“A Companion to Mercersburg Theology” Review

A typical seminary student or even a Bible & Religion major at a Christian college might hear the names John Nevin, Phillip Schaff, and Mercersburg Theologyin their studies. But these names are more than likely relegated to footnotes in the curriculum. 

However, the resurgence of interest in this somewhat short-lived nineteenth century theological movement over the last few decades has allowed seasoned pastors, theologians, and other Christian ministry workers to learn more about these footnotes from their undergraduate and graduate studies.

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William B. Evans is the perfect choice to write this volume on Mercersburg Theology. His dissertation deals with some of the issues that grabbed the interest of the Mercersburg Theologians, and he has a solid trail of scholarly articles examining the figures of themes of this movement.

For those who are just getting their feet wet with Merscerburg thought, Evans writes at an accessible level, which is purposeful for this volume. I myself am a recent explorer of Nevin and his colleagues. I read The Mystical Presence this past year as well as Jonathan Bonomo’s excellent Incarnation and Sacrament: The Eucharistic Controversy Between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin and D.G. Hart’s Nevin: High-Church Calvinist. Like Bonomo’s work, Evans is aware of the philosophical, sociological, and theological issues of the period. But unlike Hart, Evans doesn’t romanticize Nevin or try to rescue him for his own historiographical agenda.

The book is a relatively short read, though it packs a punch with substantive, though accessible, content. At around 140 pages, this book would be a great addition to any church history or American religious history curriculum. In addition, the layout of the book is excellent. With the web of issues related to the Mercersburg movement, it would be easy to get lost in historical details, but Evans lays out the issues and narrative of Mercersburg with catchy chapter titles.

And, we get discussion questions at the end of each chapter! Woohoo!

Again, this book is comprehensive, and it has a little bit of something for everyone. The “Introduction” and “Dramatis Personae” chapters cover the basic history of the figures of Mercersburg. Of particular interest was the relatively unknown E.V. Gerhart, the leading systematized of Mercersburg Theology (31-35).

Evans is able to give a helpful introduction to the philosophical undercurrents of the Mercersburg period in the “Tale of a Two Continents” chapter. As a Philosophy major, I found this chapter quite fun to read.

An examination of the revivalism of the American religious landscape and how Nevin critiqued this phenomena in his The Anxious Bench occupies the chapter “Revivalism Engaged”. In my opinion, the issue of revivalism and excessive subjectivism in Christian piety is crucial to understanding Nevin’s project.

The two beefiest chapters are “Christ and Salvation” and “History and the Nature of the Church”. Here, Evans gives us the theological mindset of both Nevin and Schaff. I jotted down some questions in my reading. For example, Nevin doesn’t deny the doctrine of imputation (65-66), but does imputation occupy any place of importance in his soteriology or Christian piety? How ahead of his time is Nevin in his sensitivity to the flow of redemptive history (71)? With Nevin’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, should he, like Calvin, but dubbed a theologian of the Holy Spirit? With the differences between Nevin and Schaff on justification and sanctification (75-77), did they ever discuss/debate their differences? Is Nevin’s distinction between the ideal church and the actual church (83-84) significantly different from the Reformed confessional distinction between the visible church and the invisible church (WCF XXV.1-2)? Is Nevin and Schaff’s optimism about the church in history (85-86) coherent with WCF XXV.4-5? What would a volume examining Nevin’s hermeneutical and exegetical practices look like given his disdain for a “Bible as storehouse of facts” perspective and his support of a sensus plenior reading of Scripture (92-93)? Finally, what accounts for Nevin pitting “the sacramental Calvin against the predestinarian Calvin” (107)? 

The final chapter examining the issues of Mercersburg deals with ministry and liturgy. Here, Evans shows how Mercersburg and the Reformation part ways on the prioritizing of the word versus sacrament (119). My favorite section of this chapter was near the end when Evans tries to apply the mistakes of Mercersburg theologians when it came to liturgical reform in the German Reformed Church. Evans writes, “But was it wise, for example, to insist on excluding free prayer from services? Was it prudent to throw prescribed “altar” and “sacrifice” language in the faces of those who were sure to be offended by it? In short, could the Mercersburgers (and Nevin particular) have accomplished more in their context had they been more diplomatic? Such questions are difficult to answer, but there are likely some practical lessons here for theologians and liturgical reformers today.” (127) Indeed, I as a Pastor of a local Presbyterian congregation I need to exercise the patience and balance that Nevin and Schaff didn’t always demonstrate.

