Face It, Nevin Was Nuts

When I was in seminary, the Mercersburg theology of Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin was enjoying a significant revival. Lots of books, masters theses, and dissertations were written about these men and their movement. “Reformed Catholicism” was frequently defined according to Mercersburg priorities, namely an emphasis on the sacraments, a sort of formal liturgy, and an aversion to low-church Evangelicals (Baptists). Perhaps the most popular Mercersburg book was and continues to be Nevin’s The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. Nevin’s heroism was celebrated because he was seen as a nearly lone voice defending “Calvin’s view” of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and because he had supposedly defeated the much more famous figure of Charles Hodge in the process.

But as time has passed, we should take a second look at all of this. Indeed, I would argue that we, much like Kanye West’s relationship with the Book of Ephesians, have only “halfway read” this material. While it is true that Hodge departed from Calvin’s view on the Lord’s Supper, and thus the first two chapters of Nevin’s The Mystical Presence are sound, Hodge’s most important criticism of Nevin had to do with what is found in chapters three and four. And the material in those chapters is, not to put too fine a point on it, totally bonkers.

You see, Hodge wasn’t the only one who criticized Calvin. Nevin actually says that Calvin had a “false psychology” (pg. 147 of the 2000 Wipf & Stock ed. of Mystical Presence) which led him to come up a little short. There are “at times some apparent contradiction” in Calvin’s position (pg. 150), a claim on which Hodge and Nevin could shake hands. But the proper corrective was quite different for Nevin than it was for Hodge. Whereas Hodge wanted a form of Zwinglianism, in Nevin’s mind, a new psychology was needed, the modern German one which he had learned from August Neander, Friedrich Augustus Rauch, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. This new psychology led Nevin to recast the entire “nature of Christianity,” something he freely admits is a feature of “the modern period” (pg. 15) and of “the epoch formed by the theology of Schleiermacher” (pg. 25). The distinctive feature of this new modern period is the understanding of “the absolute unity of the divine and human” in the “one life” and “one person” of Christ (pg. 17, 27).

Now, you might protest at this point. Isn’t that just a reference to Chalcedon? Why should we be upset by that? But no, Chalcedon is not the main idea here. Nevin will explain, if you will listen to him. Nevin believes that church history is a development “from the simplicity of childhood to the consciousness of spiritual manhood” (pg. 16). This history began with “doctrine,” a characteristic of the “Grecian mind” and then moved to the “particularly… Roman… system of law” (pg. 16). After this came the “new life” of the “gospel” which was “effected chiefly through the German spirit,” a development whose main principle was freedom—freedom of conscience before God, but also ecclesiastical freedom (pg. 16-17). After all of this comes the modern era, what Nevin actually calls “the Church of the Future” (pg. 17). It is this modern church which fully and finally understands the unity of human and divine.

In fact, Nevin’s writings are full of an alarming ambiguity on this point. He appears to agree with Hegelianism when it says “Christianity has put an end to the opposition of the infinite and the finite, the divine and the human” (pg. 30), thinking that Hegel and his students simply did not extend this concept far enough. Later in his book, Nevin says things like “his [Christ’s] divine nature is at the same time human in the fullest sense” (pg. 164). Notice what was not written. Nevin did not say “Christ’s person is at the time human” nor “Christ’s person has two natures” nor “Christ’s divine nature is at the same time united with a human nature.” Rather, he wrote “his divine nature is at the same time human.”

Nevin even extends this beyond the individual person of Christ to the broader (what he often terms “organic”) concepts of mankind and nature. Some characteristically eyebrow-raising quotes are:

The incarnation then is the proper completion of humanity. Christ is the true ideal Man. Here is reached ultimately the highest summit of human life, which is as at the same time of course the crowning sense of the world or that in which it finds its last and full signification. Here the human consciousness itself, the medium of order and light for the sphere of mere nature, is raised into a higher sphere, from which a new life is made to pour itself forth again over the whole world. Man finds himself in God, and wakes to the full sense of his own being, in being enabled thus to fall back, in a full, free way, on the absolute ground of his life. The one only medium of such inward, living communication with the divine nature, is the mystery of the incarnation as exhibited in the man Christ Jesus. (189)

