History and Sacrament

A Study in the Intellectual Culture
of
Charles Hodge
and
John W. Nevin




Peter J. Wallace
Anglo-American Intellectual History
Dr. James Turner
Spring, 1997


Sections:
I. Introduction
II. A Question of History
III. Sacrament and Culture
IV. Conclusion



I. Introduction

Throughout the history of the church, sacramental doctrine provides an interesting window into the relationship between church and culture. While studies abound for earlier periods in Protestant history(1), the first half of the nineteenth century has rarely been discussed. Perhaps this is due in part to the unsacramental character of this time period, but that in itself ought to provoke at least some curiosity regarding the intersection of ideas and culture in both sacramental theology and practice during the early nineteenth century.

Though rarely discussed, debates and discussions about the sacraments littered the theological literature of the antebellum era. Presbyterians and Baptist tossed their arguments back and forth, flinging out their tracts for or against infant baptism. A gradual trend away from infant baptism in Reformed circles led to a furious defense of the practice in the 1850s,(2) even as a shift from covenantal to constitutional language weakened its theological underpinnings. The doctrine of the covenant had emphasized the corporate nature of the church, with its emphasis on communal blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience. The newer constitutional language focused on individual rights and responsibilities, utilizing the language of law and intellectual commitments.(3) Such a shift deemphasized the corporate, communal nature of the church, preferring a more legal and individualistic model.

Debates about the Lord's Supper also abounded during the antebellum era. Both American and German theologians marvelled at how many American Lutherans had abandoned their traditional belief in the local presence of Christ, in, with, and under the elements, adopting a Zwinglian doctrine of the Eucharist, thereby viewing the Supper as a mere memorial.(4) This transition is coincident with the rise of revivalism in the Great Awakening--a phenomenon which spread to many of the immigrant churches as well. While revivals received their initial impulse from the Scottish communion season, the unchurchly character of American evangelicalism soon dropped the sacrament as too intrusive into revival preaching.(5)

The current historiography of antebellum America tells the tale of a robust evangelicalism. The revivalism of the Second Great Awakening marked a new epoch in American history, as the new nation wrestled with the question of its national identity. While the Revolutionary period synthesized Christian and Republican values, the actual influence of the churches began to wane. But in the years roughly between 1790-1835 the tide turned. As revival swept the land, Christian leaders attempted to utilize the rhetoric of republicanism and the moderate Scottish enlightenment to forge a united front that could maintain evangelical hegemony in the American experiment. Both in the moral and intellectual arenas, evangelical religion played at center stage. Moral reform movements grew out of the revivalist agenda for a Christian America, as did the evangelical colleges which dotted the countryside in ever increasing numbers. These twin engines of revival and enlightenment republicanism propelled evangelical Protestantism into the cultural ascendancy, yet bore a heavy price tag. On the one hand, as Nathan Hatch has shown, the first third of the nineteenth century revealed the democratization of American Christianity and the triumph of populist views of the church; on the other hand, as James Turner suggests, the intellectual synthesis of evangelical and enlightenment modes of thought produced a culture more concerned with scientific than with religious truth--and indeed made that bifurcation possible for the first time.(6)

This blend of revivalism and intellectual inquiry began to fall apart by the mid-1830s. Fred Hood suggests that two competing methods of maintaining social control battled for the ascendancy: the New School revivalist model, and the Old School educational model. While both prove to be more nuanced than Hood allows, nonetheless there is a distinction between the evangelistic emphasis of the New School (also shared by most Baptists, Methodists and Restorationists)--a perspective which claimed that moral reform could be attained only through the conversion of souls--and the educational emphasis of the Old School, which insisted upon more thorough doctrinal teaching and the intellectual task of claiming the minds of the nation. Up until the 1830s, Hood argues, these two tasks were more or less integrated, as evangelical Protestantism united in voluntary societies generally controlled by the deep pockets of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches.(7)

The disintegration of the united front began in the 1830s. The Old School/New School split in 1837 over the relationship between Presbyterian and Congregational doctrines and practices revealed the fractured character of Presbyterianism, and the schisms of other denominations over slavery during the next two decades unveiled a sectional rift in the movement.(8) Baptists and Methodists had already gained numerical predominance by the 1820s, but as they began to establish their own schools and denominational structures they preferred to retain control over their own endeavors, and the cooperative ventures of the united front gradually collapsed. At the same time the proliferation of restorationist groups, the fragmentation of existing churches, and the introduction of various immigrant bodies led to a bewildering variety of religious denominations. By the 1840s John Winebrenner counted over seventy in his History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States.(9)

At the same time the intellectual alignment of Common Sense Realism and Republicanism faced the new challenges of German and English romanticism and idealism. The 1830s launched the Transcendentalists in New England and the Oxford Movement in Britain, as well as the historicist studies of John Williamson Nevin. This Scottish Presbyterian eventually became the most German thinker in the German Reformed Church, as many Germans in that denomination grew closer to their American evangelical brethren. Winebrenner, who would become one of Nevin's first opponents in the early 1840s, had left the German Reformed to found the Church of God in the wake of his conversion to the revivalist tradition.(10)

In this context John Williamson Nevin and Charles Hodge engaged in one of the most interesting theological debates of the century. Hodge participated in numerous theological disputes throughout his fifty-six years on the Princeton faculty, and engaged in most of them in an attempt to stave off radicalism on all sides and maintain what he considered a moderate center.(11) Nevin haunted his dreams with the whisper, "the center will not hold!" As American evangelicalism plunged headlong into paroxysms of consumerism and sentimentality, Nevin became increasingly convinced that the revival mentality was part and parcel of a deadening rationalism and individualism which was devoid of any true sense of Christ's objective presence in the church. Hodge also objected to the subjectivism of American evangelicalism, but countered it with an objectivism that Nevin found equally problematic.

