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.


Schaff: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity


The Nicene world gives us the good and bad of Christian praxis.  We get Athanasius and the worship of relics, the deity of Christ and prayers to Mary.  But Schaff doesn’t scorn the papacy in its infancy.  The early popes functioned akin to the law for Israel: they tutored the barbarians, kept Eastern heresies at bay, and provided the foundation for church governments in Europe. Schaff’s style, as well as his content, reflects that “manliness of spirit” for liberty and legitimate human development.  We find a similar style in W.G.T. Shedd and Edward Gibbon.

Section 88.  Miracles.  Schaff takes a balanced view on continuing miracles.  Unlike the Deist, he acknowledges that they can (and probably do) happen today.  He even notes there is no text saying they stopped.

Nonetheless, he does contrast gospel miracles with “monkish miracles.”  Gospel miracles are above the law of nature.  Monkish ones are often against the law of nature (463).  The latter do not serve to confirm the Christian faith, but rather the ascetic life (see John Cassian for an example).

He ends this section with a rather perceptive comment: “[B]etween the proper miracle and the fraud there lie many intermediate steps of self-deception, clairvoyance, magnetic phenomena and cures, unusual states of the human soul, which is full of deep mysteries, and stands nearer the invisible spiritual world than the everyday mind of the multitude suspects” (465).

In other words, the Deist wants to reduce every miracle to “Confirming God’s Revelation, aka the Bible, which has now stopped.”  Of course, that redefines the word miracle to something foreign to the New Testament, and in any case is an arbitrary definition.  On the other hand, the Kingdom Empowered Believer must realize that not everything is a miracle.  We are only beginning to tap the depths of the human soul.

Nicene Doctrine of the Trinity

essence/ousia: “denote a genus or a species” (672).  Not unum in numero, sed ens unum in multis.  All men partake of the same substance.  This can be tricky: the divine ousia is a numerical unity (one God), yet human ousia is more of a generic unity in Chalcedon.

“Nature is the totality of powers which constitute a person” (751).

Person: the Ego, the self-conscious, self-asserting, and acting subject” (751).

There is no person without nature, but there can be natures without a person.  The human nature of Christ has no independent personality of its own

Section 91.  Sacraments in General.

Augustine: sacraments work grace/condemnation according to the condition of the believer (De Bapt. Contra Donat.).  Not their efficacy, but their result.

Section 157: Augustine’s doctrine of Grace.  Roman Catholics can legitimately claim Augustine on grace.  It is a creative power of God that transforms men from within (844-845).  It produces the negative effect of forgiveness of sins, then the positive communication of a new principle of life.  It “makes” men righteous.  This is *not* what Protestantism teaches.

Schaff: Church History, Volume 5 (review)

This is his second volume on the Middle Ages.

Image result for philip schaff

It is tempting to color the Middle Ages either as a period of gross or superstition or incredible beauty.  This answer is neither.  Or both. Much as we may be disgusted, and rightly so, at the abuses of the medieval papacy, some popes were truly talented individuals. Further, papal supremacy, while built on a foundation of sand, did nonetheless rein in lawless barons. For example, the most competent, if not the most scriptural, of medieval popes, Gregory VII, kept warring Europe in line.  Schaff writes, “it was a spiritual despotism, but it checked a political despotism” (Schaff 34).

The section on the Crusades read like a novel at times.  Schaff rightly deplores the indulgences and the erring piety behind the Crusades, but he notes, as we must all admit, that the military actions of the Western Europeans destroyed enough Muslim personnel to prevent a Muslim conquest of Europe (at least until the 21st century).

4th Crusade

Surprisingly, Schaff gives a relatively positive account of the 4th Crusade.  This one is tricky and requires some background. The rightful emperor was Isaac Angelus.  He was deposed and blinded by his brother Alexius III.  Long story short, the Latins intervened and deposed Alexius III and restored Isaac (for a time).  As unfortunate as later events were, this action “prolonged the successful resistance to the Turks” (273 n1). Yes, they turned Constantinople into a brothel, but one can’t help but wonder if Byzantine schemes didn’t set the stage.

Inquisition and Sacraments

Most people will find the section on the Inquisition fascinating, if only for morbid reasons.  It contains enough lurid details.

Theologically, Schaff’s section on the sacraments is of the most value to the theology student.   All medievals follow the Augustinian definition as “a visible sign of invisible grace.”  There is a virtue inherent in the sacraments.  They confer and confirm grace (continere et conferre gratiam).  God is the original cause of grace.  The sacraments, per Thomas, are the instrumental cause (705).

The body of Christ is in the sacrament not quantitatively, but in substance.  Not in dimensions but by a power peculiar to the sacrament.  This is the doctrine of concomitance (717). They argued that the whole Christ is in each of the elements, which justifies withdrawing the cup from the laity.

Penance and Indulgences

Penance deletes mortal sins committed after baptism (729).  It has four elements (contrititon, sorrow of the soul, which negative part is attrition), confession, satisfaction, and absolution. An indulgence simply mitigates the works of satisfaction needed for an absolution (737).

Sin and Grace

The flesh is tainted, being conceived in concupiscence. It is both taint and guilt (749). Grace: man needs prevenient grace “to beget in him the disposition to holiness” (753). Justification has four elements: 1) infusion of grace; 2) movement of the free will towards God; 3) the act of the free will against sin; 4) remission of sins.

This book is magnificent.  The prose reads like a novel.