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.
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.