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John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist

D. G. Hart

Reviewed by: C. N. Willborn

Date posted: 10/14/2007

John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist, by D. G. Hart. Published by P&R Publishing, 2005. Hardback, 271 pages, list price $22.99. Reviewed by C. N. Willborn, professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Dr. Hart has provided us with a wonderfully lucid treatment of a neglected American theologian - John Williamson Nevin. His often complex views are not easy to summarize in one book. It seems as though he found little in his Reformed tradition to his liking; at least, he believed it needed tweaking, redefining, and sometimes radical nuancing. He was a curmudgeon eager to "fight back" (131). Thus, Hart shows his readers over and again that Nevin was largely a polemicist for his own causes. Nevin's causes were, at the risk of oversimplification, church and sacrament. The Mercersburg (Pennsylvania) theologian was sick to death of revivalism and rugged individualism. He longed for an ecclesiological orientation for Christianity and, according to Hart, he recaptured "the older Calvinist regard for the church as mediator of divine grace" (34). Hart's aim for his book is to explore the "emergence, development, and significance" of this rediscovery (34).

One highlight of the book is Hart's critical evaluation of the revivalist-conversionist model present in the early nineteenth century. He makes good use of Nevin's Anxious Bench (1843), a response to the Pelagianized activities of Charles Grandison Finney. Anxious Bench also introduced a number of Mercersburg distinctives, such as "a conception of inherited faith that was comparable to Horace Bushnell's" (100). A caution related to this "highlight" is Hart's assumption that revivalism and revival are one and the same. An examination of Presbyterians like Thomas Peck ("Revivals of Religion") and R. L. Dabney (e.g., "Lay Preaching") could raise doubts about Hart's equating of the sociological movement (revivalism) and the biblical event (revival).

A notable distinctive of Nevin and Mercersburg theology was a one-sidedness on the Incarnation at the expense of the Atonement. Nevin made murky water out of imputation and union with Christ. According to Nevin, "the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship" (The Mystical Presence, 3). With the Eucharist emphasized, he denied the centrality of preaching, making much too little of the preached word and departing from the Pauline, Calvinist, and Westminster traditions. Hart quietly puts his finger on this failure (236).

While Hart often seems highly sympathetic toward Nevin, he does balance his applause with the occasional admission that Nevin's historiography and theology were "quirky" (160, 177). His treatment of Nevin's extended flirtations with Romanism is helpful in understanding a number of Mercersburg's oddities. (See Stephen Graham's Cosmos in the Chaos on this point.)

An emphasis that Nevin resuscitated from his Presbyterian past was that of catechetical instruction within the church. Hart rightly applauds this emphasis, effectively shows its Reformed pedigree, and decries its subordination to the subjectivistic and individualistic experientialism of revivalism. If one's study of Nevin could produce a simple yet healthy juxtaposition of revivalism (read: individualism and subjectivism) and biblical creedalism (read: the orientation of the covenant community to the means of grace, i.e., preaching, teaching, prayer, and the sacraments), the study would be most useful for the church.

Since so much of the book under review deals with Nevin's sacramentalism, it would have been nice to have a good discussion of Nevin's view of baptismal efficacy. Nevin said some interesting, even "quirky" (from a Presbyterian perspective) things about baptism. For example, baptism is "the introduction of a new divine principle into the being of the soul" ("Nature and Grace," Mercersburg Review 19 (October 1872): 488).

Nevin is being read more today than some may think, and Dr. Hart's book, though reserved at points, is a good introduction to a man who, though he is dead, still speaks.

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