Nevin the Organic Progressive

My last post on Nevin won the hearts and minds of all reasonable men, and so I thought I would do well to add a sequel. Don’t worry, I also plan to write a critical essay on Hodge (fair’s fair!), but Dr. Nevin really does need another treatment to be properly understood.

A major feature of Nevin’s system of doctrine in The Mystical Presence is that humanity had a sort of “natural” (maybe it’s a supernatural-natural) evolutionary end. This all struck me as a sort of romantic-idealist metanarrative of progress, and so I wanted to take a look at what Nevin had to say about progress elsewhere. This was a fairly regular feature of his thought, as it was also quite central to Philip Schaff’s philosophy of history. For Nevin, this progressive view of history was actually what he saw as a saving grace. It kept him from defecting to Catholicism (or perhaps even worse spiritual fates). One place where he discusses it at some length is in his two-part essay Early Christianity, originally published in The Mercersburg Review 3rd & 4th volumes (1851-1852). This has been reprinted in the Pickwick Press series Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin, vol. 3, ed. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. and George H. Bricker (1978), which is the source from which I will be quoting.

In Early Christianity, Nevin is open about his own theological struggles. Due to his studies in early church history, and particularly his interaction with mid-19th cent. church historians (including the Tractarians), he has come to a strong conviction that early Christianity was indeed Roman Catholicism. He says this plainly in several places:

Nicene Christianity, the system which the fourth century inherited from the third and handed forward to the fifth, was not Protestantism; much less Puritanism; bore no resemblance to this whatever; but in all essential principles and characteristics was nothing more nor less than Romanism itself. (pg. 270, ed. Yrigoeyn)

The Nicene Christianity was in its whole constitution of one order with Romanism. (270)

Both historically and logically the premises of the fourth century complete themselves in the full Papal system, and under any form short of this are something, not better than such proper conclusion, but in all respects worse. (271)

Notice in those quotes how Nevin does not say that Nicene Christianity would or could easily become Romanism. No, he says that it was Romanism “in all essential principles and characteristics” and “in its whole constitution.” Indeed, “the full Papal system” was the proper completion of the historical and logical “premises” of the fourth century. Any other contingent option would have been worse.

Indeed, Nevin even goes so far to say that, starting in the 2nd century, a “system” was already present which had a “natural end” in Roman Catholicism:

The church from the fourth century back to the first part of the second was not Congregationalism, nor Presbyterianism, nor Methodism, nor Anglican Episcopalianism, nor any other phase of Protestantism as it now stands. It had its own changes great and serious during this period; but through them all it bears a certain sameness of character peculiar to itself, with which none of these modern systems is found to agree. It carries in it from the beginning elements and tendencies, from whatever source derived, that look steadily towards Romanism, the later system in which all at least actually reached their natural end. (pg. 277)

This is all extremely inflammatory material, at least to a “Reformed Catholic” of 16th or 17th century vintage. Imagine a Cranmer, Bucer, Ursinus, or Ussher reading such. One’s beard begins to bristle.

But this is where Nevin is. He credits the work of Isaac Taylor (pg. 264), among others, with convincing him of this position, and the editors tell us that Nevin resigned his professorship in part due to this identity crisis (pg. 175). So then, why didn’t Nevin just submit to the pope? For that, we must look to the future.

The key to saving Protestantism was, for Nevin, “the idea of historical development… the only possible way of escape” (pg. 288). The church, considered as a whole (though necessarily not limited to one ecclesiastical polity), must be a living animal which grows over history. It must follow “the law of organic progress” (pg. 289).

This law of organic progress is similar to Dr. Newman’s “development of doctrine,” but it differs precisely in the amount of progressive discontinuity. Nevin believed that Newman only understood progress as a seed growing into flower along a more or less consistent path. The truth, as he saw it, however, was quite different. History, and organic entities living through history, progressed in a somewhat violent manner, with inherent contradictions which go on to cause explosive reactions which themselves have new errors which will cause new reactions, all which will lead to a future stage of development which has a basic continuity with all prior stages but which also corrects all prior stages.

