Analysis of the Mercersberg Theology

An essay on Phillip Schaff’s ecclesiology that I did a while back.   It touches on some Christological and Eucharistic issues as well.  It needs to be revised and expanded.  I’ll probably do five or six parts here.

“Analysis of the Mercersberg Theology”

I come not to bury Schaff but to praise him.  Such should be the mindset of those Christians who disagree with the Mercersberg Theology.  It is limited and inadequate at its best and likely heterodox at its worst.   However, it represents a particularly fine analysis of European and American Protestantism up to the 19th century.   Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin correctly identified many weaknesses within Protestantism and attempted a systematic reconstruction of the Protestant project with a particular emphasis upon the theology of John Calvin and a hope to return to the ancient faith of the Church.


Did Schaff and Nevin return to the ancient church?  The simplest answer is no.[i] Yet a simple “no” does not do justice to their work.  One should first identify their goals, state their arguments, and compare the conclusions to the Fathers and Councils of the Church.   The reader can decide if Schaff and Nevin were successful.

In order not to unnecessarily bias the reader, I should outline my own theological and ecclesiastical convictions.  Whatever else the future may hold, the author is currently a member of a conservative Presbyterian denomination.  Therefore, the following essay should not be read as a rebellious “slam” against the Reformed church.   While the author is sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and many of his conclusions have been formed by reading the Orthodox fathers, both ancient and recent, the following essay should not be read as a defense of Eastern Orthodoxy, for the criticisms of Protestantism found below have been made by many Evangelical theologians, not least of which the Mercersberg theologians.   If Orthodox and Roman Catholic readers find the following essay helpful in understanding a certain moment in American religious history, well and good.

Finally, Protestants should not feel anxious, threatened, or angry by the following remarks.  This is done in a spirit of charity to my fellow Protestant brethren.  If one is seeking the truth, as we all are, and one has weak arguments, one should welcome correction, and I trust by the grace of God I, too, would respond in a grateful manner.   In responding to the Mercersberg theologians, I am responding to what I deem to be the best defenses of Reformed Protestantism.  If one is going to critique a position, charity and fairness demand that one critique the best possible arguments; I believe Schaff and Nevin Provide these arguments.[ii]

A More Reformed Hegel?

In reading Nevin’s preface to Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism, I had moments when I thought I was reading G. W. Hegel.  In its simplistic form, Hegel’s philosophy can be understood as a process where the subject demonstrates its opposite while still retaining its own identity, leading to a new situation (or “higher mode of consciousness”).[i] In one sense, Hegel’s system can be seen as an evolutionary process.   The specifics of Hegel’s philosophy need not trouble us here; however, one should note that Schaff and Nevin applied the same method to Church History and their location of the Protestant movement within that history.

In a discussion of the place of the Protestant church within the narrative of late medieval Catholicism, Nevin makes the point that Protestantism was birthed in a unique moment in Western History as a result of “the advanced life of the Middle Ages.”  Nevin is quite clear that Protestantism was not birthed from the theological fruit of the fourth century, but rather the fruit of the 15th and 16th centuries.[ii]

This is a very interesting admission by Nevin.  While Schaff and Nevin routinely make the argument that the Reformed Church is the legitimate offspring of the historic church (which is itself often left undefined), he implicitly notes that the theology and practices of the two churches (presumably the Nicene Church and the Reformed Church) are dissimilar.  In any case, Schaff is more clear about the dialectical process of the Protestant church, “But history, since the presence of sin, unfolds itself only through extremes in the way of action and reaction.[iii]”  On one level, Schaff’s comment is perfectly innocent and straightforward.  It is true that one often sees overreactions in history.  Further, it is also true that such overreactions can call for a clarification of the Church’s doctrines and practices.   Nevertheless, it is quite problematic to maintain that history is a (necessary) process of dialectical oppositions.[iv]

There is an even more pressing problem than a dialectical view of history.   If it is true that the church received the faith “once delivered for all the saints” (Jude 3), how exactly does it progress?   It is one thing to say that there is a further clarification of doctrine (for example, the Ecumenical Councils), but it is quite another to say that it is progressing.  The first view is that of the historic Church; the latter is that of modernism.   What is Schaff’s view?  It’s not entirely clear.   On one hand Schaff qualifies what he means by “progression” by limiting it to the “apprehension of Christianity,[v]” placing his definition of progression within the former category.  But on the next page, however, Schaff speaks of a progression of doctrine in terms of a “transforming” element to its content and form.   This language suggests far more than mere apprehension and clarification.

At the end of the discussion, however, Philip Schaff firmly rejects any understanding of the church as “receiving the apostolic deposit.”  I know Schaff does not reject Jude 3, but on his reading it is hard to see how he can affirm it.  Schaff rejects the Oxford Tractarians (think Anglo-Catholics) as regarding “the church as a system handed down under a given and complete form…They wish to shut out of view the progress of the last three centuries entirely; to treat the whole as a negation, if possible; and by one vast leap to carry the church back to the point where it stood before the separation of the Oriental and Western communions.[vi]”   We may advance two conclusions from this:  1) While to his credit Schaff rejects the higher critical modernism of German theology, it is not clear on the above quotation why he can reject it, for German higher criticism simply sough to “develop” the faith; and 2) earlier we asked if Mercersberg can get us to the earlier, undivided church.   Given Schaff’s above quotation, we can safely say not only can it not get us there, but that it does not desire to go there.

[i] Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 21-22.

[ii] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism trans. John Williamson Nevin (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1845), 49.

[iii] Schaff, Ibid., 126.

[iv] One cannot help but speculate on the role of the Filioque in the later Protestant and Hegelian formulations of history.  One is referred to the work of Dr.  Joseph P. Farrell, particularly his God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes.   One of Dr. Farrell’s arguments is that the Augustinian formulation of the Filioque clause had an implicit dialectical process, for it posits an element of “twoness” within the Triad.  The implications of this are staggering.  If God is dialectically conditioned, and God is seen as the Sovereign Lord of history (a premise all should accept), then one must view history as dialectically unfolding.   Perhaps this is why Nevin and Schaff did not challenge the Filioque clause.   The bulk of Dr. Farrell’s book is available at Google Books.  The full text can be purchased in electronic format at  It is unfortunate that Dr. Farrell’s work is not made more easily accessible to the larger public.

[v] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 75.

[vi] Ibid., 160-161.


[i] I have received a lot of help in clarification on the Mercersburg Project from Mr. Robert Arakaki in private correspondence.

[ii] Actually, I think the historical theology of Richard Muller provides the best portrayal (if not defense) of Reformed Protestantism.   However, the Mercersburg theology, or at least the texts that inform it, are more accessible to the average reader.


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