At first blush, it might seem odd for a Pentecostal to write something positive about the brief light of Mercersburg theology, which came to be through the creative instincts of John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff. Part of my reasoning has to do with taking notice of a small, but growing embrace of Mercersburg in the Reformed evangelical world. My fellow traveler in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Peter Leithart has just announced the Nevin Lectures at Trinity House Institute with another ECT member Timothy George inaugurating it. John Armstrong of Act3 Network, who recently participated in Catholic-Evangelical conversation at Moody Bible Institute, credits Mercersburg theology for his pursuit of what he calls missional-ecumenism. There are also scholarly organizations dedicated to Mercersburg theology such as the Mercersburg Research Fellowship.
Mercersburg theology is attractive to those in the Reformed tradition who wish to engage in ecumenism or recover a more Reformed catholic vision. Despite John Nevin’s resistance to Charles Finney and the revivalist stream of Reformed Christianity in America, I find Mercersburg attractive because of the focus on a mystical union that is experiential and the refusal to allow Old-Princeton theologians like Charles Hodge to be the final arbiters of Reformed theology in the 19th century.
For Nevin Christianity was primarily about the communication of divine life to the soul through union with Christ. Christ is mystically joined to believers “in the form of Life.” The centrality of the Christian message is a sharing of lives, a genuine union and communion between God and humanity grounded in the incarnation. This union occurs in and through the Spirit who indwelled Christ. Nevin is so concerned to support his contention about the Spirit effecting this union that he will affirm the humanity of Christ was fallen and subject to death and infirmity. The Spirit of God permeated the humanity of the Son and so caused Christ to triumph over death. Nevin’s focus on a mystical union in which the Spirit fills the Incarnate Son and then fills the Church with this same presence moved him away from penal substitution and toward a Christus victor notion of the atonement. The Spirit triumphed in the glorified humanity of Christ and then revealed this higher life at Pentecost.
I doubt Nevin realized it at the time, but when he wrote those words in The Mystical Presence, he was but a hair’s breadth away from Scottish Presbyterian Edward Irving whose unfortunate death in 1834 prevented Irving from articulating a fully-developed system. Friend to both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, Irving served as an evangelical conduit to many of the same Romantic ideas Nevin received through German writers. Irving affirmed that the Spirit inhabited Christ’s humanity fully thereby causing Christ to triumph over sin and death. Christ was Spirit baptized and extends this Spirit baptism to all in union with him. For Irving, Spirit baptism was a shorthand way of saying what the mystical tradition had said all along. Believers grow from union to union, which is to say that the initial union with Christ must be cultivated and developed through ongoing encounters of ecstatic intimacy. There is always a higher life to be pursued because the flight of eros is an insatiable longing for friendship with God. All forms of human identity are taken up and fulfilled in that higher union to which they point and in which they find their ultimate meaning.
Nevin and Irving develop the Reformed doctrine of union with Christ in a way that returns to the streams of catholic Christianity. It is a union that grows as the Spirit forms Christ in the soul. At times one gets the impression that some evangelicals wish to make justification the union rather than flowing from the union. From a Wesleyan perspective, this is problematic because it can lead to what Wesley called solafidianism in which the Christian life enters a kind of stasis where the believer, having embraced Christ in faith, need go no farther. It’s as though there is no other horizon, no richer hue, no “further up and further in.” The purpose of justification as a doctrine is to secure the believer’s initial union with Christ so that a deeper union may ensue.
Might the new interest in Nevin and Schaff constitute a Mercersburg moment? I hope so. As I said just last week, the sacramental and the charismatic need each other. Expressing as they do the different ways in which the Triune life of God flows into the soul, they both facilitate the mystical union with Christ in the power of the Spirit.