Nevin on the Lord’s Supper

Evaluate Nevin’s criticism of the Eucharistic teaching of the Reformed churches in North America.

There can be no understating of the fact that John W. Nevin had an extraordinarily high view of the Lord’s Supper. Nevin is best remembered for the debate which flared in America over his criticism of the then contemporary reformed churches teaching of the Eucharist. Nevin understood Christianity to be entirely founded in the believers union with Christ, which “is emphatically concentrated in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper.”[1] As a result of his high view of the Eucharist the debate which he initiated was about more than just bread and wine; it was indirectly about the theology of the Church and the very roots of Christianity.

The main criticism he levied at the reformed church of his time was that, in his eyes, they had come to be teaching and practicing communion in such a way that they had ceased to be reformed in anything but name. “It cannot be denied that the view generally entertained of the Lord’s Supper at the present time, in the Protestant Church, involves a wide departure from the faith of the sixteenth century with regard the same subject.”[2]

Numbered among those churches whom Nevin had set squarely in his sights were the Lutherans on one side, Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed on the other and Methodists & Baptists in the middle.[3] Nevin supports this list with a number of quotes from respected and prominent theologians of his day. [4] This evidences the discrepancy in the language used to discuss the Eucharist between these theologians and the reformers.

Additionally Nevin saw the question of the Eucharist to be indicative of a far greater shift in doctrine, “It [the falling away from the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper] must affect necessarily the whole view, that is entrained of Christ’s person, the idea of the Church, and the doctrine of salvation throughout. Not that the change in the theory of the Lords Supper may be considered the origin and cause, properly speaking, of any such general theological revolution; but because it could not occur, except as accompanied by this general revolution, of which it may be taken as the most significant exponent and measure.”[5]

According to Nevin the truly reformed teaching of the Lord’s Supper was best articulated through the writings and teachings of John Calvin. The position which Calvin advanced is generally known as the Real (Spiritual) Presence.[6] Whereas the majority of North American reformed churches had lapsed into a Zwinglian doctrine of the supper. Zwingli referred to the Eucharist as a memorial of the sacrifice, from which his view came to be known as Memorialism.[7]

This Real (Spiritual) Presence sees the body of Christ in heaven since the ascension. Therefore in order to be really present with Christ it is the communicant that needs to be raised up to Him in heaven, a work which is achieved by the Holy Spirit.[8] Thus the communion with Christ can be said to be both real and spiritual.

Memorialism on the other hand focuses on Christ’s command to, “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Therefore, agreeing that bodily Christ is now in heaven, the Lord’s Supper is nothing more than a symbol, a memorial of what Christ has achieved for the believer.

Such memorialism, which Nevin charged as predominant in reformed churches of his time, did not truly represent the position of either the early reformed church or the historical Church before that. Nevin viewed Zwingli as nothing more than an iteration in the process through which the reformed church crystallized a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

Nevin also perceived a reason as to why such a memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper had crept into the Church. “An un-churchly, rationalistic tendency, has been allowed to carry the Church gradually more and more off from the ground it occupied in the beginning, till its position is found to be at length, to a large extent, a new one altogether.”[9] Nevin’s criticism then was that the Church had been carried off by culture rather than sticking to the truths of Scripture.

Nevin was right though to surmise that a major factor in the Churches doctrinal movement was the onslaught of rationalistic thinking, after all much of the theological decline could be charted against the increase in prominence of rationalism. A rationalistic framework for theology leaves little room the mystical work of the Holy Spirit which found space in the church fathers and early reformers. Is it any wonder then that in this context the reformed church had shifted towards a position which was more palatable to themselves and the communities around them?

Nevin’s observation of the North American reformed church having become almost entirely Zwinglian went unchallenged. In fact the accusation was welcomed by representatives of modern reformed theology, most notably Princeton’s Charles Hodge. Neither Hodge nor Berg, Nevin’s main critics, were concerned to counter the picture of the contemporary Church scene that Nevin painted.

It’s seems that the reformed Church of the time was more than happy to be associated with this Zwinglian understanding of the Eucharist. Such was the fear of Rome and Lutheranism, a far safer ground to occupy was that defended by the great Swiss Reformer rather than the dangerously exposed position Nevin offered in its place. Berg especially saw Zwingli as the “fountain head of the German Reformed denomination’s confessional tradition.”[10] So to be caricatured as such was no doubt a badge of honour.

