Archive Peter Escalante Sacred Doctrine

W. Bradford Littlejohn on Mercersburg

Our friend and collaborator Mr Littlejohn is the general editor of the Mercersburg Theology Study Series, the central project of the Mercersburg Research Fellowship. The first volume, John Williamson Nevin’s The Mystical Presence and the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper, has just been published by Wipf and Stock.

The Mercersburg school was controversial in its own day, and still is. The Mystical Presence was the subject of a long dispute between Hodge and Nevin, in which both sides might fairly be said to have talked past each other. Nevin certainly rejected any presence other than symbolic in the elements, and thus held to the classic Reformed view in this regard, but he did wish to assert that Christ is really and preeminently present in and to the congregation of believers gathered in charity for the banquet of the Kingdom – and he had Calvin as authority here, against the notion common in his time that the Supper is a sort of visual aid signifying concepts. But Hodge wasn’t entirely wrong to be suspicious; Nevin, although definitely free from most of the hallmark errors of the Oxford Movement, often spoke unclearly, and he certainly was much influenced by German Idealism and Romanticism in a way which at its best, served in some cases as a kind of gateway toward recovery of certain genuinely Biblical ideas, but often too misguided his mind, especially in his use of organic metaphors. Hodge was right to see a problem there- but Hodge himself would have benefited from Nevin’s kind of imagination, just as Nevin would have benefited from more of Hodge’s kind of rigor and clarity.

But that possible collaboration was not meant to be. Nevin did of course have a close collaborator, the famous church historian Schaff, and we here think that Schaff is the one of the pair who perhaps has more to teach us today. Although much, perhaps too much, attention has been given to Mercersburg’s sacramental doctrine and liturgical experiments, Schaff also explored important questions of history and polity. Schaff, like Nevin, was a little too enamored of Romantic categories; one sees, for instance, a distinctly historicistic color to his work The Principle of Protestantism, whose central idea is quite sound otherwise (an idea also laid out, entirely free of historicistic apparatus, by Harold Berman in the second volume of his Law and Revolution).  But Schaff has much to offer. His considerations on the settlement of religious freedom in the United States, and his comparison of it to the practically similar but still quite different arrangement in the Prussia of his time, were profound and in some regards prescient, and we hope they will attract greater attention in the future due to the efforts of Mr Littlejohn and his collaborators. We look forward to the Mercersburg Theology Study Series bringing many forgotten or half-remembered episodes of this chapter of American theology back to light.

Mr Littlejohn discusses the first volume, and the Mercersburg school in general, here.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.