>I have a been reading a lot about a 19th century American theologian named John Williamson Nevin. He isn’t well known. Not overly influential, not like Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Finney, Hodge, Machen, etc. He taught at a small German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, PA, where he also served as the President of Marshall College (later Franklin and Marshall College).
Probably his best known work is The Anxious Bench – a critique of the revivalistic practices known as the New Measures. It’s a devastating critique in which he argues the New Measures, as represented by the Anxious Bench, represents a system of religion diametrically opposed to the churchly, sacramental, and historical system of Reformed Christianity. I’m sure I’ll write more on Nevin and the ‘Mercersburg Theology’ in the near future, partly because I’m writing on it for class, but also because it addresses one of my growing concerns – the relationship between the evangelical church and what came before it – historic confessional Protestantism and Catholicism.
For now, however, one small piece of Nevin’s argument has stirred my thinking. During Nevin’s day, many argued for the use of the New Measures and the Anxious Bench on purely pragmatic grounds – they worked in producing revivals and converts. People were being brought into the Kingdom through these revivalistic techniques. Therefore, some argued, to be against them is to be against God and against true religion. Others went further, asserting that those who opposed the New Measures lacked compassion for lost souls. After all, they reasoned, “one soul is worth more than the world.”
Nevin responded to this argument by saying even if souls were being brought into the kingdom via the New Measures, the cost was still to great, for true religion, (and true revivals) as well as truth and righteousness were being undermined. He goes on to show how pragmatic arguments have been used by the church throughout the ages to justify all kinds of ‘quakery’ – from the Pillar of the Stylites, to the monastic system of the Catholic church, to the eschatological fanaticism of the Millerites. In each of those cases, people were brought into the kingdom, had their consciences quickened, etc. Yet, each should be rejected as unbiblical, even though they were useful in producing results. Results do not mean the system of the New Measures should be accepted as good.
The pragmatism of Nevin’s time didn’t die. In fact, I think that was only a foretaste of the pragmatic principle to which the church in America would have to wrestle with on through the next century and into contemporary times. Seeker sensitive churches, a denigration of theology, gross youth ministries, theatrics of all types (confetti canons, etc.), have been argued for using the pragmatic principle – they work in getting people in church, into youth groups, saved…
But…does that make them good. Careful here. The pragmatic principle, as Nevin knew, can be used to justify all kinds of evils. ‘The ends justify the means’ is a slippery slope. For example, and Nevin couldn’t see or use this because of the time he was writing, but the pragmatic principle was one justification Christians gave IN FAVOR OF SLAVERY. African slaves were exposed to the gospel, and many converted, in America. They wouldn’t have been, so the argument went, in Africa. Their lives were improved, they lived in greater light, etc because of slavery. Therefore, it was argued, slavery is a good and compassionate institution.
Truth, Biblical truth, must trump pragmatism. What works must be brought under the scrutiny of the Word (and I’d argue the judgment of the communion of the saints through the ages – tradition, in other word – but that’s a later post). Conversely, just because something doesn’t work, doesn’t man the church should reject it. Strong theological preaching, liturgy, preaching against sin, high views of the church, etc., don’t play today to contemporary Americans. Well, will that be the determining factor? I hope not.