Battling "A Whole Babel of Extravagance"

Lawrence R. Rast, Jr.
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 1998

"The system of New Measures lacks affinity whatever with the life of the Reformation, as embodied in the Augsburgh Confession and the Heidelbergh Catechism. It could not have found favor in the eyes of Zwingli or Calvin. Luther would have denounced it in the most unmerciful terms." (1) These are the words of John W. Nevin, and he is right. The revivalistic system of "new measures," systematized and popularized by evangelist Charles G. Finney in early to middle nineteenth-century America, has little or no connection with the historic Christian Church. American revivalism is an aberration peculiar to the United States-though, unfortunately, its export continues to increase.

On the other hand, confessional, Reformational Christianity has also had its defenders in America. This article will look at the confessional responses to revivalism offered by John W. Nevin (German Reformed) and Charles Porterfield Krauth (Lutheran). In the face of enormous pressure to accommodate their theology and practice to the prevailing American mood, these two nineteenth-century theologians articulated a Christological ecclesiology of the Church that was grounded in history. They simultaneously rejected revivalistic theology and practice as contrary to true Christianity.

John Williamson Nevin

John W. Nevin was reared Presbyterian, studied at Union College, and fell under the influence of revivalism. He later studied and taught at Princeton, as well as at Allegheny Seminary in Pittsburgh. Over the years Nevin's position regarding American Protestantism slowly changed, particularly in response to the use of Finney's "new measures." With the publication of his book The Anxious Bench, in 1843, Nevin broke with the American evangelical tradition and called on the German churches to resist the pressure to conform to the new religious spirit that was overtaking the land.

Upstart sects have set themselves to take possession if possible of the entire field in this way, on the principle that the old organizations are corrupt and deserve to be destroyed. Their reliance of course in this work of Reformation, is placed largely on New Measures! Thus a whole Babel of extravagance has been let loose upon the community, far and wide, in the name of religion, one sect vying with another in the measure of its irregularities. (2)

The temptation to conform to the seemingly successful efforts of the revivalists confronted the German churches. When challenged by the extreme psychological methods employed by the revivalists, Nevin noted that it was difficult to find any church that had not succumbed to the enticement that the "new measures" offered over against so-called "dead" and "formal" religion.

The primary target of Nevin's polemics was Benjamin Kurtz, who championed the "new measures" in the Church of Luther. Against Kurtz, Nevin sought to demonstrate the difference between genuine and counterfeit revivals. He rejected the charge that in exposing the "anxious bench" (3) he repudiated all evangelical religious endeavors such as Sunday schools, prayer meetings, and missionary work. These ventures, he maintained, reflected the true spirit of revival and as such did not depend upon the system of the bench for their positive effects or survival. The system of the bench fought against the life of Christianity.

The truth is, this system, as we have said, has a life and spirit of its own…. A false theory of religion is involved in it, which cannot fail to work itself out and make itself felt, in many hurtful results, wherever it gains footing in the Church. No religious community can grow and prosper, in a solid way, where it is allowed to have any considerable authority; because it will always stand in the way of those deeper and more silent forms of action, by which alone it is possible for this end to be accomplished. (4)

The system with which the bench is at war is the system of the catechism. Nevin, having been trained in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, and looking back to the unrest that the revivalists of the earlier part of the century had caused in his own life, found in the catechism-be it Presbyterian, German Reformed, or Lutheran-the pure and certain route for the life of Christianity to take hold of people and integrate them into the collective life of the Church. The system of the catechism stemmed from the historical Church and bore in itself the rooted religious consciousness of the Christian Church. The system of the bench, with its confusion and use of false psychological methods for conversion, replaced the work of the Spirit with human decision. In contrast, the system of the catechism, through the faithful ministrations of the representatives of Christ, quietly cultivated the life of the Christian. For Nevin the bench incorporated in itself the essence of individualism at the expense of the organic life of the Church. In the final analysis he found the two systems entirely irreconcilable; where one flourished, the other would fail, and vice versa.

