Book Review: The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity

The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.  

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

In recent years there has been a growing interest in Mercersburg Theology among young Reformed scholars.  Why the interest in a “dinky little German seminary, and its two underpaid and unrenowned teachers”? (p. 170)  The answer lies in the growing pained awareness of modern Protestantism’s dysfunctional and fractured state.  W. Bradford Littlejohn found in Mercersburg Theology a corrective to the “low sacramentology and ecclesiology” popularized by Charles Hodge and Princeton Seminary (p. 18).

The book is organized along the lines of seven chapters.  The first three provide an introduction to Mercersburg Theology.  Chapter 3 provide an insightful discussion of the clash between John Nevin and Charles Hodge.  Where Hodge defined Christianity as a system of doctrine, Nevin insisted that it was life in Christ (p. 83).  Where Hodge’s dualism led him to view the church as being the invisible church, Nevin insisted that the church was a visible organic reality (p. 78).  These are especially helpful for Reformed Christians who are wondering if something has gone horribly wrong with Calvinism and/or Evangelicalism.

Mercersburg Theology and Eastern Orthodoxy

In the next three chapters Littlejohn utilizes Mercersburg’s catholicity to enter into ecumenical dialogue with the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions.  What makes the book so pertinent to this blog is Chapter 5: “Facing East: Mercersburg and Eastern Orthodoxy.”

Littlejohn notes that there is no direct historical connection between Mercersburg and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Despite the lack of direct connections, he finds common ground in the way Nevin and Schaff understood soteriology, more specifically with respect to the Incarnation, the mystical union, and theosis.  Nevin’s understanding of salvation as union with Christ and as a lifelong process of growth and transformation places him much closer to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis than the Protestant emphasis on justification.

Littlejohn facilitates conversation between the two traditions through clarification of differences.  He draws our attention to Donald Fairbairn’s observation that where the West understands grace as God’s attitude towards us, the East understands grace as God giving us himself (pp. 137-138).  This insight sheds light on one of the presuppositional differences between the two traditions.

I was surprised to find so little attention given to Nevin’s teaching on the mystical presence in the Eucharist.  Nevin’s defense of Calvin’s affirmation of the real presence is what got me interested in Mercersburg Theology and it provides an obvious link to Eastern Orthodoxy.  But Littlejohn makes clear that his intent has been to focus on an area where the two traditions rarely see eye-to-eye (p. 146).  In this he is right because agreement on the sacraments contains the danger of superficial agreement that leads to Anglican comprehensiveness where the same sacraments are celebrated while the celebrants hold to differing interpretations.  By exploring the organic and dynamic nature of salvation in Christ and how it relates to the Orthodox doctrine of salvation as theosis Littlejohn has boldly attempted to construct a theological bridge across one of the widest divide between the two traditions.

Assessment

Littlejohn’s citations show that he has read and carefully digested the writings of contemporary Orthodox theologians: John Meyendorff, Georges Florovsky, Kallistos Ware, Christoforos Stavropoulos, and Bradley Nassif.  He also draws upon Reformed theologians, like Fairbairn, who shows an empathetic understanding of Orthodoxy.

Are there any shortcomings in Littlejohn’s book?  I wished that he had given more attention to Schaff’s dynamic Hegelian understanding of church history which I’m sure many Orthodox will take issue with.  Schaff’s version of church history has implications for how we understand Christian unity.  Also, any sustained dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions will have to address the Filioque controversy that divides the West from the East.  Discussing the Filioque will take us into the areas of how we understand the Trinity, the role and authority of the Ecumenical Councils, and the differences between the cataphatic and apophatic ways of doing theology.

Conclusion

The Reformed community is undergoing a revival of sorts as evidenced by Christianity Today’s article: “Young, Restless, Reformed.”  It is also undergoing a fermentation of sorts as young Reformed scholars like W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan G. Bonomo embrace the Mercersburg vision of a catholic and high church Reformed tradition.

Mercersburg Theology brings to light the fact that the Protestant Reformation is a far richer and complex tradition than many Evangelical and Reformed Christians think.  It is hoped that an appreciation of the catholicity of the Reformed tradition will stimulate further dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions.

This slim book is highly recommended for: (1) Reformed Christians who wish to explore the richness and catholicity of Reformed theology, (2) Evangelicals seeking a more rigorous and sophisticated approach to theology, and (3) Reformed Christians who want to enter into dialogue with the historic churches: Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox.

One last caveat, Littlejohn’s slim work is just an introduction to Mercersburg Theology.  Those who embrace the Mercersburg vision will need to read Nevin and Schaff for themselves.  This is now possible thanks to the Internet resources provided by the Mercersburg Society.  Even then, Nevin and Schaff are interpreters of Calvin and the Reformers.  Being more solidly grounded in the sources of their faith tradition  — the Reformers and the early Church Fathers — will enable Reformed Christians to enter into an informed dialogue with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Robert K. Arakaki

See: Daniel Alders review on Reforming Politics and Culture blog.

