Mercersberg Theology Part Two

Continuing my review of Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism.

The Formal and Material Principles of the Reformation

While not agreeing with many of Schaff’s conclusions (or at least the way he formed them), one must confess that Schaff has succinctly stated the differences between the Reformers and Rome on the questions of soteriology and scripture.  The material principle of the Reformation is how man is made right with God, and Schaff defines this principle as the justification of the sinner on the merit of Christ alone through faith (alone).[i] Schaff then gives a point-by-point analysis of Rome and Geneva on this matter.  He anticipates Roman objections to Protestant soteriology and tries to answer them.   Many of these objections and counter-objections are found in dozens (if not hundreds) of Protestant and Roman Catholic manuals, and it is pointless to retread the ground here.  I would like to make one point, though.  Much of Schaff’s argumentation relies on an outdated and distorted view of what Judaism was during the time of St Paul.[ii]

More importantly is Schaff’s defense of the Formal Principle of the Reformation, for one’s doctrine of authority will determine how one approaches the texts that determine one’s soteriology.  Like in his defense of the material principle, Schaff gives a brief discussion of sola scriptura, anticipates Roman objections, and then gives his own conclusions.   Again, I will not focus on all the objections and counters, simply because others on both sides of the issue have done so admirably.  Rather, I will focus on what I think are key weaknesses, fallacies, and clearly factual inaccuracies in Schaff’s proposal.

What is in the Bible?

Without argument Schaff assumes that the Bible = the Protestant Canon, and he rebukes Rome for incorporating the Apocrypha into the canon.   Schaff writes, “For under the written word of God, the Church of Rome understands not merely, as we do, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, but in open contradiction to the oldest and purest tradition of an Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius, Hilary…incorporates also into it the Apocrypha.[iii]”  Whether one agrees that the Apocrypha should be in the canon or not, one must admit that Athanasius and Origen, to say the least, view the Apocrypha as Scripture.[iv]

What is Tradition?

Schaff routinely objects to Roman Catholic tradition, and some of his objections are worth noting, but he only rarely defines tradition, or notes the Bible’s own use of tradition.   Schaff defines tradition as the channel by which Scripture is carried forth into history.[v] However, he does not always allow this definition of tradition to inform his own construction of doctrine.  He approaches something akin to the Vincentian Canon (VC), and rightly notes how many Roman Catholic depart from the VC.[vi] However, Schaff wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  It appears that he formally agrees to the VC that all valid traditions must have been universally recognized.  Elsewhere in the book, though, he firmly rejects letting the VC (or any similar derivative) guide the church as a rule.  As noted earlier in his rejection of the Tractarian movement, Schaff is firmly opposed to going back to the practices of the ancient, undivided church.[vii]

Is Scripture a Free-Floating Phenomenon?

Disregarding what he (Schaff) has said elsewhere about Tradition (in the good sense), he writes, “As long as the apostles lived, the inspired bearers of the divine word, such tradition was sufficiently safe.  In case of corruption or perversion, the apostles might apply the necessary correction.  But the case must be wholly different, after the death of these unerring witnesses.  If the gospel was to be perpetuated in its purity, it became indispensable that it should be committed to writing.[viii]”  There are three noticeable problems with this argument.   The first problem is that this is an assertion, not an argument.  Aside from asserting that oral tradition is necessarily faulty, Schaff does not give us a reason why the gospel would necessarily be lost if it were not for writing.  He simply asserts that it will be lost.   The second problem (which is inherently tied with the third problem) is that if Schaff’s argument is true, then we must confess that the apostles failed to train faithful men who would be able to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).  Following upon this, the third problem is that even granting the completion of a canon, and even granting Schaff’s argument that without written form, the gospel would necessarily be lost (which I do not grant), one must face the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians did not have a written canon (at least nothing resembling a modern, Protestant canon) yet one must grant that the average Christian did preserve and pass down the faith, often without a complete canon.[ix]

Therefore, the question Schaff must answer is how the church was able to pass down the faith, how the gates of Hades did not prevail against the Church, and how all of this without the aid of a Protestant canon (or anything vaguely resembling a canon for many centuries).   One simple answer—and it is the answer of Sts Ignatius and Irenaeus, not to mention the lawyer Tertullian, is that of Apostolic Succession.   The bishops in visible communion with one another preserved, guarded, and passed down the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  Yet Schaff rejects this option in no uncertain terms.[x]

Therefore, Schaff must acknowledge the following realities given his own construction:   the church function without Scripture (at least in any real, formal sense) and without a visible, episcopal unity (since Schaff rejects this); therefore, on what grounds did the Church preserve the faith?  This question bears further reflection.[xi] For the answer to this question could lead the theological student down the road of “theological nihilism.”   For in negating tradition as is defined by the historic church, and in the fact that Christianity is a process, which means that other, earlier expressions of Christianity were inadequate, and coming to grips with the fact that there was no functional “Bible” for much of the early Church’s history, the theological student is confronted with a number of options:  without the Bible or a visible tradition, on what grounds can I base my faith?  Saying the “Bible alone” is inadequate for the Church was able to function quite well without “the Bible alone.”  More importantly, there was no “bible alone” for the longest period of time in the church.  Further, without tradition how am I to know what the contents of the Bible should be?  Finally, and perhaps most devastating to Schaff’s project, if Christianity is a process (or progression), on what basis am I to judge various expressions of Christianity?  This point will be pursued further in the conclusion.

[i] Ibid., 80.

[ii] Of course, I have in mind the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.”  While there is no such creature as “The New Perspective on Paul,” given that the leading representatives often disagree with one another on fairly fundamental issues, one can certainly acknowledge converging points:  1st century Judaism did not seek to “earn righteousness” by scoring merit points.   In other words, it is logically fallacious to read late-medieval Roman Catholic distinctive back into 1st century Judaism, rebut this construal as wrong, and then clearly conclude that Roman Catholicism is wrong.   Such a distortion causes numerous biblical problems, not least of which the Old Testament law did not envision itself as necessitating the adherent to “earn righteousness.”   The reader is referred to the works of Richard Hays and N.T. Wright for a clearer exposition.   Contrary rebuttals may be found by Guy Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response (2004).

[iii] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 100.

[iv] See the following:  Origen, ad Africanus, ANPF vol. 4, 391; Origen is actually giving a defense of the legitimacy of the Apocryphal books Susannah and Tobit as integral to the Church’s life and practice; Athanasius, First Discourse Against the Arians, NPNF (Second Series) p. 313, where he identifies Susanna and The Letter of Baruch as Scripture.  (Yes, I am deliberately noting the irony of using the series of Church Fathers edited by Schaff to point this out.)

[v] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 148.

[vi] Ibid., 102.

[vii] See especially Ibid., 161.

[viii] Ibid., 119.  Emphasis added.

[ix] And more often than not, this Christian lacked the conceptual framework for a complete canon.  In other words, it is doubtful he would have even understood what a “canon” was in the modern sense of the word.  For a very revealing discussion on the canon, consider St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians chapter 8.  St. Ignatius identifies the canon (admittedly an historically inaccurate use of the word given modern connotations of it) as “the cross, death, and resurrection” of his Savior.  The larger context of his letter actually prefers something akin to tradition over wrangling about which texts accurately constitute “the canon.”   See ANF vo1. 1:84.

[x] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism., 161.

[xi] Other questions along this line of reasoning could be asked:   for example, without a formal canon (and a Protestant one at that!) how was the church able to maintain a fairly uniform expression of doctrine and rites spanning from Ireland to India to Russia?

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.