For Nevin, the bench fought against the true work of the Reformation and subsumed the life of Anabaptistic radicalism within itself. Thus, those who held to the system of the bench compromised the true work of the Reformers, particularly Luther, for the bench represented the worst of extremism. And yet, amazingly enough, aberration from the churchly heritage of the Reformation was occurring with the most disastrous effects in the Lutheran Church. So far had the Lutherans of the United States departed from the communion of Luther that their right to designate themselves as the heirs of Luther was seriously in question.

Those who are actively laboring to bring the Church of Luther, in this country, into subjection to the system, cannot be said to be true to his memory or name. The challenge, Why Are You a Lutheran? , is one they would do well to consider. It is most certain that the interest they are pushing forward, in this view, is not Lutheranism in any sense that agrees with the true historical life of the Church…. (5)

From Nevin's arguments in the Anxious Bench one can glean that his chief concern was not with the use or abuse of the bench, but with the idea that the bench represented in itself. The bench was the invention of sectarian groups, intent on destroying the life of the Churches through the false psychological, man-made means of bringing individual persons to a crisis point in their lives. The bench embodied the prevailing particularism of American evangelicalism over the organic life of the Church which assimilated the person into the mystical body of Christ.

The dangers of the bench were present and real, but instead of expending his efforts only in attacking the bench, Nevin proposed the positive system of the catechism. His exposition embraces many of Christianity's doctrines. Man is born in sin, not because of his sinful actions, but due to his organic relation to Adam himself; Adam was the man and as such encompassed all humanity. The only provision that can be made for the redemption of man is for Christ to take on human flesh. The collective principle applies to the means through which the individual is brought into affiliation with the life of Christ. Thus, the Church is not a mere aggregation of like-minded individuals, but is the very organic life of Christ, the means of salvation. The Church then works to ensure that those brought into the living organism grow and develop along with it, primarily through the administration of the Sacraments. Corollary to the importance of the Sacraments is the ministry. In contrast to the revivalists, who merely seek to force a conversion experience and then move on, the ministers of Christ, the very ambassadors of God, through patient and faithful ministrations seek to build up Christ's body in the perfecting of the saints. Thus, despite the revivalists' protestations to the contrary, the system of the catechism is no mere dead, formal organization, more concerned with outward forms than the life of piety. It is the very living and growing body through which Christ continues his work on earth.

Yet, always lying behind Nevin's thought, was the reality of the American scene, with its continual fracturing of the church. He agonized particularly over the sectarian principle of subjectivism, which he held was encompassed in the appeal so frequently made to individual freedom. "With all his talk of following the Bible, the sectarian means by it simply, in the end, his own sense of what the Bible teaches. The Bible must be interpreted in some way; in order to enter any living mind, it must pass through a living medium of thought already at hand." (6)

In the place of the teaching of the historical Church as embodied in the Apostles' Creed, the sectarians set up their own reason as the judge for the truth of Christianity. This view departed from the true life of Christianity as expressed in its history, its creeds, and tradition, and supplanted it with the individual's subjective view. The sectarianism of the United States distressed Nevin and thus he sought to overturn it, not merely by returning to the older confessional standards, but through rediscovering the true life of the Reformation. There was only one possible way that the "diseases of Protestantism" could be cured, and that was in a reinvigorating of the evangelical ideas of the Reformation. Reinvigoration, however, did not equal repristination; it would not be a mere replica of the formulas and institutions of the sixteenth century. It would be instead an historically informed development of principles of the Reformation: justification by grace alone through faith alone, sola Scriptura, the freedom from the authority of the individual, as the Reformers outlined them. (7)

The controversy between Nevin and Kurtz over the anxious bench and its implications for the doctrinal positions of the Christian Church bore fruit. A movement was afoot in the Lutheran Church toward a stronger confessional expression in accord with the position of the historical Lutheran Church of Germany. This movement, aided by Nevin, would rediscover the distinct Lutheran understanding of the mode of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper and come to affect seriously the dominant position of the English-speaking Lutheran Church. The influence of Nevin and the Mercersburg theology (8) on the American Lutherans was beginning to make itself felt.

