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Philip Schaff’s Idea of Historical Progress & Its Critique of the Church in 19th Century America

By Wayne A. Larson

copyright © 2001

In the Summer of 1844, Philip Schaff, the Swiss born, German educated historian arrived in America to become the second professor of the tiny seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg Pennsylvania. Along with fellow colleague John Williamson Nevin, the

Mercersburg theologians began a series of remarkable works which alienated themselves from almost everyone; including advocates of the “New Measures” revivalism, their own German Reformed denomination and even the eminent Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton. In the Fall of 1844, Schaff created no small stir with his inaugural address, “The Principle of Protestantism.” In this address, Schaff laid out his notion of the church’s progressive development in history. He was able to draw from the mediating theology of his German educators to present a model for historical development that both demonstrated the dependence of the Protestant Reformation upon Medieval Catholicism and explained the present state of affairs within European and American Christendom. Furthermore, in this address, he called for a recovery of a high view of the church as well as an eventual reunion of her Roman Catholic and Protestant branches into an Evangelical-Catholicism. It is the purpose of this paper to illustrate Schaff’s notion of the church’s development in history and to argue that model he presented provided an insightful critique of 19th century American Christianity as well as some insight to our present situation today. [1]

In many ways, 19th century American culture was as tumultuous as the western territories were rugged. An exploding population and the availability of land brought many changes to the still young country. [2] Perhaps this is nowhere better illustrated than by the so-called Second Great Awakening. In many ways this phenomenon reflected the general optimistic tenor of the Jacksonian era — populism, individualism, and voluntarism. American religious expression was driven by the same populist forces reflected in the general culture of post 1812 America. This populism created deep rifts between the traditionally educated (and predominantly Calvinist) clergy of Protestant New England and the burgeoning Methodist and Baptist circuit riders as well as revivalist preachers like Charles Finney and Lorenzo Dow. Revivalism, which was effecting thousands, played a formative role in depicting the central message of Christianity as grounded in the heart of the individual believer. The salvation of the individual’s soul eclipsed all denominational and ecclesiastical concern. “Everyman a Church, No Creed but Christ and No Law But Love” were the slogans of the day, while new Protestant denominations and religious sects seemed to spring up everywhere.

The exploding population of the 1800’s was created, in part, by waves of immigrants from Southern Germany, Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy. This resulted in the rapid growth of the Roman Catholic Church in America and the concomitant dis-ease of everybody else. [3] The reigning Protestant hegemony believed “Popish Plots” threatened to overtake the nation. This undue paranoia strengthened a primitivistic explanation of the Church’s history. In the minds of many church leaders the Protestant Reformation was either an Aufklarung from the dead morass of Medieval Catholicism or at best the flowering of a tradition handed down from the Apostles, that made an end-run around the Catholic Church via the Waldensees, Wickliffe, Hus, and other “protesting” groups of the Middle Ages.

Mercersburg and “The Church Question.”

If American revivalism in the 19th century can be characterized by its neglect of the Doctrine of the Church, Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg saw it as their one consuming passion. The Mercersburg theologians stressed the Christocentricity of the church. To know Christ was to know the church and to know the church was to know Christ. The church was in a mystical union with both the divinity and the humanity of Christ. This was especially true in the Lord’s Supper. [4] Critiquing the “New Measures” revivalism, Nevin wrote in a tract called The Anxious Bench, “The sinner is saved then by an inward living union with Christ. . . [t]his union is reached and maintained through the medium of the Church. . . .” [5] Nevin argued that the church precedes the individual. He would go on to say, “[T]he Church is truly the mother of all her children. . . The Church is in no sense the product of individual christianity . . . but individual christianity is the product. . . of the church.” [6] Both Nevin and Schaff drew deeply from German romantic and idealist thinkers such as Hegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and other mediating theologians of their generation. John B. Payne observes that Nevin’s description the church’s mystical union with Christ “adopted the Hegelian distinction between the ideal and the actual, and applied it to the difference between the potency of the life of Christ. . . and the actualization of that potency in the Church.” [7] Because of this organic continuation of Christ in time, the sacraments played a major part of their discussion. It was through baptism that men entered into this union and it was through the Lord’s Supper that men are made partakers of the very life of Christ in His full divinity and humanity. [8] To cut oneself off from the sacraments as Nevin believed was happening with the current disregard for the church within American revivalism, was nothing short of a self-imposed separation from Christ himself. Nevin fully expanded his belief in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in his book The Mystical Presence. In this book, Nevin charged the inherited Reformed tradition of embracing a rationalistic Zwinglianism. Such a charge would not go unanswered. Harsh criticism came from the pen of Charles Hodge in the Princeton Review, claiming that “Nevin’s theory” was more akin to Hegel and Schleiermacher than to Calvin and the received symbols of Reformed orthodoxy. [9]