The debate between these two theologians is especially interesting because:

  1. It was one of the first American confrontations between Idealism and Realism. While both Nevin and Hodge grew up in the Scottish Presbyterian church, Nevin joined the German Reformed Church and became the most zealous defender of German thought and worship in his adopted home.
  2. While both men attempted to stem the tide of shallow revivalism and vapid rationalism, ironically both adopted intellectual stances which served to undermine the very beliefs and practices which they held dear.
  3. Both theologians came from the Reformed tradition and shared the same doctrinal beliefs on the surface. Yet their understandings of these doctrines often proved to be light-years apart.
The philosophical frameworks which both theologians utilized critically affected the resulting product, creating several misunderstandings and misinterpretations on both sides. At the root of their debate lies an irreconcilable difference over the nature of history. This seed of disparity grew over the years and first blossomed in their sacramental theology--revealing the intellectual and cultural gap between them.

In 1846, Nevin published The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.(12) Having previously objected to the revivalist approach in his critical treatment of Charles Finney's New Measures, The Anxious Bench, Nevin now attempted to articulate an alternative form of spirituality and a new understanding of the church. Dissatisfied with both the revivalism of the New School and the intellectualism of the Old School, Nevin suggested that the historical and theological scholarship of the mediating theologians in Germany could provide a useful paradigm for the American church. Nevertheless, as Richard E. Wentz has pointed out, Nevin remained an American theologian, preoccupied with American issues and articulating a response that was conditioned in a uniquely American fashion.(13) It would be misleading to say that Nevin "became" German, because his whole project was to revitalize American Christianity; he merely utilized different tools than most of his compatriots. Conversely, as Walter Conser suggests, Hodge was also influenced by the German mediating school, perhaps not so profoundly as Nevin, but nonetheless, his two years abroad did not leave him entirely untouched.(14) The clash between these two intellectual titans is augmented by the fact that Nevin had been one of Hodge's prize students in his early years of teaching at Princeton, and had even taught Hodge's classes while Hodge studied in Germany.(15)

II. A Question of History

At the heart of the philosophical and theological differences between Hodge and Nevin rests mutually exclusive conceptions of history. Mere dialogue could not bridge the vast chasm that separated the realist from the idealist.

Scottish Realism strongly influenced Hodge's works. His epistemology followed the Baconian empiricism in vogue in his day, but he grounded his induction upon innate principles, including the intuitions of sense experience (i.e., pain and the reality of external objects), of the intellect (i.e., the axioms of geometry and cause and effect), and of moral truths (i.e., the distinction between right and wrong, human responsibility, and that sin deserves punishment). These things do not need to be proved, for they "have an irresistible conviction of their reality and truth."(16) Hence his empiricism was not entirely inductive, although he sometimes claimed otherwise, because he admitted first principles which were not empirically gathered, but were rather impressed upon the mind by the constitution of its own nature. He disagreed with some in the "common sense" school by using common sense arguments for the doctrine of the innate knowledge of God. By innate he meant, "that which is due to our constitution, as sentient, rational, and moral beings. It is opposed to knowledge founded upon experience; to that obtained by ab extra instruction; and to that acquired by a process of research and reasoning."(17) Whereas Reid had insisted that the knowledge of God was properly basic to all understanding, yet not a universal principle of common sense, Hodge claimed that it was not only basic, but innate. Not the full knowledge of God that is only revealed supernaturally, but a true "conviction that God is a person, and that He possesses moral attributes, and acts as a moral governor....All that is maintained is that this sense of dependence and accountability to a being higher than themselves exists in the minds of men."(18) This emphasis upon the moral nature and character of God reflected the moral sense philosophy that was often closely allied to the common sense school.

Hodge's attachment to the Scottish philosophy was intended merely to serve his confessionally Reformed commitments. Prior to the publication of his Systematic Theology in 1872-73, Hodge had used the Latin text of Francis Turretin as his primary theological source. This seventeenth-century Genevan theologian exercised the greatest single influence over Hodge's developed theology, and Hodge frequently quoted him with high approbation. Hodge believed that whereas Calvin may not have been entirely consistent, the later Reformed theologians, such as Turretin, developed his views into a coherent whole. Hence Hodge attempted to translate Turretin into the language and thought-forms of nineteenth-century America.(19)

Turretin had distinguished between Archetypal theology (God's own infinite and exhaustive knowledge of himself) and ectypal theology (humanity's derived knowledge, which is true but limited and finite). Naturally God cannot communicate exhaustive knowledge to finite creatures, but Turretin specifically grounded ectypal theology in the incarnation, insisting that the union of God and man in Christ gives confidence that God can truly communicate to humanity in a way that people can understand.(20) Regenerate reason and sense experience have an important place because they are trustworthy enough in their own sphere, but they must be bounded by the Word of God, and not vice versa. Ultimately, the believer's confidence rests upon the divinely self-authenticating Word of God, the Bible. Using the traditional Aristotelian language of causation, Turretin claimed that the objective cause of someone's believing the Scripture, is the Scripture itself. The efficient cause (the principle by which she is made to believe) is the Holy Spirit, who produces faith in her. The instrumental cause is the church, which is the means through which the Scripture reaches her. The Holy Spirit works both objectively through the Word, and subjectively (efficiently) in the heart of the believer, impressing the truth of the Scripture upon her mind. Those who doubt the divine quality of the Bible do so because they lack "a healthy faculty of reception," i.e., faith.(21)

Hodge viewed theology in a similar manner. He too rejected the notion of one universal method, saying that "every science has its own method, determined by its peculiar nature."(22) Certainly he taught that all sciences should use the inductive method, but induction must be delimited by the internal guidelines of each discipline to which it is applied. Theology must attempt to show the relation between Biblical facts, avoiding speculation wherever possible, because all theories have no higher authority than their own probability.(23) Scripture provides the norms and standards by which it must be studied, and natural reasons and affections must be subjected to its declarations.(24) Yet while paralleling Turretin in most respects, Hodge's expectations for the "common" exercises of human intellect and moral virtue exceeds those of the seventeenth-century Genevan.