Charles Porterfield Krauth

The prevailing mind of Lutheranism in America as the nineteenth century moved toward its midpoint was decidedly antagonistic to the Lutheran orthodoxy of the seventeenth century. However, during the second third of the nineteenth century a doctrinal change in the Lutheran Church started to unfold. A movement that looked back to the Church's historic confessional stance began to emerge and make its presence felt.

The confessional movement was influenced by two distinct groups. First, the great waves of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia brought church members into the United States who were far more conscious of their Lutheranism. The other source was indigenous and, in line with Nevin, grew from a disenchantment with the prevailing revivalistic ideas. These two groups provided the impetus to challenge the prevailing Lutheranism of the United States. They found the American evangelicalism of Benjamin Kurtz and Samuel Simon Schmucker unsatisfactory and sought to develop a Lutheranism that would be true to both its history and its doctrine, and which centered on the person and work of Christ and the Sacraments.

The main Lutheran leader in the American confessional revival of the nineteenth century in the United States was Charles Porterfield Krauth. Born March 17, 1823, in Martinsburg, Virginia, Krauth entered Pennsylvania College in 1834 and the Gettysburg Seminary in 1839. While at the Gettysburg Seminary, Krauth was Samuel Simon Schmucker's student and learned the basics of American Lutheranism. (9) Schmucker had distinguished himself in his Fraternal Appeal, in which he offered a generic creed, based upon what he believed were the fundamental articles of faith upon which all Protestants could agree and thus unite. (10) There is no indication that Krauth diverged in the least from the views of his instructor when he assumed his first pastorate in Maryland in 1841; while there he vigorously busied himself with the pursuits of Protestant evangelicalism, including protracted meetings and temperance work. Soon, however, he would initiate certain studies that laid the groundwork for later confrontations with the proponents of a less confessional American Lutheranism.

During the last part of the 1840s, Krauth read more of Nevin and of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers, and became convinced that the Lutheranism of nineteenth-century America was not true to its historical roots. In the end, Krauth determined, like Nevin, that Christology occupies the center of Christian doctrine. Also key to Krauth's thinking was the nature of the Church and its place in history. In "The Relation of Our Confessions to the Reformation," he seconds Nevin's thinking about the historical Church. In contrast to Schmucker and Kurtz, who saw Rome as anti-Christian, Krauth traced the lineage of the Lutheran Church from the early church through Roman Catholicism out of which then emerged the Reformation. Roman Catholicism was to be reformed, not supplanted.

The spirit of the Reformation was no destroying angel, who sat and scowled with a malignant joy over the desolation which spread around. It was overshadowed by the wings of that spirit who brooded indeed on the waste of waters and the wildness of chaos, but only that he might unfold the germs of life that lay hidden there, and bring forth light and order from the darkness of the yet formless and void creation. (11)

In this principle lies the idea of a conservative reformation, not evangelical radicalism; and from this it follows that:

It is vastly more important, then, to know what the Reformation retained than what it overthrew; for the overthrow of error, though often an indispensable prerequisite to the establishment of the truth, is not truth itself; it may clear the foundation simply to substitute one error for another, perhaps greater for less…. The overthrow of Romanism was not its object at all. (12)

Like Nevin, Krauth finds error in Rome, but Rome is no more dangerous than those rationalists who extol their own ability to interpret the Scriptures apart from the common confession of the Church. The purpose of the historical confessions, the ecumenical creeds, and the entire Book of Concord is to guard against individualistic rationalism. Furthermore, these writings are not merely histories of the Reformation; they "are parts of the reformation itself…. In them you are brought into immediate contact with that sublime convulsion itself."

Confident that Luther would not feel at home in the present Lutheran Church in the United States, John Nevin celebrated the fact that with the emergence of the confessional Lutherans a time was coming when the Lutheran Church would move away from the rationalism and individualism of the sects, much as he hoped for in his own German Reformed Church. Thus, with the two antitheses working against and for one another, Protestantism could complete itself; apart from one another they are always lacking.

