J. W. Nevin on the Sectarian Mind
Lessons from Mercersburg for Modern Evangelicals
by S. M. Hutchens
Mercersburg is still there, but there is little about it to show its importance in the theological history of America. It is a town of sixteen hundred or so about ten miles southeast of McConnellsburg and twenty miles southwest of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The seminary of the German Reformed church it once contained has long since moved and merged with the one in Lancaster now belonging to the United Church of Christ. Given the character of that denomination, one would expect the Mercersburg of the mid-nineteenth century to hold little more than antiquarian interest for its institutional heirs, and not even much of that. It is no surprise that the six projected volumes of the Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology to have been published by the United Church Press was begun more than twenty-five years ago but has never been finished.
Despite this, no student of American church history has ever treated Mercersburg lightly, for in the 1840s and 1850s this little seminary housed two of the most powerful and provocative minds in America. Marching against the broad stream of revivalism and "puritan" theology that held sway in the majority of American churches, they held up a catholic standard for the reformation of a Protestantism that had lost touch with history and forgotten the Church. John Williamson Nevin summarized this standard in three precepts:
(1) Jesus Christ, in his person, is the Principle of Christianity.
(2) The Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world.
(3) The Church as the Body of Christ in the world is objective and historical.1
As unremarkable as these may sound to the catholic ear—or, may I say, to Protestants who have profited from the work of Karl Barth—American Protestantism of the mid-nineteenth century found them profoundly unsettling, especially when advanced by men with the depth and breadth of Mercersburg’s principal teachers, J. W. Nevin and Philip Schaff. From rural Pennsylvania Nevin and Schaff addressed the American churches with a message that has not and should not be forgotten.
I have found that the attempt to assert these principles among modern Evangelicals meets with the same resistance that Nevin and Schaff encountered from their nineteenth-century forebears. This is evidence that many of the changes in American Evangelical Protestantism in the last century and a half have not touched its deeper structure. While busy building the righteous kingdom, evangelizing, and resisting the grosser heresies, it has shown great reluctance to consider a more catholic form of Christianity such as that embodied in the three Mercersburg principles. Perhaps this is because the movement senses its debt to its distinctive eccentricities. Where would it be without revivalism and rationalistic biblicism? One need not deny reason or the experience of grace in conversion to insist, as did the Mercersburg theologians, that Christianity rests upon the person of Christ, the Church as the pillar and foundation of his truth, and the Creed as the universal symbol of the Church’s faith. Christian theology and practice call for a consuming interest in these things, merely for the truth’s sake. Where the message of Mercersburg is resisted it bears repeating until it is finally heard.
When Nevin said that Jesus Christ, in his person, is the principle of Christianity, he was pointing to a distinctly sacramental idea that he knew had been lost to most of his American Protestant contemporaries. It had become foreign to revivalism because the coming of Christ in the experience of salvation was almost entirely equated with evangelical conversion, and to the Scholastics because personal categories were perceived as less decisive and satisfactory than the logical and propositional. The preaching of the revivalists and the theology of the Scholastics complemented each other nicely. Both had a strong tendency to subjectivize Christian experience, to make the sinner the principal actor in the drama of salvation—the visceral man in the case of the revivalists, the intellectual in the case of the theologians. These two men combined to make the "puritan"—surprisingly enough, a distinctively modern man—who had forgotten too much, a man who, in a sense similar to that of which C. S. Lewis spoke in The Abolition of Man, has a large belly and brain, but nothing between them. Christ, to be sure, was professed to be the founder, object, and content of faith. But the faith itself, perceived subjectively as possession of a set of experiences and beliefs, was being identified as the goal and meaning of Christian life rather than phenomena that arise from the life of Christ within and among us—who is in his person the goal and meaning of life.
The temptation to reduce Christ to dogma and experience is understandable and common to all Christians, for his presence to us is invariably a mediated presence, and it is perilously easy to mistake the medium for the message. (As Calvin noted, the heart is a veritable factory of idols.) Early nineteenth-century American Protestantism had its own peculiar tendency to mistake the gift for the Giver, the creation for its Creator. This is the problem to which Nevin was attempting to point his fellow Protestants by saying that Jesus Christ is in his person the Principle of Christianity.
