"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Nevin on Catholic Unity

In June I wrote these comments on Nevin's article "Catholic Unity". What I appreciate so much about Nevin's article is that he is deeply aware of the fragmented state of Christendom, and deeply aware of it as something deplorable and lamentable. He would be willing to give his life to bring about some increase in Christian unity. That awareness and that willingness stand in tremendous contrast to the common indifference to the present state of fragmentation. But as I point out in the link above, Nevin did not have the philosophical training to recognize what was necessary for "organic unity".

15 comments:

Jonathan said...

Hi Bryan,

You may benefit from a more full reading of Nevin's life and work. I'm not sure how much you've read about or by him, but the sermon "Catholic Unity" is relatively early in the development of his system (1844), and was proclaimed at a convention of German and Dutch Reformed churches in an effort to unite those two communions specifically.

Nevin's thought on the unity of the church is more fully worked out in his later, more developed works: "Antichrist, or the Spirit of Sect and Schism" and two lengthy articles he wrote for the Mercersburg Review on the "Sect System." You can also see the underlying Christological foundation for the thesis of these works in his "The Mystical Presence," and the historical foundation in Schaff's "The Principle of Protestantism," which contains a lengthy introduction by Nevin.

It is also interesting to note that he did go through a near decade long season of struggle as to whether to enter the Roman communion (accompanied by a lengthy correspondence with Orestes Brownson), but eventually wound up more confirmed in his Protestantism. This struggle even lead to his resignation from Mercersburg Seminary and a dramatic drop off in theological writing. Thus, Nevin's writing carreer is pretty much confined to the ten year period of 1844-1854, and if you read through his writings during these years you can clearly see his thinking and system develop with each work. It can also be demonstrated that during these years he most likely
(at least in his own mind) abandoned the idea that the Bishop of Rome is "justly styled antichrist." I don't recall reading anything like this in his later works. You can see the roots of his struggle to convert to Rome most fully in his articles in the Mercersburg Review on "Early Christianity" and "Cyprian." If memory serves, I think both series from the years 1851 and 1852.

Foundational to his thinking as well on the validity of the Reformation was the theory of historical development, which he and Schaff were proclaiming as fundamental to a right historical defense of Protestantism before Newman's essay on the same topic appeared in print.

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on Nevin's more developed system if you ever find the time. Maybe you've already dealt with it and I just don't know.(?)

At any rate, I've written two posts at Ref. Cath. which may be of interest to you:

On Nevin's thought: http://www.reformedcatholicism.com/?p=819

And on Schaff's historiography: http://www.reformedcatholicism.com/?p=1075

Grace and Peace,

Jonathan Bonomo

Principium unitatis said...

Thanks Jonathan,

In their thinking, the Reformation was not a breaking away from the Medieval Catholic Church, but a development out of it.

What is the difference between a "development out of the [Medieval Catholic Church]" and a schism from the medieval Catholic Church?

If Protestantism were in fact a schism from the medieval Catholic Church, how would Protestantism differ from what it is now?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jonathan said...

First, when I say "out of" I don't mean this in the sense of "away from." I mean it as in the way a flower develops "out of" a bud. It remains the same in substance, but takes on a different outward form.

Second, this is founded upon the conception of organic unity as articulated by the Mercersburg men. The Protestant churches (for Nevin and Schaff) are of the catholic church. They are not to be equated with the catholic church--for Nevin and Schaff embraced both the Roman and Eastern churches as true component parts of the catholic church--but they are of the catholic church. Thus, Protestants did not break away from the substance of the catholic faith, nor did they begin a rebellion against the church. Rather, they brought the church to a new stage of development.

For Nevin and Schaff, the church is organic, and is always developing and progressing. The ideal is pressing into the actual and becoming more and more fully realized in space and time (thus, both Nevin and Schaff held to a postmillenial eschatology which had the hope of a future "evangelical catholicism"--the convergence of the three great branches of the church: Roman, Eastern, and Protestant--as its center). But even though this development (which is akin to the development of a natural body) is ever pressing forward, it is at times hindered by certain regresses (read, infirmities), as well as major growth spurts, such as we see in the transition from the early into the Nicene church, from there into the Medieval church, and from there into the Reformation.

For both Schaff and Nevin therefore, the Reformation was a movement of the catholic church, not a breaking away from the catholic church. They found Scriptural support for their "organic" theory in the various parables of the kingdom of God which speak of it gradually spreading, in the analogy of the vine and branches, in the description of the church as the body of Christ, and most of all in St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, especially 4:1-16.

Of course, the theory of development can work both for and against Protestantism, as Newman demonstrated. But it should also be noted that, according to Schaff, development is a fundamentally Protestant theory (i.e., it was held by Protestants long before Newman ever adapted it to suit Roman purposes).

Principium unitatis said...

