>John Williamson Nevin: On the Church (part 2)

>Regarding the catholicity, Nevin articulates his position clearly in a sermon preached in 1844, “Catholic Unity.” Walter Conser Jr. explains Nevin’s vision, “Not the Church divided and splintered but the Church unified, emerging out of its necessary organic development, encompassing its historical past, and pressing forward to its future accomplishments, this was Nevin’s vision of the true Church.”(17) Nevin was quick to emphasize the unity of the church is a fact that already exists, not a fact that must be brought into existence. The imperative “keep the unity” assumes and is grounded in a real objective unity. There is one body and one Spirit. Consistently, the unity of the church is, for Nevin, an organic unity, springing from the common life Christians share. He writes, “Every Christian, as such, is the subject of a new spiritual life, that did not belong to him in his natural state…The Christian has his life from Christ.”(18) Nevin opposes any sort of individualism or particularism, arguing “The members of the actual body are united to the head, only by belonging to the body itself. Separated from this, they cease to have any proper existence. And so it is here. We are not Christians, each one by himself and for himself, but we become such through the Church.”(19)

Nevin was not blind to the various divisions in the church, yet maintained that what is objectively true will only be realized subjective and experientially gradually. So it is in the individual Christian that the image of Christ will reveal itself more and more through life – that the seed of the new life which has already been implanted in the believer will grow slowly over time – and only at the glorification will the full fruit be manifest. Likewise, the inner reality of church unity will press itself outward only slowly. The ideal of church unity might fail to be realized for a time, but the state of disharmony and division will not prevail; indeed, it cannot. Nevin suggests, “The life with which it is animated does indeed seek an outward revelation in all respects answerable to its own nature; and it can never be fully satisfied, till this be happily secured.”(20) Nevin goes on to warn of several potential, yet erroneous responses to current divisions in the church. The first incorrect response is to treat divisions as necessary or good. Against this apologetic for denominations Nevin contends “Our sects, as they actually stand at this time, are a vast reproach to the Christian cause.”(21) Secondly, Nevin warns against attempts to force unity in an outward fashion by renouncing denominations and creeds. True unity must not be coerced, but must be free, spontaneous and the fruit of Christian love; consequently, it is the express duty of every Christian to strive for and pray for unity in the Body of Christ (22). Third, he does not allow Christians to simply retreat to a claim on the real unity of the invisible church. True unity must, according to Nevin, be expressed outwardly and visibly as well. “It belongs to the proper conception of it,” writes Nevin, “that the unity of the Holy Catholic Church should appear in an outward and visible way; and it can never be regarded as complete, where such development of its inward power is still wanting.”(23)

Nevin’s concern for the visibility of the church extends beyond a visible unity. While not dismissing the notion of the invisible church, he argues strongly that if the invisible be at all real, it must manifest itself visibly. He writes, ““The life of Christ in the Church, is in the first place inward and invisible. But to be real, it must also become outward…the Church must be visible as well as invisible. In no other way can the idea become real”(24). He draws a parallel between man and the church: a man’s body is not the sum total of the man – there is a soul to be considered also; yet, without a body there is no real man. “Humanity,” writes Nevin, “is not a corpse on the one hand, nor a phantom on the other.”(25) So, the inward life of the church and the outward form must go hand in hand – “Religion must have forms, as well as an inward living force.”(26)

Indeed, this emphasis on the visible church is connected to Nevin’s teaching on the mystical union of believers with Christ. This union, according to Nevin, involves not just a union with his divine nature, but his human nature also. Nevin posits, “We must not sunder the supernatural in Christ, form the life of his body which is the Church.”(27) The natural and the supernatural have been joined forever, originally in Christ and now in the church. The church in its mediatorial role does stand between Christ and his people, but “only as the body of a living man is between one of his limbs and the living soul by with it is quickened and moved.”(28) D.G. Hart summarizes, “The church, in other words, was the manifestation in the natural world of the resurrected Christ, literally and supernaturally the body of Christ.”(29)

Nevin understood that, rightly appreciated, the “theantropic” character of the church must have impact on ones perception of the sacraments. Nevin’s controversial understanding of the sacraments will be covered in the next couple of posts.


17. Walter H. Conser Jr. “Nevin on the Church,” in Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth-Century America, Sam Hamstra Jr. and Arie Griffioen, ed., 97
18. John Williamson Nevin, “Catholic Unity,” in The Principle of Protestantism by Phillip Schaaf (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1845), 195. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
19. Ibid, 200.
20. Ibid, 202.
21. Ibid, 204.
22. One could reasonably ask if Nevin lived up to this call. Nevin’s polemic was often heated, often uncharitable, often loaded with labels such as heretic, gnostic, Pelagian, Ebionite, docetic, “bastard protestantism”, etc.
23. Nevin, “Catholic Unity,” 201.
24. Ibid, 201.
25. Ibid, 201.
26. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench, Second Edition (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1844), 51. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
27. Nevin, Mystical Presence, 246.
28. Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” 187.
29. Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 75.