How does one receive Jesus Christ? This is where the reference to Jesus Christ in his person took on sacramental overtones, for it is the whole Christ who was to be received by the whole man, not simply Christ as apprehended by the cognitive and aesthetic2 faculties. Nevin and Schaff did not identify the conversion experience as invariably bogus, but pointed to the real presence of Christ in the sacraments as the principal means of grace—not simply because that is what the Church had always taught, but because these were providentially given signs involving the whole Christ and the whole sinner. Nevin’s demonstration that Luther and Calvin had not departed from the catholic understanding of the sacraments was one of the most difficult things for his Protestant contemporaries to digest. Baptism and the Eucharist as given by the Lord were endangered in a religious atmosphere where the products of the regenerative act of God were supplanting institutions the Bible explicitly identifies as means of grace among those who believe.
The understanding of the Mercersburg theologians that the Creed is the regula fidei of the Christian world was an uncomfortable reminder to many, for its use in Protestant services had in many places ceased. The problem was not disbelief in the Creed—that was the case only for a minority—Unitarians, freethinkers, cultists, and the like. Rather, the problem was that the proliferation of confession and counter-confession among the churches and the partisan vigor with which they were wielded had rendered "credalism" dark and divisive. "No Creed but the Bible" seemed to solve that. But of course, far from settling, it exacerbated the problem. Nevin saw this clearly, and insisted the Creed of the undivided Church is precisely the confessional glue that holds Christians together when their clashing and sometimes idiotic interpretations of Scripture drive them apart. This misconceived precept, he noted, lends itself to exploitation by power adepts: Every time you hear it, be prepared to step right up for the pitch of an ecclesiastical mountebank whose interpretive scheme is de facto the final authority in the sect he has founded on the principle of the Bible alone and no creed but the Bible.
Sola scriptura is not correct as a final principle of authority anyway, Nevin said, because the Church as the body of Christ in the world is objective and historical. I do not see the problem here as excessive "spiritualization" of the Church as much as ignorance that the Spirit is incarnate in the Communion of Saints and speaks authoritatively through it to every generation. This was as problematic for the preacher who had little grasp of history as the confessionalist professor who regarded his denomination’s theological constitution as the summa of all prior orthodoxy and through which he read the history of dogma. It was not the idea of the Church as "invisible," that is, as a manifestation of the life of the Spirit whose boundaries are beyond our sight, against which Nevin and Schaff saw themselves struggling. Rather, it was a pervasive agnosticism about the relevance of the work of the Spirit among all believers of every time—about the one, holy, and catholic wisdom of the whole and living Church. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura was increasingly being used as if it meant the Spirit had confined himself in Scripture and could escape only when the hermeneutical door was opened by a reliably in-house exegete who knew nothing of and cared little for what he had said to faithful men of years past.
At this point one can see not only how the principles of the Mercersburg theology fit together, but why they made and continue to make Evangelicals uncomfortable. Evangelicalism (in the sense the term is most commonly used in North America) can be pretty well defined in terms of its negation of the Mercersburg principles—as that aggregate of Protestant religious movements that, while generally orthodox because of their high regard for Scripture, radically subordinate Church, sacrament, and Creed as expressions of the life of the living Christ to emphasis on his appropriation by the rational and aesthetic faculties of individuals.
I would hesitate to accuse Evangelicalism in either its revivalist or scholastic aspects of denying that the person of Jesus Christ is the principle of Christianity, but I do think that wherever the faith becomes perceived primarily in these terms there is a great temptation to reduce the Lord to only part of his epiphanic reality, a reality represented in the traditional sacraments more perfectly than it can be within the revivalism or rationalism of the Evangelical movement. Not that individual reason or conversion should be held suspect, mind you—just that they should be regarded as parts of a larger, more objective whole, and not as the substance of the Faith. Numerous writers both within and outside of the movement (James Barr, John Jefferson Davis, Thomas Howard, and Robert Webber, for example) accuse Evangelicalism of culpable ignorance of the Christian past—no surprise, perhaps, when a fair-minded study of this past would place it where Evangelicals would not like to see themselves: in a sectarian backwater, far from the catholic mainstream, far even from the churchly, sacramentarian Reformers whose spiritual heirs they imagine themselves to be. The inherited mistrust of the Creed is a product of the intuition that credal authority rests on that of a Church it neither recognizes nor appreciates. All of these traits—anti-sacramentalism, anti-credalism, and the inability to recognize the Church and its authority—were, to the Mercersburg theologians, unmistakable traits of the sectarian mind.
Although the eminent Swiss-American church historian Philip Schaff is of equal importance for the history of the Mercersburg movement, our main interest here is in John Williamson Nevin and his message to Evangelicals of his century and our own. Space does not permit treatment of all the major areas of Nevin’s interest—his sacramental theology, his work on the Creed, liturgics, and the history of the early church. Rather, I would like to concentrate here on his thinking about the sectarian mind and the sectarian church it engenders by looking at his best-known writing, "The Sect System," which appeared in the first issues of the Mercersburg Review in 1849.
