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Preface to The Mystical Presence

John Williamson Nevin

As will be gathered from other posts on this site, I (Mark Horne) have found the writings of John Williamson Nevin to be immensely helpful. Nevin was a nineteenth-century American theologian who crossed swords with Charles Hodge when he wrote The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist in 1846. Hodge had no appreciation for Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, calling it "an uncongenial foreign element" in the Reformer’s theology, with "no root in the system." I mention Hodge’s viewpoint to suggest to those of you who consider yourself Reformed, that you need to be careful what you are told about the sacraments. As I plan to show elsewhere, Hodge, B. B. Warfield, John Murray and other nineteenth and twentieth century "Calvinist" theologians are emphatically not reliable guides to the Reformation teaching regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though I by no means wish to endorse every detail he wrote, Nevin’s book–with his subsequent reply to Hodge in the Mercersburg Review (September, 1850, Vol. II, No. 5)–is a masterful explanation and defense of the Reformed doctrine, as found not only in Calvin’s writings, but also the majority of Reformed confessions (including the Westminster Standards, for what it’s worth). Below is Nevin’s preface to his book. Though over a century and a half old, Nevin still has much to say to American Evangelicals. My hope is that people honestly interested in learning about the Reformation heritage will become motivated to dig up a used copy of Nevin’s book. A couple of other works worth reading would be Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament by Ronald S. Wallace, and Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin by B. A. Gerrish.

The following work has grown directly out of some controversy which has had place, during the past year, in the German Reformed Church, on the subject to which it relates. This stands related to it, however, only as an external occasion, and has not been permitted to come into view, in any way, in the work itself.

It is not felt that any apology is needed for the publication. This is found in the importance of its subject, which must be left, of course, to speak for itself.

As the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship, so it is clear that the entire question of the church, which all are compelled to acknowledge–the great life problem of the age–centers ultimately in the sacramental question as its inmost heart and core. Our view of the Lord’s Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christ’s person and the conception we form of the church. It must influence, at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology, as well as all our ideas of ecclesiastical history.

Is it true that the modern Protestant Church in this country has, in large part at least, fallen away from the sacramental doctrine of the sixteenth century? All must at least allow that there is some room for asking the question. If so, it is equally plain that it is a question which is entitled to a serious answer. For in the nature of the case, such a falling away, if it exist at all, must be connected with a still more general removal from the original platform of the church. The eucharistic doctrine of the sixteenth century was interwoven with the whole church system of the time; to give it up, then, must involve in the end a renunciation in principle, if not in profession, of this system itself in its radical, distinctive constitution. If it can be show no material change has taken place, it is due to an interest of such high consequence that this should be satisfactorily done. Or if the change should be allowed, and still vindicated as a legitimate advance on the original Protestant faith, let this ground be openly and consciously taken. Let us know, at least, where we are and what we actually do believe, in the case of this central question, as compared with the theological standpoint of our catechisms and confessions of faith.

The relations of this inquiry to the question concerning the true idea of the church will easily be felt by every well-informed and reflecting mind. If the fact of the incarnation be indeed the principle and source of a new supernatural order of life for humanity itself, the church, of course, is no abstraction. It must be a true, living, divine-human constitution in the world; strictly organic in its nature–not a device or contrivance ingeniously fitted to serve certain purposes beyond itself–but the necessary, essential form of Christianity, in whose presence only it is possible to conceive intelligently of piety in its individual manifestations. The life of the single Christian can be real and healthful only as it is born from the general life of the church, and carried by it onward to the end. We are Christians singly, by partaking (having part) in the general life revelation, which is already at hand organically in the church, the living and life-giving body of Jesus Christ.

