If you frequent this site, one figure you may hear me (and others) reference from time to time is a theologian by the name of John Williamson Nevin. Gabe wrote a very good post a few days ago which is filled with helpful quotations from both Nevin and Philip Schaff. Recongnizing that Nevin’s name may be a bit unfamiliar to some, I offer this very brief introduction to Nevin’s theological career in order to aid those who may have never been exposed to him previously. I plan to post a few essays I’ve written in order to expound the main features of the Mercersburg theology (named for the system of thought advocated by Nevin and Philip Schaff) here in the near future, and my hope for this introduction to Nevin’s career is simply to offer a small bit of historical context for these.
John Williamson Nevin
John W. Nevin (1803-1886) was an American theologian who taught at Mercersburg Seminary—the seminary of the German Reformed Church in the United States—in Pennsylvania from 1840-1851. Nevin was originally a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, born on Feb. 20, 1803, in Franklin County, PA. As one of the premier Protestant theologians of the nineteenth century, Nevin wrote numerous books, tracts, and journal articles propounding what would come to be known as the Mercersburg Theology. The Mercersburg Theology grew up in the bosom of Reformed Protestantism and was in many ways a reaction against the sectarian, individualistic character of American Christianity, and sought to bring the Church back to a more historical, sacramental, and churchly way of life by pointing to the Christianity of history as it is contained in the historic Creeds and propounded by the great theologians of the Church throughout the ages
Nevin grew up in a high church Presbyterian setting at Middle Spring Church in Shippensburg, PA, in the Cumberland Valley. At age 15, he went to Union college in Schenectady, NY, where the school was in the midst of a season of revival. The revivalistic setting into which Nevin was thrust at this time was something he had not been exposed to previously. This produced within him a struggle between two different forms of religion: the objective, catechetical system of his childhood, and the subjective system of this revivalism which he would later see as symbolized by the “anxious bench.”
After graduating from Union, Nevin went home, broken in body and spirit. He spent quite a bit of time working with his father on the family estate until he eventually decided to study divinity at Princeton Seminary. Upon Nevin’s arrival in New Jersey, Princeton was divided between New School revivalism and Old School Presbyterianism, and thus was in some ways symbolic of the struggle occurring within Nevin himself between the subjective approach to Christian piety encouraged by revivalism and the more objective, organic approach instilled in him by his Scotch-Irish Presbyterian roots.
At Princeton, Nevin mastered Hebrew, French, and German, and was eventually appointed by Charles Hodge to fill in for him for two years teaching Hebrew while Hodge studied in Germany. He eventually took a position as chair of Biblical Literature at the newly founded Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburg, where he immersed himself in the thought of the sixteenth century Reformers as well as the early Church Fathers. From Pittsburgh Nevin accepted a call in 1840 to the German Reformed Church’s seminary in Mercersburg, thus switching denominations. He could not have known at this point how dramatically his life and thought were to be changed by this move.
Nevin was virtually unknown at this time in his career, especially among the German churches, but history would prove what a brilliant choice the denomination made to select him as the Seminary’s next theological professor. The situation Nevin found himself at Mercersburg left much to be desired. Scott Francis Brenner has described the state of the Seminary upon Nevin’s arrival: “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.’”Within a short period of time, however, Nevin would revitalize the seminary and in many ways the entire denomination. With the arrival of Philip Schaff in 1844, the two great historical theologians would collaborate as the chief formulators of one of the most original and fascinating theological systems of nineteenth century America. Brenner notes the significance of the combination of Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg:
The meeting of Nevin and Schaff was like the concurrence of two heavenly bodies of the first magnitude. The splendor which ensued is known as the Mercersburg Theology, for these two intellectual giants of the Presbyterian-Reformed household of faith wrought out a theological system of singular boldness, relevant to its time distinctively ecumenical, and of unquestioned enduring worth.
It was during his career at Mercersburg—which was just over a decade long—that Nevin would produce most of his best known and most representative theological works. In 1844, Nevin produced his work The Anxious Bench, which was an all out assault on the revivalistic system of religion characterized by the “New Measures” of Charles Finney which Nevin saw as symbolized by the “anxious bench.” Over against this view of Christian spirituality, Nevin advocated what he called the “system of the catechism.” In 1846, Nevin wrote what is remembered as perhaps his best theological work: The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic View of the Holy Eucharist. This work represents Nevin at his best: a brilliant historian and theologian who possessed an uncanny ability to synthesize great insights gleaned from the history of the church with the profound idealistic philosophy he inherited from German theologians such as Friedrich Scheiermacher, all within a distinctively orthodox Protestant system of thought. According to B.A. Gerrish, The Mystical Presence “deserves to be ranked among the classics of American theological literature.”Two years after the publication of The Mystical Presence, Nevin produced his fullest all-out assault upon the sectarianism of nineteenth century America (which deeply troubled him throughout his life) in a work titled Antichrist, or the Spirit of Sect and Schism, which was published in 1848. In this work, Nevin equates sectarianism with the Antichrist spoken of in John’s first epistle (1 John 4:1-3). In a tremendous display of historical ingenuity and realistic Christocentricism, Nevin argues that sectarianism is in effect a denial of the incarnation. He contends that since the church is the Body of Christ, to deny its objective reality is to deny the incarnation of the Son of God, and that it is this denial of the objective reality of the church (the spirit of Antichrist) which had led to the sectarianism of nineteenth century America.
The year following the publication of Antichrist marked the beginning of the Mercersburg Review, one of the best known theological journals of the mid-nineteenth century. Nevin was editor and chief contributor of the Review. During the first five years of its existence, he produced nearly half of the journal’s contents, averaging over 300 pages per year from 1849 to 1853. The articles published by Nevin in the Mercersburg Review reveal the historical and Christocentric character of his thought, and demonstrate that he was becoming increasingly removed from and pessimistic about the state of Protestant Christianity in nineteenth century America.
By 1854, Nevin had resigned from the Seminary and from most of his other public duties. He entered a period of depression and spiritual reflection out of which he never quite seemed to emerge. He continued to write journal articles here and there and to preach on occasion, but the vigorous and prominent critic of American Protestantism and advocate of churchly, Christ-centered spirituality who had written so forcefully and eloquently in the latter half of the 1840s and early 1850s never quite re-emerged. John Williamson Nevin died at home on June 6, 1886.
Lessons to be Learned from the Mercersburg Theology
There are many lessons which I think the Mercersburg Theology propounded by Nevin and Philip Schaff has for us, but three stand out to me as the most important to be noted for our current ecclesial situation: 1. The Mercersburg men demonstrate in grand fashion the fact that a Christ-centered spirituality is by no means exclusive of high Church sentiments (by “high Church” I mean those views which see the Church as holding a vital, ordinarily essential, role in a person’s salvation). 2. In my opinion, Nevin and Schaff (but Schaff moreso) render ludicrous the oft-cited assertion of Newman: “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” They were both Protestant historians of no small talent and learning who were confirmed in their Protestant convictions through their exhaustive knowledge and nuanced understanding of ecclesiastical history. 3. Perhaps most importantly, the ecumenical thrust of the Mercersburg theology demonstrates that a desire for Christian unity is not necessarily exclusive of strong theological convictions founded on historic Christian orthodoxy and confessional Reformed doctrine. I hope that the papers I post here on the Mercersburg theology will serve to develop these three themes to the benefit of our readers.