In many ways, their criticism went beyond the revivalistic sectarianism of their day to an assault upon the Puritan foundation of American Christianity as a whole. [10] Schaff and Nevin argued that the Puritan tendency toward subjective spiritualism, private interpretation of Scripture, as well as a disregard for tradition, the church as the body of Christ, and the sacraments left the church in America with an impoverished notion of liturgy, a compartmentalized individualism and a theological stagnation that would allow for no advancement beyond the Synod of Dort. [11] Schaff and Nevin saw the Puritan influence in America as a principle agent in its low ecclesiology and anti-historical bias. [12] It was incumbent upon the church to return to its historic, universal expression found in its creeds and liturgies. It is only when the church embraces the notion of its universal character that a golden age of Evangelical-Catholicism will emerge. As Stephen Graham observes,

Their goal of ‘evangelical-catholic’ Christianity sought to overcome American individualism and anti-historical bias with a model of the church as an organic whole, solidly rooted in the past and looking forward to development, growth, and unity in the future. [13]

The dissemination of the church into smaller and smaller sects only works against this principle. [14] Schaff observed “man’s piety is deposited in one corner of his spirit, his politics in another, and his learning in a third. All good and necessary in their place, but having nothing whatever to do with one another.” [15] Schaff and Nevin were very bold in their assertion that the church has continued to progress and in their minds the intellectual achievements in Germany was evidence of this progress. They were very optimistic that the robust seed of German theology would flourish in the fertile soil of America.

Mercersburg and their Critics

The message of the Mercersburg theologians did not sit as well with their own German Reformed brethren as they no doubt hoped. The free use of German romantic thinkers like Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Baur was met with incredulity. Charles Hodge, himself no stranger to the works of his German contemporaries, [16] in his review of Schaff’s Principle of Protestantism, remarked

In order to decide what the church has to hope from German theology in securing the anticipated progress in divine knowledge, it would seem natural to inquire what that theology, since its revival, has actually accomplished. . . . When we express surprise that men who seem to deny a personal God, to deny sin, to deny the continued personal existence of the soul after death, should be referred to as substantially sound, we are told we do not understand these writers and therefore are not competent to form an opinion on the subject. [17]

Furthermore, the suggestion that there would ever be a reunion of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was, as George Shriver remarks, “out of the question.” [18] By far the most common charge Schaff and Nevin faced was that of being sympathetic of Romanism or perhaps Anglo-Catholic Puseyism. [19] Twice in his career, Schaff faced a heresy trial in his own denomination, each time accused of Romanism and each time being acquitted. Charles Hodge ridiculed the idea that the greatest threat to American Christianity was Rationalism and not the pressing dangers of Romanism. [20]

Schaff’s “Principle” of Church Unity

Perhaps the key driving force behind Nevin and Schaff, enabling them to persist against the flood of criticism, was their commitment to the progress of the church in history. This view, while assumed by both, was most fully articulated by Schaff in two important works: The Principle of Protestantism (1844) and What Is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development (1846).