Nevin explains his theory in some detail:

This German idea of development, as we may call it, is not the same with that presented to us by Dr. Newman. The last is a continuous expansion and enlargement under the same form and in the same general direction; the process involves no disorder or contradiction in its own movement; it is the full sense always, as far as it goes, of what the church was in fact and intention from the beginning; it is the simple coming out of this sense, in a view answerable to the new relations of its history from age to age; each stage of development is by itself normal and full, and so of force for all time; all moves thus in the line of Catholicism only, without the possibility of growing into anything like Protestantism; on which account accordingly, this must be regarded as a corruption of the original idea of Christianity, by which it is changed into another type and fashion altogether. It is not easy in truth to conceive of the old Catholic system blossoming into Protestantism, in the way of any such regular and direct growth; and there seems to be no room therefore, for the supposition, that Dr. Newman’s conception of development goes against the pretensions of the Roman church. The German theory however does do so, in the most emphatic manner. Its idea of growth is that of a process carried forward, by the action of different forces, working separately to some extent, and so it may be even one-sidedly and contradictorily for a time, towards a concrete result representing in full unity at last the true meaning and power of the whole. Each part of the process then is regarded as necessary and right in its own order and time; but still only as relatively right, and as having need thus to complete itself, by passing ultimately into a higher form. Catholicism in this view is justified as a true and legitimate movement of the church; but it is taken to have been the explication of one side of Christianity mainly, rather than a full and proper representation of the fact as a whole; a process thus that naturally became excessive, and so wrong, in its own direction, preparing the way for a powerful reaction finally in the opposite direction. This reaction we have in Protestantism; which in such view springs from the old church, not just by uniform progress, but with a certain measure of violence, while yet it is found to be the product really and truly of its deeper life. Here again however, as before, the first result is only relatively good. The new tendency has become itself onesided, exorbitant, and full of wrong. Hence the need of still another crisis, (the signs of whose advent many seem already to see,) which may arrest and correct this abuse, and open the way for a higher and better state of the church, in which both these great tendencies shall be brought at length happily to unite, revealing to the world the full sense of Christianity in a form now absolute and complete. (293-295)

One notices immediately how Nevin refers to this as “the German theory.” In it, Catholicism was right for its time and in its day, but it was only “relatively right” in terms of history. It needed to move “into a higher form,” which it did with Protestantism. Protestantism too was right for its time, but by Nevin’s time it too had “naturally” become “excessive” and so was “wrong” (or at least relatively wrong) in the 19th century. A new “crisis” was necessary to bring the Church into its most mature form, and Nevin believed that the signs of this “advent” were possibly becoming visible in his own day.

In the conclusion of his essay, Nevin restates this by saying, “both Romanism and Protestantism are to be regarded as falling short of the full idea of Christianity, and as needing something beyond themselves for their own completion” (pg. 309).

While I have made my disagreement with Dr. Nevin known, my goal here is mostly descriptive. I would like to let the historical record speak for itself. Nevin can be called, with no unnecessary animus, a progressive German idealist thinker. He sees history as a dialectic, with inherent contradictions which naturally resolve themselves through disruptions which make all prior stages of history relatively wrong and propel us further future into an emerging solution whose content is presently unknown.

Nevin has explicitly stated that magisterial Protestantism fell into excess by his own day and had become relatively wrong. One might wonder which features he had in mind. Certainly those characteristics which Nevin termed “Puritanism” and “Rationalism” would qualify, as would also the low-church and informal (anti-“liturgical”) approach to worship. But if we dig a bit deeper, we can find out that Nevin’s criticisms went even further, indeed right to the heart of the Reformation itself.

In the P&R reprint of Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, there happens to be an introduction by none other than John Williamson Nevin (see pgs. ix-xxiv). But on pg. xvii there is a conspicuous footnote. The editors inform us that Nevin had gotten a little too rowdy and started to attack the content of the catechism itself. They note that “he becomes very critical of two questions in the Catechism, numbers 44 and 80” and say that Nevin blamed their excess on John Calvin and Frederick the Elector of the Palatinate. In order to “spare the reader,” the editors simply removed the offending material. Heidelberg Catechism #44 has to do with Christ’s descent into hell, a doctrine which definitely admitted of disagreement and controversy even in Calvin’s day, but #80 addresses the Lord’s Supper and how it differs from the Mass. What is Nevin’s complaint here?