Hodge took a scientific perspective on the relation of scripture to theology but blended it with a traditional Reformed view of the work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps his most famous dictum is: "the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts."(25) Hodge certainly believed in some form of objectivity in that anyone who worked hard and was careful with his facts should come to the right conclusions. Yet for all his confidence in reason, he argued that man's reason is essentially flawed by sin, and in fact, "conscience is less liable to err than reason," yet neither is ultimately trustworthy.(26) This preeminence of the moral sense over the rational is often reflected in his comments on what "all (or most) good and pious men" believe or sense. But note the qualifier. Hodge believed that one's moral intuitions could be damaged by sin--and repaired by grace. Scholars have often neglected Hodge's dual emphasis on Word and Spirit: "we find in the Bible the norm and standard of all genuine religious experience. The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost."(27) Indeed, "all the truths taught by our nature or by religious experience, are recognized and authenticated in the Scriptures....[The goal is] to subject our feeble reason to the mind of God as revealed in his Word and by his Spirit in our inner life."(28) The objective word of God is understood through the subjective work of the Holy Spirit: "As only those who have a moral nature can discern moral truth, so those only who are spiritually minded can truly receive the things of the Spirit."(29) Hence Hodge's objectivist theological method did not rule out the subjective work of the Spirit in the process of the assimilation of the Scriptures' content.(30)

In short, Hodge attempted to take Turretin's theological method and translate it into nineteenth-century common sense terms. When Hodge said that we must "subject our feeble reason to the mind of God as revealed in his Word and by his Spirit in our inner life,"(31) he attempted to restate Turretin's doctrine of formal (Word) and efficient (Spirit) causes. Throughout his work, one can see the objective, formal, divinely authenticated Scripture paired with the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit, bringing the Scriptures to bear on the hearts and minds of believers. The Scriptures are perspicuous in an objective sense to everyone, everywhere, and at all times, but apart from the Spirit's subjective renewing, the mind cannot grasp that which is as plain as day.(32)

John Nevin studied under Hodge at Princeton, but his thought gradually shifted as he examined the philosophical and theological trends stemming from Germany. The turning point came when he arrived at Mercersburg and encountered Friedrich A. Rauch during the first year of his tenure. Rauch introduced Nevin to a Hegelian psychology, stoking Nevin's increasing passion for German idealism. When Rauch suddenly died the following year, Nevin succeeded him as president of Marshall College, and served as his literary executor.(33)

William DiPuccio discerns four basic themes in Mercersburg's philosophical foundations:

  1. objective, ontological idealism;
  2. an organic world-view;
  3. dialectical logic; and
  4. the priority of faith over reason.
He claims that all this, however, was ultimately subordinated to the Incarnate Word. "Christ was the organizing principle of the Mercersburg system," as philosophy was placed upon the foundation of Christ alone.(34) As Nevin himself said, "The incarnation is the FACT of all facts, that may be said itself to authenticate all truth in the world besides....He is himself the principle and ground, the alpha and omega of all truth."(35)

With Christ as the ostensible first principle of philosophy, the Mercersburg school could deny the inductionism of the Realist camp. Deduction "is the only legitimate process of thinking. Induction is a species of deduction since it must assume that general principles exist."(36) Nevin distinguished between a thing's reality and its existence. A thing is real if it has being but not particularity (such as a universal), but it exists if it has both being and particularity. This distinction lies at the root of the ontological idealism from which Nevin operated, and provides a key to understanding his view of the Lord's Supper, in which Christ's presence is real, but not physical.(37)

Rejecting the inductive approach to theology, Nevin refused to make the Scripture an objective textbook of separate theorems. The Bible is not the substance of revelation, rather it is the record of it. It cannot be made into the first principle of theology, but instead is the standard by which our theologies must be judged.(38) Everyone approaches the Scriptures from a certain theological standpoint, which determines the result of all exegesis. In order to come up with the right exegesis, therefore, one must already have the right theology, which is only attained by those who have an inner sympathy with the Biblical writers, which, he claimed, only Christians can have.(39) Further, true theology can never be a mere conglomeration of beliefs. Nevin insisted that a theology consists of a coherent whole, a unity which cannot be partially accepted and partially rejected. Either one enters into the life of the whole, or else one simply perverts and distorts it into an entirely different system.(40)

This deductive method was built upon Nevin's conception of Christianity as a Life. Christianity is not a doctrine, but a fact. It is a new creation in Christ, not merely the image of Christ formed in believers, but Christ himself.(41) The Bible contains "a glorious system of facts, organically bound together and growing out of each other, as a single supernatural whole."(42) While the language of "facts" resonated with Hodge's doctrine, this approach took precisely the opposite route from the inductive method advocated by Hodge.(43) Nevin formulated his doctrine, and then tested it to see if Scripture agreed. In his mind, this was the only method of exegesis possible. He argued that Hodge read his own ultra-Calvinist views into the text of Ephesians, but this did not surprise him, because "our theology, or want of theology, must always rule our exegesis." Nevin insisted upon a Romantic "inward correspondence and sympathy of mind on the part of the expositor, with the world of truth which he is called to expound." Objective, detached exegesis, for Nevin, could never exist. "It may sound well, to talk of coming to the Scriptures without any theory or scheme; but there is not in fact, and cannot be, any such freedom from all prepossession."(44)

