>John Williamson Nevin: On the Incarnation

>John Nevin’s writings on the incarnation elucidate the central role the incarnation plays in genuine Christian theology. Between the years 1845 and 1851 Nevin’s engaged the doctrine of the incarnation extensively, first in the publication of his major work The Mystical Presences as well as in a series of articles that appeared in the new Mercersburg Review – “Wilberforce on the Incarnation” (1850), “Trench’s Lectures” (1850), “Liebner’s Christology” (1851), and “Cur Deus Homo?” (1851). After this, it appears as though the doctrine of the incarnation drops from Nevin’s attention entirely. One commentator on Nevin’s theology asserts that after his engagement with Müller in “Cur Deus Homo?” Nevin’s whole doctrine of the incarnation “ran out into a question mark and remained unresolved.”(12) While it is true that there remain questions regarding Nevin’s exact understanding of the necessity of the incarnation, it is not correct to assume that the doctrine was lost for Nevin. In fact, all of Nevin’s future writings on the church, the sacraments, and the liturgy should be seen as an outworking of his doctrine of the incarnation. These were inseparable in Nevin’s mind. So Nevin would write, “A theology which is truly Christocentric, must follow the Creed…with this, must be churchly’ and with this again, must be sacramental and liturgical.”(13)

For Nevin the incarnation was not just important for the doctrine of the church, but foundational for the whole Christian system of doctrine. In The Mystical Presence, Nevin asserts, “The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s revelations. It is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s works, and brings to light the true meaning of the universe.” (14) He continues, “All nature and all previous history unite, to form one grand, universal prophecy of his presence.”(15) Nevin understood all creation in its “lower forms” to be looking up to man as its culmination. “The inorganic struggles towards the organic; the plant towards the animal; and the animal nature, improving upon itself from one order of life to another, rests not till it is superseded finally by the human.”(16) Man is the capstone of creation, or in Nevin’s words “the centre of nature.” For Nevin, this pattern of “looking up” does not truly terminate with man, but man himself anticipates Christ in its incompleteness. Nevin’s contends that humanity “is never complete till it reaches his person.”(17)

What is true of nature is also true of history – it is pointing to Christ as its culmination. Nevin writes, “History, like nature, is one vast prophecy of the incarnation, from beginning to end.”(18) History is the moving forward towards the union of divine and human as the completion of humanity. It is, as one commentator on Nevin summarized, “the arena within which the divine discloses itself dynamically through the human.”(19) In addition, other religions, though “essentially false” carry sparks of truth which bear witness to Christ. Nevin writes, “All prophesy of Christ; for all proclaim the inmost want of humanity to be a true union with God, and their character is determined simply by the form in which it is attempted in each case to bring this great life problem to its proper resolution.”(20) Of Judaism, Nevin suggested, “It might be said in some sense to carry the Gospel in its womb.”(21)

This raises the question which seems to have preoccupied Nevin for some time: is the incarnation necessitated by sin, or was the idea of the incarnation in God’s mind before and apart from the entrance of sin into the world? This question is raised in The Mystical Presence (1846) as well as in several articles in the Mercersburg Review in 1850 – 1851. Discerning clearly Nevin’s own view on this question is difficult, in part due to the writing style of the three articles on Trench, Liebner, and Müller. These three theologians had different answers as to what made the incarnation necessary, and it is difficult to ascertain clearly where Nevin is simply summarizing the contents of their material and when he is in agreement. In the 1850 presentation of Richard Trench’s works The Hulsean Lectures and The Star of the Wise Men, Nevin heaps commendation on Trench and his work: “They are works which we are able to commend with a good conscience, to all who take an interest in theology and religion…we look upon it as no small gain for the cause of our common Christianity, if the ministry generally, not of one denomination only but of all, might be brought to give them their serious and patient attention.”(22) Throughout the article there is a summary presentation of Trench’s main ideas with little (no) critique. Thus, one could assume that Nevin is in agreement with Trench’s understanding of the incarnation. In the midst of a lengthy extract from Trench, of which there are many, we read:

“It is oftentimes considered the chief purpose of Christ’s Incarnation, that it made his death possible, that it provided him a body in which to do that which merely as God he could not do, namely to suffer and to die ; while some of the profoundest teachers of the past, so far from contemplating the Incarnation in this light, have rather affirmed that the Son of God would equally have taken man’s nature, though of course under very different conditions, even if he had not fallen—that it lay in the everlasting purposes of God, quite irrespective of the fall, that the stem and stalk of humanity should at length bear its perfect flower in Him, who should thus at once be its root and its crown.”(23)

Trench makes it clear that, in his estimation, the view that makes the incarnation simply a means to the atonement to be a “slighting” of the doctrine.