Thankfully for those readers whose constitutions are hardy enough to handle the unredacted Nevin, the full text of his essay is now available in Lee Barrett’s work, The Heidelberg Catechism: The Mercersburg Understanding of the German Reformed Tradition. There one reads Nevin saying that the Catechism has “sympathy with the religious life of the old Catholic Church,” that it takes “care to avoid the thorny dialectic subtleties of Calvinism,” and that it “is remarkably free from polemical and party prejudices” (pg. 235, ed. Barrett). That last observation sounds odd, since the Heidelberg does in fact condemn Roman Catholicism in several places. One of these is an area which Nevin is forced to note, Q&A #80. Where the Heidelberg says that the Mass is “accursed idolatry,” Nevin protests that neither Melanchton nor Ursinus would have ever said such a harsh thing. Instead, it was the otherwise alien pressure of Elector Frederick that is to blame. One wonders how much Melancthon or Ursinus Nevin has truly read on this subject, to say nothing of Luther and Calvin, if he can say this sort of thing. Even the 39 Articles call “the sacrifice of masses… blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits” (Art. 31). It would appear that one of the overcorrections of the Reformation, in Nevin’s opinion, was a central article of the faith.

Nevin then goes on to praise the “mysticism” of the Heidelberg Catechism. He defines this mysticism as “that quality in religion, by which it goes beyond all simply logical or intellectual apprehension, and addresses itself directly to the soul, as something to be felt and believed even where it is too deep to be explained” (pg. 236, ed. Barrett). He adds that this mysticism makes its “appeal to the interior sense of the soul” where the words are “felt in this way to mean much more than they logically express” (pg. 236-237). In the midst of this rhapsodic prose, Nevin drops in another provocation. Speaking of Calvin he writes, “His theory of the decrees, for instance, does violence continually to his theory of the sacraments” (pg. 237). Kind of a big deal, no? Yet for Nevin, this unfortunate problem is overcome by the Heidelberg Catechism, thanks to what he calls its “Melanchthonian cadence” (pg. 237).

Words which have to be felt rather than logically interpreted so that they can mean more than they logically express, a mystically Melanchthonian cadence which escapes the inconsistency of Calvinism… what is Nevin smoking? We might just need to thank those 20th century editors after all. Nevin is grooving to his mood, all right, but this peculiar cadence calls his larger historical project into serious question. We can hear Richard Muller gearing up to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

But to get us back to our question, these observations show that Nevin believed that it was not only “Puritanism” that took the Reformation to excess, but indeed “Calvinism” (even Calvin’s Calvinism) which contained the “relatively wrong” features of the Reformation. Being overly critical of the mass, insisting on the absolute nature of the divine decrees, and being insufficiently mystical are all Reformation “errors” present at the beginning of this stage of development. These, one can only suppose, will be corrected by the modern phase which is quickly approaching.

In my last essay, I suggested that Nevin sets things up rather perfectly for where his ecclesiastical institution ended up going. And that seems to be the case once again. If you put together the desire for liturgical renewal, the yearning for ecumenical unity, the aversion to the mean parts of Calvinism, the mystical cadence of unspeakable feelz, and the absolute commitment to progress, Nevin’s future church looks like the Protestant mainline of the mid-20th century. Boomersburg, one is almost tempted to call it.

Now all of this is easy for me to say, I admit. After all, history happened, and I was born after that. I got to see what the future brought. And thankfully Church history has continued to happen and progress, and much of Nevin’s convictions look pretty flimsy today. I’m certainly no giant here, but rather the dwarf standing on everyone else’s much broader shoulders. But still, we need to see the truth. Progress came, and it wasn’t cool. But then some of it got better. Let’s not doom ourselves to repeat this spiraling idealist history. I’m not sure we could bear a second ride.

There are other forms of Reformed Catholicity, that of the historic Reformers. They laid claim to the early church, as well as to features of the medieval church. They were willing to see potential errors in their midst and room to grow. But, on their best days, they were able to do so without all the existential angst and visions of eschatological immanentization. Some of them even had some liturgy.

And perhaps in doing this, we can give Mercersburg a bit of credit too. They said they wanted us to appreciate Melanchthon and Ursinus. Even Calvin sometimes! They certainly wanted us doing history. So let’s do that part of the project. Let’s get back into those catholics of the Reformation and see if we can preserve and perfect their best features. And we can do this without worrying what the future will bring. As someone else once said, today’s got plenty all its own.


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