Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mercersburg Theologians, Part 2

In my last post, I gave a quick history of the Mercersburg Theologians and noted their critique of Puritanism. In this post, I will summarize their critique of the Stone-Campbell Movement and other “free church” traditions in nineteenth century America.

Although Nevin does not mention The Declaration and Address within his Antichrist and the Sect, Nevin does criticize the sectarianism he perceives within both the Stone and Campbell churches. In a critique of divided Baptist and Congregational Christians who seek to follow the “Bible alone,” Nevin mentions the “Christians,”[1] who “reject all party names to follow Christ, take the Bible for their guide and carry the principle of shaping their faith by it so far that a doctrine which cannot be expressed ‘in the language of inspiration they do not hold themselves to obligated to believe.’”[2] Nevin goes on to mention Alexander Campbell and his “Disciples of Christ” or “Campbellite Baptists,” who seek “to reconstruct the Church” by distancing the revelation of God from “human creeds, confessions of faith, and formalities of doctrine and church government, as being not only unnecessary, but really a means of perpetuating division.”[3] Nevin says of the “Christians,” Disciples, Adventists, and Baptists:

If the Bible be at once so clear and full as formulary of Christian doctrine and practice, how does it come to pass that where men are left most free to use it in this way, and have the greatest mind to do so, according to their own profession, they are flung asunder so perpetually in their religious faith, instead of brought together, by its influence apparently, and, at all events, certainly in its name?[4]

Nevin thus demonstrates his concern with the sectarian tendencies of Christian groups dedicated to the maxim “no creed but the Bible” or to the private judgment of individual Christians, who will not merge with other like-minded Christians. He argues that these sects, like the Disciples, do not live up to their own standards, for their emphasis on liberty leads them to reject the liberty of other groups.[5] While each group rejects tradition as authoritative, they each have their own tradition, which is “in most cases a very poor and narrow tradition,” and reflects an unhistorical understanding.[6] Nevin critiques the sects as having a “rationalistic tendency” that often leads to a denial of supernaturalism and sacramental grace. This is illustrated by Nevin’s note that the “Christians” have “no faith in Christ’s divinity” and Alexander Campbell understands that the Christian faith is simply “belief of certain testimony, and obedience to certain laws, outwardly offered to men in the Bible.”[7]

Nevin does, however, note that despite the weaknesses in the sects, there is an understanding within some of them that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. While some of the groups only make such claim upon a segment of the church, others have a clearer idea of the true church. An understanding of the church that Nevin would have appreciated can be seen in proposition one of the Declaration and Address:

That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.[8]

Some modern interpreters argue that Thomas Campbell was a “true ‘catholic,’ a ‘high churchman.’”[9] Nevin, however, says of Alexander, “So we meet in Mr. Campbell many traces of a sound and right feeling here, which we may regret to find overwhelmed again, and made of no effect, by the power of the unhistorical sect mind which is allowed after all to prevail in his system.”[10]

Nevin has some similar critiques in a two-part article he wrote for the Mercersburg Review entitled “The Sect System,” which he wrote largely in response to John Winebrenner’s History of All Religious Denominations in the United States. In particular, Nevin critiques Alexander Campbell’s understanding of the Christianity, which Robert Richardson defined in Winebrenner’s history as

a system of religion and morality instituted by Jesus Christ, principally taught by his

Apostles, and recorded in the New Testament. It has for its immediate object the amelioration of the character and condition of man, morally and religiously considered. . . . It consists in the knowledge, belief, and obedience of the testimony and law of Jesus Christ, as taught by his apostles, and recorded in the New Testament.[11]

Nevin argues that this position is not actually Christianity, but “in its best view Judaism,” and he prays that Campbell and others would come to better understand the difference between Moses and Christ.[12]

Regarding Schaff’s critique of the Disciples, he does not explicitly critique them in his major writings, but he does reflect on their reformation and critique some positions held by major figures in the Stone-Campbell Movement. In his America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character, Schaff mentions the Disciples and “Christians” in the midst of a discussion of Baptist movements in America. He identifies the Disciples as a movement that connects immersion of adults with regeneration and rejects creeds and sectarian names. Schaff then mentions the “Christians” of New England, Ohio, and Kentucky, who reject creeds, the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ, and baptize adults by immersion.[13]