As thus real and organic, moreover, Christianity must be historical. No higher wrong can be done to it that to call in question its true historical character; for this is, in fact, to turn it into a phantasm, and to overthrow the solid fact basis on which its foundations eternally rest. It must be historical, too, under the form of the church; for the realness of Christianity demands indispensably the presence of the general life of Christ, flowing with unbroken continuity from the beginning as the medium of all particular union with him from age to age. Then, again, the historical church must be visible, or in other words, not merely ideal, but actual. The actual may indeed fall short immeasurably of the idea it represents; the visible church may be imperfect, corrupt, false to its own conception and calling; but still an actual, continuously visible church there must always be in the world, if Christianity is to have either truth or reality in the form of a new creation. A purely invisible church has been will denominated a contradictio in adjecto; since the very idea of a church implies the manifestation of the religious life, as something social and common.

The whole conception that the externalization of the Christian life is something accidental only to the constitution of this life itself–a sort of mechanical machinery, to help it forward in an outward way–is exceedingly derogatory to the church, and injurious in its bearings on religion. An outward church is the necessary form of the new creation in Christ Jesus, in its very nature; and must continue to be so, not only through all time but through all eternity likewise. Outward social worship, which implies, of course, forms for the purpose, is to be regarded as something essential to piety itself. A religion without externals must ever be fantastic and false. The simple utterance of religious felling, by which the spirit takes outward form, is needed, not for something beyond itself, but for the perfection of the feeling itself. Forms, in this sense–not as sundered from inward life, of course, but as embracing it–enter as a constituent element into the very life of Christianity. As a real, human, historical constitution in the world, the outward and inward in the church can never be divorced without peril to all that is most precious in the Christian faith. We have no right to set the inward in opposition to the outward, the spiritual in opposition to the corporal, in religion. The incarnation of the Son of God, as it is the principle, forms also the true measure and test of all sound Christianity in this view. To be real, the human, as such, and of course the divine also in human form, must ever externalize its inward life. All thought, all feeling, every spiritual state, must take body (in the way of word, or outward for of some sort), in order to come at all to any true perfection of itself. This is the proper, deep sense of all liturgical services in religion. The necessity here affirmed is universal. The more intensely spiritual any state may be, the more irresistibly urgent will ever be found its tendency to clothe itself, and make itself complete, in a suitable external form. Away with the imagination, then, that externals in Christianity (including the conception of the visible church itself) are something accidental only to its true constitution–a cunningly framed device merely for advancing some interest foreign from themselves. To think of the church–and of Christian worship–as means simply to something else, is to dishonor religion itself in the most serious manner.

If the present work may serve to fix attention on the momentous point with which it is concerned, and thus contribute indirectly even to a clearer understanding of Protestant truth, I shall feel that it has not been written in vain. May God accept it, and crown it with his blessing.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi,

    I have finished a new book project that might interest you. I recently read John Nevin’s The Mystical Presence (1846) and decided to provide an edited, enhanced, expanded version of it.

    I’m looking for your help. Please feel free to correct errors, make suggestions and provide a quotable recommendation, should you be so moved. If you are interested, let me know and I’ll send you a PDF manuscript.

    Here’s the introduction:

    You have in your hands an unusual book—well worth your time an effort. It is a work of plagiarism of sorts, but don’t be dismayed. According to Augustine, Christians are supposed to plagiarize the Word of God, to think God’s thoughts after Him. Paul insists that Christians imitate him. We are to take God’s Word, and the work of the great theologians, and make it our own. God is not after originality or novelty, but the faithful reproduction of His thoughts and ideas. This is what I have tried to do. Of course, Nevin was not God, nor am I denying that the bulk of the work belongs to him. Indeed, I stand in awe and have profound respect for his work.

    So, it might be helpful to think of this as a contemporary edition of Nevin’s book, The Mystical Presence—A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (J.B. Lippencort & Co., 1846). It’s a sort of dynamic equivalence approach to editing in order to make it more available to contemporary people. I have simply tried to take his work and make it my own, in the sense of comprehending its significance and application. In doing so, I have taken broad license to edit, interpret, clarify and expand what I think Nevin is saying. My efforts will surely annoy Nevin purists, academics and intellectuals who are more concerned with form than content.