Similarly, though with a different nuance, Liebner suggests that the incarnation is “the true heart and core of all religion,” and “the principle or foundation of the whole scheme of thought.”(24) Nevin quotes Leibner at length,

“God creates humanity, to communicate himself to it as his personal creature, in the way of real revelation, and so to bring it into perfect communion with himself, which is the full idea of religion. This real self-manifestation, self-communication of God to humanity, completes itself and finds perfect satisfaction only in the central and universal person of the God-man, which forms accordingly the completion of humanity itself. The purely harmartological, soteriological method of accounting for the incarnation…is no longer sufficient…Sin served only to bring in this modification, which indeed reaches far and deep, that now Christ appears also as a Redeemer and Sacrifice.”(25)

Liebner identifies a real dilemma for theologians. On the one hand, most would assert that man’s telos is full and perfect communion with God. At the same time, most would accept as true that this is only realized through the incarnation. “The incarnation becomes thus the absolute and unconditional centre of God’s free purposes of love towards the world.”(26) So, in Liebner’s scheme of thought, one must accept either that the incarnation was in God’s mind prior to and independent of the fall, or that God purposed the fall to facilitate the incarnation (which runs the risk of making God the author of sin), or finally that God’s plan hinged entirely upon chance (would man sin or not)? Again, Nevin offers little by way of critique in his presentation of Leibner (other than the confusing style of writing). At the same time, he exuberantly praises Liebner’s work as “a most valuable addition to modern scientific theology.”(27)

The third article that must be considered is the presentation of Julius Müller’s doctrine of the incarnation from later in the same year, 1851. According to Nevin, Müller
“allows a large merit to Liebner’s work, and considers it an important contribution to theological science…but he rejects as unsound and unsafe the thought on which it rests throughout, that the necessity of the Incarnation lies primarily not in the fall of man but in his creation…Müller refuses to acknowledge any necessity for the Incarnation, beyond the existence of sin and the idea of redemption.”(28)

Once again, the article is a simple re-presentation of Müller’s main points and not a review or critique.

Obviously Nevin cannot agree with all three men, but which he sides with is uncertain. Hart speculates that in giving Müller the last word, Nevin may have been indicating that he had come to agree with his assessment (29). While tentative, I disagree with Hart’s assessment. Something close to Trench’s or Liebner’s understanding of the incarnation as God’s intention apart from the fall seems to follow necessarily from Nevin’s ideas of the incompleteness of humanity. This is borne out in his article “The New Creation in Christ” (written prior to “Cur Deus Homo?”) where he argues, “Christ is the sense of all previous history, the grand terminus towards which it was urged from the beginning; while in this very character, at the same time, he brings into union with it a new divine force, which was not in it before, though required from the first to make it complete”(30). Similar emphasis can be found in The Mystical Presence (also prior to “Cur Deus Homo?”) where Nevin writes, “Humanity itself is never complete, till it reaches his person…The incarnation then is the proper completion of humanity. Christ is the true ideal Man. Here is reached ultimately the highest summit of human life.”(31) Moreover, “The introduction of sin … only served to add a deeper emphasis to the meaning of life, in the view now noticed.”(32) Lastly, in a letter to Henry Harbaugh, written sometime after 1860 (and a decade after “Cur Deus Homo?”), Nevin argues, “Christ saves the world, not ultimately by what he teaches or what he does, but by what he is in the constitution of his own person.”(33) It seems the concept of the incarnation evident in Trench and Liebner was there also in Nevin prior to his engagement with them and after his engagement with Müller. To this writers knowledge, Nevin never disavowed this view.
12 James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago: University Press, 1961), 150.
13 John Williamson Nevin, “Vindication of the Revised Liturgy,” in Catholic and Reformed, Charles Yrigoyen Jr. and George H. Bricker, ed (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishing, 1978), 381.
14 John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence (Philadelphia: S.R. Fisher & Co., 1867), 199. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
15 Ibid, 200.
16 Ibid, 200.
17 Ibid, 200.
18 Ibid, 201.
19 Arie J. Griffioen, “John W. Nevin on the Mystical Presence,” Calvin Theological Journal 32.2 (1997): 337.
20 Nevin, Mystical Presence, 202.
21 Ibid, 204.
22 John Williamson Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures,” Mercersburg Review 2.6 (November 1850): 604. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
23 Ibid, 619.
24 John Williamson Nevin, “Liebner’s Christology,” Mercersburg Review 3.1 (January 1851): 55; Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
25 Ibid, 64.
26 Ibid, 70.
27 Ibid, 65.
28 John Williamson Nevin, “Cur Deus Homo?” Mercersburg Review 3.3 (May 1851): 221. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
29 D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 147.
30 John Williamson Nevin, “The New Creation in Christ,” Mercersburg Review 2.1 (January 1850): 8. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
31 Nevin, Mystical Presence, 200.
32 Ibid, 201.
33 John Williamson Nevin,”Letter to Henry Harbaugh” in Catholic and Reformed, 408.