Announcing the Mystical Presence

I am proud to announce that at last, the first volume of the Mercersburg Theology Study Series, which I am editing, John Williamson Nevin’s The Mystical Presence and the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (ed. Linden J. DeBie, foreword by Mark Noll), has now been published and is available to order.  

Encompassing the most comprehensive and (I hope) most reader-friendly edition of The Mystical Presence to date, and the first edition of the extraordinary essay “The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper” in forty-five years, this “handsome new edition . . . deserves to be studied and savored by pastors and scholars alike” (George Hunsinger).  Indeed, this volume promises to be a valuable contribution to studies not merely of Mercersburg and nineteenth-century American theology, but of Reformed eucharistic theology more broadly, as Nevin’s study of the subject remains a classic after 150 years.  

(Tune in to Trinity Talk next week for an interview with me about my work on Mercersburg and this new volume)

The importance of this text, and of the new critical edition, have been hailed by prominent historians and theologians.  Mark Noll, author of America’s God, says in the foreword, 

“This is the first volume of what the organizers of this series plan as an extended edition of the works of John W. Nevin, of his colleagues at the Mercersburg Seminary in the 1840s and 1850s, and of some who in those same years objected to Mercersburg views.  For a clearer picture of the United States’ unduly neglected theological history of the period—as well as a most welcome stimulus to theological reflection in our own day–the edition is a godsend. . . . As readers of this volume will recognize immediately, John W. Nevin’s reflections on “the mystical presence” in the Lord’s Supper is a serious treatise about a perennially important Christian reality.  Its historical learning, biblical amplitude, dialectical skill, philosophical self-consciousness, and theological insight are all at or near the level of acumen displayed by contemporary European theologians who have been the object of much more extensive historical attention. . . . In a word, those who take seriously the works to be featured in this exciting new publishing enterprise are in for the right kind of historical education and the best kind of theological challenge.  May the announced later volumes come speedily, and may attentive readers multiply as they come forth.”

E. Brooks Holifield, author of Theology in America, concurs:

“John Williamson Nevin was one of the few nineteenth-century theologians whose works continue to exert influence on our own era. . . . This new edition by Linden J. DeBie and W. Bradford Littlejohn clarifies his importance by placing his work in its American context, showing his engagement with European theologians, and locating him in his own theological tradition.  Whether it is read in college or seminary classrooms, examined by scholars writing on Nevin and his times, or used in adult education programs, Nevin’s work will continue to make a mark, and this new edition brings to bear the latest scholarship on Nevin, nineteenth-century religion, and American religious traditions.”

Theologians Peter Leithart and Keith Mathison have also hailed the theological significance of these works for the project of Reformed theology today.  Leithart says, 

“Over a century ago, John Williamson Nevin planted an exotic seed in the ground of American Protestantism.  With his colleague Philip Schaff, Nevin cultivated a high-church, liturgical and sacramental Protestantism that starkly contrasted with and sharply challenged the populist revivalism around him.  The Mercersburg Theology sprouted but quickly withered.  By launching this excellent new edition of Nevin’s works, Brad Littlejohn and his colleagues give us hope that it is finally time for the dead seed to grow into a tree.  May it bear much fruit.”

 And Mathison declares,

“Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans was not the first bomb to fall on the playground of theologians. John Williamson Nevin’s The Mystical Presencehad a similar effect on the nineteenth-century American church. His appeal for a return to the sacramental views of the sixteenth-century Reformed confessions was a voice in the wilderness in an era of decidedly low-church sympathies. This wonderful new edition clearly reveals the relevance of Nevin’s controversial book in both his day and ours.” 


Please consider ordering a copy from Wipf and Stock today (or wait just a couple more weeks for it to be listed on Amazon as well).  This edition is also intended especially to provide a definitive edition for university and seminary libraries, so you may wish to encourage your librarian to purchase this and future volumes in the series.  

For more information on the Mercersburg theology, and on this project, please see our website (though you may wish to check back at the end of the month, after we’ve finished building and renovating it properly).

“No Where Severed”: The Problem of Ubiquity (Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 4)

Having established the personal identity between the eternal Word and the man Christ Jesus, the complete distinction and unimpaired integrity of the two natures, and the sense in which Christ’s humanity is glorified by its union with the Word, Hooker turns in chapter 55 of Book V to expound much more carefully the hotly-disputed question of ubiquity, which had driven a rift between the Lutheran and Reformed churches, a very serious rift indeed, touching as it did the crucial mystery of the Christian faith.  

Hooker, while operating within a basically Reformed Christology, seeks to articulate the question of ubiquity in a way that does as much justice as possible to the things the Lutherans wanted to emphasize.  This is quite a delicate theological operation, and it’s worth looking closely at how Hooker conducts it. 


He begins by affirming the tremendous importance of the question, since our salvation depends on union with Christ, and union with Christ requires an account of how Christ could be personally present to us.  He then lays down a key foundational principle, that he touched on already in ch. 53–that no nature can be both finite and infinite, and all created natures are finite: “Out of which premises wee can conclude not only that nothinge created can possiblie be unlimited or can receave any such accident qualitie or propertie as may reallie make it infinite (for then should it cease to be a creature) but also that everie creaturs limitation is accordinge to his own kinde, and therefore as oft as wee note in them any thinge above theire kinde it argueth that the same is not properly theires but groweth in them from a cause more powerfull then they are” (V.55.2).

This principle tells us that when inquiring of the omnipresence of Christ, we must be dealing with a property of his divinity: “Wherefore Christ is essentiallie present with all thinges in that he is verie God, but not present with all thinges as man, because manhood and the partes thereof can neither be the cause nor the true subject of such presence” (V.55.4). So far so good–standard Reformed stuff.  

Hooker then turns to ask what the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity would require: “if Christ in that he is man be everie where present, seinge this commeth not by the nature of manhood it selfe, there is no other waie how it should grow but either by the grace of union with deitie, or by the grace of unction received from deitie” (V.55.6)  You may recall that Hooker has spelled out in the previous chapter what is involved in each of these two “graces.”  Regarding the former, the grace of union, he established that the attributes of each nature are not communicated to the other nature, but the natures continue each the same nature that they were before, in unimpaired integrity–standard Chalcedonian stuff.  What about the grace of unction?

“And concerninge the grace of unction, wherein are conteined the guifes and vertues which Christ as man hath above men, they make him reallie and habituallie a man more excellent then we are, they take not from him the nature and substance that wee have, they cause not his soul nor bodie to be of an other kinde then oures is.  Supernaturall endowments are an advancement, they are no extinguishment of that nature whereto they are given” (V.55.6). 

We have already seen in the previous post how this logic works–an advancement of the human nature within the perfections proper to it, not a transcendence of that nature to another nature entirely.  Could ubiquity then be a perfection proper to the advancement of human nature?  Hooker answers a firm no:

“If his majesticall bodiie have now anie such nue propertie by force whereof it may everie where reallie even in substance present it selfe, or may at once be in many places, then hath the majesty of his estate extinguisht the veritie of his nature….To conclude, wee hold it in regard of the forealleaged proofes a most infallible truth that Christ as man is not everie where present as man” (V.55.6, 7).


Things aren’t looking very good for the Lutherans.  But then comes a crucial word–“Yeat”:

“Yeat because this [human] substance is inseparablie joyned to that personall worde which by his verie divine essence is present with all thinges, the nature which cannot have in it selfe universall presence hath it after a sorte by beinge no where severed from that which everie where is present.  For in as much as that infinite word is not divisible into partes, it could not in parte but must needes be whollie incarnate, and consequentlie wheresoever the word is it hath with it manhood.  Els should the worde be in parte or somewhere God only and not man which is impossible.  For the person of Christ is whole, perfect God and perfect man” (V.55.7).  