Nevin was a Presbyterian who grew up in farm country in southeastern Pennsylvania around Sharpsburg, was born on the centennial of John Wesley’s birth (1803) and died the year Karl Barth was born (1886). His father was a college graduate, but remained a farmer all his life. Nevin attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, and entered Princeton Seminary in 1823 at the age of twenty. There he studied under Archibald Alexander and the young Charles Hodge, who remembered him as one of his most able students. Nevin excelled in Hebrew, taught it at Princeton during Hodge’s sabbatical in Germany, and thereafter moved to the new Western Theological Seminary near Pittsburgh where he taught for ten years, developing a reputation for learning and high pedagogical competence. In 1840 he accepted a call to the struggling young seminary of the German Reformed church at Mercersburg.
Although Nevin described himself at his arrival at Mercersburg as "a conservative Irish evangelical, molded by Princeton scholasticism, strong for private-judgment biblicism," the increasing difficulty he was having with the "new measures" brought in by revivalism were turning his mind toward the views of Church, sacrament, and Creed that characterized his mature thought. With characteristic breadth of vision and emotional discipline he resisted the temptation of stigmatizing the revivals as in and of themselves impostures on Scripture and tradition. What he opposed was the mechanical way in which they were pursued, the Pelagian theology which undergirt them, their emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, and the personal and pastoral unworthiness of many of the revivalists. He gladly granted that God did work in and through them, as he worked through any number of other defective Christian institutions. In short, he thought the revivals as they were actually pursued were dishonoring to a God who was humble enough to use them anyway.
About 1825 a pioneering spirit named John Winebrenner shook the dust of the German Reformed Church off his feet and started a denomination that he modestly named the Church of God. The Church of God, General Conference, concentrated mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is still with us, and much good can be said of it. Nevin discovered in its founder, however, a nearly perfect example of the sectarian mind and used a review of Winebrenner’s A History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States as a jumping off point for his critique of the sect system that he regarded as a predominating feature of American religious life.
When Nevin first heard of the book he thought it sounded useless. He had no interest in a collection of glowing accounts of the various American sects solicited from their leaders. Nevin was a scholar and wanted something more objective. But he was collared by an extremely persistent itinerant book salesman who would not let him go until he bought it for the rather substantial price of $2.50. He read through it, and, by the time he was ready to write a review he found it so heartily entertaining that he was unwilling to part with it for any price. One of the selling points of this book was its high-quality engravings of "fifty-three eminent authors belonging to the respective denominations," including Winebrenner himself. Nevin was greatly amused by the fact that this caption about the book’s "eminent authors" was obviously written by Winebrenner, who included himself among the eminences. The initials V. D. M. which he had appended to his name on the title page seemed to imply some kind of doctorate, but in fact stood simply for Verbum Dei Minister. The book was a treasure-trove of information on the sectarian mind, a mind unblushingly regarded by its contributors as that of normal Christianity. What, for example, could be more solidly Christian than their uniformly held claim that the Bible was their only rule of faith? Nevin noted,
However [the sects] may differ among themselves in regard to what [they teach], sects all agree in proclaiming the Bible as the only guide of their faith; and the more sectarian they are, as a general thing, the more loud and strong do they show themselves in reiterating this profession.3
The sectarian leader, Nevin noted, recognizing Christendom’s universal veneration for the Scriptures, emphatically proclaims their indefectible authority. But lo, before long a wondrous thing has happened. He no longer simply declares for Scripture, but without any indication of having changed gears, he is saying things like (to use Winebrenner as an example) "there are three ordinances left to the church by our Lord: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and . . . feet-washing."
The power of this sort of maneuver on the untrained and uncritical should not be underestimated. Few have the resources to examine the assertion, to contemplate the implications of the fact that the washing of feet, while certainly an ordinance left to us by the Lord, has rarely if ever been regarded as belonging in the same category as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When the rapt, insistent, and authoritative preacher makes his point, there are no other points to be placed beside it. The critical movement comes with the seamless transition from a declaration of the Bible’s authority and of generally accepted truths to the exotic and very singular sectarian interpretation. The sincerity of the preacher is not being questioned here, for the chances that he is indeed sincere are very high. He really believes he is preaching what the Bible teaches and, using Nevin’s example, "that [his sect] makes more of this blessed volume than any other . . . that it was never much understood until Mr. Winebrenner was raised up at Harrisburg."4 Nevin is at pains to remind his readers that one should not be too impressed at loud and earnest asseverations that the Bible is the very Word of God and the only rule this group follows until one has a look at exactly what is meant by all this—a point well worth taking in any day and age.
