John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist


I wrote this in 2006 when I was at a very different stage in my life.  I only had to edit it a bit, though.

Thesis of the book: John Williamson Nevin’s high church Calvinism attempted to steer a middle path between the individualism of 19C Presbyterianism while avoiding the tyranny of Rome. His view of the sacraments necessitates a higher view of the church.

Summary and Critical Points: DG Hart’s style is straightfoward and the narrative flows smoothly. Given the thesis, he accomplished his task while suggesting that Nevin’s sacramentology can provide a more robust ecclesiology for the American Church.  I would have liked to see more detail on how Nevin’s view of the Supper affects his Calvinist soteriology.

Abstract of Hart’s Bio on Nevin

Nevin’s life is seen as a tension between the historical claims of the Roman Catholic Church on one hand and the energy of the Protestant Reformation on the other hand. The Incarnation was central to Nevin’s Christology and Ecclesiology. His was a sacramental theology that shaped all else: his view of the church, his view of history and most importantly, his view of the Lord’s Supper (207). Nevin battled for the recapturing of the Church’s past. For Nevin, taking the claims of the early church seriously, and seeking the unity of the church as opposed to sectarianism, raised several problems: what does one do about the Roman Catholic Church?

Nevin on the Church

According to Hart, “The Church, in other words, was the manifestation in the natural world of the resurrected Christ, literally and supernaturally the body of Christ” (75). There was an objective character to the church. Among other things, this precluded revivalism and the use of an “anxious bench.” Over against the anxious bench, which constituted Nevin’s first foray into polemics (see pp. 88-103), Nevin proposed catechical instruction. Teaching the catechism, unlike the altar call, saw salvation as “new life emanating from union with Christ” (97). The channel of conversion should flow through the family, not the anxious bench.


Nevin on Salvation

Nevin anticipated the debate regarding union with Christ vs. imputation of Christ’s righteousness (interestingly, Hart doesn’t interact with this debate). Salvation, for Nevin, was corporate and organic and was mediated by the church. Discussion regarding Nevin’s soteriology necessarily brings up his sacramentology. Standing in the Calvinian tradition, the sacrament is a sign and a seal embodying the actual presence of grace “and the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ himself” (118). When the believer partakes of the Supper, the body and blood of Christ from heaven is supernaturally communicated to him and he receives life in a new way (119). It is a “mystical union” where Christ communicates his own life and soul substantially to the believer.

Just a side point: Nevin won this debate.  He had Calvin and history on his side.

Nevin on History

This constituted the crisis in Nevin’s life: how to respond to Roman apologetics? To his credit he never became Roman Catholic, but he never gave a credible reason for not doing so. Nevin’s argumentation regarding this point often broke down. He resorted, if Hart’s representation is accurate, to simplistic generalizations and occasional special pleading in favor of Rome. He saw the Puritans as simplistic “me and my bible” Christians ignoring the rich testimony of the Church, while Roman Catholics had almost everything right historically, but erred on papal assertions to infallibility. No wonder he nearly went to Rome! Nevin was correct to see the church as a growing, organic body in union with Christ. This point alone, if further developed, should have persuaded him that Rome was not an option. Nevin himself was aware that Rome’s position theoretically denied the possibility of improvement within the church. Since the church’s teaching is by definition infallible, what’s new to learn?

Side point: Hodge probably had the upper hand.


4 thoughts on “John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist

  1. I think it’s interesting that in the 17th c., Rome was in dire straights and getting crushed in terms of history. Of course, Protestants had to deal with attacks as well from skepticial textual critics (early Quakers, Socinians, et al.). But by the 19th c., somehow it got reversed. Maybe because most Protestants were deeply changed through revivalism (though that was their fault for not addressing the concerns that motivated pietists, evangelicals, etc.). So that’s why Nevin really got in a bind and Newman’s false quip that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a protestant” seemed ipso facto correct.


  2. Jacob, you note that Nevin won the debate (and I agree with you), but state at the end that Hodge “probably had the upper hand.” Can you explain or elaborate on what you meant?


    • 1) Hodge was the more popular of the two and had the bigger influence.
      2) Hodge was a better theologian. He was just wrong on Calvin.
      3) Nevin flirted too much with the worst aspects of German idealism.


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