    Why have I approached The Mystical Presence in this way? Because I understand what Nevin said. His book, like no other I have ever read, has brought together various strands of my own life and pursuits in such a way that has astonished me. It is like he is already where I have been trying to go. I have been working over the past forty years to get where he was more than a century and a half ago.

    Nevin was the American voice of the German Reformed tradition. Having studied under Charles Hodge at Princeton, he accepted a position with the German Reformed Church to lead their only seminary. It is wonderfully curious that German immigrants would put an American in such a position, but that’s what they did. Nevin then called Philip Schaff, a Swiss born, German educated, Christian historian to join him in this effort. They then made a huge splash in the American Christian scene, after which Schaff went to Union Seminary to support the cause of liberal Christianity. And Nevin slipped into obscurity and an early retirement. It is often thought that Nevin also fed the liberal Christian stream in America, but that’s not what happened. Nevin simply held his ground and the world passed him by.

    But there has of late been a resurgence of interest in Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology. It seems that Nevin is at the center of what is still a little known controversy that has erupted in the conservative Reformed churches (the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America, and a few others). Other Christians and denominations will be completely unaware of these issues. That controversy is known as the Federal Vision.1 The Federal Vision is often confused with the “New Perspective on Paul,” another current controversy, but the two issues are not the same and must not be conflated. Exactly what the Federal vision is and its impact on Christianity today is yet to be determined. My concerns here are not for or against the Federal Vision, but for Nevin’s contribution to American theology.

    These things connect to my life because I was raised and ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC), the heir of the German Reformed tradition in America. And what is even more astonishing to me is that having grown up in, graduated from a UCC seminary and served UCC churches for fifteen years, I had never been exposed to Nevin in any meaningful way. In hindsight, that is all the more significant because it appears that Nevin’s work provided the impetus for the founding of the UCC and its original ecumenical focus. It was Nevin’s ecumenical vision of Christianity, supported by Philip Schaff, that provided the central stake for the UCC ecumenical efforts.

    And yet, Nevin’s name is not associated with the UCC in any significant way, probably because the UCC never actually did anything with Nevin’s work. They likely got the idea that something important was afoot with Nevin, and got distracted by the excitement of novelty and went their own way to do their own thing. Unfortunately, what began as an effort to unite Christianity, the founding of the UCC in 1957 has actually resulted in the most divisive denomination in the Mainline. Too bad! Had they run with Nevin, things would have been quite different. Anyway, Nevin connects me with my own Christian roots, which is important to me because I left the UCC more than fifteen years ago for a variety of reasons that are not germane here.

    During my undergraduate years of wandering, I studied philosophy, Eastern religions, mysticism and New Religious Movements. My studies in mysticism led me to many mystics, Eastern and Western, and to Meister Eckhart, whom I adored for a while. I adored him because I thought that I understood what Eckhart was talking about. Eckhart is important because he is the preeminent Christian mystic, and because Nevin’s work corrects Eckhart’s error—and that is no small feat! Eckhart continues to have a small but loyal following. So, I pray that Nevin’s correction will be clear in the text. It’s brilliant!

    Nevin was also unapologetically Reformed, which connects to another strand in my life. You might think it not unusual for a person who grew up in and was trained in the UCC to be Reformed. If so, you may not be aware that not all Reformed are Reformed in the same sense that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). While Congregationalism began as the most consistent of the Calvinistic Reform­ed denominations, by 1865 it had mostly lost its Reformed distinctive, though many have soldiered on.

    I belong to that cohort, though I didn’t realize that I was Reformed until I read Calvin’s Commentaries after a decade of church difficulties as a pastor. These difficulties helped me better understand how far the church has fallen from being “a city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:9) in the new land of America. In the 1600s and early 1700s ninety-five percent of American churches were Reformed.2 Today, those numbers are completely reversed. Today, there are two versions of Reformed—liberal and conservative. And Nevin faults them both for falling away from the original teachings of the Reformation. No doubt, this played a major role in Nevin’s unpopularity among his contemporaries. He had a serious theological dispute with his teacher, Charles Hodge, where Nevin won the argument but Hodge won the day.3 Popular opinion would not tolerate Nevin’s biblical fastidiousness. Those who were not Reformed had little in common with Nevin to begin with. Those of the liberal wing of the Reformed churches liked his ecumenism, but not his biblical integrity. And those of the conservative wing of the Reformed churches took umbrage at his accusation that they, too, had fallen from Reformation truth.

