Schaff: Principle of Protestantism

I first read this when I was flirting with EO around 2010.  Because of my Hoopla library app, I can now reread the Mercersburg guys.

Mercersburg represents a particularly fine analysis of European and American Protestantism up to the 19th century. Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin correctly identified many weaknesses within Protestantism and attempted a systematic reconstruction of the Protestant project with a particular emphasis upon the theology of John Calvin and a hope to return to the ancient faith of the Church.


Did Schaff and Nevin return to the ancient church? The simplest answer is no. Yet a simple “no” does not do justice to their work. One should first identify their goals, state their arguments, and compare the conclusions to the Fathers and Councils of the Church. The reader can decide if Schaff and Nevin were successful.

A More Reformed Hegel?

In reading Nevin’s preface to Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism, I had moments when I thought I was reading G. W. Hegel. In its simplistic form, Hegel’s philosophy can be understood as a process where the subject demonstrates its opposite while still retaining its own identity, leading to a new situation (or “higher mode of consciousness”). In one sense, Hegel’s system can be seen as an evolutionary process. The specifics of Hegel’s philosophy need not trouble us here; however, one should note that Schaff and Nevin applied the same method to Church History and their location of the Protestant movement within that history.

In a discussion of the place of the Protestant church within the narrative of late medieval Catholicism, Nevin makes the point that Protestantism was birthed in a unique moment in Western History as a result of “the advanced life of the Middle Ages.” Nevin is quite clear that Protestantism was not birthed from the theological fruit of the fourth century, but rather the fruit of the 15th and 16th centuries.

While Schaff and Nevin routinely make the argument that the Reformed Church is the legitimate offspring of the historic church, he implicitly notes that the theology and practices of the two churches (presumably the Nicene Church and the Reformed Church) are dissimilar. In any case, Schaff is more clear about the dialectical process of the Protestant church, “But history, since the presence of sin, unfolds itself only through extremes in the way of action and reaction. ”
At the end of the discussion, however, Philip Schaff firmly rejects any understanding of the church as “receiving the apostolic deposit.” Schaff rejects the Oxford Tractarians (think Anglo-Catholics) as regarding “the church as a system handed down under a given and complete form…They wish to shut out of view the progress of the last three centuries entirely; to treat the whole as a negation, if possible; and by one vast leap to carry the church back to the point where it stood before the separation of the Oriental and Western communions. ”

The Formal and Material Principles of the Reformation

Schaff has succinctly stated the differences between the Reformers and Rome on the questions of soteriology and scripture. The material principle of the Reformation is how man is made right with God, and Schaff defines this principle as the justification of the sinner on the merit of Christ alone through faith (alone). Schaff then gives a point-by-point analysis of Rome and Geneva on this matter. He anticipates Roman objections to Protestant soteriology and tries to answer them. Many of these objections and counter-objections are found in dozens (if not hundreds) of Protestant and Roman Catholic manuals, and it is pointless to retread the ground here

More importantly is Schaff’s defense of the Formal Principle of the Reformation, for one’s doctrine of authority will determine how one approaches the texts that determine one’s soteriology. Like in his defense of the material principle, Schaff gives a brief discussion of sola scriptura, anticipates Roman objections, and then gives his own conclusions. Again, I will not focus on all the objections and counters, simply because others on both sides of the issue have done so admirably.

What is in the Bible?

Schaff writes, “For under the written word of God, the Church of Rome understands not merely, as we do, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, but in open contradiction to the oldest and purest tradition of an Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius, Hilary…incorporates also into it the Apocrypha. ”

What is Tradition?

Schaff routinely objects to Roman Catholic tradition, and some of his objections are worth noting. Schaff defines tradition as the channel by which Scripture is carried forth into history. However, he does not always allow this definition of tradition to inform his own construction of doctrine. He approaches something akin to the Vincentian Canon (VC), and rightly notes how many Roman Catholic depart from the VC.

He writes, “As long as the apostles lived, the inspired bearers of the divine word, such tradition was sufficiently safe. In case of corruption or perversion, the apostles might apply the necessary correction. But the case must be wholly different, after the death of these unerring witnesses. If the gospel was to be perpetuated in its purity, it became indispensable that it should be committed to writing. ”

Schaff wants to identify with the ancient church and with the best expressions of the medieval church.


Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin are to be commended for steering countless Evangelicals and Calvinists away from certain American, reductionist accounts of Christianity. For example, Nevin’s portrayal of the Lord’s Supper is infinitely to be preferred to some versions of American Presbyterianism’s spectral, memorialist view. Schaff is to be commended for calling attention back to the ancient roots of the church.


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