J. W. Nevin – the antidote
August 1, 2013
In the previous post, we looked at Charles Finney’s rejection of Protestant theology — reorienting his theology around the capacity of man to change his own heart, prompted by God’s use of “motives” to entice us to himself. The most strident critic of Finney’s “New Measures,” as they were called, would come from the Reformed theologian, John Williamson Nevin, at the German Reformed seminary in Mercersburg, PA. Alongside the famous church historian, Philip Schaff, Nevin would introduce the riches of continental Reformed theology to the American church, which had been heavily dominated by Puritan thought and revivalist fervor.
Nevin’s theology is characterized by a “high church” emphasis on the catholicity of the Reformation — as an ecclesial, sacramental, catechetical phenomenon. This was in contrast to the individualism (“me and my Bible and my personal Jesus”) that swept America. His most extensive criticism of Finney’s pietism, and revivalism in general, can be found in his essay, The Anxious Bench (1844, 2nd edition). The title refers to the “altar call” method used by Finney. Nevin holds nothing back in his hostility to the New Measures, which he designates as “justification by feeling rather than faith.” Here are some excerpts:
The general system to which the Anxious Bench belongs, it may be remarked again, is unfavorable to deep, thorough and intelligent piety. …A system that leads to such a multitude of spurious conversions, and that makes room so largely for that low, gross, fanatical habit, which has just been described, cannot possibly be associated to any extent with the power of godliness, in its deeper and more earnest forms. The religion which it may produce, so far as it can be counted genuine, will be for the most part of a dwarfish size and sickly complexion. …
They involve little or nothing of what the old divines call heart work. They bring with them no self-knowledge. They fill the Church with lean professors, who show subsequently but little concern to grow in grace, little capacity indeed to understand at all the free, deep, full life of the “new man” in Christ Jesus. Such converts, if they do not altogether “fall from grace,” are apt to continue at least babes in the gospel, as long as they live. …
A low, shallow, pelagianizing theory of religion, runs through it from beginning to end. The fact of sin is acknowledged, but not in its true extent. The idea of a new spiritual creation is admitted, but not in its proper radical and comprehensive form. …The deep import of the declaration, That which is born of the flesh is flesh, is not fully apprehended; and it is vainly imagined accordingly, that the flesh as such may be so stimulated and exalted notwithstanding, as to prove the mother of that spiritual nature. …
Religion involves feeling; but it is not comprehended in this as its principle. Religion is subjective also, fills and rules the individual in whom it appears; but it is not created in any sense by its subject or from its subject.
(John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Ferm, pp. 171-174)
Nevin then continues with his antidote to the Anxious Bench — the “system of the Catechism,” which is his catchall term for the entirety of genuine Reformed doctrine and piety. This antidote includes attending to the institutions ordained by God, namely the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. As he puts it, “Hence where the system of the Catechism prevails, great account is made of the Church, and all reliance placed upon the means of grace comprehended in its constitution, as all sufficient under God for the accomplishment of its own purposes” (178). As for catechetical instruction, the Heidelberg Catechism holds the highest place of honor in the continental stream of Reformed Christianity — and rightly so.
I am actually not quite as anti-revivalist/anti-pietist as Nevin and his colleagues. But, the problems endemic to the revivals, and the theology that attends it, should be a concern for any Reformed evangelical. It is also worth noting that Karl Barth, easily the greatest Reformed theologian of this past century, also held to some similar criticisms of pietism: see his lectures on the Reformed confessions, especially his criticism of the English Puritans, and the study by Eberhard Busch (which is only $1.99 right now!).
For more information on Nevin, there is a biography by D. G. Hart. And there is a new series by Wipf & Stock, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series: