Friday, August 7, 2009

Mercersburg Theologians, Part 1

I decided to put off my post about the Dave Matthews Band song "Time Bomb" in order to post on something a little more pressing. On September 18th, I will be presenting a paper at a conference at my alma mater, Johnson Bible College, at a conference dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the Declaration and Address, a charter document of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I am currently working on a better title, but here is the abstract for my paper:

The younger contemporaries of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, critiqued the Stone-Campbell Movement, as well as Baptist and Congregational movements, for their biblicism, sectarianism, and unhistorical attitude toward the Christian faith. Known as the “Mercersburg theologians” after the town in south-central Pennsylvania in which they taught at a seminary associated with the German Reformed Church, the theology of Nevin and Schaff exemplified a catholicizing tendency and emphasis upon church practice, the sacraments, and an appreciation of tradition. Some contemporary evangelical or free church theologians, such as American Baptist scholar D.H. Williams, see the Mercersburg theologians as a model for Protestants seeking a historically informed faith. The Mercersburg theologians’ critiques of the Stone-Campbell Movement, therefore, can help contemporary readers of the Declaration and Address avoid sectarian or restorationist extremes that ignore catholicity and assist in locating the Movement more accurately within the broader Christian tradition.

I decided to post parts of the paper in segments so that I can make needed corrections before the conference next month. Here's part 1:

In the nineteenth century, the Stone-Campbell Movement had its share of critics. Among them, the Mercersburg theologians largely critiqued the Movement for biblicism, sectarianism, and an unhistorical attitude toward the Christian faith. The Mercersburg theologians offer contemporary members of the Stone-Campbell Movement a window into how outsiders understood the Movement in the years after the merger of the Stone and Campbell churches. The Mercersburg theologians’ reflections in turn can help members in the twenty-first century, as interpreters of the Declaration and Address, understand some weaknesses in the Movement. The Mercersburg theologians’ critiques of the Stone-Campbell Movement, therefore, can help contemporary readers of the Declaration and Address avoid sectarian or restorationist extremes that ignore catholicity and assist in locating the Movement more accurately within the broader Christian tradition.

The terms “Mercersburg theology” and “Mercersburg theologians” received their names from a town just north of the Mason-Dixon line in south-central Pennsylvania, where a college (Marshall College) and seminary associated with the German Reformed Church were located. The German Reformed Church, which held services in German, was a small, mostly rural denomination with most of its congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland.

The two primary Mercersburg theologians included theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886) and church historian Philip Schaff (1819–1893). Nevin grew up an Old School Presbyterian and trained for ministry and teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. After a decade of teaching at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), he received an invitation to teach in Mercersburg in 1839.

Schaff was Swiss by birth, but educated at German universities in Tübingen, Halle, and Berlin. Schaff was educated in Swabian pietism and while in Germany, was a member of the United Evangelical Church of Prussia. At age 25, Schaff immigrated to the United States. In 1843, Schaff received an appointment to teach at the Mercersburg seminary. When Schaff arrived, Nevin was both president at Marshall College and the only professor at the seminary. Schaff taught in German while Nevin taught in English.[1]

Nevin and Schaff discovered that they had, in the words of James Hastings Nichols, “come quite independently to share a distinctive theological orientation, and their collaboration in its development produced the Mercersburg theology.”[2] The pair quickly began collaborating in teaching, books, tracts, and articles in The Weekly Messenger, The Mercersburg Review, and Kirchenfreund, which continued until the move of Marshall College to Lancaster and Nevin’s retirement in 1853.[3]

Their theology was typified by a “high-church or catholicizing tendency within the framework of German idealism and historical thought,” similar in ways to the neo-Lutheran confessionalism and Anglo-Catholicism of their time.[4] Their catholicizing tendency led them to an interest in the order of the church, “a reverence for the tradition as expressing the continuity of the church,” a sacramental emphasis, and an acceptance of the Christian faith of not only of other Protestants, but also Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Their approach to theology, however, was not universally accepted by the German Reformed Church. Shortly after Schaff’s appointment at Mercersburg, he and Nevin were put on trial for heresy, but were acquitted of the charges against them.[5] They were also critiqued by figures like Princeton Theological Seminary’s Charles Hodge, who perceived in the Mercersburg theologians an overemphasis upon ecclesiastical procedure.[6]

Nevin and Schaff together criticized a common opponent—“Puritanism,” by which “they meant the individualistic anti-traditional evangelicalism then dominant in American religion.”[7] They understood “Puritanism” as “the main basis of our North American Church.”[8] Mark Noll notes that theologians like Nevin “retrieved old world norms in order to stand against the onslaught of specifically American innovations.”[9] Their critique of “Puritanism” and American innovation included a critique of sectarianism, which Nevin called “the antichrist.” [10] Therefore, while figures like Alexander Campbell sought to strip away tradition and theology in order to restore unity to the church, Nevin and Schaff emphasized “a holistic and mystical view of the church, as strong medicine for America’s ‘sect plague.’”[11]

[1] James Hastings Nichols, “Introduction,” in The Mercersburg Theology, A Library of Protestant Thought, ed. James Hastings Nichols (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 3, 6–8.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 3, 12–13, 22.

[6] Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 301.

[7] Nichols, 4.

[8] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism: As Related to the Present State of the Church, trans. John Williamson Nevin (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1845), 114.

[9] Noll, 231.

[10] Ibid., 249. Nevin’s critiques were often more caustic than Schaff’s.

[11] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 164.

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