Nevin's presuppositionalism and historicism led him to reject the objectivist theories of Hodge and the common sense school. Yet he did not fall into relativism because he was convinced, not only that it was possible to have the proper "inward sympathy" with the Biblical authors, but that he had enough of it to determine the truth of Christianity. He did not fault Hodge for building upon his own preconceived system and theory; indeed he applauded him for being so consistently unashamed of his own theological tradition and chastised those who thought they could escape such biases. Instead, he argued that Hodge did not have a proper sympathy with the New Testament authors, and therefore missed the heart of what they were trying to say. Nevin believed that while everyone looks through a framework, it was still possible to come to a true understanding of biblical teaching.(45)

These philosophical and theological differences ultimately rest upon a historical divide. Hodge and Nevin approached history with entirely different questions and presuppositions. Hodge did not have the historical training that Nevin had acquired. He sometimes had a difficult time understanding the nuances of historical development because he believed that one could examine the past objectively. He recognized that words changed meaning in different contexts, but he tended to treat the documents in a rather ahistorical manner. He therefore was guilty at times, as Nevin put it, of "lumping the authorities to suit his own mind, and ruling their testimony thus to such results as the investigation in his judgment is felt to require."(46) Still, he seemed to understand the desire for unity that penetrated the Reformers better than Nevin, and he clearly perceived that confessions often entailed compromises, where Nevin tried to find the embodiment of the church's organic life.

Nonetheless, it would be unfair to suggest that Hodge did not know the Reformers. His detractors have usually been so enamored of the Mercersburg theologians that they take Nevin's every criticism for granted. Hodge's writings on church history reveal a competent knowledge, especially from the Reformation onwards. Since he had an objectivist standpoint on history, he frequently read nineteenth century meanings into the past, but he was often aware of the effects of one's worldview. With the Reformers, he often assumed that he knew what they meant, in part because they frequently used "his" language, and he thought that they occupied the same ground that he did. He believed that he was simply proclaiming traditional Reformed doctrines in his contemporary setting, not altering or correcting them, but restating them, hopefully in a clearer manner.

On the other hand, Hodge's experience in Germany had taught him that foreign-sounding concepts were not necessarily wrong-headed. For instance, not every German who sounded pantheistic was so in fact. Their different "modes of thought and expression" would naturally result in differing mental processes, which Americans might not readily comprehend. "[Also] the reigning philosophy of any age or nation not only impresses itself upon the minds of those who consciously adopt its principles, but to a certain extent modifies the language and modes of thought of the public generally, and even of its opponents." Hence foreigners could easily misunderstand what was actually intended.(47) While certainly not an historicist, Hodge at least sympathized with the difficulty of understanding the German mind, and usually relied upon German interpretations of German theologians, rather than venture into muddy waters. But when dangerous German ideas floated over to his side of the Atlantic, Hodge took the plunge.

Still, Hodge himself held to a weak form of the historical development of doctrine. The system of doctrine supernaturally revealed cannot change, but rather, there has been a "continual and gradual progress...in theological knowledge."(48) Hodge claimed to see this in the history of the Church. Doctrines that were confused and poorly stated came into greater light over time. "It is true then, as an historical fact, that the Church has advanced."(49) Yet advance is not the only option. "A later age may be inferior to a previous one...there are often periods of backsliding....[But] the Church is always equally near to Christ and to the holy Scriptures as the source of life."(50) Even as a Christian grows gradually in the knowledge of the Bible, so also does the Church collectively grow. While false views might also creep in from time to time, a gradual progress of true knowledge should result.(51)

But Hodge explicitly formulated his view of historical development to oppose Nevin's historicism: "Very distinct from the view presented above is the modern theory of the organic development of the Church....With them the universe is the self-manifestation and evolution of the absolute Spirit."(52) Hodge exhibited an adequate understanding of what the German school taught, but he simply rejected it. In their view, he said, "Christianity is not a form of doctrine objectively revealed in the Scriptures. Christian theology is not the knowledge, or systematic exhibition of what the Bible teaches. It is the interpretation of this inner life [the theanthropic life of Christ as evidenced in its natural process of development in the Church]." Hence, for the Romantic view, all forms of thought, whether Greek or Roman or Protestant in their multifarious expressions are true and proper for their time and place, but not permanent, and will be superseded by even higher forms of Christianity.(53) Hodge objected to such a statement, because (as he saw it) it overthrew revelation "as the supernatural objective communication of divine truths" leaving only "the elevation of human nature to a higher state, by which its intuitions of spiritual objects become more distinct."(54) While this criticism went further than the Mercersburg theologians wished to go, it nonetheless was a fair statement of the more radical German theologians whom Hodge despised, and whose philosophy he heard echoed in the voices of the Mercersburg school. From his treatment of historicism, it appears that Hodge misunderstood what the Mercersburg theology was trying to do, yet recognized that its mode of thought was antithetical to his whole project for the extension of Reformed theology in American culture. Hodge required a commonly accessible truth that would spread throughout society, conforming all of life to the Word of God. Dialectical logic seemed to him to destroy truth, for if a thing could be true for the Medieval Church, but not true now, what guarantee was there of any real truth? Hodge believed that the only possible solutions for the dilemma which Nevin posed were the authority of Rome and the skepticism of Rationalism. Hodge wanted neither.(55)