In The Principle of Protestantism, Schaff does not specifically mention the Disciples, but does critique sectarianism in the same way Nevin does. Schaff refers to sectarianism as “the other grand disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism.”[14] According to D.H. Williams, the sectarianism that Schaff critiques is characterized by “an ahistoricism and spiritual subjectivism.”[15] Schaff notes the existence in Protestantism of “Puritanism,” which he characterizes as having an “unhistorical, revolutionary tendency” with “no respect whatever for history.”[16] The Puritanism that Schaff critiques has much in common with what many today call “restorationism,” for Schaff says Puritanism “would restore pure, primitive Christianity, with entire disregard to the many centuries of development that lie between, as though all had been labor in vain, and the Lord had not kept his promise to be with the Church always to the end of the world.”[17] Mark Noll agrees, characterizing the restorationism of the Stone movement as “a republican understanding of intellectual independence . . . joined naturally to commonsense confidence in their own ability to understand the Bible in the raw.”[18]

There is no evidence that any early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement were aware of or responded to the critiques of the Mercersburg theologians.[19] Schaff and Nevin were, however, at times referenced in the pages of the Millennial Harbinger as examples of contemporary figures from pedobaptist traditions that affirm that the early church practiced baptism by immersion or had a plurality of elders.[20] Later, B.W. Johnson in his The People’s New Testament with Notes, says he learned from Schaff in writing his own commentary.[21]

In my next post, I will appraise the Mercersbugh theologians' critique of the early Stone-Campbell Movement.

[1] Nevin does not refer to Barton Stone by name, but implies Stone’s movement is one of the three wings of the “Christians.” Nevin does, however, refer to the “Republican Methodists” and Abner Jones. John Williamson Nevin, Antichrist and the Sect (excerpt), in The Mercersburg Theology, A Library of Protestant Thought, ed. James Hastings Nichols (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 96, 102.
[2] Ibid., 96.
[3] Ibid., 97.
[4] Ibid., 97.
[5] Ibid., 98–102. Nevin does not mention the merger of the Disciples with Stone’s “Christians,” but does ask why the Disciples are separate from Winebrenner’s “Church of God.”
[6] Ibid., 102–103.
[7] Ibid., 110–111.
[8] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (Washington, PA: Brown & Sample, 1809; Reprinted Lincoln, IL: Lincoln Christian College Press, 1986), 22.
[9] Paul M. Blowers, “Restoring the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: The Appeal of the Declaration and Address as Interpreted by Frederick Doyle Kershner and William Robinson,” in The Quest for Christian Unity, Peace, and Purity in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address: Text and Studies, ed. Thomas H. Olbricht and Hans Rollman (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2000), 369.
[10] Nevin, Antichrist and the Sect, 112–113. See Gary E. Weedman, “Outsiders’ Views of the Movement,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas A. Foster et al (Grand Rapids: Eerdmns, 2004), 582.
[11] Robert Richardson, “History of the Disciples of Christ,” in History of All the Religious Denominations of the United States: Containing Authentic Accounts of the Rise and Progress, Faith and Practice, Localities and Statistics, of the Different Persuasions: Written Expressly for the Work, by Fifty-Three Eminent Authors, Belonging to the Respective Denominations, ed. John Winebrenner, 223–235 (Harrisburg, 1848), 231–232.
[12] John Williamson Nevin, “The Sect System,” in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin, eds. Charles Yrigoyen and George H. Bricker, Pittsburgh Original Texts and Translations Series, no. 3. (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978), 153.
[13] Philip Schaff, America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 168–169 and
[14] Schaff, Principle of Protestantism, 107. The first “grand disease” is rationalism, 98–106.
[15] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 14.
[16] Schaff, Principle of Protestantism, 113.
[17] Ibid., 113.
[18] Noll, 231.
[19] Blowers, “Restoring the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” 366.
Nevin is mentioned in A. Wheelock, “Plurality of Elders in the Apostolic Churches.” Millennial Harbinger (1836): 310–325 and Alexander Campbell, “Melanchthon and Luther on Infant Baptism,” Millennial Harbinger (1858): 193. Schaff is mentioned in Isaac Errett, “Additional Testimonies for Immersion,” Millennial Harbinger (1865): 483. Nevin and Schaff are mentioned in C.L. Loos, “Additional Testimonies for Immersion,” Millennial Harbinger (1865): 535.
[21] M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible: A History of Disciples Biblical Interpretation in North America (St Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 173.

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