The “Epilogue” is perhaps Evans at his best as he ties everything together and explores how relevant Mercersburg Theology can be for us today. I think this chapter is worth the price of the book (which is a steal at $15 in paperback and $10 on Kindle).

As already iterated, this book is now the best introductory text to Mercersburg Theology. I would make it the first book to read before reading other secondary texts and then the primary texts from the Mercersburg men themselves.

*****

Note: I received a review copy of this work from the publisher. I was not obligated to give a positive review.

Lessons from the ARP for the PCA

I was ARP born, I was ARP bred, but when I die I may be PCA dead! I transferred into the PCA two years ago after spending several years planting an ARP church. I went to Erskine College, spent months of my existence at Bonclarken, was a Camp Joy Counselor, etc. 

I also was in the ARP and involved with its denominational politics during a somewhat tumultuous period. From 2007-2017 I attended the ARP Synod almost every year, and I went to Presbytery meetings whenever possible. If you google my name you might find out that I was one of the students heavily involved in bringing concerns to the ARP Synod about Erskine College.

Imagine being a 21 year old college student and almost every Minister in the ARP knew you as “that troublemaker at Erskine”. Some liked that I was a troublemaker, others didn’t like it. Some Ministers would call me up to pray for me and offer encouragement. Others would verbally rebuke me. It seemed that this peaceful little denomination was split in two, I had something to do with it.

I don’t regret raising concerns about Erskine’s issues more than a decade ago. It led to some good results. Today, I would recommend Erskine to any Christian high school student so long as they had the financial help to attend a private liberal arts Christian college.

However, I do have one regret…breaking the 9th commandment against ARP Ministers and Elders. In my mind, voting for my side or cause at a meeting of Presbytery or Synod meant one was conservative, and a vote against my side meant one was a liberal. Only the faithful voted for my side. The compromised voted against my side.

In my heart, from my keyboard, and through my lips, I labeled many men as liberal, squishy, or some other insult.

But in a few years time I would regret those sins.

I discovered that a good bulk of men in my denomination were confessional. They were Reformed (some even more Reformed than me). They also wanted Erskine to be a faithful missional arm of the church. But, there were different rationales for voting on this or that issue of church polity. Not everyone is a strategic politician. Some think a bit more independently. Some had a different perspective than me.

How did I come to realize that I judged certain men too quickly?

I did something radical and other-worldly.

I met with them. Face to face.

We had meals. We had coffee. We went to conferences together. We laughed. We prayed for each other. We hashed out our differences.

Our disagreements remained in some cases. Some still jokingly said “You’re the reason we are in this Erskine mess.” But we became friends.

At one point, some men who I voted with and sympathized with concerning Erskine would imply that I was a ‘chameleon’. I just wanted everyone to like me. That is why I began to befriend those from ‘the other side’.

I admit my deep sin of wanting to be liked, but I don’t think it was a sin to enjoy the fellowship of brothers in my denomination. I don’t think it was sinful to repent of my slander against certain men.

I discovered that probably 80-90% of the ARP was basically in agreement on the core issues, but there was disagreement on how to accomplish certain goals in becoming a more faithful denomination.

In 2007, the ARP seemed deeply divided. But when I left the ARP in 2017, it was a very unified and peaceful denomination.

I think other men did what I did. They sought out those who voted differently. They came to the table together. They realized that they had misjudged one another.

As I look at the seeming divide in the PCA on the heels of the 2019 General Assembly, I see a lot of overlap between my experience in the ARP and my experience in the PCA.

I think 90% (or more) of our denomination is firmly solid on the biblical perspective on human sexuality. And I think we also want to love and care for LGBT folks, especially Christians trying to live faithful lives even with their ongoing struggle and temptation.

I think we love being Reformed and Presbyterian. I think we love our Westminster Standards.

But I also think we love demonizing each other within this 90%.

And the fringe voices, that last 10%, love to stir up this demonization.

In other words, we are more fearful and irrational about one another than we ever imagined, but we are much more united than we ever hoped. (Yes, that was a very bad Tim Keller joke.)

The most eye-opening part of the 2019 PCA GA was hearing Ligon Duncan during his GRN talk say that the PCA is not slipping into liberalism and is not deeply divided on the issue of human sexuality. He even defended Covenant Seminary and Memorial Presbyterian Church in saying that those institutions have not endorsed ReVoice.

I think Duncan is right.

We are much more unified, but we act as if we are miles apart.

I give credit to Satan and our flesh in creating this kind of fictional division. The Evil One doesn’t want Jesus’ church to be unified.