Now this is interesting stuff.  

Premise 1: The Word is fully and inseparably joined to human substance.  
Premise 2: The Word is indivisible.
First conclusion: Human substance must be everywhere the Word is.
Premise 3: The Word is everywhere.
Conclusion: Human substance must be everywhere.


Now, how is this going to work?  Well, in view of the limitations previously sketched,

“wee cannot say that the whole of Christ is simplie everie where, as wee may that his deitie is and that his person is by force of deitie.  For somewhat of the person of Christ is not everie where in that sorte namelie his manhood, the only conjunction whereof with deitie is extended as farre as deitie, the actual position restrained and tied to a certaine place.  Yeat preasence by waie of conjunction is in some sorte presence” (V.55.7).

So, the human nature can not be present everywhere by way of position…but it can be present by way of conjunction–it is always united to that which is present everywhere.  One has a feeling that modern quantum mechanics might be rather helpful in helping us sort out some of these metaphysical quandaries.  But although we might have difficulties articulating exactly how presence by way of conjunction works, Hooker’s next category may seem to us more fruitful, employing as it does more “actualistic” language that will please the Barthian in all of us.  


For we may also speak of the humanity’s presence by way of “cooperation with deitie”:

“that deitie of Christ which before our Lordes incarnation wrought all thinges without man doth now worke nothinge wherein the nature which it hath assumed is either absent from it or idle.  Christ as man hath all power both in heaven and earth given him.  He hath as man not as God only supreme dominion over quicke and dead.  For so much his ascension into heaven and his session at the right hand of God doe importe.  The Sonne of God which did first humble him selfe by takinge our flesh upon him, descended afterwardes much lower and became accordinge to the flesh obedient so farre as to suffer death even the death of the crosse for all men because such was his fathers will” (V.55.8).  

This humiliation of the manhood is followed by its exaltation:

“as accordinge to his manhood he had glorified God on earth, so God hath glorified in heaven that nature which yealded him obedience and hath given unto Chirst even in that he is man such fullness of power over the whole world that he which before fulfilled in the state of humilitie and patience whatsoever God did require, doth now raigne in glorie till the time that all thinges be restored” (V.55.8).  

We saw some of this already in the last section–the very exciting notion that the Incarnation means that humanity is now made a participant in all that God does, a co-worker of deity–God works nothing now that he does not work through and with a human being, Jesus Christ.  Thus, wherever the Word is at work–indwelling human souls, in the Eucharist, etc.–there is the human nature at work.  This is what we confess in the doctrine of the ascension–that the human nature has now been glorified to participate in the Son’s reigning over all things–formerly as God, now as God and man.

In short, “This government [over all creation] therefore he exerciseth both as God and as man, as God by essentiall presence with all thinges, as man by cooperation with that which essentiallie is present.”  How does this cooperation work?  “By knowledge and assent the soule of Chirst is present with all thinges which the deitie of Christ worketh” (V.55.8)

This much, though, applies only to the human soul of Christ, not his human body, which is what the Lutherans are after–after all, this is at root a dispute over his body and blood in the Eucharistic elements.  For this, Hooker returns to the earlier category of conjunction:   “For his bodie being a parte of that nature which whole nature is presentlie joyned unto deitie wheresoever deitie is, it followeth that his bodilie substance hath everie where a presence of true conjunction with deitie” (V.55.9).  

Finally, Hooker introduces, though very briefly, a third category: “And for as much as it is by vertue of that conjunction made the bodie of the Sonne of God by whome also it was made a sacrifice for the synnes of the whole world, this giveth it a presence of force and efficacie throughout all generations of men” (V.55.9).  The sacrificed body of Christ, which is a human body, is of infinite value and saving efficacy by virtue of its conjunction with deity, and therefore, it is “it selfe infinite in possibilitie of application”–the power of Christ’s body, then, even if not its actual physical substance, can be present everywhere in the Eucharist.  This last is very Calvinian language, and, one might add, closer perhaps to the original intention of “substance” language in the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which substance was to be understood as the dynamic power of something rather than its physical properties.  