Schaff wrote in this latter work, “Church and History altogether, since the introduction of Christianity, are so closely united, that respect and love towards the first, may be said to be essentially the same with a proper sense of what is comprised in the other.” [21] Schaff’s idea of the church in history was one of an applied historicism that viewed the church in terms of organic development. For Schaff, the proper words to describe the church’s history were always biological or botanical. Schaff drew from his education under Hegelian historians like Ferdinand Christian Baur and David Friedrich Strauss. But it was in the tradition of the so-called mediating theologians such as Schleiermacher and Neander that Schaff was most at home.

Hegel provided the model for historical progress while the romantic historicism of Neander [22] provided the concept of organic unity that held Hegel in check. [23] Schaff would avoid the Pantheism of Hegel by positing God as the “primal Truth,” while His providence works from a smaller-scale dialectic. [24] Furthermore, his Christology taught him that the visible, historical church is vitally connected to Jesus Christ. [25] In spite of the variegated picture of people and events over the millennia of the church’s history, the Spirit of Christ is present in history joining all things to him, so that the church’s history is proleptically the history of all reality where God has “placed all things under his feet and appointed [Christ] to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22ff.). Schaff asserts:

All history since Christ, finds its central movement in the development of the divine principle of life, which he has introduced into human nature, and which is destined gradually to take all up into its own element, as revealed in his person. In this view it becomes Church History. [26]

Furthermore, like plants and animals, the church has to contend with its own diseases that threaten its continued life. The diseases that Schaff saw attacking this notion of organic unity was a rationalism and a sectarianism. This notion of organic unity confronted the rationalist historian. Where the rationalist historian was certain of his “freedom from prejudice,” Schaff, following the more romantic image claimed that the “truly catholic historian” would “see light and darkness every where distributed over the vast picture which unrolls to our view, and measures every time and every character, not by a foreign standard, but by one that is drawn from its own nature and its own relation.” [27] The catholic historian cannot free himself from his object of study any more than the hand could remove itself from the body, or a plant from its roots. This was precisely what the rationalist historiography attempted to do. The rationalist historian sees only change and a disconnection with what had come in a previous era.

However, Schaff was quick to point out that the organic unity of the church should not be understood apart from a sense of development on that organic level. This was the problem with sectarianism and with what Schaff called the “orthodox historiography.” From this point of view, the church could allow for external dissemination and outward missionary growth but no real internal development was needed. This approach to history was ironically found among both ultramontanist [28] Roman Catholic historians and American Protest theologians. [29] The Romanists separate themselves from the truly “catholic” body of Christ by their failure to recognize the advance made by Reformation theology (especially the doctrine of Justification by faith). This distinction of the Romanist from the catholic was an important distinction that his American critics failed to notice.

The failure on the part of American theologians was their primitivism and their absolute abhorrence of all things catholic. [30] Although this position may appear to set the Reformation in a good light, Schaff saw them as denigrating it. He writes,

Still it was always present beneath this rubbish, as gold covered with dross, and was brought more or less into view. . . till the Reformation finally raised it again to ecclesiastical authority. In this view, accordingly, the great religious movement of the 16th century itself forms no proper advance of church life and consciousness, but a simple process of purification, a return to the original truth of the scriptures and the stand-point of the first few centuries. [31]