Jonathan,

Of course I agree that Schaff and Nevin thought that Protestantism was not a schism but rather an organic development. But, couldn't any schismatics claim the same thing about their schism? Coudn't the Montanists, the Novatians, or the Donatists have claimed the same thing? What is needed is not just the assertion "We are not schismatics; we are part of the 'catholic' Church". What is needed is some principled distinction between a "development" and a "schism". That is the reason for my second question: "If Protestantism were in fact a schism from the medieval Catholic Church, how would Protestantism differ from what it is now?"

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kevin said...

You know, my off-hand answer to that question is that Protestantism would look very much like Rome.

The problem with hypothetical questions and answers is that they rarely deal in the truth or make good arguments. The assumption that it was the Protestants who broke away really is what needs to be questioned.

To me, it's quite clear that Elvis left the building well before our man Luther arrived. We forget things like the Great Schism (either of 1054 AD or 1348) when talking about the Reformation as if this was the first time problems like this arose.

>>>Kevin D. Johnson
>>>http://www.reformedcatholicism.com

Jonathan said...

Bryan,

I was only commenting here with regard to the thought of Nevin (and Schaff, indirectly). I wasn't writing here to defend Protestantism, but only to attempt to help you understand better the theory of Nevin and Schaff with which this post deals. I don't have much time to pursue this topic beyond the length I have already discussed it and the purpose for which I engaged in it.

But very briefly: with regard to the Novatians and Donatists: they rejected the validity of orders and sacraments in the church which they broke away from. This was not the case with the sixteenth century Protestants (of the magisterial variety).

And of course, the argument of schism runs both ways. For the Reformers, it was the church of Rome which had already brought the church to the brink of schism by her distortion of the Gospel, which is the substance on which the church has always thrived. Thus, from the Protestant perspective, since the Gospel is primary and the principle which invigorates the church in every age, it is believed that if any body in this whole mess is guilty of schism, it is Rome: for she forced the Protestants out of communion with her, who were seeking nothing but to proclaim the Word of the Gospel and administer the sacraments in simplicity and reverence.

Only if you hold a priori the papacy as essential to the existence of the church can the argument that the Protestants were schismatic be justified. And it is this assumption which Protestants reject, and therefore feel justified in their current position.

And as for your final question: I find it to be a silly question, to be honest with you. I don't engage in debates over historical hypotheticals.

Principium unitatis said...

Kevin,

Thanks for your comments. The Donatists too could have said: "If we were the ones in schism, then we would look like the Catholic Church". I'm not trying to beg any question here. What I'm looking for is a principled distinction between a schism and a development. So this is part of a broader question: In the event of a split, what is the principled way of determining which party is in schism?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jonathan said...

"In the event of a split, what is the principled way of determining which party is in schism?"

If one party is outlawing the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the apostolic faith as recorded in Scripture and confirmed by the faith of the early church, while the other is seeking only to proclaim the Gospel and encourage the rest of the church to do the same, then I'd say the former party is the one guilty of schism.

In circumstances where the Gospel and the salvation of men is not in jeopardy, and Christians are just splitting for frivolous reasons (as is the case with sectvangelicalism in our day), then I'd say that those instances would need to be examined on a case by case basis, but most likely both parties will be found to be at fault in one way or another.

Principium unitatis said...

Jonathan,

But very briefly: with regard to the Novatians and Donatists: they rejected the validity of orders and sacraments in the church which they broke away from. This was not the case with the sixteenth century Protestants (of the magisterial variety).

I agree that the "magisterial" Protestants recognized Catholic baptisms, but they rejected five of the seven Catholic sacraments. Even the Novatians and Donatists did not do that.

And of course, the argument of schism runs both ways. For the Reformers, it was the church of Rome which had already brought the church to the brink of schism by her distortion of the Gospel, which is the substance on which the church has always thrived.

I understand. Any schism could justify itself by claiming that the gospel is at stake, and making "the gospel" equivalent to their own interpretation of Scripture.

What I am looking is a principled distinction between the Church and the party in schism. If we have no such *principled* distinction, then I don't see how we can work toward healing and resolving these schisms.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...

Jonathan,

If one party is outlawing the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the apostolic faith as recorded in Scripture and confirmed by the faith of the early church, while the other is seeking only to proclaim the Gospel and encourage the rest of the church to do the same, then I'd say the former party is the one guilty of schism.

"Gospel of Jesus" as determined by whom? If your answer is "any individual interpreter of Scripture", then each person could say that everyone who does not share his own interpretation of Scripture regarding the nature of the "Gospel of Jesus" is in schism. So that criterion (without further qualification) does not seem to be *principled*. There is no way to get Church unity if each individual can make his own interpretation of Scripture to be "the Gospel of Jesus", and whoever disagrees with him is in schism.

I hope you see my concern. It seems to me that the only way out of this intrinsic individualism is through a recognition of sacramental magisterial authority.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jonathan said...