Nevin, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the individualism and empiricism of American revivalism and realism and found himself completely at home among the German theologians. We have already seen Nevin's insistence upon an "internal sympathy" with the spirit of an age in order to understand the history of that age. In 1849, Nevin wrote a short note in the Mercersburg Review on "Historical Development," especially with regard to the history of doctrine, and of the Church itself. Historical development consists of "growth, evolution from within, organic expansion....It is the revelation of an idea, or spiritual fact, in time." This is the case of individuals, of nations, and therefore also the church. The church "is historical...because it is the power of a divine fact, which is forever growing itself more and more into the consciousness, the interior life of the world." The church always remains "one, holy, catholic and apostolical, from the beginning onward to the last day."(56) Nevin saw that under the organic model, he could only deny that the Reformation was a corruption of Christianity if he affirmed a doctrine of historical development that recognized the validity and reality of the church throughout all ages.(57)

Nevin conceived of history as the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Throughout his work there is a constant conception of earlier forms of thought being subsumed under the newer and higher idea, without the loss of the first. Hence in the new Protestantism, "the interest of Romanism is not so left behind, as to be no longer of any account; it must come in hereafter to counterbalance and correct again the disorder and excess of the other system." The future of Christianity will finally come to fullness when "the life of Catholicism is to pour itself as a wholesome qualifying power" into the Protestant stream, though yielding to Protestantism "the palm of superior right and strength."(58)

Another example of his dialectical reasoning surfaces in his treatment of the controversy in the Reformed church over the Lord's Supper. The sacrificial aspect of Zwingli's thought was incorporated in Calvin's view, but the more perfect synthesis of Calvin's system revealed the sacrificial aspect in relationship to union with Christ. The Incarnation, for Nevin, was the ultimate dialectic, as all history and nature together moved towards the union of God and Man. This was the goal of history even before the fall: as nature found its highest expression in Man, so Man finds his highest expression in a union with God. "What is history, but the process by which this idea is carried forward, according to the immanent law of its own nature, in the way of a regular development towards its appointed end?" Sin merely added a foreign element that needed to be eradicated by the suffering of the God-Man.(59)

But since the chief end of history consists of the union of God and Man in Christ, therefore the church stands as the centerpiece of history as the continuation of the incarnation in history. As such, Nevin argued that the church stands between Christ and the individual as the necessary instrument of "visible organization, common worship, a regular public ministry and ritual, and to crown all especially grace-bearing sacraments. To question this is to give up to the same extent the sense of Christ's Mediation as a perennial fact."(60) This should create no opposition between "individual piety...and sacramental grace," but rather "personal experience is made solid and real, only as it rests on grace offered and appropriated from abroad."(61) All of his historical work proceeds from this theological standpoint.

So just as Nevin argued for the inevitability of one's theological standpoint influencing his exegesis, he also took that same perspective into his historical work. For this reason he viewed Hodge's theological standpoint on history as ridiculous. In his response to Hodge's review of the Mystical Presence, he says "The Princeton view, as we have seen, bases this representation not so much on history as on its own sense of theological propriety." Yet while Nevin's own "sense of theological propriety" may have led him into some ahistorical assertions, on the whole he was by far the better historian. He did more historical work than Hodge, but attempted to enter into the world he studied and "feel with" his subject. He saw the past as inherently different from the present, and therefore worked hard to understand the different thought forms and perspectives in the past.

A fine example of Nevin's historical work, his brief biography, "Zacharias Ursinus,"(62) examines the life and work of the Palatine theologian. Nevin claims that Ursinus' Heidelberg Catechism "was the product, truly and fully, of the religious life of the Reformed Church, in the full bloom of its historical development....No creed or confession can be of genuine force, that has not this inwardly organic connection with the life it represents."(63) Yet, true to his German Idealism, Nevin saw the individual as a part of the whole, able to embody and express the mind of the whole: "the single mind [who frames it], in such a case, must ever be the organ and bearer of the general life in whose name it speaks; otherwise it will not be heard or felt....Ursinus, in the preparation of it, was the organ of a religious life, far more general and comprehensive than his own."(64) These streams of organic connectedness and historicism flow throughout Nevin's historical writings.

But while Nevin established himself as one of the better historians in the early nineteenth century, he did not see that confessions and catechisms were usually compromises of some sort. Since he saw the Reformed Symbols as expressions of the common religious experience or life, admitting only one proper interpretation, he did not always understand the true blend of opinion that comprised the Reformed Church, and therefore the Reformed Symbols, of the sixteenth century.

Both Nevin and Hodge utilized their historical positions for theological advantage. Nevin argued that Calvin's sacramental theology should guide the Reformed church, but rejected Calvin's doctrine of predestination; Hodge claimed that Calvin's doctrine of election was central, but that his sacramental views were not essential to his system of doctrine.(65)

III. Sacrament and Culture

What drove these competing historical claims? I suggest that Nevin and Hodge both attempted to articulate responses to the increasing chaos of antebellum America. The Presbyterian church had split into Old School and New School in 1837, and Hodge's Old School denomination was enduring the tension of sectional tempers. The German Reformed church had experienced defections to the more revivalistic Church of God, and were coming to grips with what it meant to be Americans of German descent. Evangelical religion more broadly was emerging as a dominant force in American life, yet faced new challenges from immigrant Roman Catholics, and "extremists" of all stripes, from radical communitarians to Garrisonian abolitionists. Conservative Reformed theologians, like Nevin and Hodge, also saw the passionate fervor of revivalism as a potential ally of these disruptive forces and sought in the recesses of their own traditions, resources that would aid them in their attempts to resuscitate Reformed church life. They turned to the sacraments: baptism and Christian nurture as the model of entering and maintaining the Christian life; and the Lord's Supper as the food of immortality.(66) Sacraments, as the rituals which bind the church together, serve as the link between theology and culture. In Christian theology, they take the grace of God and communicate it to the people of God. Hence they are called, "means of grace." Here the visible and the invisible join together. Nevin and Hodge both recognized that the unsacramental character of American church life could only result in disaster for American Christianity. This may explain why both of them took the ensuing debate over the Lord's Supper so seriously.