Schaff would go on to say that this “jejune and narrow” [32] view makes their proponents “more unhistorical and less favorable to the idea of development, than even the Romanists themselves.” [33] As Schaff saw it, any organism that does not grow is a dead organism. Organicism not only explained our solidarity with the historic church, it explained its development as well. Schaff drew from Hegel’s concept of historical progress to explain the unfolding developments in the church’s life. [34] Schaff adopted Hegel’s concept of Aufheben (lit. a taking up) as the dynamic mechanism of historical progress. Schaff explained that this word, as it was used by the historian, carried three meanings: “to abolish (tollere,) to preserve (conservare,) and to raise to a higher state (elevare.)” [35] The dialectical process began as each new stage in history abolishes the former (although only the outward is annihilated, the substance remains). The child is abolished in the young man, yet the life is preserved. This preservation is the second movement in the dialectic. Finally this preserved element is raised to a higher state. Thus in the case of the Protestant Reformation, unnecessary elements of Medieval theology were abolished in the wake of later developments in theology, politics, etc., preserving the essential doctrinal and ecclesiastical elements (e.g. the Righteousness of God and the sacraments), and are then raised up to a higher state of maturity (e.g. Luther’s doctrine of Imputation). Thus the church was truly advancing. [36] Again, Schaff applied the notion of disease to describe certain features of the church’s growth. He writes, “Such a process of growth is attended necessarily with certain diseases and crises, as well theoretical, in the form of heresies; as practical, in the form of schisms.” [37] Disease is unavoidable because of the remaining sin and error in Christians themselves and with the ever present contact the church will have with the unchristian world. Disease is not to be viewed as all bad however. [38] Through the struggle of heresies, the church comes to a “clearer consciousness of her true vocation, a deeper apprehension of her faith, and a purer revelation of the power included in her life.” [39] Schaff appeals to the Theological and Christological controversies of the early church. Schisms only served to purify her members as the splitting parties would either eventually return to the continuing body or die off into irrelevance.

The explicit message of this notion of organic development was that the church continues within this process. This being so, one inevitably expects the various schisms that remain in the church to return to this catholic body. Again, the immediate problem with American primitivism was its failure to see itself belonging to this catholic body, while to problem with Romanism was their failure to see the higher stage of development within Reformation theology. The Oxford movement with its overtures to Rome from within Anglicanism fell short as a model of eventual reunion because of its essential repudiation of Reformation theology as well. Schaff believed that only when the truth of each tradition was preserved there would be a truly evangelical-catholic reunion. George Richards explains that

. . . both the Catholic and evangelical churches were suffering from one-sidedness and incompleteness. The latter emphasized the subjective and experimental in religion to the neglect of the objective and sacramental; the former reversed the emphasis and ignored the personal element in religion. The fontal source of error was their defective Christology or the want of a proper conception of the incarnation as effecting an organic union. . . in a new operation continuing in the historical church to the end of time. [40]

Schaff saw the anti-historical perspectives within the church as that which needed the most immediate correction. For the church to establish itself outside of the historical process was to flirt with the pagan longing for eternity. Theology becomes impotent. Schaff would claim that “American church history has produced nothing original, no new fact in the history of the church as a whole.” [41]

Schaff was not without hope for America’s future. The America’s premium for freedom as well as such healthy progeny like those from the German Reformed Church. He remarked, “It would be a rich offering then to the service of this approaching reformation, on the part of the German Churches in America, to transplant hither in proper measure the rich wealth of the better German theology, improving it into such form as our peculiar relations might require.” [42]