Bryan,

I absolutely do see your concern. I just don't feel the need for such comfort and certainty that you seem to need. I've never held Protestantism to be a pristine utopia where the truth is unclouded and everything as clear as the noonday sun. I don't even hold it to be at all an end in itself, which is why I look forward, as you do, to the reunion of all Christians. We disagree on how true unity is to be brought about, of course, but we are together in acknowledging that something is amiss.

I don't think a return of Protestants to Rome is the answer to this though because I do hold the Reformation to have been a justified movement because its outcry against corrupt doctrine and practice was right, because its attempt to make the Gospel known to all people in the Church was right, and because I reject the idea that papal supremacy is of the essence of the Church. And yes, I'm not ashamed to admit that I came to these conclusions by my own individual cognitive processes (which I'm still employing even now, btw) in light of Scripture and history, both pre and post Reformation. And I think you've come to your conclusions the same way too, just as I think Christians in the Middle Ages came to theirs, the Popes to theirs, and the Reformers to theirs.

I don't need a sacramental magisterial authority to tell me everything is gonna be alright. I have Jesus Christ as held out to me in Word and sacrament in his church. This is enough for me. The mere existence of the papacy does not prove its rightness. It needs to be demonstrated that a break from Rome is at the same time a break from the catholic church before I accept such a claim. And as it is, this has never been demonstrated to my satisfaction (and yes, I've explored the issue at some length). I feel myself in good company here though, with about half of the Western church in agreement with me, and catholic theologians such as Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer, and Cranmer as my forebears.

Kevin said...

"Gospel of Jesus" as determined by whom? If your answer is "any individual interpreter of Scripture", then each person could say that everyone who does not share his own interpretation of Scripture regarding the nature of the "Gospel of Jesus" is in schism. So that criterion (without further qualification) does not seem to be *principled*. There is no way to get Church unity if each individual can make his own interpretation of Scripture to be "the Gospel of Jesus", and whoever disagrees with him is in schism.

Yes, but first, this is not the classic Protestant position and it also wasn't Nevin's position. I don't know why you persist in trying to pin it upon us as if your reliance on "sacramental magisterial authority" is without trouble in and of itself. Can't you develop an argument against us that actually responds to what we are saying and not some fundamentalist straw man?

Is this really an issue where authority is the main crux of the question?

It seems to me that if there is an authority it is most certainly the gospel and person of Jesus Christ in the Church working through the Spirit and this trumps any sort of other authority you've put forward to date. This is what enabled the Reformers to criticize wicked men who sat in the chair of Peter and while you can chalk that up to individualism it's difficult to argue in practice that the priests and bishops screwing little children before and after Mass is the legitimate sacramental magisterial authority of the Roman Magisterium. I hesitate to put things in such plain and offensive terms but blind reliance on "sacramental magisterial authority" is capable of compromising the gospel as much as any individual choice in the matter. That's why I think you are on the wrong track to make this a matter of competing authorities.

How can you tell between a schismatic body and the Church? Among other things, didn't our Lord say we would know one another by our fruit? Isn't it also true that the Spirit testifies within us regarding the truth of these things? Are we really going to leave our Lord, His ultimate and unquestionable authority, and the work of the Holy Spirit out of this discussion?

What you have left to do is demonstrate that this "sacramental magisterial authority" is somehow vested infallibly in the hands of bishops and popes. I don't see that in Scripture and I certainly don't see that in the long and uncensored history of the Church.

Your dilemmas in regards to these issues are only complicated by reliance on an authority that you never could have gotten to in the first place without your own individual participation in choosing it. So perhaps you do have a principled way out of this--I have yet to see you demonstrate it.

>>>Kevin D. Johnson
>>>http://www.reformedcatholicism.com

Principium unitatis said...

Kevin,

Can't you develop an argument against us that actually responds to what we are saying and not some fundamentalist straw man?

I would if I could find a *principled* difference between your position (as best as I can presently determine it) and that of the fundamentalists. When I recently reviewed Keith Mathison's book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, I could not find (in Mathison's ecclesiology) a principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. And that distinction (between solo scriptura and sola scriptura) is what, in his argument, distinguishes Reformed believers from evangelicals and fundamentalists. Your recent comments regarding the authority of councils seem to me to be advancing a position that is just as individualistic as is fundamentalism.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kevin said...

Umm...well, I don't know what to say. It's okay for you to misrepresent our position because it doesn't make sense to you? Ok. Whatever.

How about trying harder to understand and doing some more reading and discussing before triumphantly engaging us until you do understand what it is we are saying? Misrepresenting our view doesn't help anyone including yourself and your critiques are absolutely something other than of the devastating nature you pretend them to be and they will remain that way as long as you pretend that you're actually grasping what we're saying and equating it to vapid evangelical fundamentalism.

Principium unitatis said...

Kevin,

If anything I have said about your position is false, I apologize, and ask you to please point that where I have misrepresented your position. I definitely do *not* want to misrepresent anyone's position.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan