The best overview of the Mercersburg movement is probably the horribly-named Romanticism in American Theology. The only problem here is that Nichols seems to project his own views of the reliability and authority of Scripture upon Nevin–at least he doesn’t provide much evidence for what he claims is Nevin’s view. A better source would be from “The Library of Protestant Thought” in which one volume is The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), which is edited by Hastings. By far the best way to acquaint oneself with them is to read the books by Nevin and Schaff for oneself. The following introduction relies primarily on the introductory material in Jack Martin Maxwell’s Worship and Reformed Theology: The Liturgical Lessons of Mercersburg (Pittsburg: The Pickwick Press, 1976), which contains a concise summary of the history of Mercersburg in it’s introductory material. (Henceforth: WRT).
The “Mercersburg Movement” was principally begun and propagated by John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, professors at the German Reformed Mercersburg Seminary. After years as a Presbyterian quite committed to the teaching he had received at Princeton, Nevin began a shift in theology which involved a new understanding of the historic development of doctrine and a corresponding vision of the Church as a growing entity, a respect for the ancient and medieval Church, a more thoroughgoing awareness of and loyalty to the sacramental theology of the sixteenth-century reformers. This shift seems to have started with his exposure to the tracts of the Oxford movement and German philosophy and theology, fueled by an opposition to “new measures” revivalism which he apparently (and ironically) picked up from Charles Hodge.[WRT, pp. 11-15] When Philip Schaff left his homeland in Germany and joined Nevin, the Church historian found a person with whom he shared a common vision.
The Mercersburg Theology stressed the centrality of the incarnation. As we will see, Nevin insisted that the atonement was necessary for salvation, but he violently rejected the idea that the incarnation was simply for the purpose of the atonement, which would render it as simply a means to an end. Rather, the incarnation was an end in itself, whether or not sin necessitated the atoning death and justifying resurrection of Christ. Through union with Christ, man can have union with God [WRT, pp 25-26. However, Maxwell writes: “Nevin contended that as man is in and identified with Adam’s guilt, so he is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life; and this latter identification results in a “mystical union.” This reverses Nevin’s thought. It is because the Holy Spirit gives one “mystical union” with Christ, that one “is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life.”].
The Church is the continuation of Christ’s life on earth through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply a collection of believers, but the mystical body of Christ, the mother of all believers. Nevin discarded the categories of “visible” and “invisible,” discussing instead the “actual” Church (present) and the “ideal” Church (eschatological). The ideal exists as a seed in the actual, and inexorably takes shape in history until the resurrection [WRT, pp 29-30].
The mystical union between Christ and His Church made the sacraments quite important in the Mercersburg view. Nevin promoted a return to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as the means by which the Church’s union with Christ is nourished and strengthened. In defending this view, he touched on almost all the distinctives of the Mercersburg Theology.
Nevin never set out to specifically discuss the imputation of Adam’s sin. (This is probably the main reason no one ever thought to evaluate his views in the context of nineteenth-century Presbyterian controversy. Those who study Nevin are not the sort of people prone to care enough about Reformed orthodoxy to keep track of the other doctrinal debates between Old Princeton, the Southern Presbyterians, etc.) Rather the imputation of Adam’s sin is mentioned as an aside to his discussion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which in turn was only mentioned by Nevin to explain why the Reformation Tradition found it so important to affirm our union with Christ and the importance of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist sets forth Nevin’s views on the sacrament, and covers all these (for his purpose in the book) subsidiary issues. Not only is Mystical Presence Nevin’s most thorough treatment (and one that articulated views which remained essentially unchanged for the rest of his life), but it was also the presentation to which Hodge responded.
Thus, the best way to explain Nevin’s view of the imputation of Adam’s sin is to first briefly set forth from this work his beliefs concerning the importance of union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness, as well as the nature of this union.
The Importance of Union with Christ
Nevin would emphatically agree with the Liberal catchphrase, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[See The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, vol 4 of Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology, Bard Thompson & George H. Bricker, ed. (Philadelphia, Boston: United Church Press, 1966), p. 216ff. Henceforth: MP]. Yet just as emphatically, he would insist that only by proclaiming Christianity as a life and not a doctrine can supernatural Christianity be set apart from rationalistic naturalism. Socinians, by reducing Christianity to a moral message, throw “the man back always upon himself, his own separate powers and resources, the capabilities of the flesh as such, to perfect his nature and make himself meet for heaven.”[MP, p. 186] Likewise, in Pelagianism, “we are thrown back again, upon such material in the way of life, as the subject of it may be found to possess in his own nature, when brought under the action of this divine process of education” [MP p. 187].
So far, this is rather standard fare. But Nevin takes a further ingenious step: What about those who claim that salvation depends on the supernatural enlightenment of the Holy Spirit? Of such a view, he says:
To the force that belongs to the truth itself in its relation to the human mind, it may join the influence’s of God’s Spirit, graciously interposed to clothe the truth with effect. Such agency we often hear attributed to the Spirit, by those who at the same time reject altogether the thought of any immediate change wrought by it in the nature of the human soul itself. God’s grace in this form, they say, is brought to bear on the soul, mediately only, by the intervention of his word which he uses instrumentally for the purpose, infusing into it light and power. But surely those who talk in this way do not stop at all to consider the exact sense of their own words. What do they mean, when they speak of the Spirit, as infusing light and power into the truth? Can he do so (apart from a direct influence on the soul itself) in any other way than by so ordering the presentation of the truth to the mind, that it shall be placed in the most favorable position for exerting the power which belongs to it in its own nature? But what is this more than such moral suasion, as may be exercised over the spirits of men in a merely human way, by appeals addressed to the understanding and will? The order of influence at least remains the same, though it may be exhibited under a divinely exalted form [MP, pp. 187-188].
This view, though partially supernaturalistic, still falls back into naturalism on the crucial issue of salvation, and still does not escape the error of Socinianism and Pelagianism:
In this view, the process of salvation, in the midst of all the high-sounding terms that may be employed to describe it, falls back again to the standpoint already noticed. It is a salvation by the power simply of truth, presented in the form of doctrine and precept. This truth includes the supernatural facts of the gospel, the mission, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ–the outward apparatus in full, if we may use the expression–of the Christian redemption; and along with this we have the “moral suasion” of the Holy Spirit, which according to the unintelligible hypothesis, invests the whole representation with a more than natural evidence and power. All turns at last, however, on the way in which the mind thus addressed, may be wrought upon and moved to act, in the use of such resources and capabilities as are already comprehended in its nature [MP, p. 188. Though it is outside the bounds of this paper, it would be interesting to investigate to whom Nevin was particularly responding. I can’t help noticing a similarity between the view Nevin repudiates and the view of regeneration ascribed to Hodge by Dabney. According to Dabney, Hodge reduced the work of the Spirit in regeneration to enlightenment of the mind, and was virtually guilty of Pajonism. See “Hodge’s Systematic Theology” in Discussions: Evangelical And Theological vol 1 (London: Banner of Truth, 1890, 1967), pp. 231-253)].
Even affirming regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit is not enough to escape the problem. It remains if the union with the Spirit does not also involve intimate mystical union with Christ’s new humanity, if “Christ dwells in his people by his Spirit–but in the way only of representation, not in the way of strict personal inbeing on his own part” [MP, p. 195].
The same Spirit, it is said, that works in Christ works also in us, fashioning us as we are into the same image. But how does he work? By supernatural influence, it may be said. But is not this to fall back again to the theory of a merely moral union with Christ, by the power of the truth only; which we have found already to be under its highest form, but Pelagianism in disguise? Is Christ in us at last only by the divine suasion of his Spirit? [MP, pp. 197-198].
Nevin goes on to consider the only supernaturalistic alternative which avoids mystical union: “The Spirit, it may be said, creates new life in the believer.” Yet this involves insuperable difficulties: “But what now is this new life? Something, of course, that was not in the man before. From where, then, does it come? Is it the proper life of the Spirit himself–the life of God–directly extended to the soul? This would be to repeat the mystery of the incarnation, in the case of every new believer… From where, then, we ask again, comes this new life by the Spirit? Is it an absolute creation out of nothing…? Instead of one great miracle, then, in Christianity–the new creation in Christ Jesus–we should have miracles of the same order without number or end. Every believer would be a new creation, not in Christ Jesus, but in himself…” [Ibid].