Concluding Observations

The great allure of historicism is not merely its power to explain but its ability to predict as well. This is the attractive force of the Mercersburg theology. Schaff’s construction of the history of the church has long served historians and will no doubt continue to attract many. The questionable method of Schaff’s historiography no longer attracts serious discussion in the academy. Its dependence upon outdated Hegelian and romantic sentiments have rendered it, for the most part, unusable. Yet in spite of these obvious claims, the force that it had to critique the church in the 19th century along with its ability to provide an optimistic picture of her future continues to deserve some attention. The postmillennial vision of Nevin and Schaff has fallen on hard times within current theological discourse. The millennial desire of American Christianity and its concomitant problems has been well documented. No doubt Schaff and Nevin have rightly been criticized for attempting to de-eschatologize the present life of the church by placing it into a stream of historical progress that continues to look forward. Yet at the same time, one might also assert that a pressing need today, at least for Protestants, is an ability to formulate a philosophy of history. The understanding of theological development presented by Schaff and Nevin might help reach this goal. In the mind of the present writer, this is a critical question for modern Protestant Evangelical America. The American temptation has been to ignore the ecclesiastical issue of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the church. This has been easy for us because generic American Christianity has enjoyed a firm social consensus. That consensus has now evaporated, at least in terms of its celebration in the public square. Consequently, the American Christian church can no longer depend upon social censure to provide ecclesiastical discipline in a religiously pluralistic society. Thus, Americans need to face squarely the problematics of Protestant ecclesiology.[43] Hints of our historical moment seem to point to the need for some sort of theological and ecclesiological progression. The Protestant Age has understood individuals. In so doing it spawned much that was good — such as notions of political liberty and habits of religious hospitality (i.e. loving the religious alien instead of killing him). But it doesn’t do so well with the reality of congregational life. The hyper-individualism of our era arguably was provoked by the “collectivist” response manifest in Hegel, Marx, and a slew of other political and religious theorists, all dreaming of humanity’s organic unity. Unfortunately, however, in not anchoring this unity in something more concrete (Baptism? The Eucharist? Ecclesiastical Authority?), we continue to witness one bloody movement after another.[44]


German Theology & the Church Question / Philip Schaff

The Puritan Theory of Early Christianity

Catholic Unity / John Williamson Nevin


1. This paper will concern itself only with two publications of Philip Schaff: The Principle of Protestantism (1844) and What Is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development (1846). While both works appear early in Schaff’s career, the general assessment of modern historians is that, apart from some changes in emphasis, the basic thesis provided in these two works remained the working paradigm for Schaff his entire life.

The Democratization of American Christianity, (New Haven: Yale, 1989). Hatch (p. 4) observes that “The population of the United States [was] less than half of England’s in 1775. . . By 1845 Americans outnumbered the English by five million.”

3. Stephen R. Graham reminds us of “a favorite New England game called ‘Break the Pope’s Neck,’ and the ‘popular American holiday,’ Pope Day, during which a parade culminated in burning an effigy of the Roman Pontiff.” (Stephen R. Graham, Cosmos in the Chaos: Philip Schaff’s Interpretation of Nineteenth-Century American Religion , Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995, p. 47.).

4. John B. Payne, “Schaff and Nevin, Colleagues at Mercersburg: The Church Question,” Church History 61 (June 1992), p. 170.

5. Robert L. Ferm, Issues in American Protestantism: A Documentary History From the Puritans to the Present, (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983) p. 177.

6. Ibid., 178.

7. Payne, Schaff and Nevin, 170.

8. The position of Nevin on both these issues made him the object of severe criticism by Charles Hodge of Princeton. With the issue of baptism, Hodge argued that it was a sign and seal of a pre-existing covenantal relationship. Nevin said “No!” Baptism was a washing away of sin and a leading into covenant life. (cf. E. Brooks Holifield, “Mercersburg, Princeton, and the South: The Sacramental Controversy in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976) 238-257).

9. George W. Richards, “The Mercersburg Theology — Its Purpose and Principles,” Church History 20 (Sept. 1951), 47. Union Theological Seminary historian, Brian Gerrish observes that on balance, Nevin was much closer to the thought of Calvin than Hodge had supposed (cf. Gerrish, B. A. “The Flesh of the Son of Man: John W. Nevin on the Church and the Eucharist.” Chapt. in Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978) 49-70).

10. James Hastings Nichols would write, “Schaf [sic] had three major faults to find with sectarianism, all of which had their beginnings in Puritanism. Puritanism had been spiritualistic, unhistorical, and unchurchly. As the dominant religious tradition in America, Puritanism had also contributed these traits to the American religious character.” in Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 124.

