John W. Nevin and What Ails Us

William B. Evans

In a recent blog post on this site, my good friend Ligon Duncan has provocatively suggested that the Mercersburg theologian John W. Nevin is "not the answer to what ails us."   As one who has read a bit of Nevin over the years, I offer this friendly rejoinder. 


The Herman Bavinck quote Ligon provides in his post issues a salutary warning against the assumption that covenant children will almost inevitably come to faith.  Bavinck's statement here doubtless reflects the problems of a nineteenth-century European state-church system in which nearly everyone was deemed to be a "Christian," as well as Bavinck's own personal background in the pietistic Afscheiding movement in the Netherlands.  It is perhaps also a backhanded slap at his colleague Abraham Kuyper's doctrine of presumptive regeneration. 


Mercersburg theologian John W. Nevin's context was quite different from Bavinck's.  Working in the wake of the American Second Great Awakening, Nevin had to cope with the large-scale disruption of traditional patterns of church life caused by the methodological revivalism of Charles Finney and his many imitators.  The older nurture-oriented piety of the Reformed tradition was being replaced in many churches by an individualistic, conversionist piety.  Nevin responded with a devastating critique of the psychology and theology of revivalism in his The Anxious Bench, and he prescribed an alternative.  In contrast to the "system of the anxious bench" (the "anxious bench" was the nineteenth-century precursor of today's "altar call") he promoted "the system of the catechism."  In short, Nevin wanted to counter the rampant experientialism and subjectivity of the Second Great Awakening with the traditional objectivities of the Christian faith--careful Christian nurture through catechesis, preaching, and the administration of the sacraments, or what we would today call the "ordinary means of grace." 


Did Nevin sometimes go too far in his reaction against pietism?  Undoubtedly!  His preoccupation with sacramental objectivity led him to limit divine sovereignty and to adopt a form of baptismal regeneration (there are reasons, after all, why the Federal Vision types seem to like Nevin!).  In fact, for Nevin the preaching of the Word seems to take a back seat to the sacraments.  And at the end of the day, his view of justification is proleptic and analytic rather than the forensic synthetic doctrine of the Reformed confessions.  Speaking for myself, I find Nevin remarkably suggestive and illuminating at some points and maddeningly unhelpful at others. 


Our take on Nevin's helpfulness or the lack thereof is going to be conditioned in part by our sense of "what ails us" in the contemporary context.   Is part of our problem what we might call "First-Church syndrome," that is, the nominalism and dead orthodoxy referenced by Bavinck and which often seems to be the Achilles heel of the nurture piety championed by Nevin?  In some cases, yes, and Nevin won't help us much with this one.  Is part of the contemporary problem a religious individualism that has little place for a proper doctrine of the church and the means of grace?  Are Evangelical churches beset today by a reductionistic experientialism that obscures the importance of the ongoing life of faith?  Is there afoot today an unhealthy fixation with ministry methodology at the expense of true spirituality?  I tend to think yes and yes and yes, and Nevin has something to say about these issues. 


In other words, "what ails us" in the contemporary Evangelical context is complicated and multi-faceted.  In order to face it with wisdom we do well to listen, carefully and with a biblically and confessionally informed discernment, to both Bavinck and Nevin. 


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