Hooker thus concludes, hoping in all this to have so far extended a bridge to the Lutherans that they should have nothing more to complain about: “Which thinges indifferently everie way considered, that gratious promise of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ concerninge presence with his to the verie ende of the world, I see no cause but that wee may well and safely interpret he doth performe both as God by essentiall presence of deitie, and as man in that order sense and meaninge which hath bene shown” (V.55.9).   


All of this material, I need scarcely add, is pregnant with significance not merely for Eucharistic theology, but also for ecclesiology and political theology.  I have little doubt that as I spend the next couple years with Hooker, I shall have ample occasion to reflect on these latter connections and implications.  Suffice for now to mention just one, because it is one that Hooker makes explicit in Book VIII of the Lawes, contra Cartwright, in an argument which proves devastating not only to the Puritan political theology/ecclesiology, but also to our familiar whipping-boy VanDrunen, who shares the same Christological paradigm.  The short version is this: if it is true that by virtue of the incarnation and ascension, human nature is made a sharer in all the operations proper to the eternal Word,  that in reigning at the right hand of God over all creation the Son of God rules now as Son of Man, then the whole “two mediatorship” paradigm collapses as heterodox.  Christ does not rule over creation as Son of God and over redemption as Son of Man, because Christ is Son of God and Son of Man inseparably now, and as redeeming Son of Man, he cannot but be a co-agent with God in all of the divine reign over every aspect of creation, political life included.  

(If this last bit intrigues you, don’t worry; you can bet on my posting much more along these lines over the coming months and years.)

“Eat and Live”–A Tribute to Richard Hooker

Just yesterday I finally concluded a glorious two-month journey through the 1400 pages of Richard Hooker’s incomparable Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, as much a life-changing experience as any [human] book can provide.  Although I have been scattering testimonies to Hooker’s brilliance through this blog all along the way, thought it appropriate to mark the occasion by posting a beautiful testimony to Hooker’s eloquence and irenicism, an excerpt from his stunning section on the Eucharist, where he pleads for us to glory in the mystery of the Real Presence, rather than disputing endlessly of its mechanism:

“Hee which hath said of the one sacrament Wash and be cleane, hath said concerninge the other likewise Eat and live.  If therefore without any such particular and solemne warrant as this is, that poor distressed woman comminge unto Christ for health could so constantlie resolve hir selfe, May I but touch the skirt of his garment I shalbe whole, what moveth us to argue of the maner how life should come by bread, our dutie being here but to take what is offered, and most assuredly to rest perswaded of this, that can wee but eate wee are safe?  When I behold with mine eyes some smale and scarce discerneable graine or seed whereof nature maketh promise that a tree shall come; and when afterwards of that tree any skillfull artificer undertaketh to frame some exquisite and curious worke, I looke for the event, I move no question about performance either of the one or of the other.  Shall I simplie credit nature in thinges naturall, shall I in thinges artificiall relie my selfe on art, never offeringe to make doubt, and in that which is above both arte and nature refuse to believe the author of both, except he acquaint me with his waies, and lay the secret of his skill before me?

….Let it therefore be sufficient for me presentinge my selfe at the Lordes table to knowe what there I receive from him, without searchinge or inquiring of the maner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enimies to pietie, abatementes of true devotion and hitherto in this cause but over patientlie heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharp witted men beat theire heades about what questions them selves will, the verie letter of the worde of Christ giveth plaine securitie that these mysteries doe as nailes fasten us to his verie crosse, that by them wee draw out, as touchinge efficacie force and vertue, even the blood of his goared side, in the woundes of our redeemer wee there dip our tongues, wee are died redd both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched…this bread hath in it more then the substance of our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with sollemne benediction availeth to the endles life and wellfare both of soule and bodie…what these elementes are in them selves it skilleth [matters] not, it is enough to me which take them they are the bodie and blood of Christ, his promise in witnes hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish, why should any cogitation possesse the mind of a faithfull communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soule thou art happie?”