Appended to this invariable profession of allegiance to the Bible as its sole authority is the exaltation of the right and necessity of private judgment in interpretation.
This principle of private judgment, the hobby of all sects, places all plainly on the same level, and unless men chose to play fast and loose with their own word, opens the door indefinitely for the lawful introduction of as many more, as religious ingenuity or stupidity may have power to invent. The principle, in truth, is absurd and impracticable, and such as always necessarily overthrows itself.5
Naturally, something must be put in place to govern the tendency of private judgment to range unchecked. Controls must be instituted against the untrammeled exercise of private judgment by the unqualified, so some individual or governing council must as a matter of fact rule the sect and be the actual arbiter of all questions of faith and practice.
Every sect is ready to magnify the freedom of the individual judgment and the right of all men to read and interpret the Bible for themselves; and yet there is not one among them that allows in reality anything of the sort. It is amusing to glance through the pages of this autobiography of religious denominations and notice the easy simplicity with which so many of them lay down the broad maxim of liberty and toleration to start with, and then at once go on to limit and circumscribe it by the rule of their own narrow horizon, proving themselves generally to be at once unfree and illiberal in proportion precisely to the noise they make about their freedom.
The "Church of God," according to her V.D.M. at Harrisburg, has no constitution, ritual creed, catechism, book of discipline, or church standard, but the Bible. . . . "Nevertheless, it may not be inexpedient," we are told, "pro bono publico, to exhibit a short manifesto, or declaration, showing her views, as to what may be called leading matters of faith, experience, and practice." And so we have a regular confession of 27 Articles, all ostensibly supported by proof from the Bible as understood by Mr. Winebrenner, fencing in thus her "scriptural and apostolical" communion, and of course fencing out all who, in the exercise of their private judgment, may be so unfortunate as not to see things in precisely the same way. . . .
[The common watchword of the sect] is The Bible and Private Judgment! But in no case do they show themselves true to its demands. It is always, on their lips, an outrageous lie, of which all good men should feel ashamed. . . . The liberty of the sect consists at last in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible through its theological goggles. These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.6
Before we abandon this matter of private judgment as one of the most problematic features of sectarianism we should recognize what truth is in it. At times the mind of the Church has been preserved and expressed only by a minority, sometimes a very small minority indeed—Athanasius contra mundum! Temptation to defend a right of private judgment may arise from a collective memory of the rightness of individual judgments. But this Nevin would not dispute. What he says is that the sectarian mind struggles against the legitimate authority of Church and Creed.
The Church is declared in the Creed to be an object of faith, a necessary part of Christianity. As such it is a divine, supernatural fact, a concrete reality, an actual objective power in the world, which men have no ability whatsoever to make or unmake at their own pleasure. . . . Only where such a sense of the Church prevails can the danger and guilt of schism be felt at all, or any hindrance raised at all to the easy multiplication of sects. In its very constitution, accordingly, the sect spirit is an unchurchly spirit. . . . Sect Christianity is not the Christianity of the Creed, or at best it is this Christianity under a most mutilated form. Of this proof enough is found in the fact that wherever the sect spirit prevails the Creed falls into disuse.7
Touching briefly on the points Nevin makes in the second of the two-part article on the sect system: The sect is irrational, for, unlike the responsible Reformers, it has no ground motive in the idea of Christianity itself, but tends to view its mere being as justification for existence. The sect system is drawn to tyranny. Claiming to release its adherents for freedom of individual conscience, it insists on their absolute allegiance to its own beliefs and traditions. The sect is ultimately unfriendly to the real cultivation of theology, for the very notion of theology presumes the idea of Christianity as a whole. The sect cannot work out its own cure, for being its own final and absolute authority, it cannot look beyond itself for aid. The sect system is deeply marked by a rationalistic tendency. "A rationalism that denies the supernatural altogether and a supernaturalism that will not allow it to come into any concrete union with the natural are at bottom much of the same nature."8
Despite all this the sect is forced against its will to bear testimony to the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church, for it, in claiming these attributes for itself, must tacitly allow for their existence.
