remember, not just as it examines the Federal Vision, but as it examines any controversial issue it faces.