11. Graham, Cosmos, 216-217.

12. It seems as though, at the level of sacramental regard anyway, this assessment is not entirely fair to the Puritans. There was sometimes strong sacramental piety among Puritans such as Cotton and Increase Mather, Samuel Ward, Cornelius Burges, and John Flavell. Yet to the question of liturgy in general and a concern for history, there is a sharp ring of truth to this criticism. It seems that in general, Philip Schaff was more gracious to the Puritans than Nevin. Schaff more often implemented the principle of “take the good, leave the bad,” while Nevin was often more dismissive. John B. Payne observes that Schaff’s “attitude of looking forward rather than backward, emphasized more the pole of progress. . .whereas Nevin, in his insistence upon an organic connection with the early church, stressed the pole of continuity.” (Schaff and Nevin, 190).

13. Stephen R. Graham, Philip Schaff, chapt. in Historians of the Christian Tradition: Their Methodology and Influence on Western Thought, Michael Bauman and Martin I. Klauber eds. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 276.

14. Schaff would eventually become warmer to a positive role for the denominational fracture in America.

15. Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, quoted in Nichols, Romanticism, 133. Nichols goes on to remark (tongue in cheek no doubt) that “[t]he correctness of Schaff’s analysis here is in part documented by the fact that the bulk of his readers evidently did not grasp what he was talking about.” p. 133.

16. Hodge made the most of his time in Europe studying in Paris, Halle and Berlin. He became personally acquainted with men such as Hengstenberg and Neander, as well as life long friend F. A. G. Tholuck (cf. David C. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 1 “Faith and Learning,” Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, p. 117-122).

17. Charles Hodge, “Schaff’s Protestantism,” chapt. in Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology: 1812 – 1921, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 163-63. Throughout his review, Hodge appears very perplexed with Schaff’s work. At the outset he even avers that “It is a book not easy to understand, especially that part of it which has proceeded from the pen of Dr. Nevin.” Actually, Nevin consistently receives much harsher criticism than Schaff himself! Nevin, who had studied under Hodge and later served as a temporary replacement while Hodge spent time in Europe was not untouched by Hodge’s criticisms (cf. George H. Shriver, “Passages in Friendship: John W. Nevin to Charles Hodge, 1872,” Journal of Presbyterian History 58 (Summer 1980), 116-122.

18. George H. Shriver, Philip Schaff: Christian Scholar and Ecumenical Prophet, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987), 19.

19. This was the major criticism of Hodge’s Review.

20. Hodge, Schaff’s Protestantism, 160. Hodge considered this an accident of Schaff’s still recent immigration to America. He writes, “This is a very natural view to be taken by a theologian born and educated in Germany, who has been accustomed to see comparatively little of the evils of Romanism. . . .” p. 160. This and other examples already noted above regarding American anti-catholic attitudes certainly reminds us of how times have changed.

21. Philip Schaff,What Is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development, in Reformed and Catholic: Selected Historical and Theological Writings of Philip Schaff, Charles Yrigoyen and George M. Bricker, eds. (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1979), 25.

22. Schaff readily acknowledged that the picture of organic historicism in German historiography began with Johann Gottfried Herder, but it was from Neander that Schaff, as a student, drew most of his personal inspiration.

23. I find it interesting that Schaff seemed to use several phrases that were also common to Hegel. Yet it seems as though this is where the similarities ended. Hegel (and Schelling) was fond of speaking of the “Principle of Protestantism.” However, Hegel used it to asperse the “lyrical longing” of Jacobi and Schleiermacher for a wholly transcendent God — a way of viewing God from a muddled way of viewing the process of knowing. Schaff would speak, as would Hegel, of Christianity as the “absolute religion.” However, Hegel would use this to express the absolute dialectical relationship of the religious object and religious consciousness, the infinite and the finite (one might say, stretching a model of the Lutheran view of the Spirit’s relation to the believer’s faith).

24. Stephen Graham, Philip Schaff, 280.

25. David Lotz writes, “Schaff’s application of historical organicism (or “historicism”) to church history is evident at every turn. His basic premise is that the church itself is a living entity, an organism — the body of Christ, whose individual members are united in an organic whole by virtue of their union with Christ, the body’s guiding head and animating soul.” Philip Schaff and Church History, chapt. in A Century of Church History: The Legacy of Philip Schaff, Henry W. Bowden ed., (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 13.

