Final Review of the Mercersberg Theology
Take me to the River
Schaff wants to identify with the ancient church and with the best expressions of the medieval church. For the longest time I, too, sough such an identification. Yet it must be confessed that even on Schaff’s terms, any true identification is impossible. When Schaff wants to praise the ancient and medieval church, he does so in sweeping and admittedly ambiguous terms. When Schaff wants to praise the gains of the Reformation, he cannot do so except in condemning the abuses of the later medieval church. If Schaff’s reading of history is correct (and it must be admitted that Schaff is truly a giant among church historians; I pay homage to the man), then the Reformed church must be seen in opposition to the earlier church.
The only way that Schaff can maintain his thesis that the Reformation is the fulfillment of the Catholic Church is on Hegelian—not historic— terms. And on this reading—this Hegelian reading—I think Schaff is correct. The Reformation is fully committed to the Augustinian dialectic[i] and refused to challenge Roman Catholicism on issues like the Filioque, and given that the dialectic is seen in terms of opposites, the Reformation can legitimately be seen as either the synthesis or antithesis of Roman Catholicism.[ii]
Can Schaff bring us to the early church? The answer must be a clear and unequivocal “no.” Schaff says he wants to get back to the primitive church, and I commend his intent. Yet Schaff clearly condemns early practices like apostolic succession. One cannot seriously maintain a desire to go back to the early church yet condemn the practices and beliefs that constituted the early church. Further, given Schaff’s commitment to ecclesiological progress, why would he even want to go back to the early church? Why would he even want to identify with the ancient expression of Christianity?
Who gets to be the judge?
Perhaps the most glaring issue with the Mercersburg theology is who gets to be the judge? If Christianity is a historical process, then a number of questions follow: how can one judge a position outside of knowledge of the final result? This is a common critique of Hegel. If the truth lies in the next historical moment, how are we to properly evaluate the present moment? For the next moment will give us new knowledge on our current moment? We are left in a perpetual state of flux.
Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin are to be commended for steering countless Evangelicals and Calvinists away from certain American, reductionist accounts of Christianity. For example, Nevin’s portrayal of the Lord’s Supper is infinitely to be preferred to Charles Hodge’s spectral, memorialist view. [iii] Schaff is to be commended for calling attention back to the ancient roots of the church. Yet, both of these men stop short from calling men to actually go back to the ancient church. While Nevin says we feed off of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, he makes sure we understand that we are only feeding off of Christ in a “spiritual” sense.[iv] These two men remove us from American reductions of the faith, and bring us one step closer to the ancient faith. Unfortunately, they take us to the river, but do not cross it.
[i] With Joseph Farrell and David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (2007) I identify the Augustinian doctrine of Absolute Divine Simplicity (e.g., God’s essence is absolutely simple and identifiable with his attributes) as dialectical. The Reformers like Calvin did not challenge this construction but simply adopted it; see D. Z. Phillips, Whose God? Which Tradition? (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishers, 2008), pp. 147ff.
[ii] Interestingly, the spawn of continually new sects and denominations claiming some kinship with the Reformation can be seen as new syntheses of previous dialectics. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists continually point to the myriads of Protestant sects and denominations, and it is a point of which Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin were painfully aware. However, I do not recall any such writer suggesting that these new sects are simply a synthetic continuation of an earlier dialectic. For if the Augustinian tradition is dialectically construed, as per the Filioque I maintain it is, then one cannot deny that the Reformation and its (step)children are new moments within the dialectic.
[iii] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the holy Eucharist (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000). Also see Keith Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishers, 2002), pp. 129-156.
[iv] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence, p. 55. Nevin is correct to reject later Roman views of transubstantiation, but one wonders if it is allowable to separate the flesh of Christ from the Incarnate person of Christ. Is this not Nestorianism? Is Christ divided? At the end of the day Nevin says the participation in the Lord’s Supper is spiritual, and not physical. How much different from Hodge is the position now?
Athanasius, Ad Africanus. No date. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Second Series) vol. 4.
—————First Discourse Against the Arians. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Second Series).
Bradshaw, David. 2007. Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Farrell, Joseph P. 2008. God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes. No publisher.
Mathison, Keith. 2002. Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing.
Nevin, John Williamson. 2000. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of Calvin’s Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.
Origen. No date. Ad Africanus. Ante Nicene Fathers.
Phillips, D. Z. 2008. Whose God? Which Tradition? Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishers.
Schaff, Philip. 1845. The Principle of Protestantism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.