This conception of regeneration, then, makes it not an ingrafting into Christ, but some sort of merely moral transformation, as if man could be saved through some sort of change in his own fallen condition. Because man is totally depraved and has fallen irrevocably in Adam, there is no miracle which can correct the problem of man’s sin and guilt–except to send God as a new man, the second Adam, to provide a new source of life to conquer the death spread from the old man, and then give that life to men dead in their sins.
The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness
Nevin has not yet exhausted the attempted alternatives to the mystical union with Christ. American protestants, realizing that the suasion of the Spirit is not enough to give them a truly supernatural soteriology, think they have yet another option:
Here we are brought, then, to stand upon higher and more orthodox ground. The doctrine of imputation is introduced, to meet the demand now mentioned. The work of Christ is no longer thought of as a mere display for moral effect; it is something to be appropriated and made available in the person of the believing sinner himself, for the purposes of salvation. Mere doctrine will not answer. The case calls for an actual personal participation in what Christ has done and suffered to take away sin and reconcile man to God. By imputation. we are told. As the guilt and fall of Adam were reckoned to his posterity, though not theirs in fact, so the righteousness of Christ, and the benefits of his mediatorial work generally are, in virtue of the terms of the new covenant, made over to all who believe in his name, and accounted to be theirs as truly as though all had been wrought out by them, each for himself, in truth. Their justification in this view is a mere forensic act on the part of God, which is based altogether on the work of Christ, and involves as such in their case no change of character whatever, but only a change of state. God regards them as righteous, though they are not so in fact, and makes over to them a full title to all the blessings comprehended in Christ’s life. At the same time, he regenerates them by his Spirit, and puts them thus on a process of sanctification, by which in the end they become fully transformed in their own persons, into the image of their glorious Savior [MP, pp. 188-18].
This imputation appears to escape the problem of naturalism in Nevin’s mind. Nevertheless, it is an insufficient explanation because it is flatly impossible. “The imagination that the merits of Christ’s life may be sundered from his life itself, and conveyed over to his people under this abstract form, on the ground of a merely outward legal constitution, is unscriptural and contrary to all reason at the same time” [MP, 192].
The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God [MP, pp. 190-191].
In explaining why a “bare” legal imputation is not enough, Nevin knew that the accusation would be made that he was denying justification by Faith. He (futilely) attempts to cut off this line of attack: “Do we then discard the doctrine of imputation, as maintained by the orthodox theology in opposition to the vain talk of the Pelagians? By no means! We seek only to establish the doctrine; for without it; most assuredly, the whole structure of Christianity must give way” [MP, 190].
Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, writes Nevin, when the Holy Spirit actually gives us union with Christ. If we have union with Christ we possess all that is His. His active and passive righteousness count for us because “He is joined to us mystically” [MP, p. 192]. Christ’s righteousness is truly imputed, and justification is truly forensic and declarative, but the basis is not simply God’s imagination that we are justified, but “our actual insertion into Christ himself” [MP, p. 192].
The Nature of the Union
How are we united to Christ and to Adam? What does Nevin mean by “mystical union”? In what sense is the incarnation so all important to this union, so that this union, though with His whole Person, especially involves his humanity? This question becomes more acute when we realize that Nevin is insisting on following Calvin that in the Eucharist we partake of Christ’s flesh and blood without any transfer of particles or physical presence involved! All this relates to the point of this study: How is this union with Christ parallel to our union with Adam? And how does this union with Adam undergird the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity?
Nevin explains himself by making the rather bold claim that a living organism is not reducible to material particles. He uses the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree to prove this idea [MP, p. 156]. We classify an acorn and the tree which grows from it as a single organism–the seed becomes the tree. Yet, the tree is exponentially more massive than the acorn, and has obviously acquired mass from the soil around it. Indeed, it is easily possible that the old oak tree does not contain a single material particle which was present in the acorn. Yet the lack of identical material particles means nothing. The life of the acorn is the same life which animates the leaves on the tree. The branches are connected to the root by a shared life which cannot be reduced to material particles. Furthermore, in thinking this way, it becomes apparent that to limit the life of the acorn to the single oak tree is quite arbitrary–for the oak bears acorns from its life which grow themselves into other trees. “Still, in the end, the life of the forest, in such a case, is nothing more than an expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn” [MP, p. 156].