While the PCA is different from the ARP (size, geography, culture, etc) there are also enough similarities for me to think that the solution for unity in the PCA is the same as it was in the ARP.

We need to get together.

We need to invite people from ‘the other side’ to speak at our conferences and gatherings. We need to tear down our echo chambers. We need to say ‘no’ to the PR battles we wage with one another so as to please our constituencies. 

I am not a member of the National Partnership. I don’t have anything to do with the GRN. My GA Trading Card names me ‘The Mole’. (Is that better than a chameleon?) If tomorrow I was offered a high ranking position in any denominational political organization, I would turn it down. I’ve been there and done that in my previous denomination.

Next year when GRN does it’s luncheon, maybe a Greg Johnson or a Scott Sauls should be part of a panel discussion.

Maybe RTS and CTS do a joint luncheon?

Maybe when we debate the human sexuality study committee report someone might say, “I disagree with Greg Johnson on some things, but I am glad he is serving in our denomination and reaching LGBT people for Christ.” Maybe a National Partnership person can say, “I praise God he has given us men in the GRN.”

A few things bothered me about ReVoice. (Last week when I met Stephen Moss I told him that I am a friendly critic of ReVoice.) A few things bothered me about how the GRN conference came about this year and how the Nashville Statement debate went (though I have no problem calling the Nashville Statement an, overall, biblically faithful document).

More than ReVoice, the GRN, or the Nashville Statement, I have a much bigger problem with how Satan is tearing us apart and sewing fear mongering and lies among us.

I have no influence in the PCA, but I guess I will take a little credit if at the 2020 PCA GA I see some of my above prophesies come true.

May the Holy Spirit bring the PCA to the to the table and begin the work of living peacefully so far as it depends on us. (Rom 12:18)

Sin vs Self-Love

From Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, page 88,

Sin is not only a preferring the body before the soul, but it is also an unmercifulness or cruelty against ourselves, both soul and boy, and so is contrary to the true use of the indelible principle of self-love; for it is a wounding and abusing the soul and defiling the body in this life, and casting both on the wrath of God, and into the flames of hell hereafter, or a dangerous venturing them into the way of endless damnation and despair, and a contempt of those insufferable torments. All these parts of malignity and poison are intrinsical to sin, and found in the very nature of it.

The Devil in Temptation

From Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, Chapter III, Part I, page 78,

Take every temptation in its naked, proper sense, as coming from the devil, and tending to your damnation by enticing your hearts from your subjection unto God: suppose you saw the devil himself in his instruments offering you the bait of preferment, or honour, or riches, or fleshly lust, or sports, or of delightful meats, or drinks, to tempt you to excess; and suppose you heard him say to you plainly, Take this for thy salvation; sell me for this thy God, and thy soul, and thy everlasting hopes; commit this sin, that thou mayst fall under the judgment of God, and be tormented in hell with me for ever. Do this to please thy flesh, that thou mayst displease thy God, and grieve thy Saviour: I cannot draw thee to hell, but by drawing thee to sin; and I cannot make thee sin against thy will; nor undo thee, but by thy own consent an doing: therefore I pray thee consent and do it thyself, and let me have thy company in torments. This is the naked meaning of every temptation: suppose therefore you saw and heard all this, with what detestation then would you reject it! with what horror would you fly from the most enticing bait! If a robber would entice you out of your way and company, with flattering words, that you might fall into the hands of his companions, if you knew all his meaning and design beforehand, would you be enticed after them? Watch therefore, and resolve when you know beforehand the design of the devil, and what he intendeth in every temptation.”

Fruitful Obedience, Bitter Disobedience

From Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, Chapter III, Part 1, page 77,

Forget not the fruits of your former obedience and disobedience, if you would be kept in an obedient frame. Remember that obedience hath been sweetest afterward; and that you never yet found cause to repent or be ashamed of it. Remember that the fruit of sin was bitter, and that when your eyes were opened, and you saw your shame, you would fain have fled from the face of God; and that then it appeared another thing to you, than it seemed in the committing. Remember what groans an heart’s grief it hath cost you; and into what fears it brought you of the wrath of God; and how long it was before your broken bones were healed; and what it cost both Christ and you. And this will make the very name and first approach of sin, to cast you into a preventing fear. A beast that hath once fallen into a gulf or quick-sand, will hardly be driven into the same again: a fish that was once stricken and escaped the hook, will fear and fly from it the next time:  bird that hath once escaped the snare, or the talons of the hawk, is afterwards afraid of the sight or noise of such a thing. Remember where you fell, and what it cost you, and what you escaped which might have cost you, and you will obey more accurately hereafter.”