How *Not* to Do Historical Theology

I have been known to be in various times and places a fan of John Williamson Nevin, but re-reading his articles on “Cyprian” last night, I was a bit shocked and disappointed at his duplicity.  He sketches in the starkest terms the contrast between “Cyprianic Christianity” (which he takes to be normative for the early church as a whole” and Protestantism, always in terms flattering to the former and disparaging to the latter, and then constantly pulls back and says, “Hey, I’m not passing any judgments, man!  Just settin’ some historical facts on the table for your consideration.”  This shiftiness reaches proportions that can only be described as despicable at the conclusion of the fourth and final article, at which point, having ostentatiously declared the fundamental incompatibility of Protestantism with the early church, he says,

“If it be asked now, what precise construction we propose to apply to the subject, we have only to say that we have none to offer whatever.  That has been no part of our plan.  If we even had a theory in our thoughts that might be perfectly satisfactory to our own mind, we would not choose to bring it forward in the present connect; lest it might seem that the subject was identified in some way, with any such scheme of explanation.  What we have wished, is to present the subject in its own separate and naked form, not entangled with any theory; that it may speak for itself; that it may provoke thought; that it may lead to some earnest and honest contemplation of the truth for its own sake.  The importance of the subject, the nature of the facts in question, is not changed by any theory that may be brought forward for their right adjustment with the cause of Protestantism.  This or that solution may be found unsatisfactory; but still the facts remain just what they were before.  There they are, challenging our most solemn regard; and it is much if we can only be brought to see that they are there, and to look them steadily in the face.  We have had no theory to assert or uphold.  We offer no speculation.  Our concern has been simply to give a true picture of facts.  The difficulty of the whole subject is of course clearly before our mind.  We feel it deeply, and not without anxiety and alarm.  But we are not bound to solve it, and have no more interest in doing so than others.  We have not made the difficulty in any way.  We are not responsible for it, and we have no mind or care at present to charge ourselves with the burden of its explanation.  There it stands before the whole world.  It is of age too, we may say, full formed and full grown; let it speak then for itself.”

Reminiscent of “contraceptive historiography” at its worst, one has to say.


Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology

I’m pleased to announce that volume 2 of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series, edited by Linden J. DeBie and entitled Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology, has just been published by Wipf and Stock Publishers.  You can read more about the Study Series, of which I am serving as General Editor, and which aims to print at least 13 volumes of the writings of Nevin, Schaff, and their colleagues over the next few years, at our website.

This is one of the most exciting volumes in the whole series, bringing to light material that has never been seen before by most scholars, let alone the general public, in an easily accessible form that enables comparison of two rival models of Reformed sacramentology.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s what some leading scholars and historians had to say:

These are essential documents pertaining to one of the most important theological debates in American history. They remain of great interest today for not only deepening how Reformed churches might understand the Lord’s Supper in accord with Calvin, but also for the possibility of Reformed ecumenical convergence with churches from which they have long been divided. . . . The editors have performed a great service to theology and the church. —George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary

This debate on the Lord’s Supper is by no means of narrow denominational interest only; for Hodge and Nevin represent doctrinal and sacramental views that are ardently defended to this day—not least in ecumenical discussions. We thus have here a welcome and instructive addition to what is already proving to be a useful series of carefully introduced and edited texts. —Alan P. F. Sell, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

No theological debate in nineteenth-century America displayed more erudition, logical acumen, and knowledge of European scholarship than the clash between Hodge and Nevin over the sacraments. The editors of this volume not only provide stunningly good introductions, but they also arrange the material in an ingenious way that deepens our insights into the issues and enables us to easily follow the discussion. —E. Brooks Holifield, Emory University

Too often in contemporary theology . . . the Eucharist is identified with its Zwinglian variant, according to which the sacrament is largely a spiritual memorial. In the nineteenth century, this view was championed by Charles Hodge, who eschewed the higher sacramentalism of Calvin. By contrast, his erstwhile student John Williamson Nevin attempted to restate the higher Calvinistic account of communion. The battle of journal articles that ensued, reprinted here for the first time since the nineteenth century, is a window into this debate. Oliver Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary


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).


Announcing the Mercersburg Research Fellowship

At last, I am ready to announce the readiness of our website, www.mercersburgtheology.org, where you will be able to find all kinds of information about the Mercersburg Theology, and about our exciting project to make its key writings available for a modern audience.  It’s still ugly and very much under construction, but it’s functional. 

Mark Noll has written the foreword for our first volume, in which he had nice things like this to say:

“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.
. . .
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.”