Mercersburg theology has a small but devoted following among evangelically-oriented Calvinists. It was a nineteenth-century movement centered in the German Reformed seminary at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Leading scholars John Williamson Nevins and Philip Schaff criticized the individualism and pietism of antebellum revivalist Protestantism. They sought to promote a high view of the Eucharist, a view of the Church as a divine institution (as opposed to merely human), and a catholic, as opposed to sectarian, orientation.
Mercersburg theologians also developed a distinct, if largely implicit, social theology from their concept of the organic unity of the Church, a unity created by, and reflected in, the Church’s Eucharistic union with Christ and with other Christians. John Williamson Nevin took the Church’s Eucharistic union as a model for civil society, as Adam S. Borneman discusses in his 2011 book, Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevin’s Theology of Incarnation.
To be sure, Nevin focused attention mainly on the Church herself rather than civil society. According to Borneman:
Nevin [insisted], “No Church, No Christ.” A relationship to Christ is determined by one’s identity with Christ’s church. In opposition to voluntarism, which taught that the individual and not the church was the primary locus of God’s saving act, Nevin insisted that Christian identity . . . begins with word and sacrament, as administered under the authority of the church. . . .
[T]he Mercersburg theologians [opposed what they] called “the Bible plus private judgment.” Nevin, along with his colleague Philip Schaff, believed that the “private judgment” revolution that had taken place in America was a misguided one at best, based on fundamentally flawed views of human nature and identity. . . . In his Principles of Protestantism, Schaff wrote, “the most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is not the Church of Rome but the sect plague in our own midst; not the single pope of the city of seven hills, but the numberless popes, German, English, and American – who would fain enslave Protestants once more to human authority, not as embodied in the church indeed, but as holding in the form of mere private judgment and private will.”
These views have attracted attention to Mercersburg theology in Reformed circles in recent decades. Yet while Nevin focused largely on ecclesiastical matters, Borneman draws attention to the often overlooked political aspect of his work.
Nevin’s political concerns shared much with his ecclesial concerns. One significant stream of political opinion in America’s antebellum period concerned the influence of “faction” and “party spirit” in government. Nevin criticized faction and partisanship in politics as well as in church.
One can quibble with one aspect or another of Nevin’s analysis (and, annoyingly, Nevin drew deeply on methodological Hegelianism to provide a framework for much of his work), but his diagnosis of the ills of American Protestantism, and politics, continues largely to ring true today.
That said, a problematic step in Nevin’s argument is his use of the unique ontology of the church, which is created and sustained by the Eucharist in particular, to argue that civil community is an organic unity likewise. Borneman writes,
For Nevin, the presence of the incarnate Christ in the Eucharist reveals the unity and wholeness for which the cosmos is designed. In the political realm, this wholeness stands firmly against partisanship and sectarianism.
He later explains,
Anticipating Nevin, Calvin sought a model of civil society that was built upon mutual dependence, cooperation, and intercommunion. Earthly citizenship, he believed, should be patterned after heavenly citizenship. For Calvin and Nevin, the social body constitutes a whole from which each part of member finds significance.
This is an ironic misstep by Nevin. In seeking to magnify the significance of the Church’s sacramental identity, he diminishes that identity by applying to civil society the unique unity that belongs, and can belong, to the Church alone.
The sacraments uniquely create and reflect a real ontological union of Christians with Jesus Christ, and the union of individual members of Christ with one another. This is the upshot of baptism (Romans 6, Col 2, etc.) and the Eucharist (Mt 26.26-27, 1 Co 10, 12, etc.). Critically, Christians are united ontologically not only with Jesus, but also with one another. As Paul piquantly puts it, “we are individually members one of another” (Ro 12.5, cf., Eph 4.25, 1 Co 12.20, 27).
This ontological union distinguishes the Church community from every other community. No mere civil or political community creates or reflects this organic union with Jesus or with others. They do not because they cannot.
Further, aside from this brute, biblical incorrectness, if the twentieth century taught us anything, on both the left and the right, it is the fearsome toll paid when political movements picture themselves as instruments or reflections of organic union. It’s an idolatrous itch. That the idol is fashioned in an attempt to serve American republicanism rather than Marxism or fascism does not change the idolatry.
While civil government is not merely a postlapsarian institution, nonetheless a singularly important function of the state in postlapsarian society, as Paul puts it in Romans 13, is to temporalize God’s wrath against evil. This function, along with the hetereogenity of peoples in political jurisdictions, suggests significant, yet appropriate, differences between civil community and ecclesial community. Indeed, this lack of organic union in civil society can serve the Gospel as well, as in the Gospel-shaped reflexivity of Old Testament Israel’s hospitality code.
None of this is meant to be churlish about the intentions of Nevin’s argument or Borneman’s treatment of it. Nevin’s arguments regarding ecclesiology, liturgy, and the sacraments are as pertinent today as they were in the nineteenth century, or perhaps more so. So too is his intuition that Christian political opinion must oppose faction, rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and power politics.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.