A Primer on Christian Economics

I almost forgot to post this–part two of my “Christianity and Public Issues” talk (see Part 1 here).  

Economics is perhaps the greatest issue on the political radar, particularly in the past couple years.  How should we as Christians approach economics and political economy?  Well, let’s return again to the passage from Philippians 3.  Paul contrasts us, the citizens of heaven, with those “whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things”–those who pursue desires of self-gratification, who seek to glorify themselves by how much more they can amass than others, those whose focus and chief goal is material prosperity.  It is not hard to see that this is the way that most of the world lives today–not just individuals, but corporations and governments.  How do companies in our world measure their success?  By how many people’s lives are enriched by their efforts or by how wide their profit margins are?  How do most governments measure their success?  By how much they have promoted justice or by how much GDP growth they can create?  Materialism and selfishness are nothing new, of course, but today Christians must confront the danger of an ideology that argues that selfishness is actually the best way to help people.  The premise of modern capitalism is that as long as you let people pursue their self-interest and remove any barriers to their satisfaction of their material desires, then peace, prosperity, and freedom will grow for everyone.  Paul here and almost any book of Scripture could warn us against the danger of this mindset, could remind us of what a treacherous tool wealth is, how easily it shifts from being a means to a good end to being an end in itself, could remind us that no society can succeed which puts individual self-interest above regard for others.  

And if we read the Bible attentively, we will see that it is constantly insistent–from Genesis right up through Revelation–on decrying the injustices done to the poor and calling for us to be like God Himself in attending especially to the plight of the poor and weak and working to lift them out of their suffering.  Christians have plenty of reason to join with many people in today’s world in decrying the scandal that so many selfishly pursue their own riches without regard to the needs of others, that billions struggle in unthinkable poverty, while others amass far more than they could ever need or even use,  that massive corporations have grown to the point where they are more powerful than most nations and regularly distort information or bend laws to boost their profits still further. 


But what do we do about this?  If we take Augustine’s skepticism regarding the City of Man seriously, his warning that all the structures of this world are distorted by the selfish desires of sin, we will know better than to expect that any system or institution will provide the solution to these problems.  Both the right-wing trust in the all-powerful market and the left-wing trust in the all-powerful government are naive and idolatrous.  True economic justice requires hard work and focused dedication on the part of God’s people to aid those in need, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and fight for justice.   True justice can only be found through a community of people bent on worshipping God, and receiving from Him the strength to give themselves for others as Christ gave himself for them.   Ultimately, it is the Church, not the State or the market, that has the resources to overcome oppression and greed.  To say this, though, is not to endorse the kind of pietism that imagines that all we need to do is give people the right heart, to convert them, and then we’ll have economic justice; the shape of Jesus’s ministry should show us the Church has a lot more work to do than that.  

Augustine, however, should warn us against a triumphalism as well.  Against all triumphalism, Christians should remember that the City of God is never complete in this life, in this age, that it too continues to struggle with sin and selfishness, and so we too will constantly fail in our quest for justice and charity.  We cannot approach the world with a mindset of “We’ve got the answers, we’ve got the solutions–your plans can go to hell.”  

A Christian politics thus recognizes that although there’s no such thing as a truly just worldly institution, there are some institutions that are more just than others, and we ought to recognize and encourage them, instead of simply writing them all off as equally rotten.   Remember that in Augustine’s paradigm, the earthly city, seen in political structures like Rome, was sure always to miss the mark of justice, but that didn’t mean that it could never come close, or that we shouldn’t try to help it become less unjust.  Economics then is an area ripe for “selective collaboration.”  

