Friday, November 24, 2006

Mercersburg and the Church

The concept of the Church in Mercersburg is intertwined with the rest of theology, but we can see a few important features that differ from Reformed theology. Without any systematic theologies, we are left to put together the Mercersburg Theology for ourselves using the broad outlines given in Nevin’s letter describing the tenants of Mercersburg Theology. The theory of the church is perhaps best seen in Nevin’s Vindication of the Revised Liturgy. In this booklet we see Nevin using the foci of being objective and historical to drive his view of the church. The subjective, or not physical, seems to really bother Nevin and his theory allows him to make the Gospel objective in nature rather than subjective. I think all can agree that Jesus Christ was real and historical that what the gospel says is true and thus it is objective, but Nevin goes on to state that it would not pass out of the realm of existence. Enter the church into his theology. Nevin states

It is not enough for this purpose, to have memories only of what was once such a real presence in the world. ("Vindication" Catholic and Reformed: Writings of John W. Nevin, pg. 378)

This is where Nevin goes to ‘the Creed’, by which he means the Apostles’ Creed. He views the creed not as propositions but as describing the progress of grace in the world. Thus, for Nevin the place of the Holy Catholic Church in the Creed is essential. Nevin claims the church then is after the Incarnation as a necessary consequence of it, and is the only way in which the Holy Spirit can work. He openly avows the church as an article of faith, which ‘we believe in order to understand’.

If we are to hold fast the objective, historical character of what this work was first, and still continues to be, in His own Person, it cannot be allowed to lose itself in the agency of the Spirit under a general view; it must, necessarily, involve for us the conception of a special sphere; this likewise objective and historical; within which only (and not in the world at large), the Holy Ghost of the Gospel is to be regarded as working. This is the Church. (Ibid., 378)

If one remembers the Apostles’ Creed you will remember that the Holy Catholic Church comes between the Holy Ghost and the Forgiveness of Sins. Nevin argues that this placement is purposeful and a progression; thus, the Church must come before the forgiveness of sins.

So far as this goes, of course, it owns and confesses that the Church is a medium of communication between Christ and His people. They must be in the order of His grace, in the sphere where this objective working of His grace is actually going forward, and not in the order of nature, where it is not going forward at all (but where Satan reigns and has his own way), if the work of redemption and sanctification is to be carried forward in them with full effect. (Ibid., 380)

He goes on to explain how such a churchly theology must give a sacramental theology and that must give a liturgical theology. That can be left for another post, I think we have enough here to discuss already. I would like to make a few observations before opening up for comments.

The first observation is that the Heidelberg Catechism does not follow the understanding of Nevin. It seems to treat the Creed as a serious of propositions rather than a historical development as Nevin held. It also speaks of the Holy Catholic Church in Q54.

That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself, by His Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church, chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.

There is no indication of the Church standing between the people of God and Christ, rather it is simply the gathering of those people. Ursinus goes on under this question to discuss the idea of the invisible church, which the objective-historical Nevin rejects in his formulation. Ursinus does say that there is no salvation outside of the church, but rather than claiming this is because the Church is the medium of grace he states it this way:

Because those whom God has chosen to the end, which is eternal life, them he has also chosen to the means, which consist in the inward and outward call. Hence although the elect are not always members of the visible church, yet they all become such before they die.

Ursinus indicates there is no salvation outside of the church because God’s elect will always join the church. The phrase ‘no salvation outside of the church’ for Ursinus seems directed against those who want to claim salvation and remain apart from God’s people, rather than granting some special powers to the church over ‘redemption and sanctification’ as Nevin argues.

Second, Nevin’s historical argument from the Apostles’ Creed and the placement of the Holy Catholic Church is wrong. The ‘Holy Catholic Church’ phrase is not found where it is before the 3rd Century. The Antiochene churches omitted it completely, and Fulgentius places it at the end of the Creed. One also finds versions from Priscillian that put it prior to the Holy Spirit. These arguments undermine the extensive use of the Creed in Nevin’s argument (in fact many accused Nevin of placing the Apostles’ Creed above the Bible).

Of course there is much more to the view of the church of Schaff and Nevin, but it is time to open the post up for comments.


Bud said...

It follows logically, then, that whatever is objective in the world is the work of the immanent God, re: the Holy Spirit, who is the God of history. {The Father is god of creation [Israel]; the Son is god of doctrine [Christianity]; the Holy Spirit is god of history [World Religions].)

Hence, the Holy Spirit is in all things, even Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism which even denies God. The Holy Spirit, therefore, denies Jesus as the Savior, but is working to bring about the society of man and the superchurch of peace and love.

There is an article in a recent issue of Modern Theology that says this very thing.

polymathis said...


One does not find much on Nevin over the internet. I ran across his teachings (naturally) in history class (w/ Dr. Grossman). (I do reference him in my M. Div. thesis on weekly communion). Nevin & Co. always struck me as possible nascent Federal Visionists. You seem to have access to the works. What do you think?

Lee said...

I do believe that the modern movement of Federal Vision is a revival of Mercersburg Theology. FV has a few new wrinkles from NPP scholarship and things of the like, but it is mainly Nevin and Schaff all over again. They are quite open about their reliance on Nevin for their understanding of the sacraments.

Also, the works of Nevin and Schaff are more and more available today. They are coming back into print.

polymathis said...

Have you read Hart's new work on Nevin? What are your thoughts ( you can email me: )