26. Schaff, Church History, 56. Elsewhere Schaff states that “[t]he ultimate scope of history accordingly is this, that Christianity may become completely the same with nature, and the world be formally organized as the kingdom of Christ; which must involve the absolute identity of church and state, theology and philosophy, worship and art, religion and morality; the state of the renovated earth, in which God will be All in All.” The Principle of Protestantism, Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology Vol. 1, Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker eds. (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964), 221.

27. Schaff, Church History, 42.

28. I am using this term in a broader way to describe the general monolithic disposition of post-Reformation Catholicism.

29. One cannot help but be reminded of Charles Hodge’s own famous remark that during the many years of his predominance at Princeton, that institution had never brought forward a single original thought.

30. This criticism of the American church is still well deserved today in many parts. For many Evangelical Christians today the reigning hermeneutic too often is boiled down to “what’s biblical is what’s not Catholic.” In this writers opinion, the sad irony of it all is that the weight of this unworkable hermeneutic helps explain why so many Evangelicals have been turning to the Catholic Church.

31. Schaff, Church History, 66.

32. These were the words with which he described it in The Principle of Protestantism, 223.

33. Comments like this explain the bitter ire he sparked among his own German Reformed denomination, who saw themselves as the bearers of the unchanging orthodoxy of their Reforming progeny. (cf. Graham, Philip Schaff, 283.)

34. His Hegelianism was by no means absolute or consistent however. Stephen Graham observes, “All conflicts in history could be resolved in the Hegelian pattern except the absolute antithesis between the divine life-principle of Christianity and the death-principle of sin. In order for that conflict finally to be resolved, the pattern of thesis-antithesis-synthesis had to be overruled, since no synthesis between the two could ever emerge. Instead, a force outside the historical process was necessary to bring about complete victory of the former over the latter.” Cosmos, 113.

35. Schaff, Church History, 101.

36. This dialectic also helps explain why Schaff was better equipped than Nevin to deal with the many denominations and sects in America. For Schaff, they were a part of this dialectical process, that was also the providential hand of God that was ultimately leading to reunion. His greater and more immediate concern was the anti-historical posture of Americans. Schaff would later admit that denominationalism was helpful for the spread of the gospel, aberrant stems would simply fall off and eventually die.

37. Schaff, Principle, 222.

38. Schaff appears to be using the picture of disease and the body’s subsequent recovery as a metaphor for the dialectical process itself. In general, the language that Schaff uses in The Principle of Protestantism often depends more on this organic metaphor while What Is Church History? more often uses the abstract picture of dialectical mechanism.

39. Schaff, Principle, 222.

40. Richards, Mercersburg, 45.

41. Schaff, Principle, 233.

42. Ibid., 233.

43. Credit for the shaping of these present concerns and comments are due not only from my reading of the Mercersburg theologians. They have arisen also from my personal interactions with friends such as The Reverend Jeffery J. Meyers and Mr. Mark Horne both of St. Louis, The Reverend Richard Bledsoe of Boulder, Co, Dr. James R. Rogers of Texas A&M University and to Gary Young from my home church in Lincoln, NE. These dear friends, and others, continue to stimulate me to return again and again to “the church question,” her “common practice” in the world, and the ideal of her “catholicity.” (John 17:23)

44. Indeed, this very moment in history has been described as a new Dark Ages. Retrieval from which must come a renewal of “the church question” itself. Protestants serve much to learn, in my opinion, from contemporary Roman Catholic social thought within the last century. Alasdair MacIntyre appeals to a model mirroring the principle of subsidiarity for his project of a Christian moral philosophy that I believe has numerous applications for evangelical ecclesiology. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

copyright © 2001

Wayne [contact him] is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Classical Literature from Ohio State University before getting his Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary (’97). Before planting a church in Des Moines he served as an Associate Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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