And indeed this skepticism of anything other than memorialism has continued to echo through the reformed church in North America and UK until today. [11] If a church believes in anything other than Zwingli’s real absence then they are as good as Roman Catholics, a fate seen as tantamount to apostasy!

Nevin may also have been correct in choosing Calvin as his source of authority for gleaning the reformed teaching of the Eucharist. As Calvin’s writings came a few years down the line they benefited greatly from the debate which had raged between Luther and Zwingli.[12] Zwingli represented a time when the Reformed Church hadn’t made up her mind. According to Nevin it wasn’t until Calvin came along, with the hindsight of the theological debate that had preceded him that he could, on behalf of the reformed church, finally make up their mind. In this sense Calvin wasn’t being original at all, merely reporting the questions which had been previously discussed and choosing the most appropriate answers from those offered at the time. Much of the debate between Zwingli and Luther served as a foundation on which Calvin could then build upon.

This early progress in thought among the young reformers is attested to by the number of creeds, confessions and catechisms which the reformed church would go on to produce which held to a Calvinistic view of the Eucharist. Nevin cites the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism as prime examples. Two documents held as classic reformed texts. If these continue a Calvinistic understanding of Communion then it is easy to infer that Calvin’s teachings on the subject were authoritative.

It is interesting to note that Zwingli’s successor, Bullinger, contributed with Calvin to the writing and publication of the Consensus Tigurinus in which a distinctly non-Zwinglian view is represented. “The Sacraments are not in and of themselves effective and conferring grace, but that God, through the Holy Spirit, acts through them as means…in the Lord’s Supper we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, not, however, by means of a carnal presence of Christ’s human nature, which is in heaven, but by the power of the Holy Spirit and the devout elevation of our soul to heaven.” [13] This is a suggestion that the early reformed church was moving toward a consensus.

But this document is also a source of confusion as Hodge claimed it for his camp in his review of the Mystical Presence, saying that, “In these articles [the consensus Tigurinus] there is not a word, which any of the evangelical churches of the present day would desire to alter.”[14]

Conversely it could be argued that Calvin’s later appearance (than Zwingli) should render him less authoritative. After all Nevin’s argument is that the position that the Church now held had moved on from an original understanding and that a certain earlier view needed to be rediscovered. Following this same line of thought the charge could be made against Calvin. As he was later he had moved on from the earlier position of Zwingli which he really needed to ‘rediscover.’

Indeed it could be argued that by the very virtue of Zwingli’s position having been made most prominent that the Reformed church has in it’s history chosen the view which defines it’s real reformed stance. Following this argument Nevin could at best say that the reformed church has gotten it wrong, but not that it has lost it’s original teaching.

A further refutation of Nevin’s critique of the modern reformed church yet again came from Hodge who mentioned Nevin’s unusual elevation of the place of the Eucharist. Hodge cites both the Helvetic Confession and Calvin himself to demonstrate the conviction that Christ is no more present in baptism or communion than he is in the Word.[15] However whether or not this can be thought of as a fatal flaw in Nevin’s work is debatable for as much as it could be understood that Calvin was demonstrating a lower view of communion it could also be understood that Calvin was demonstrating a higher view to the preaching of God’s Word.[16]

For Nevin to say that there was a reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, a single view which spoke for the diversity of the newly forming protestant church, was a mistake. It is clear that several leading figures in the reformation held different views and a consensus of how the Eucharist should be understood does not seem to have been reached. In fact the early reformed church can better be defined by the various teachings on the communion that were recognized.