While the Church does its work of preaching the Gospel, helping the poor, and encouraging charity, in the meantime, juster laws can restrain injustice and help motivate good deeds in those for whom the impulse of charity is weak.  We have in the Old Testament a wonderful model of how God sought to encourage economic justice for his people–not only through moral exhortation and a call to worship and imitation of God, but through legal structures that recognized how easily the weak can be further marginalized and the strong can continue to grow stronger at their expense, and that tried to guard against this tendency.  While we cannot and should not press for laws that mandate Christ-like charity, we can at least support policies that discourage outright un-charity, or which try to ameliorate its effects.  We can support policies that seek to restrain the power and influence of money over our culture and societies, mindful of Paul’s warning that the love of money is the root of all evil.  When economic policies are debated in our cities or our national assemblies, we must of course insist that the needs of the poor are remembered and are favored over and above the desires of the wealthy to grow wealthier.  We must speak out against the lying narrative which insists that if we just leave wealth alone and let it do its work of creating more wealth, then poverty will disappear–usually this just means that, at best, poverty will be hidden away in some place less visible, like southeast Asia.  


But we must be wary when we advocate better policies in the political sphere.  The Bible tends to be pretty skeptical when it comes to rulers and central governments.  “Put no confidence in princes,” the 20th Psalm warns us, and the story of the Old Testament tends to bear this out.  In 1 Sam. 8, when the people ask for a king, God warns them that he will become an oppressor, amassing wealth and power for himself.  It’s not long before Solomon does just this, and despite the positive work of several godly kings, on the whole the prophets of the Old Testament denounce the royal administration as being on the side of greedy landlords and usurers.  Whatever their faults, conservatives are right to be skeptical of central government’s ability to improve economic justice and curb the power of wealth; after all, such large concentrations of power are difficult to hold accountable and easy to corrupt, and so they tend to aid rather than restrain the ambitions of large corporations.  Moreover, large unwieldy nation-states generally tend to resort to crude tools like coercion, which we as Christians know is rarely calculated to advance peace and justice.

The answer, I would suggest, is not laissez-faire, is not no government, but is a different kind of government.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the law of the Old Testament, most of the laws of economic justice seem to be the responsibility not of the king or of a state bureaucracy, but of local communities, governments on a more human scale, in which citizens take a great deal of responsibility for what happens in their communities and decisions about justice and injustice are made by people who actually know something about the plaintiffs and the defendants.  If the Church is to provide a model of a juster, truer kind of community, then perhaps we should seek political communities that are likewise organized on a manageable scale, which depend more on face-to-face relationships and not on bureaucracies or abstract legal ties.  Such political communities, it would seem, would not need so often to result to cruder tools of coercion but would be more able to negotiate conflicts via genuine dialogue and reconciliation, an approach the Church is also called to model for the world.  

Of course, it goes without saying that in our globalized world, with corporations like Wal-Mart that employ over 2 million people (just for perspective, that’s more people than you could meet if you met one new person every minute of every day for four years) in dozens of countries, not everything can be as local as it once was.  We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are.  As Christians, we need to also cultivate a more local, personal economics.  Most things we buy and sell are still made and sold by human beings, not just machines, and we have a responsibility toward human beings we meet and interact with.  We need to think about how to show Christ’s love to people in everything we do, which includes shopping for groceries or selling mortgages–and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?  

I’d like to conclude by driving this point home with a theme that has become common in recent theology and ethics: the Eucharist is the model of true community.  In the Eucharist, God shares his life with us and we share it with one another.  Isn’t it fascinating that what unites us as one body in the Church is not abstract membership in some organization, is not being listed on the membership rolls of a denomination or the fact that we send in a check for our tithe every month, but is an actual face-to-face gathering and eating together?  In the Eucharist, we pass the bread and the wine to one another and we pass the peace to one another, speaking one another’s names.  This exchange binds us together, and through it we resolve conflict and renew our determination to live together and serve one another.  What would the world be like if we could make more of our lives that way?  The answers to this question are not simple or easy, but it’s a question I think we should ask ourselves every day.