See also the comments on Goodreads.com.

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks Robert,

    Thanks for your gracious review of Brad’s little book. You so briefly touched on several issues I’m really not sure where to start. This is especially so since I read only a tad of Mercerburg Theology years ago, and have not read Littlejohn’s book. So paragraphs like the following leave me lost, wondering just what you are trying to say — besides wondering what Nevin, Calvin, and Littlejohn said?

    “I was surprised to find so little attention given to Nevin’s teaching on the mystical presence in the Eucharist. Nevin’s defense of Calvin’s affirmation of the real presence is what got me interested in Mercersburg Theology and it provides an obvious link to Eastern Orthodoxy. But Littlejohn makes clear that his intent has been to focus on an area where the two traditions rarely see eye-to-eye (p. 146). In this he is right because agreement on the sacraments contains the danger of superficial agreement that leads to Anglican comprehensiveness where the same sacraments are celebrated while the celebrants hold to differing interpretations. By exploring the organic and dynamic nature of salvation in Christ and how it relates to the Orthodox doctrine of salvation as theosis Littlejohn has boldly attempted to construct a theological bridge across one of the widest divide between the two traditions.” (Arakaki)

    I could assume or presume to fill in the gaps, but that could be dangerous! Perhaps in your kind attempt to be gracious, you were too far too succinct — and left me wondering, “Where’s the Beef”? Does Calvin really defend the “Real Presence” in the sacraments like a Roman Catholic, Easter Orthodox…and do Nevin/Schaff?? What “two traditions”…Hodge/Mercerburg, Mercerburg/Calvin, Mercerburg-Nevin/Roman Catholic? I fear that the budding young “Reformed Scholars” might wish your review (like I did) a few more “quotes” and substance so they might enter into Littlejohn’s thinking, and your Orthodox critique. Not everyone just finished reading all these last week! 🙂 Perhaps it’s just me…but after a few more comments I hope you will elucidate your points a bit more sharply, if only for me, so I can see just how Littlejohn approached the issues — and just where you challenge him?

    1. Good questions! Calvin in no uncertain terms did reject the symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. In a short document: “Confession of Faith concerning the Eucharist,” dated 1537, Calvin wrote: Besides, we hold as an error not to be tolerated in the Church that it is naked and bare signs that Christ sets forth in his blessed Supper, or not to believe that here the very body and blood of the Lord is received, that is the Lord himself true God and man.” (in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. by JKS Reid, page 169). Calvin’s position is rather complex. He wrote one long chapter (80 pages!) in his Institutes (4.17) laying out his understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

      If one rejects the symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper then one to some degree must affirm the real presence. However, the issue of the real presence is a complex one and there are several positions one could take on it. After carefully reading through this chapter I came to the conclusion that Calvin’s understanding is at odds with the Eastern Orthodox understanding. I will go into more detail in a future posting. But for now I will recommend that you read the chapter I mentioned in Calvin’s Institutes. You might also want to read Keith Mathison’s “Given For You.”

      As for what is meant by “two traditions,” I leave that to the author himself to clarify.

      As for more beef, here’s a little morsel to whet your appetite:

      Despite, then, their radically different theological heritages, Mercersburg and Orthodoxy manifest a remarkably similar theological vision. Both begin with the same view of man’s destiny: union with God. Man is created happy and holy, but not yet perfected, for his communion with God is just beginning. Both, therefore, understand Christ’s mission as not merely a reversal of the Fall, but as a fulfillment of man’s original created destiny, making it possible for us, through Him, the God-man, to attain the divinization that we have been called to. (p. 145)

      On soteriology, his (Nevin) more participationist, Eastern Orthodox model was actually very consistent with early Calvinistic paradigms, as scholars such as Bill Evans have shown. His view of the nature/grace distinction and what it means for the Church to be “catholic,” though he does not put it this way, is really but a consistent outworking of the insights of covenant theology, with its emphasis on the unity of Creator and Redeemer. (p. 182)

      As for elucidating my points so I could challenge him, I think Littlejohn wrote a fine book that can stimulate dialogue between Reformed and Orthodox Christians. After having to correct misrepresentations of Eastern Orthodoxy by other Reformed leaders I find it a pleasure to read a book on the Reformed side that shows an informed understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy.

  2. One possibly interesting response to Mercersburg–and one that is rarely given–is to focus specifically on Nevin and Schaff’s Hegelianism: to the degree that they build their theology and historiography on Hegel’s philosophy, then to that degree they are wrong (or right).

    If you read Nevin’s intro to Schaff’s Principle of Protestantism, you can see the heavy dose of Hegel. In the beginning of Mystical Presence Nevin appears to have copied Hegel’s outline and used it accordingly.

    Most Calvinists don’t like Hegel, so it would be interesting to run a critique from that perspective, since two of the best modern Calvinists were Hegelians.

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