It [the Reformed Church] can become complete, (as Lutheranism, also,) only by recognizing the weight that actually belongs to its twin-born counterpoise, and so leaning toward it as to come with it finally into the power of a single life, that shall be neither one nor the other, separately taken, but both at once thus raised to their highest sense. (13)

Krauth, however, did not view the Reformed in the same manner as Nevin regarded the Lutherans. Though Krauth appreciated Nevin's historical and theological acumen, he disagreed with the position of Mercersburg and the Reformed on the mode of Christ's presence in the Sacrament. While Nevin viewed the Lutheran Church as a necessary component of organic Christianity as it developed toward its ideal expression, Krauth saw the Lutheran Church, as embodied in her confessional writings, as the purest expression of Christ's Church on earth. Krauth, though respectful of other denominations, sought to correct their errors and bring them into the truth as professed by the Lutheran Church.

Our Church is Reformed as against all corruptions; Protestant as against the assertion of all false principles in Christian faith, life, and Church government; Evangelical as against all legalism and rationalism, against all restricted atonement and arbitrary limitation of God's love; and by a historical necessity, created not by herself but by her enemies, she is Lutheran, over against all perversions, mutilations, and misunderstandings of the Word under whatever name they may come, though that name be Reformed, Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, or Christian, or by false assumption Lutheran itself. We claim, in a word, as the explanation of the being of the Lutheran Church, and of her right to be, that Lutheranism is pure Christianity…. (14)

One must grant the disagreements between Nevin and Krauth. The former was influenced significantly by Hegel, the latter tended toward mere repristination. Even in the midst of their disagreements, however, they retained the highest respect for one another as theologians and Christians. And their fundamental agreement on the greatest danger to orthodox Christianity never wavered: American sectarianism with its revivalistic practice.

The cause of the Reformation was endangered more by its own caricature, namely the wild fanaticism of the Anabaptists, than the opposition of Rome. Luther saved it, not by truckling compromise, but by boldly facing and unmasking the false spirit, so that all the world might see that Lutheran Christianity was one thing, and wild Phrygian Montanism, with its pretended inspiration, quite another. (15)
1 [ Back ] John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench, second edition (Chambersburg, PA: Printed at the Office of the German Reformed Church, 1844; repr. Catholic and Reformed, ed. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. and George H. Bricker [Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1978]), 12.
2 [ Back ] John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Chambersburg, PA: Printed at the Office of the "Weekly Messenger," 1843), 4.
3 [ Back ] See Sam Hamstra's article in this issue of MR (p. 19) for an explanation of the relationship between the "anxious bench" and the "altar call."
4 [ Back ] Nevin, Anxious Bench, second edition, 55.
5 [ Back ] Nevin, Anxious Bench, second edition, 12.
6 [ Back ] John W. Nevin, Antichrist, or, The Spirit of Sect and Schism (New York: John S. Taylor, 1848), 54, italics added.
7 [ Back ] See John W. Nevin, "Catholic Unity," Printed as an Appendix to Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism; The Church (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1847); "True and False Protestantism," Mercersburg Review 1 (1849), 83-104; "Thoughts on the Church," Mercersburg Review 10 (1858), 169-98, 383-426.
8 [ Back ] "Mercersburg theology" generally refers to the movement to recover a Reformed catholicity, against the "sect-consciousness" of much of American Protestantism.
9 [ Back ] Vergilius Ferm, The Crisis in American Lutheran Theology (New York: The Century Company, 1927).
10 [ Back ] Samuel S. Schmucker, Fraternal Appeal to the American Churches, with a Plan for Catholic Union, on Apostolic Principles, second edition (New York: Taylor and Dodd, 1839), 128-39.
11 [ Back ] Charles Porterfield Krauth, "The Relation of Our Confessions to the Reformation, and the Importance of Their Study, With an Outline of the Early History of the Augsburg Confession," Evangelical Review 1 (October 1849), 235.
12 [ Back ] Krauth, "Relations," 235.
13 [ Back ] John Williamson Nevin, "The Lutheran Confession," Mercersburg Review 1 (September 1849), 476.
14 [ Back ] Charles Porterfield Krauth, "Religion and Religionisms," Lutheran Church Review 26 (January 1907), 230.
15 [ Back ] John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, second edition, 31. One may also see Richard A. Muller, "The Holy Spirit in the Augsburg Confession: A Reformed Perspective," Concordia Theological Quarterly 61 (January/April 1997), 77-78.
Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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