Studying for a church history class, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Mercersburg controversy in the German Reformed Church in the mid 1800’s. It strikes me again how much this has in common with the Federal Vision controversy of our own century.
(“Mercersburg” refers to the Reformed Church’s seminary at Mercersburg, where John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff both taught and promulgated their ideas.)
Theologically, John Williamson Nevin championed a high view of church and sacrament, very high. He claimed it as Calvin’s view over Zwingli’s, but admitted himself that he went further than Calvin. He taught that the human life of Christ was infused into the the believer through the Sacrament, similarly to what John Calvin taught, but Calvin taught that the power by which this happened was the Holy Spirit using the ordinances of the church as an instrument, while Nevin located the power in the instruments themselves. Nevin taught that the human and divine natures of Christ fused into a third thing, what he called the “theanthropic principle,” whereby the human nature of Christ took on divine attributes. That deified humanity itself then becomes the power that lies within the church, the body of Christ, which he sees not just as an instrument of God’s working but as being truly in an organic union with Christ, so that the life of Christ becomes active in a metaphysical sense in the church. Being baptized inserts a child, entirely regardless of anyone’s faith, into the life of the church, which one must remember is not just a social or communal fact, or an instrument, but is the actual metaphysical or spiritual life of Christ. Salvation then becomes partaking in the life of Christ by being in the visible church and partaking of her sacraments.
Many in the German Reformed Church fought him tooth and nail, but he claimed they did not understand him or were insufficiently educated. He continually accused others of misrepresenting what he was saying, even though he himself came to say it more and more clearly and directly as time went on and he became immune to criticism. The German Reformed Church had always viewed its chief forefather as Zwingli and took a more Zwinglian view of the sacraments, that they were real means of grace but by divine influence as a visible preaching of the gospel, not by the transmission of Jesus’ human essence to us in any sense.
Phillip Schaff had similar ideas, though his concerns were more in the direction of church history. He took a Hegelian view of history, with progress being chief, and newer and better truth continually being discovered through the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. He gave the tradition of the church a much higher role than most Protestants were comfortable with (a discussion which probably needs a whole separate post). He was less concerned with the complete revelation of absolute truth in the Scriptures and more interested in the development of interpretation of that truth through the traditions of the church. He therefore saw the Roman Catholic Church as a legitimate expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but one which had been improved upon in the Protestant church.
Both in many ways were reacting strongly against revivalism in America, with its extreme individualism, anti-authoritarianism, denigration of the visible church, and the reign of emotional subjectivism.
(As a side note, it really seems to me that we should distinguish between the medieval church and the Roman Catholic Church. The RCC’s power over all of Christendom, even in the West, was never really absolute. I think we can say that the ecclesiastical structure with its seat in Rome had been corrupt and apostate since the very early days, and yet there were many true and good elements and developments within the medieval European church, since that church was not absolutely under Rome’s visible control, regardless of what the popes claim. So we can state that the RCC was apostate throughout the medieval period, without saying there was no true church for the thousand years before Luther.)
So with Schaff’s progressivism and Nevin’s extreme objectivism, where the force of the church and of the sacraments was all objective and external, it was no surprise that the German Reformed Church which came to be dominated by this theology became less and less concerned with doctrine and remaining true to their Reformed roots. In HMJ Kleyn’s book on the history of the Eastern Synod, he remarks at one point in the early 20th century that that year’s synod was remarkably peaceful, and there were no doctrinal controversies since nobody really cared too much about doctrinal matters any more. Kleyn seems to regard this as a good thing. It wasn’t too long until the trends in theology led naturally to the strong push for merger with other groups, without much concern about doctrinal incompatibilities. The result was the mergers of 1934 and 1955 leading to the formation of the United Church of Christ, a totally apostate body.
This is all very similar to the Federal Vision. The Hegelian view of history; the high view of the sacraments; the low stress put on the importance of genuine, individual, internal faith; the Romanist view of the way the life of Christ is transmitted to us; the focus entirely on the visible church and the denigration or outright denial of the reality or significance of the concept of the invisible church; all are common features. Another common feature is eschatological triumphalism; aggressive postmillennialism is one of the most important features of the Federal Vision movement, and Mercersburg also thought that their ecclesiastical movement would lead soon to the reunification of Catholic and Protestant and the inauguration of the golden age. This was a major feature of Schaff’s theology especially. The Joint Federal Vision Statement states clearly that a person is formally united to Christ by baptism, with all the saving benefits of that union, which salvation can later be lost through apostasy, and makes no distinction at all between membership in the outward church and union with Christ Himself. This is the Roman doctrine, just as Mercersburg Theology was accused of, rightly.
Like the Mercersburg Theology, the Federal Vision movement is not very interested in doctrinal distinctives. The CREC, the church body most dominated by FV thinking, does not have one common creedal basis, but allows member churches to pick from several, several of which are contradictory to each other on a number of points. They talk a lot about doctrine, but their basis of unity is more in shared practice, culture and future expectations. Another commonality is their denigration and dismissal of their critics as too uneducated or dishonest to understand them properly, something we see Federal Vision people frequently saying. They also, like both Schaff and Nevin, are increasingly clearly saying the very things they have been accused of saying by their critics. Here is Peter Leithart, for example, confidently declaring that baptism is necessary for justification, or that even a reprobate person who is baptized shares in the full life of the Son of God until they apostatize.
Like Mercersburg, the Federal Vision is an overreaction to real problems- the hyper-individualism, subjectivism, emotionalism and shallowness of the American church, and its extremely low view of church and sacrament.
One final point of comparison remains to be seen. The church which adopted Mercersburg Theology completely ceased to exist within about a generation of Schaff’s death in 1893. The merger which definitively ended the old RCUS happened in 1934. So it will be interesting to see how long the CREC exists.
2 thoughts on “Mercersburg and the Federal Vision”
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I remember, 20+ years ago, a Tim Keller devotee gushing over Nevin and touting his superiority to Charles Hodge. It seemed a little troubling at the time, and over the years I’ve watched him follow the path you describe. Today, as a PCA minister, he champions the pope and was a big promoter of Peter Enns.
One of the most ominous developments for the PCA is that the Federal Vision and Redeemer guys seem to have both embraced Mercersburg. Theonomy and Keller started from very different places, and the Old School guys used to be able to hold more of a middle ground. Now they make common cause against Old School Presbyterianism.