>John Williamson Nevin: On the Church (part 1)

>Turning to John Williamson Nevin’s understanding of the church, we are approaching an area of his thought that I found particularly convicting. His understanding of the incarnation was thoughtful, interesting, quirky. Though it gave me a lot to meditate on, his view of the church and critique of modern (19th century) Protestantism was devastating. It is all the more so today. I’ll cover this in two posts.

One of Nevin’s constant themes was that Christianity is no system of doctrines or moral code as such, but a life – the life of Christ lived out through his people in the church (1). The new life which Christ particularized is now made manifest in the church, his Body. Nevin contended that a belief in the “one, holy, catholic Church” flowed necessarily from a belief in the incarnation of Christ. In his Vindication of the Revised Liturgy he maintains that true Christian theology rooted in the Creed must be “churchly” since “it [the Church] flows with necessary derivation from the coming of Christ in the flesh.”(2) Likewise, he argued that “a doctrine of Christ which brings with it no doctrine of the Church, as an article of faith in the order of the ancient Creed, must for this very reason be counted incomplete and unsafe.”(3) Thus we see the inextricable link between the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the church in Nevin’s mind.

In 1858 Nevin saw that “in almost every denomination we have, if not an open, at least a sort of quiet and silent war, going forward between the less churchly and the more churchly…involving still as far as it may reach the old conception of the Holy Catholic Church.”(4) The church question was not just a matter of specifics on the “periphery” of the church system, but went instead to the very heart of Christianity. The question, as Nevin formulated it was “what the Church itself must be held to be in theory or idea.”(5) In addition, it must be determined, “Is the Church really and truly a constituent part of Christianity, the necessary form of its existence or being in the world?”(6) The answer to these questions must precede, and will in large measure determine answers to questions regarding the sacraments, episcopacy, liturgy, etc. Such particular questions are invested with a great significance if the church is determined to be essential to the heart of Christianity; on the other hand, if the church was deemed dispensable, then the secondary questions faded in importance dramatically. How this question is answered, moreover, sets a gulf, a gulf between a churchly and an unchurchly system, that is deeper and wider than any other theological question in the church – leading in fact to “two Christianities.”(7)

The question of the essential nature of the church to Christianity, hotly debated in Nevin’s day, was according to Nevin a non-issue in the early church. Nevin writes, “They answered the question in the affirmative, and considered treason to the Christian faith to think of answering it in any other way.”(8) As evidence, Nevin holds up the ecumenical creeds which hold up the church “as being of the essence of Christianity.”(9) Nevin argues that it the significance of the church in the Apostle’s Creed goes beyond its appearance as an article of faith, contending instead that the whole structure of the Creed would be undone if the church was not present. In a sentence few evangelicals would accept today Nevin declares, “The Church was for them a fact deeper, and wider, and nearer to the proper life of Christianity than the Bible.”(10) The church, for Nevin, played a role in God’s scheme of salvation. Nevin charges “Puritanism” with failing to acknowledge the interdependence of the articles of the creed and their logical order; consequently, they fail to see how faith in Remission of Sins or the Resurrection of the Dead are dependent upon “the supernatural constitution of the Church.”(11) For Nevin “all the benefits of the Christian Salvation “…are, in the view of the Creed, fruits of the Spirit, which are to be found only in the Church, the home of the Spirit.”(12)

The disregard into which the doctrine of the church had fallen among American Protestants in Nevin’s day was due to a failure to conceive properly the connection between “Christ in the flesh” and the church; consequently, Nevin writes, “the true idea of the Church and its relation to the Saviour’s living person, is in truth the great question of the age.”(13) Nevin sought to reestablish the truth that the church is Christ’s ongoing presence in the world – the medium of communication between Christ and his people. Nevin writes, “a living Christianity, as distinguished from a doctrinal theory or philosophical school, necessarily implies the church, which is the Body of Christ, the organ and medium of his presence in the world, and in this view ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ as well as the channel of all spiritual blessings to his people.”(14)

Nevin uses the “allegory of the body” to unpack the nature of the union between Christ and his Church in The Mystical Presence. He writes, “the ground of unity in the Church is always represented by Paul to be of a far deeper nature than is to be found anywhere else; nothing less, in fact, than the life of Christ himself, mystically flowing through its entire constitution.”(15) He continues, “The new human life in Christ reaches over, as a central uncompounded force, by the Spirit, into the persons of Christ’s people.”(16) Likewise, the image of the vine proves very useful for Nevin his attempts to articulate the organic unity of Christ and the church in which the life of the church, the branches, is none other than the life of Christ, the vine. Two important thoughts regarding the nature of the church flow from Nevin’s teaching, namely the catholicity and visibility of the church – both will be covered in the next post.


1. John Williamson Nevin, “The Sect System,” in Catholic and Reformed, 153.
2. John Williamson Nevin, “Vindication of the Revised Liturgy,” 378.
3. Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures”, 605.
4. John Williamson Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” Mercersburg Review 10.2 (April 1858), 181. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
5. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” 187.
6. Ibid, 189.
7. John Williamson Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church, Second Article, Mercersburg Review 10.3 (July 1858), 396. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
8. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church,” 191.
9. Ibid, 192.
10. Ibid, 193.
11. Nevin, “Thoughts on the Church, Second Article,” 391.
12. Ibid, 392.
13. Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” Mercersburg Review 2.2 (March 1850): 169.
14. Nevin, “Trench’s Lectures,” 604.
15. Nevin, The Mystical Presence, 230.
16. Ibid, 231. In this section, Nevin also warns against separating Christ from the Spirit so that we assume we fellowship with the Sprit and not with Christ through the Spirit. He insists that Christ’s promise to send a comforter (John 16:7) is the same, in essence, as his promise “I will come to you” (John 14:18). He writes, “The whole glorified Christ subsists and acts in the Spirit. Under this form his nature communicates itself to his people” (229).