Thus, the life of Christ’s flesh and blood is not found in any physical particles, but in an animating force or “law.” A “clear distinction” must be made between
the idea of the organic law, which constitutes the proper identity of a human body, and the material volume it is found to embrace as exhibited to the senses. A true and perfect body must indeed appear in the form of organized matter. As a mere law, it can have no proper reality. But still the matter, apart from the law, is in no sense the body. Only as it is found to be transfused with the active presence of the law at every point and in this way filled with the form of life, can it be said to have any such character. . . The principle of the body as a system of life, the original salient point of its being as a whole, is in no respect material. It is not bound of course, for its identity, to any particular portion of matter as such. If the matter which enters into its constitution were changed every hour, it would still remain the same body. . . A real communication then, between the body of Christ and the bodies of his saints, does not imply necessarily the gross imagination of any transition of his flesh as such into their persons [MP, p. 151].
Thus, by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, we can truly and really participate in the life of Christ. We can be united with His flesh and blood. This is an ultimately mysterious identity, yet it is the same sort of mystery which confronts us in all living beings.
The Imputation of Adam’s Sin
At this point we can easily see how Nevin understands the unity of the human race with Adam. Nevin is quite certain that, just as a “mere outward imputation” would be impossible in the case of Christ’s righteousness, so would it be in the case of Adam’s sin.
Can we conceive of any constitution, for instance, in virtue of which it could have been proper or possible for the Divine Mind, thus to set over to the account of mankind the apostasy of angels, which kept not their first estate, the two natures being relatively to each other what they are at this time? If all depended on the arbitrary pleasure of God, the force of a mere outward arrangement constituting one the representative of another without further relation, we cannot see why the transfer of guilt might not take place from angels to men, as well as from Adam to his posterity. The very fact that our whole reason and feeling revolt against the thought of the first case, serves only to show that the proceeding must rest upon some deeper ground in the other [MP, p. 191].
In the case of Adam’s sin, the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree can be more literally applied. We are all Adamites. Our bones are Adamite bones; our flesh Adamite flesh; and our very life a true continuation of Adam’s life. The fact that the billions of individual human beings are made up of material particles other than those which originally constituted Adam when he was first created is utterly irrelevant. For all we know Adam himself, at the time of his death, may have been constituted by a completely different set of particles from those which constituted him 920 years earlier. The fact is that we all grew out of him and are no less a part of him, in one sense, than a branch is part of a tree.
It is interesting that Louis Berkhof wrote in objection to “the realistic theory” that: “Every man is conscious of being a separate personality, and therefore far more than a mere passing wave in the general ocean of existence” (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941], p. 241). I doubt that Nevin was a realist, but he would probably respond that every man is a separate personality and a “wave” of a sort. Indeed, Nevin’s “law” sounds quite similar to the “wave form” which provides the backdrop to Tim Powers’ science fiction ghost story, Expiration Date (New York: TOR, 1996):
And he remembered the old notion that after some number of years every cell in a human body had been replaced, every atom, so that the body is just a wave form moving through time, incorporating just for a little while the stuff of each day; only the wave itself, and none of the transient physical bits, makes the whole trip. Even a scar would be no more significant than a wobble still visible in an ocean wave long after the wave had passed the obstruction that caused it, while the water molecules that had actually sustained the impact were left comfortably behind” [p. 147].
By his fall, Adam became corrupted in his nature, and all his children who come from his nature share in that corruption. What he did freely, Adam’s children continue to do spontaneously and naturally. They inherit his sin and his guilt.
Just as he expected some to accuse him of denying justification by Faith, Nevin knew others would accuse him of denying the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Thus, he took the space to argue that the Westminster Standards are not guilty of reducing original sin to a “mere outward imputation.” On the contrary, “The language of the catechism is literally and strictly correct. We sinned in Adam, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” Furthermore, question eighteen of the Shorter Catechism does not define original sin as only “the guilt of Adam’s first sin,” but lists a threefold definition which also includes “the want of original righteousness” and “the corruption of his whole nature.”
Nevin admits that “the friends of the catechism, in their attempts to vindicate its doctrine at this point, have not always planted themselves on the proper ground for its defense,” because they have rested their case on “a merely external imputation” which can give us “only a quasi interest in the real fact that it represented” at best. But in so doing they are not only failing to defend the doctrine, but inadequately stating what the catechism actually claims [MP, p. 191].
TO BE CONTINUED