    Nevin didn’t have much respect for Lutheran theology, either. His criticism of consubstantiation put Lutherans in the same category as the Roman Catholics and their transubstantiation. Both, Nevin argued, made the same error, but in different ways. Both mistake Christ’s presence in the Eucharist with the physicality of the elements, which blurs the distinctions between spiritual and material by bridging the differences with various ideas of superstition and magic. Transubstantiation takes the hard position of saying that one substance actually becomes another, where consubstantiation takes a muted or blended view of saying that the spiritual substance is locally and materially near the material bread and wine. Nevin rejected both.

    There is some speculation that Nevin seriously thought about converting to Roman Catholicism because of his emphasis on the ancient church and the importance of liturgy. But it is hard for me to understand how anyone who has seriously read The Mystical Presence could entertain such a thought. Nevin’s criticism of transubstantiation is so clear and accurate that he could not possibly convert without losing his own integrity. I’m not aware that Roman Catholicism has ever dealt with Nevin’s criticism of transubstantiation or his doctrine of the mystical presence—nor is it likely that they would be able to, in my opinion. But I haven’t looked into that yet.

    While The Mystical Presence is probably Nevin’s most important book, it is also his worst. The edition I worked from is a facsimile of the original 1846 edition by J.P. Lippencott & Co. Why is this edition so bad? Because it seems as if the original editor read and edited the first few chapters, but stopped editing for whatever reasons. It is not simply that Nevin’s English is antiquated by today’s standards, or that he loves to wax philosophically and mystically eloquent—which he does, but that in too many places the language is just plain sloppy.

    So much so that I was compelled to correct it as best I can simply to understand it. Short of completing my first reading, I decided to edit the text in order to bring greater clarity to his arguments. At first, I tried to maintain Nevin’s voice, but as I progressed I found myself enthusiastically adding explanations and references to clarify and expand his thoughts simply because I knew exactly what he was saying. He was articulating the same kind of perspective that I have been writing about over the past twenty years. Nevin’s context and clarity were so encouraging that my own voice simply replaces his at various points. I pray that this will not trouble you, but that it will enhance Nevin’s work.

    My overriding concern has not been to produce a scholarly or intellectual work that accurately preserves Nevin’s words or arguments, but to produce a work that honors and make his arguments better available to people today. Indeed, Nevin is not an easy read. His language is labored and archaic, as was much of the literature of his age. And his ideas are grandiose by today’s standards, but if you can catch on to what he says you will understand the necessity of his largesse.

    His work was very contemporary when it was first published, so he referred to various people and books as if they were common knowledge, without references. And he was immersed in contemporary (1850s) German theology, philosophy and literature. Consequently, I have added many footnotes to identify the various people and references in the text. In addition, his own footnotes and text are strewn with Latin, Greek and Hebrew—to the point of distraction for today’s readers. So, I have endeavored to locate and translate these references so that contemporary readers today can focus on his arguments and not get distracted by the languages. My efforts in this regard are spotty, incomplete and undoubtedly inaccurate in some cases. Again, I readily admit that I am not a scholar, and that scholarship is not my contribution here. Nonetheless, I pray that my efforts will be useful for the forwarding of Nevin’s work and the Spirit’s vision for the future of Christianity in the Twenty-First Century.

    Phillip A. Ross
    Marietta, Ohio
    September 2011

    1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Vision; http://www.federal-vision.com/; http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=478; etc.

    2 The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, Rutgers University Press, 2005.

    3 http://library.lts.org/mercersburg/MercersburgPrimarySources.pdf

    Comment by Phillip Ross — August 6, 2011 @ 9:34 am

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