The (Possible) Implications of the Mercersburg Theology for Modern Theology

JohnWilliamsonNevinI recently read a brief but informative volume on the Mercersberg Theology (hereafter, MT) by William B. Evans[1] which highlighted some thinkers that proved influential in this theological movement. These influences, in turn, seem to shed light on a certain connection in modern theology that I will discuss below.

To begin with, a recent movement known as Evangelical Calvinism (hereafter, EC; see my review of their first volume here) has emerged in recent years. It seeks to continue and extend the insight of Karl Barth (1886-1968) and his protégé Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) in conversation with and as a critique of “classical Calvinism.”[2] Evans (11) notes how MT offers, much like EC, “a substantial alternative model of the Reformed tradition.”

Yet, the similarities do not end there. In fact, there are a number of theological points where EC, in the train of Barth/Torrance and MT converge, albeit for somewhat different reasons (which we will address below). Both reject the oft-contested doctrine of limited atonement (cf. Evans, 107). Moreover, Evans writes (106) that John W. Nevin (1803-1886), the leading voice of MT and others with him

… diverged from Calvin and from the weight of the Reformed tradition over the issue of what Nevin termed the “metaphysical Calvinism” in which he had been reared. … Nevin concluded that Calvin’s “abstract” doctrine of the decrees rendered the incarnation, the atonement, and the sacraments a charade, and by 1848 Nevin had publicly and decisively broken with predestinarian Calvinism.

This is strongly reminiscent of the Barth’s critique of Calvinism at this point (a critique shared by T.F. Torrance). Bobby Grow writes,

Barth’s fundamental critique is that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and election are not sufficiently grounded in Jesus Christ; instead Barth believes that Calvin’s understanding … particular in regard to reprobation, is tied into the absolute decree … election and reprobation end up getting hidden in an impersonal … will of God.[3]

Barth’s Christological grounding of the doctrine of election brings us to another point of similarity between EC and MT. Evans (62) writes of MT, “… Christology assumes the status of a “central dogma” for the movement; no aspect of theology was to be abstracted from Christ …”. In the same vein, the entirety of Evangelical Calvinism vol. 2 is dedicated to exploring how Christ’s vicarious humanity informs theological reflection and practice.

Indeed, if the views of EC and MT on predestination, limited atonement and the central emphasis on Christology were not enough, a number of other points draw these two movements together even if separated greatly in time.[4] Before mentioning these though, it is significant that Marcus Johnson contributed a chapter to Evangelical Calvinism (vol. 2) which argued that Nevin was something of a precursor to EC[5] and Evans, in an earlier essay, explored connections between John Nevin and Thomas Torrance.[6]

Yet, as if these theological themes and essays didn’t substantiate this connection enough, a look at the background influences of MT and EC’s ‘father’ Karl Barth further bolster the connections between these two movements. First, both MT and Barth were influenced and shaped by the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel (cf. Evans, 15-17; Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 370-73), albeit not without criticism.[7] Second, both were shaped by Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics (cf. Evans, 108; e.g., Barth, CD I/1, 52, 232, 302).[8] Third, and by way of contrast, both engaged with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).

This last connection drives us toward a connection that could shed further light on modern theology. Barth is well-known for his harsh criticisms of Schleiermacher (CD I/1, 348).[9] Despite the undeniable overlap between MT and EC, MT actually greatly departs from Barth’s negative view of Schleiermacher. Evans (46) writes, “Schleiermacher’s chistocentrism and his focus on consciousness were extraordinarily influential on the” MT “theologians.” Put more ironically, somehow even though MT and EC have considerable emphases, their respective ‘fathers,’ to put it somewhat simplistically, are at odds. Or are they?

There have been a number of voices who have argued that Barth is not as far from Schleiermacher as it may seem at face value. Though this is still a live debate, we would suggest that the overlap between MT and EC may further substantiate a more complex and even positive relationship between Schleiermacher and Barth.

So, to conclude this foray, the obvious connections that exist between MT and EC points to a more positive link between Schleiermacher and Barth. In order to ascertain to the validity of this line of inquiry, interested parties would have to read closely the primary texts of Nevin, Schaff and others from the MT and Barth to see how they interacted with Hegel, Heppe, and most notably Schleiermacher, as well as open up other lines of investigation (e.g., their engagement with the German Mediating Theologians).[10]



[1] A Companion to the Mercersburg Theology: Evangelical Catholicism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019). All citations of this book will be cited in text unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Evangelical Calvinism, eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, vol. 2 (Eugene OR: Pickwick Pub., 2017), 6.

[3] “Assurance is the Essence of Saving Faith,” in Evangelical Calvinism (vol. 2), 37.

[4] Notice that the ‘father,’ if you will, of EC (Barth) was born the year the ‘father’ of MT (Nevin) died.

[5] “The Word Became Flesh: John Williamson Nevin, Charles Hodge, and The Antichrist.”

[6] “Twin Sons of Different Mothers: The Remarkable Theological Convergence of John W. Nevin and Thomas F. Torrance,” Haddington House Journal  11 (2009): 155-73.

[7] For a fuller discussion of Barth’s interactions with Hegel, see here (accessed August 27, 2019). For MT’s interactions with Hegel and Hegelianism, see Evans, A Companion, 7, 15-17, 43-44, 130-31.

[8] For a full analysis of Barth’s use of Heppe, see Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (UK: Ashgate Pub., 2015).

[9] Cf. also Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (New York and Evansion: Harper and Row, 1957), 195ff.

[10] Also, it may be that the Kierkegaardian existentialism of Barth could be seen as analogous to the Schleiermachian focus on consciousness in the MT, though again reading their treatments of these respective thinkers would have to be the course to follow.

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