“John Williamson Nevin, architect of the nineteenth-century movement, the Mercersburg Theology, has increasingly gained respect as one of the most important theologians of American history and the broader Reformed tradition. Accompanied by the great historian, Philip Schaff, Nevin faced a headwind of American individualism, subjectivism, and sectarianism, but nevertheless forged ahead in articulating a churchly, sacramental theology rooted in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Drawing from the well of German Idealism and Romanticism, Nevin proposed a theological hermeneutic that was greatly at odds with the prevailing methods of his day. Nevertheless, Nevin persisted in his efforts, confident that the concepts of organic unity, catholicity, and incarnation offered a vital corrective to the tendencies of the American church and society. Hence, Nevin’s theological polemics, while often focused on matters of ecclesiology and sacraments, also have much to offer in the way of a much broader theology of history, mankind, and culture.”
…Thus reads the back cover of Adam S. Borneman’s Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevin’s Theology of Incarnation. In this impressive new publication by the folks over at Wipf & Stock, Borneman introduces modern readers to the life and literature of John W. Nevin (1803-1886), a thinker with profound insights into the complex and controversial relationship between the Church and society. By locating Nevin’s work along the intersection of the political and ecclesial, Borneman lends his voice to contemporary conversations dealing with the Church’s call in, for, and over-against the modern socio-political landscape. As such, Borneman confronts head-on the growing pandemic of individualism, sectarian revivalism, and uncritical nationalism in American Protestantism.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Adam S. Borneman concerning his recent work:
What was it that initially sparked your interest in John Williamson Nevin?
In retrospect, my interest in Nevin resulted from a collision of several interests. I write about these interests in the introuduction to the book, but in short, there were basically three factors: My newfound interest in American historical theology, a curiosity about the hermeneutical role of liturgy and sacrament, and a desire to understand the broader Reformed tradition more thoroughly. All of these came together in my reading of Nevin. I was “awakened from my dogmatic slumbers,” to put it pretentiously.
Why do you think it is that Nevin has not garnered more interest in academic and theological circles?
There are many answers to this question. Historically, Nevin has been underappreciated because American theology has never latched on to the type of hermeneutic that Nevin and the Mercersburg theologians employed, opting for the commonsense realist approach rather than Nevin’s idealist, historicist, romanticist approach. Princeton’s domination of American theology – thus a common sense realist domination of American theology – during the most formative stages of American theological development did not help the Nevin cause, to say the least. What is more, the would-be students of Nevin are mostly in those Protestant communities that have been most deeply influenced by the Edwarsean and Princetonian traditions. There is much to be appreciated from these theological traditions, but they generally do not provide an easy route to Mercersburg.
Another historical phenomenon at play is the history of the German Reformed church, which, through a series of splits, reunions, and incorporation into other denominations, basically phased itself out of existence. It gets little press in American religious history, and neither does one of its major players, John Nevin.
I should also add that Hodge and co. are much easier to read than Nevin, who, like many other 19th century writers, was excessively verbose and long winded. Hodge was far more systematic and concise, which is why he is still read so widely to this day.
You speak throughout your book of Nevin’s fervent disapproval of many key Enlightenment tenets (individualism, nominalism, rationalism, etc.). What would you say was Nevin’s main point of contention with the Enlightenment project?
For Nevin, all of these “isms” (you might add “revivalism”) were part and parcel of a privatization of Christianity which he believed was inherently contrary to the nature of the body of Christ. For Nevin, the body of Christ, i.e. the Church, is essentially an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals don’t make the church as much as they are called to the church. The “every man for himself” narrative of nineteenth-century American protestantism, taking its cues from the broader culture of privatization and fragmentation, was, for Nevin, a scandal to the gospel.
For Nevin, the Church is the historical extension of the Incarnation. Could you elaborate on what Nevin means by this?
No (ha!) This is a difficult concept, but one that is in many ways crucial to Nevin’s project as a whole. It would take quite a lengthy response to do justice to what Nevin means by this. E Brooks Holifield’s analysis of Nevin on this point is very helpful, and I gladly recommend his work on the topic. In short, I should at least point out that, for Nevin, this issue has much to do with his rendering of the visible/invisible church distinction, or perhaps I should say “rejection” of this distinction, at least as it is typically understood. It is important here to understand that Nevin is engaging with Hodge, who literally says that the church is not a visible society. This is, in my opinion, a huge misstep of Hodge, one which constitutes a rejection of the best of Calvin and subsequent Reformed ecclesiology. More specifically, because Nevin’s ontology insisted on an organic relationship between the ideal and the actual, he refused to concede a distinction between the visible and invisible church, opting rather to accept its mysterious nature as, once again, an instance of the ideal being organically expressed in the actual, and vice versa. For this reason, he linked his understanding of the church to the mystery of the incarnation, both of which he couched in terms of history and eschatology. Nevin’s theology is packed full of mystery and speculative reflection, and interpreters are forced to deal with such when reading Nevin on this point.