For the revelation of the supernatural under the Old Testament… was always in an outward and comparatively unreal way. It never came to a true inward union, between the human and the divine. The supernatural appeared above nature and beyond nature only. It never entered into it, and became incorporated with it, as the same life. However it might be made to influence the process of history, the development of humanity, in the way of instruction, or occasion, or motive, it could not be said to bring a new element into the process itself. But in the person of Christ, all is different. The supernatural is brought not only near to nature but into its very heart; not as a transient wonder, but to remain in union with it forever… It is no revolution of the old, no historical advance upon the past merely, that is here brought into view; but the introduction literally and strictly, of a new element, a new divine force, into the very organism of the world itself. (194)

These quotes show a clear historicizing philosophy at work. For Nevin, the opposition of finite and infinite, the “separation” so to speak of God and creation, was a fact prior to the coming of Christ. But with the incarnation, “a new element” is introduced into “the world itself” such that nature is “raised into a higher sphere” and man “wakes to the full sense of his own being” which is divine. Nevin does not believe that the Old Covenant believers had the same grace, for the new being had not yet entered into the world. A “new divine force” had to be introduced “into the very organism of the world itself.”

In his “preliminary essay,” Nevin summarized one line of Hegel’s thought in this way, “It is the nature of God to be human and to be divine is the nature of man” (pg. 28). It was not clear, at that point, whether Nevin agreed or not. But by the time one reaches the end of The Mystical Presence, it seems that he does. After the new element is added to the world, man awakens to find himself in God. Nevin will drop little lines like “nothing so natural, as the supernatural itself” (pg. 196) and “The creation itself becomes complete only in the Church, the life of nature in the life of the Spirit” (pg. 204). This is a historical evolution of existence and consciousness, something that was not true of the past, not even of the people of God in the Old Testament.

Nevin says in several places that this is not pantheism, but it is not at all clear how he avoids that conclusion. Perhaps the difference is that pantheism extends this to all of creation, whereas Nevin limits it to the church, though the church growing progressively over time: “The Church must have a true theanthropic character throughout. The union of the divine and human in her constitution, must be inward and real, a continuous revelation of God in the flesh, exalting this last continuously into the sphere of the Spirit” (pg. 232). Again, defenders might suggest ways of reading this in an orthodox fashion. Surely the Spirit is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the hearts of believers as they are individually regenerated. But this is Nevin we are talking about here. We can’t fall back into visible/invisible church categories or individualistic notions of regeneration. The union of human and divine is rather to be found in the objective rites and liturgies, in the visible ecclesiastical corporation. And, as stated before, and in contrast against the classic Reformed position, this is all entirely different from the church in the Old Covenant because a new element has moved it from standing in opposition to the infinite to existing in union with the infinite. We are now on the right side of history.

Hodge was right. This is weird stuff. It is at least a species of Eutychianism. The only reason this is not more obvious is that Nevin has not used the classical terms of theology. But if you translate “one theanthropic life” into “one theanthropic nature” or “one theanthropic spirit” or “one theanthropic mind” or “one theanthropic energy” it becomes clear enough. And this business of history progressing into new human-divine consciousness? Hodge says that it is simply Schleiermacher’s position being repeated. I don’t know Schleiermacher well enough to say, but whatever it is, it’s clearly modern. “Consciousness,” “organic law,” “new element”– this is a German and Romantic idiom.

And don’t miss the fact that this historical progress continues for Nevin. It moves from Old Testament to New to “Grecian” to “Roman” to “German” to “Modern.” Would anyone like to guess what the next stage of historical evolution will be? The history of the German Reformed churches in American might provide a clue. Led by the modern desire for “catholicity,” Nevin’s church, the old RCUS, merged with Evangelical Synod of North America. About 20 years later, it continued moving forward and formed the United Church of Christ. If a better candidate for “Church of the Future” exists, I can’t think of it.

Hodge was definitely wrong about the Reformed position on the Lord’s Supper. Nevin had him beat there. But sadly, the story doesn’t stop with that. For Nevin, the Lord’s Supper was really a jumping-off point. It was something that he could use to promote a much larger and much wackier system of doctrine. And we don’t do ourselves any favors by closing our eyes to this fact. It’s there, and it’s not good.

We can be thankful for the ways in which the Mercersburg revival got us reading more broadly, asking new questions, and going back to the primary sources. If it helped rescue Calvin, then hooray for that. But let’s give Hodge a little credit too. Nevin was nuts.


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