This exchange best reveals the fault lines between Hodge and Nevin. The heart of the debate took place between the years 1846, when Nevin published The Mystical Presence, and 1850, when Nevin completed his response to Hodge's criticism. Nevin's first major theological treatise, The Mystical Presence received high praise from the continent but few Americans were pleased by its mystical emphasis or its Hegelian psychology.(67) The German and Dutch Reformed communities were the first to react, but Nevin's ears perked up when Hodge wrote a moderate, but pronouncedly negative review in the Princeton Review, in 1848. Hodge complained that Nevin's work was historically one-sided but was even more disturbed by Nevin's departures from Reformed theology and acceptance of German idealism and what he thought was Schleiermacher's anthropology. Nevin responded with an exhaustive refutation in the German Reformed Weekly Messenger, before publishing in the Mercersburg Review a lengthy refutation of the historical treatment Hodge had given the Reformed doctrine. It is only in the Weekly Messenger, though, that Nevin responded to Hodge's criticisms of his own doctrine. Hodge never responded directly to this work, but the deeper controversy over theology continued throughout the next fifteen years.

Throughout his work, Nevin pointed out that Calvin's doctrine was a via media between the Lutheran and the Zwinglian doctrines, and that "the sacramental doctrine of the primitive Reformed Church stood inseparably connected with the idea of an inward living union between believers and Christ, in virtue of which they are incorporated into his very nature, and made to subsist with him by the power of a common life."(68) Nevin focused on four basic points of contention where he believed that the true Reformed doctrine had been watered down:

  1. The union of believers with Christ is not simply that of a common humanity, derived from Adam, but rather rests upon our participation in his own nature as a higher order of life.(69)
  2. The relationship is more than a moral union of inward sympathy or agreement. The Supper is more than a sign which reminds us of Christ, or a pledge of service to Christ, it embodies the actual presence of the grace it represents in its own constitution; namely, the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, made present to us by the power of the Holy Ghost.(70)
  3. The relation is also more than a legal union. While Christ is truly the representative of his people, the external imputation rests at last on a real, internal unity of life, without which it would have no meaning. "We partake of his merits and benefits only so far as we partake of his substance."(71)
  4. This communion is not only with Christ's divine nature, or with the Holy Spirit, but rather, through the Holy Spirit we have a real communion with the Word made flesh; both with his deity and his humanity. This union is real, substantial, and essential.(72) This participation in Christ's flesh and blood in the Lord's Supper is not corporeal, but spiritual; nonetheless it is real. The power of the Holy Ghost overcomes all spatial boundaries and unites things separated by great distance. The sacrament carries an objective force. Grace is presented, or offered to all, but it may only be apprehended by faith. This invisible grace is the "substantial life of the Saviour himself, particularly in his human nature. He became flesh for the life of the world, and our communion with him, involves a real participation in him as the principle of life under this form....Such is the proper sacramental doctrine of the Reformed Church as it stood in the Sixteenth century."(73)

Nevin exerts a great deal of energy to demonstrate that the modern "Puritanical" theory has no basis in history. He examines the early Fathers and concludes, relying greatly on Neander's work, that they taught some form of mystical union, neither in a Roman nor a Lutheran sense, but in a general Reformed sense (because of his sensitivity to an ahistorical reading backwards, he avoids saying it quite so bluntly). He views the Reformers as springing from the bosom of the Catholic Church in order to preserve that which was good and right, but that later Protestants (whom he calls "Puritans") had rejected the substance of the faith of the Church Universal concerning the sacraments from the first days through the Reformation. His most savage blows are aimed at the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Reformed theologians, whose views he hacks apart as anti-sacramental, rationalistic, and sectarian.(74)

But after stating the Reformed doctrine, Nevin was willing to say that it "is embarrassed with some difficulties...[in] the defective form in which it was attempted to bring it before the understanding."(75) Not, indeed, that the substance of the doctrine was in error, but that it was connected with a false psychology that affected both the understanding of Christ's person and the persons of his people.

Nevin identifies three points that need to be rethought in light of the advances of modern psychology.

  1. Calvin "does not make a sufficient distinction 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."(76) Matter must be transfused with the active presence of the organic law in order form the medium of the invisible law's true outward existence. As he later states, "The soul to be complete to develop itself at all as a soul, must externalize itself, throw itself out in space; and this externalization is the body."(77) Rejecting all forms of body/soul dualism, Nevin asserts the inseparable unity of persons utilizing the language of Hegelian anthropology, though attempting to soften its impact.
  2. Calvin has too much dualism in his anthropology, and does not emphasize the unity of persons with enough vigour, whether in the case of Christ, or in the case of his people. Christ's person is one and indivisible, and therefore to convey his life into the lives of his people, they must receive the entire life of Christ, both human and divine. It is not enough to say, as Calvin did, that the Holy Spirit imparts the vivific virtues of Christ's flesh to our souls. Rather, Christ's whole Person (i.e., the organic law of his life), is communicated to our entire persons by the power of the Holy Ghost, who "is the very form in which Christ's life is made present in the Church, for the purposes of the Christian salvation."(78)
  3. Finally, Calvin makes no distinction between the individual personal life of Christ, and the same life in a generic view.(79) Every man has both his individual life and his general life, in which he lives both in his own person, and in his descendants. This is certainly true of Adam, who is both a man and the man, in whom the entire human race is included. In fact, all individual personalities form, in a deep sense, one and the same life. Adam lives in his descendants as truly as he lived, and lives, in his own person. This is true also of Christ. He is both a man, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word made flesh, but also, he is the man, "emphatically the SON OF MAN, in whose person stood revealed the true idea of humanity, under its ultimate and most comprehensive form. Without any loss or change of character in the first view, his life is carried over in this last view continually into the persons of his people."(80)