Nevin’s closing remarks are worth repeating at length:
For one who has come to make earnest with the church question, and who has courage to face things as they are in the way of steady, firm thought, the whole present state of sect Christianity is full of difficulty and discouragement. [Emphasis Nevin’s.] In the first place, it is not possible for him to identify any one sect with the idea of the whole Church. Whether he be a Methodist, or a Presbyterian, or a Lutheran, or of any other denomination, he sees clearly that it is a desperate business to think of making out a full agreement with primitive Christianity in favor of his own body. He owns too, at any rate, that other bodies are included in the Church as it now stands. Of course, his own is but a part of the Church, not numerically only, but also constitutionally. . . . It becomes impossible, of course, to acquiesce in the denominational position as final and conclusive. . . . The whole sect system then is interimistic, and can be rightly endured only as it is regarded in this light. And yet the system itself is opposed to every such thought. It cannot will its own destruction. Every sect demands of its members a faith and trust . . . which imply that it is to be taken as absolute and perpetual. It plays, in its place, the part of Christ’s one universal Church. To cleave to the sect as an ultimate interest, in the way it requires, is to be divorced in spirit necessarily . . . from the true idea of Christ’s kingdom, whose perfect coming cannot possibly be in such form. To become catholic, on the other hand, is necessarily to rise above the standpoint of the mere sect, and to lose the power thus of that devotion to its interests, separately considered, which it can never fail to exact notwithstanding, as the test and measure . . . of universal Christianity itself. How much of embarrassment and confusion is involved in all this, the more especially as the sect system has no tendency whatever to surmount its own contradiction, but carries in itself the principle only of endless disintegration, many are made to feel at this time beyond what they are well able to express.9
Post-fundamentalist American Evangelicalism as I have known it is heavily imbued with the sectarian spirit of which Nevin speaks. The upheavals to which it has been subject are the inevitable fruit of the mind thus inspired. To be sure, it is a much smoother, well-spoken, and better-educated sectarianism than Winebrenner’s frontier variety, for, ashamed of its fundamentalist rusticity, it has put itself through finishing school in the last forty years or so. But this has only served to mask its basic problem, which has remained essentially unchanged since Nevin’s day.
Its difficulties in formulating a viable and reasonably unanimous doctrine of revelation stem directly from the old habit of basing its system of authority on the Bible alone. Its churches and denominations, like Winebrenner’s, rarely if ever repeat the Creed, nor does it have any importance in their liturgical, catechetical, or theological lives. Instead, they manufacture their own statements of faith and practice, in which elements of speculation, local economy, and special denominational conviction are placed alongside the doctrines of the Trinity, and the theanthropy, death, and resurrection of the Lord. There is one true sacrament—the conversion experience; baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only "ordinances." Church history and theology are studied in the seminaries for largely apologetic purposes—for the defense of Evangelical distinctives rather than in an attempt to discover the faith of the Church and integrate itself more devoutly into its life.
To the extent that a body of Christians departs from the sectarianism Nevin describes in favor of Church, Creed, and Sacrament, it stands outside the phenomenon as he defines it. One might think here of Presbyterians and Lutherans who hold to the Westminster or Augsburg Confession, recite the Creed, believe, with Calvin and Luther, on the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, and are not mystified when one speaks of the authority of the historical Church. Despite convergence on basic doctrines (which we must not forget), there is a significant difference between the mind of the more consistent children of the magisterial Reformation and that of the hybrid produced by the marriage of Calvinist rationalism to the New World revivals.
I believe the beginning of Evangelicalism’s cure can and must be sought within the existing wisdom of the movement itself. Failing to build on the very substantial gifts the Holy Spirit has already bestowed upon it would be a grave error. I do not recommend a panicked flight to Rome, Athos, or Canterbury unless it is done with strong conviction and eyes wide-open, for the catholic churches have problems of their own, and there are things preserved in Evangelicalism, and indeed, in Fundamentalism, that all three of these great churches need. What is certainly needed is intensified contemplation of insights already in firm possession—most particularly of a Bible reckoned to be the Word of God, but alas, no longer any sharper or more piercing among them than its "traditional Evangelical interpretation."
For Bible-believing Christians, trust in the message of Scripture comes first. The book must be opened once again, and the passages that make Evangelicals uncomfortable—there are many of them—must be prayerfully examined, not with the intention of bringing them into line with Evangelicalism, but of discovering the truth. This is a hard and necessary task for all Christians, not just Evangelicals, and none who have the courage to do it will escape unchanged.
3. J. W. Nevin, "The Sect System" Mercersburg Review I, nos. 1 & 2 (1849), in Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., and G. H. Bricker, eds., Catholic and Reformed: Selected Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1978), 137.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“J. W. Nevin on the Sectarian Mind” first appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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