Hodge, Nevin’s arch critic, concluded that to define a Reformed theology of the Eucharist such that all parties are satisfied would be very difficult given the change in the use of language and the existence of three distinct strands which he counts as firstly, the Zwinglian point of view, secondly, the Calvinist point of view and thirdly, an intermediate, ultimately symbolic theology which he claims was adopted by the Church at large.[17]

In fact, in Hodge’s review of the Mystical Presence his main objection was that Nevin’s source material was far too one sided.[18] Additionally he pointed out that because of the dominance of Lutherans it is no surprise that much of the language employed by the reformed church would be used in such a way as to accommodate them and give the illusion of harmony.[19]Hodge claims that as unity in the new Protestant church was paramount, that the confessions and creeds would include compromising language in the area of the Lord’s Supper, the only area of any great disagreement.[20]

However Nevin countered this criticism (that of his view of Reformed Theology being skewed) in publishing the article Doctrine of the Reformed View on the Lord’s Supper for his Mercersburg review in which he set out exclusively to show what the Reformed view was as opposed to Romanism and Lutheranism on the one side and Rationalism and false Spirituality on the other.[21]

 

Conclusion

That the reformed church in North America of its day was largely a Church of memorialism is of little doubt. Whether or not they could legitimately practice this form of communion and remain truly reformed is less certain.

Nevin correctly assessed that two major factors had contributed to the reformed church being memorialist in the majority, namely a fear of Roman transubstantiation and post enlightenment thinking. For a church to form its doctrine based on either a fear of someone else’s views or in order to be more palatable to the dominant culture is very dangerous indeed and neglects the unwavering truth of God’s Word.

Nevin’s need for Calvin’s view to be seen as absolute for reformed churches is difficult to marry with the diverse history of the earliest reformed church, not to mention the shifts that have taken place since. As Hodge rightly asserts, such a synchronous picture of the early reformed church is far too one sided. To simply present the matter as Calvin versus Zwingli does not help in coming to a decision over who best represents the reformed. It is better to conclude that within the reformed tradition a breadth of views exists.

The fact that these two factors are still largely responsible for much of the doctrinal stance of the church today is further support that Nevin was correct in this area of criticism. Additionally, the fact that the debate has slipped largely into obscurity suggests Nevin may have indeed struck at an issue of apathy with regards the Lord’s Supper which was not present in the early reformed church. In this regard, that the Church no longer cares about the Communion and sees it as an ‘optional extra’[22], Nevin was undoubtedly correct.


[1] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication Of The Reformed Or Calvanistic Doctrine Of The Holy Eucharist (1867) (Philadelphia, Pa.: S. R. Fisher & Co., 1867; repr., Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2008), 51.

 

[2] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 105.

[3] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 107.

[4] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 109 – 116.

[5] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 52.

[6] Russell D. Moore et al., Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (ed. Paul E. Engle and John H. Armstrong; Counterpoints Church Life; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 59.

[7] Moore et al., Understanding Four Views, 29.

[8] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 61.

[9] Nevin, Mystical Presence, 52.

[10] D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2005), 112.

[11] Robert Letam, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001), 1.

[12] Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 117.

[13] John Calvin, “The Consensus Tigurinus,” n.p. [cited April 2010]. Online: http://www.creeds.net/reformed/Tigurinus/tigur-bvd.htm.

[14] Charles Hodge, “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (Mystical Presence Review),” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 20 (1848): 238.

[15] Hodge, “Mystical Presence Review,” 275.

[16] B. A. Gerrish, Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 62.

[17] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (London: James Clarke & Co., 1960), 262.

[18] Hodge, “Mystical Presence Review,” 227.

Hodge, “Mystical Presence Review,” 230.

[20] Hodge, “Mystical Presence Review,” 229.

[21] John Williamson Nevin, “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper,” The Mercersburg Review 2 (1850): 421.

[22] Letham, Eternal Word in Broken Bread, 1-2.


Bibliography

Calvin, John. “The Consensus Tigurinus.” No pages. Cited April 2010. Online: http://www.creeds.net/reformed/Tigurinus/tigur-bvd.htm.

Gerrish, B. A. Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Hart, D.G. John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Hodge, Charles. “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (Mystical Presence Review).” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 20 (1848): 227-278.

———. Systematic Theology. London: James Clarke & Co., 1960.

Letham, Robert. The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001.

Moore, Russell D., I. John Hesselink, David P. Scaer, and Thomas A. Baima. Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper. Edited by Paul E. Engle and John H. Armstrong. Counterpoints Church Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007.

Nevin, John Williamson. “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper.” The Mercersburg Review 2 (1850): 421-548.

———. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication Of The Reformed Or Calvinistic Doctrine Of The Holy Eucharist (1867). Philadelphia, Pa.: S. R. Fisher & Co., 1867. Repr., Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2008.

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