Nevin thought that these three "scientific determinations" provided a much needed modification and improvement of Calvin's doctrine. He felt the need to defend them by appealing to "the actual science of the present time....No such inquiry can deserve to be considered scientific, if it fail to take them into view....We hold fast to the substance [of the old doctrine], while, for the very sake of doing so, we endeavor to place it in a better form."(81) Convinced of the scientific truth of Hegelian anthropology, he insisted that a refusal to accept these principles would consist of a rejection of true science. Consistent with his stated theological method, Nevin took the scientific truths of modern psychology, as expounded by Rauch, applied them to the traditional Reformed doctrine, and then tests them by the Scriptures to see if they fit.(82)

Throughout his argument, Nevin makes no pretense of objectivity. He has a clear agenda which drives his research and writing: to restore and reform the eucharistic doctrine of the church for the purpose of establishing a piety and spirituality which will bind together the fragmented body of Christ. Revivalism, rationalism, and reformism were--as far as he could see--tearing the church apart. The older doctrine of the church, the sacraments, and the mystical union with Christ, he hoped, would restore order and peace to God's people.

Hodge did not take lightly the charge of rationalism, which he saw being aimed at the American Reformed Churches. He too was attempting to fight off the same enemies. He agreed that American theology was surrendering to the forces of ultraism in its doctrine of church and sacrament. But he still hoped to pull a large portion of American Protestantism-- or at least Presbyterianism--with him, and Nevin's adoption of Hegelian and romantic language was inimical to his designs. He firmly believed that the tools of common sense realism and moderate revivalism (intellect and spirit) were sufficient to persuade the church to refrain from going to extremes. In other words, Hodge attempted to hold the middle ground between the extreme Zwinglianism of most Americans, and Nevin's high Calvinism.

Hodge insisted upon a vital union in the Supper. We are partakers of Christ's life, for it is not we that live, but Christ that lives in us. This union, Hodge asserted, is based upon Christ's participation with our nature in his incarnation, and our participation with the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ, which unites us bodily and spiritually as members of Christ, who is our head. Yet we do not partake of Christ's human nature. The Reformed Church, Hodge insisted, taught "that by receiving the body and blood of Christ, is meant receiving their virtue or efficacy. Some of them said it was their virtue as broken and shed, i.e., their sacrificial virtue; others said, it was a mysterious, supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven."(83)

Hodge saw that Reformers like Bucer and Calvin were trying to unify the Protestant churches, and therefore he suggested that they spoke in stronger terms when attempting to meet the Lutherans, less strong when they joined with the Zwinglians. He also found the statements of the Reformers to be confusing, as terms were used interchangeably and "out of their ordinary sense." Nevin accused Hodge of "lumping" authorities, and of not understanding the Reformation, but rather picking and choosing his quotes to agree with his position.(84) While this rings true in many places, Hodge did bring out some points that Nevin had conveniently "forgotten."

Hodge argued that the true Reformed doctrine of the Supper should be sought in the merger between the Calvinist and Zwinglian strands of thought. Zwingli had taught that the "natural substantial body of Christ in which he suffered" was eaten not "corporally, or as to its essence, but spiritually only," which for Zwingli meant feeding on him with the mind and the spirit by faith.(85) To believe, therefore is to eat, and to eat, is to believe.

Hodge admitted that Calvin had a more extreme view, but said that the Genevan Reformer had utilized both views and could be quoted by either side. What interested him more was the Consensus Tigurinus which Nevin had omitted from his survey. As the union of Geneva and Zurich on the Sacraments, Hodge saw it as one of the most representative documents, along with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession. These last two, the standards of the German Reformed Church, had been influenced by Calvinist, Zwinglian, and Melancthonian strands of thought, and therefore Hodge agreed with Nevin that they well represented the Reformed doctrine.

While Hodge allowed that the entire Reformed Church saw nothing essentially erroneous with Calvin's view, he claimed that, as it was not a congenial element to the Reformed system, it slowly died out. Here Hodge used organic, developmental language against its proponents with perhaps a bit of glee. "The fundamental principles of Protestantism are the exclusive normal authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone. If that system lives and grows it must throw off every thing incompatible with those principles."(86) More importantly, in Hodge's eyes, the Consensus Tigurinus, the Second Helvetic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism all teach the sacrificial view, and carry more symbolical weight than Calvin, or the "dubious expressions" of the other Confessions.

Hodge was disturbed by Nevin's teaching that the Supper had an "altogether extraordinary power." It contradicted his understanding of the Reformed doctrine that the Supper does not convey anything that cannot be received elsewhere. For proof he turned to the Consensus Tigurinus, claiming that, "what is figured in the sacraments is granted to believers extra eorum usum (without the use of the sacraments)," and to its framer, Calvin. While admitting that the sacraments have an objective power, Hodge repudiated Nevin's attribution of the source of that power and efficacy to the service itself.(87) Hodge attempted to argue that while the Reformed church taught that Christ is presented to us in the Supper, but cannot be appropriated by us without the work of the Holy Spirit in us to create faith, Nevin seemed to remove the work of the Holy Spirit from us, and placed it objectively in the sacrament: "where the way is open for it to take effect at all, it serves in itself to convey the life of Christ into our persons."(88) Hence, Hodge claimed, Nevin taught a doctrine of ex opere operato--the sacraments convey grace to all, regardless of faith.

