Can We Learn Anything from the Much-Maligned John W. Nevin?
|John Williamson Nevin|
What follows is a book review published originally in Modern Reformation. The story of its publication is ironically humorous. I originally wrote it for and sent it to an online publication which would have paid me nothing for the review. I would have been very happy had it been published there. My understanding at the time was that my commitments and that Journal's were all but identical. However, the review was rejected. Several reasons were given. The two that I recall were that Nevin had been suicidal (ever heard of Cowper?) and that it would not be good for young men to have their attention called to Nevin (anyone seen CTS'. RTS', or WTS' reading lists?). Eventually I submitted this to Modern Reformation which not only published the review but paid me for it! As everyone knows money is the great vindicator!
Like Nevin, though for somewhat different reasons, D.G. Hart is considered controversial by some. In fact, there seems to be a determined effort to dismiss him - this though Hart is a first class historian whose work is highly regarded within the academy. The respect is reason enough for some to dismiss as no true Christian scholar could be respected by secular scholars. Three of Hart's books have had significant and formative influence (if I may speak experientially) on me. These are The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, and the book reviewed below.
A Review of John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist
by D.G. Hart
|D. G. Hart Smiling|
Who brought about the bigger changes in American Protestantism, Charles Darwin or Jonathan Edwards? Most historians argue that the sea change came after the War Between the States. Protestantism had to grapple with the problems created by cities and industries, the challenges of higher criticism, the changes brought about by looking at religion through the lens of psychology, and the apparent undermining of Biblical faith by Darwinism.
This period is considered the point at which Protestantism had to go over on the
defensive. The result was that some tried their best to adjust to the changing realities (liberalism), while others circled the wagons (fundamentalism). Such is the conventional wisdom.
In this fine biography of John Williamson Nevin, an obscure 19th century one time Presbyterian, then German Reformed professor, Hart argues that American Protestantism experienced its most determining change much earlier through the work of Jonathan Edwards and his co-revivalists (the term “revivalist” does not identify Edwards with the errors of Finney, the excesses of the Second Great Awakening, or revivalism’s current incarnations).
Hart contends that Nevin...
...recognized not simply the historical discontinuity between Calvin, Ursinus, and the Westminster divines on the one side and Edwards and Finney on the other. Nevin also articulated the fundamental incompatibility between revivalism (the system of the [anxious] bench) and the historic branches of the Protestant Reformation (the system of the catechism [here standing for the whole of the ministry of the ordinary means of grace]). The former was subjective, individualistic, and didactic, while the latter was objective, corporate, and sacramental. In a word, the anxious bench located religious authenticity inside the believing individual, the (system of the) catechism in the corporate practices of the church (p. 234).
Herein lays the primary significance of Nevin for Reformed and Presbyterian churches today.
Let’s get this out of the way. Nevin was quirky in personality and in views. He struggled with depressive episodes and had an acerbic pen. He made much too little of preaching for a Reformed Protestant and perhaps over-read Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (though this may be excused partially by the generally low view of the Lord’s Supper held in his day, to say nothing of ours.) He put too much emphasis on the incarnation and not enough on the atonement. He was influenced by German philosophy (though perhaps no more so than the Princetonians were by Scottish philosophy). He is not the man Westminster Calvinists would want to see teaching systematic theology in a Reformed seminary.
Let’s also get this out of the way. The Federal Visionists seem to like this biography (apparently because they perceive Nevin as an historical ally). It is true that the Federal Visionists are concerned, as was Nevin, with the effects of revivalism on the church and with the low view of the church and sacraments that obtains among Reformed Protestants, but neither the Visionists nor Nevin are alone in those concerns. The errors of the Federal Vision theology must not be used to dismiss Nevin, or others who share a higher view of the visible church and the effects of the means of grace and a different view of conversion and piety.
To hold such views is not to believe that that all the blessings of redemption are actually bestowed at baptism but may be lost by covenant unfaithfulness, or that election is conditional, or to question the Reformation’s formulations of justification, or imputation, or covenant.
Consider these questions:
(1) What is the nature of the church? Is the word “church” roughly equivalent to “all the Christians in the world”, or is it an institution with a body of doctrine, a system of government, a unique mission, and a form of worship? Is the church the earthly agency of applied salvation, or is salvation an individual and personal matter essentially between the soul and God? Do the Reformed truly believe, as their confessions teach, that outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation? Is the church our mother apart from which we cannot have God as our Father? Are Reformed Baptists and historic Presbyterians one except for differing views of the subjects and modes of baptism and of forms of church government or are there profound differences about the nature of the church, of the covenant, and of conversion?
(2) What are the effects of the means of grace? Are the means of grace the channels by which the grace of God flows into those who receive them? Is not baptism among some Presbyterians little more than a “baby dedication” with water? Is not the Lord’s Supper in practice little more than an ordinance that stirs pious remembrances and feelings? Fully acknowledging that there is no ex opere operato in connection with the means, do we believe that the Spirit ordinarily accompanies their use to make them effective? Do we expect the work of God to go forward by the faithful administration and reception of the means of grace or are we treading water while we await revival?
(3) What is the nature of conversion? Are baptized children to be pressed regarding the need of a distinct and memorable conversion experience, or are they to be expected to believe and they are taught the faith in the ministry of the Church? Are professing Christians, faithful in attendance upon the means of grace and communicants in good standing, to be led toward a form or self-examination that requires the person to ask, “Have I been truly converted? Has the transaction occurred? Have I closed with Christ?” Or, are they to be treated in accord with their profession and standing, charged to walk worthy of the faith, and encouraged as they make the long and difficult journey to world to come?
(4) Why are some Protestants tempted, as was Nevin, to “go over” to Roman Catholicism? Is one reason the lack among “low-church” Reformed churches of historical connectedness with the church of the ages, especially with the post-apostolic Fathers? Could another be the frothy superficiality, the lack of substantial edification, the loss of awe, and the random nature of worship that has been infected and affected by revivalism? Does the word “liturgy” conjure up thoughts of Roman Catholicism (and/or liberalism)? Could yet another be the lack of unity that seems to be one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation? (Or are we to be satisfied with some sort of undefined ethereal spiritual unity requiring no visible form?) Is it possible that one of the reasons the Federal Vision has gotten such traction as it has is because there are these nagging doubts about what Protestantism has wrought?
(5) What is the nature of church office, especially the minister of the Word? Are ministers men through whom Christ speaks? Or, are they enablers and equippers whose service is to get church members to do the “real ministry”? Are ministers to be respected or treated with suspicion and any power they may have kept in close check? Does the minister really have the keys to the kingdom in his hands as he preaches the Word and administers the sacraments?
What are our intuitional answers? Would they have been the same in the 19th century, or are they the same in the 21st as they would have been in the 16th century or even the 17th – that is, in the period of the writing of all the Reformed statements of faith? No doubt there are differences that can be detected between Heidelberg and Westminster, but this book contends that, despite the differences, their conceptions of the church, of the sacraments, of the ministry, of conversion, and of piety share a broad consensus that is different from what developed after the age of Edwards as revivalism re-shaped Protestantism.
Nevin’s importance to us today is not so much in his views of the “real presence” or his incarnational theology, but his seeing clearly what revivalism had done and calling the church back to what he thought was an age of more healthy piety.
William F. Buckley defined a conservative as someone who stands athwart history and shouts, “Stop!” That is what Nevin tried to do about with regard to what he considered as the untoward changes in the ecclesiology, worship, and experiential soteriology brought about by the triumph of revivalism. The evidence is all around us today that, whatever we may think of the value of Nevin’s insights or the rightness of his views, he failed. So pervasive is the influence of revivalism on the theology and practice of Protestantism that those with whom Nevin may resonate have before them a task nearly as large as the Reformation itself.
D. G. Hart has given us the second in the series of biographies of American Reformed men, and an excellent volume it is. Here is a sympathetic, but nonetheless critical, telling of Nevin’s life and theology. It is a fitting complement to his near magisterial work, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism. Those who would understand where we are, how we got here, what may be wrong and to where we might return will do well to purchase and read these two volumes.