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.