Since Nevin had already done a considerable amount of historical work, Hodge's quick response appeared haphazard to him. Nevin saw it as a "violently forced" interpretation, lacking in any historical sensibility. Hodge's statement that the terminology of the Reformation was confused demonstrated, in Nevin's mind, that "the writer has no sense, apparently, of anything like an inward unity or wholeness in the Reformed doctrine...[and robs] it of every sort of objective immanent reason and law, for the very purpose of feeling himself at liberty thus to construct from its chaotic material an answer to please his own taste."(89) Ironically, Nevin himself acknowledged later in that article that he viewed Philip Melancthon as "in a certain sense, the author of the German Reformed church,"(90) and asserted that the German Reformed church had never assented to Calvin's doctrine of the decrees. But not merely with respect to the German Reformed, "the doctrine of the decrees, as held by Calvin never belonged at all to the constitution of the Reformed church as such; whereas the sacramental doctrine entered in truth into its distinctive character as a confession."(91) Nevin himself was attempting to recreate a history that would befriend his own distinctive theological and cultural endeavors.

Nevin utterly rejected Hodge's understanding of the Reformed doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ, which Hodge located solely in the mind, and to faith. It seems as though on this point the two theologians were simply talking past one another. Both conceived of spiritual presence in opposition to physical presence, but while Hodge thought of this as a presence to the mind, or soul, Nevin eliminated the dualism and spoke of it as a presence to the whole person, spiritually, and therefore saw Hodge's doctrine as mere intellectual apprehension (Calvin probably would have found both views unappealing, Hodge's for being too simplistic in its conception of mind, and Nevin's for its Hegelian notion of generic persons). Hodge, of course having no generic persons to fall back on, could only speak of Christ's presence to the immaterial part of man, and therefore was not conceiving of a mere intellectual presence, but a real and true presence of Christ in the best terms he could think of, without utilizing Calvin's doctrine of mysterious effluence. Nevin, on the other hand, because he saw the very essence of reality as spiritual, could not help but see Hodge's view as woefully incomplete. Indeed, it appeared to make everything dependent upon the believer's mind whether or not any spiritual transaction takes place, leaving the Holy Spirit as the only objective force in the sacrament, and making the grace of the Supper no different from the grace elsewhere obtained.

Nevin took issue with Hodge on six points:

  1. The Reformed doctrine of the Supper was unified--not divided into two camps--and taught that, "the life of Christ is the true and real basis of his sacrifice, and so the natural and necessary medium of communication with it [is required] for the remission of sins."(92) Therefore the "development" of doctrine to the exclusion of this concept can only be for the worse.
  2. Hodge posits a mental presence only, which is contrary to the Reformed emphasis that Christ is present, "not simply as an object of thought or intelligence on the part of men, but in the way of actual communication on the part of Christ;...a presence, not material, but dynamic."(93)
  3. Hodge denies a true participation in the human side of Christ's life, contradicting the Reformed teaching on the participation in the vivific virtue of Christ's life.
  4. The notion that the work of the Holy Spirit excludes the proper presence of Christ's humanity is false and wrong.(94)
  5. The Reformed approved "a real conjunction between the outward form of sacraments and their inward grace. The latter was taken to belong to their very constitution as truly as the first....Sacramental grace...lay with objective force in the solemnity itself."(95)
  6. Hodge robs the Reformed doctrine of this conception of objective grace in the sacraments, stripping it at the same time of all mystical character. The faith of the Reformed church, no less than the Lutheran church, saw in the Lord's Supper the presence of a heavenly mystery that was actually different from the word.(96)

IV. Conclusion

If one accepts Hodge's belief in objective theological truth, and a realist epistemology, then it is difficult to find fault with his position. He was simply defending what he considered to be the essence of Christianity. His article "What is Christianity,"(97) makes it clear that he saw Mercersburg as a terrible threat to the integrity of Christianity in America. On the other hand, if one rejects Hodge's starting point, then Hodge appears to be a theological dinosaur who refused to lay down and die. His whole position was founded upon an epistemology that combines two streams of thought that gave high priority to the Aristotelian concept of antithesis, Scottish realism and Reformed confessionalism.

Nevin, on the other hand, found the realistic conception of the world unfulfilling. He passed through at least two spiritual crises; the first when he abandoned the common sense program for idealism, and the second when he wrestled with the lure of the Roman church. His churchly mentality, though, proved too traditional for the majority of Americans, who were still averse to any "Old World" thinking, and had found the plain common-sense approach to religion far more appealing. His emphasis on standpoint made him stand out in an era infatuated with scientific "objectivity," but it served him well, because he could tolerate the ways of the masses, recognizing that understanding would only come in time, as the spirit of the American nation developed and grew.

As opposed to Hodge's static concept of being, Nevin appropriated the Hegelian logic of dialectic--of becoming. Forsaking objectivity as not only impossible, but undesirable, Nevin insisted that all theology grows and changes in an historical unfolding of the Incarnation in the church. Yet, while doctrine continually grows and changes, it always retains its inner vitality. It grows according to the logic of its inner life, actualizing the potential inherent in the theanthropic life of Christ himself.

Most scholars of American religion have ignored nineteenth-century American sacramental theology. The Hodge-Nevin debates are the only significant exception. But by ignoring the hotly contested sacramental world of the antebellum era, I believe historians have neglected a fascinating window into the changing world of American Protestantism, as the emergent culture of consumption, sentimentality, and democratization overwhelmed those who attempted to stem the tide. Ironically, both Hodge and Nevin participated in that transformation: Hodge, perhaps more obviously, by championing the realist epistemology which, divorced from his confessional theology, promoted science over revelation; Nevin, by advocating a view of historical development which, cut off from his traditional use of it, called into question all traditions.


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