You write: “For Nevin, the church serves as the sole locus of humankind’s communion with and participation in the life of Christ. It is the historical stream of Christ’s life, giving life to those who enter its doors and become reconciled to God, by faith, through the gracious ministry of word and sacrament” (93). Is it safe to assume that Nevin would agree with St. Cyprian’s maxim that extra Ecclesium nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”)?
Simply put, yes, but it is important to emphasize the “by faith” component of participation in Christ. I would say that, on this point, Nevin is remarkably close to Calvin.
Early on in your book, you mention that for Nevin “creation itself is shot through with the organic, historical, sacramental character of God’s presence in his son, the incarnate Christ” (6). However, in your chapter on Nevin’s ecclesiology you write that there is “no presence of Christ in the world apart from the church, which is the very form that Christ’s body has taken” (92). Can you please explain the relationship between the church’s role as the solitary extension of the incarnation and the larger sacramental character of all of creation?
I’m pretty sure I wrote an answer to this question that is roughly 181 pages long (ha!). In short, its very important to read Nevin always keeping eschatology in mind. Nevin doesn’t typically employ “eschatology” in the same way that modern theologians do, but his entire framework is basically eschatalogical because it so intensely emphasises history and its final culmination in Christ. Even Nevin’s notion of the Incarnation needs to be understood as an historical, dynamic event that has an inherent telos in its very constitution. The analogia entis is very important here, because for Nevin, the “higher orders” of existence reach down and raise up the “lower orders.” So, creation can be said to be shot through with the presence of Christ because the church reaches back into history and to the lower orders of existence and ushers them unto their reconciliation with God. For Nevin, to deny the organic relationship between the church and creation would be to sunder the ideal from the actual, a division which for him is something of a cardinal sin. I wrestle with whether this is a “gracing” of nature that Nevin is attempting. It certainly sounds like it, but Nevin’s overwhelming affirmation of nature’s goodness leaves me wondering. As in so many other areas of Nevin’s thought, I think the difficultly lies in our unfamiliarity with Nevin’s brand of idealism, which needs much more attention, particularly from the philosophically gifted (i.e. not me!)
One of the most striking features of Nevin’s theology is his high sacramentology. For instance, according to Nevin, the Eucharist is the medium whereby “Christ communicates the whole of his life to the believer who receives it by faith” (98). Would you say that this is a departure from traditional Reformed theology?
Absolutely not. If anything, it is a salute to Calvin and an attempt to improve upon Calvin’s basic premises. I often direct folks to Institutes IV.xvii.11, where Calvin is anticipating Nevin in a number of ways, particularly in his comments about the Lord’s supper effecting redemption, justification, sanctification, and other benefits of Christ. It is important to read Calvin in context here, because he’s not going the route of Osiander, but it is nevertheless a striking instance of Calvin’s high sacramentology, one which should make Nevin more palatable for folks who are worried about betraying their Reformed tradition.
As the title of your book indicates, for Nevin there is an intrinsic relationship between the Church’s sacramental being/ministry and the “secular” political realm. Can you briefly describe Nevin’s understanding of this important relationship?
The last chapter and conclusion of the book hammer home this relationship pretty clearly, I hope. The best way to describe it is as “the liturgy after the liturgy.” This is a phrase I picked up from a Luther scholar describing societal reforms at the reformation, but I think it is quite helpful because it indicates the close connection between the work of worship and the work of “politics” (or whatever word we want to put there). Or, more specifically, I think Nevin would have us consider the fact that the liturgy of worship is something that disrupts the rhythm of the secular world. It has its own time, its own rituals, its own king, its own polity etc, and yet it is an an institution which influences many who participate in the secular liturgies of society. Nevin would have us think carefully about how the rhythm of worship should be the metronome and the leitmotif of our lives (to keep with a musical metaphor), setting the pace and the narrative by which we live in the world. Unfortunately, much of the protestant church has allowed the opposite – cultural liturgies are setting the rhythms of worship. This is a terrible irony.
Finally, why is it important that we consider the works of Nevin? What do you believe that Nevin has to offer to our contemporary ecclesial/theological context?
I suppose my answer to the last question could just be reiterated here. To address specifically ecclesial/theological context, I would say that Nevin forces us to rethink the importance of unity, catholicity, mystery, and the formative role of the Christian liturgy. He also offers an alternate way of thinking theologically, and whether or not one agrees with him, it is always good to critically engage with theological methods that will challenge us to be more clear and precise within our own theological traditions.
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You can view a guest post by Adam Borneman at the All Saints Writers’ Block by clicking HERE. You can also order a copy of his Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy HERE.
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