Antichrist & Catholic Unity

There are three authors that I will admit to being a total groupie of: Katherine Kurtz, Peter Reinhart, and John Williamson Nevin.  Kurtz, despite being a historical/fantasy writer shaped my understanding of faith in ways that some people might find remarkable.  Reinhart writes the most incredible bread cookbooks.  Yes, cookbooks.  He uses time as a primary ingredient and flavor-enhancer (also, incidentally, an important metaphor for spiritual development!)  Nevin, the only formal theologian of the group, wrote a book that I’ve often said “changed my life” (The Mystical Presence).  I say that hesitantly (and apply the distinction to no other non-canonical book).

Perhaps we can talk about The Mystical Presence another day, for now I’d like to turn to two of Nevin’s sermons, “Antichrist” and “Catholic Unity.”  On the surface, they may seem unrelated but they are really two sides of the same concept.  “Antichrist” is focused on “the spirit of heresy and schism.” (16)  “Catholic Unity,” then, is about the “holy catholic church” (as confessed in the creed).

In “Antichrist,” Nevin describes 12 “marks” of the “antichrist” (the spirit of Sect) and then suggests how to combat the “sect plague.”  “Antichrist” is barely 70 pages long and well worth the read (especially considering the penchant of contemporary denominations to engage in sectarianism and division).

In “Catholic Unity” he declares that:

…the unity of the Church… is a cardinal truth, in the Christian system.  It is involved in the conception of the Christian salvation itself.  To renounce it, or lose sight of it, is to make shipwreck of the gospel, to the same extent.  There is no room here for individualism or particularism as such.  An individual dissociated entirely from his race, would cease to be a [human].  And just so the conception of individual or particular Christianity, as something independent of the organic whole, which e denominate the Church, is a moral solecism that necessarily destroys itself.  Christ cannot be divided. (7)

“Catholic Unity” is only 20 pages long.  Again, well worth the read (especially, as mentioned above, considering the current context).

These sentiments lay heavily on my heart as I look at the state of Christianity in the United States (and, for that matter, in my own denomination, The Reformed Church in America).

The mid-1800s were not, by any stretch of the imagination, a time of lax discipline, weak theology, or biblical ignorance in the Church.  Indeed, hatred (and I think “hatred” is the appropriate word) of American Protestants toward Catholics was palpable (Nevin’s more congenial colleague, Phillip Schaff – whom I might call the inventor of modern ecumenism – was tried for heresy as a papist), and denominational schism was rampant (including the RCA/CRCNA).

Nevin wasn’t naïve or ignorant of these realities.  Nor did he propose a watered-down theology or an “anything-goes” approach to doctrine.  Nonetheless, he promoted the belief that unity was a fundamental aspect of Christ’s Church and that – even in the midst of disagreement and difference  –  we do not have the right or the authority to break it.

I wonder what the discussions of our differences (flags, sexuality, complimentarianism, evangelism, worship genre, etc.)  would look like if done within an unbreakable commitment to unity?  Is it possible that it would help prevent the “I’m-a gonna take my ball and go home” attitude and the seemingly-constant attempt to crown “winners” and determine “losers?”


Grace and peace,


(References to page numbers from Wipf and Stock’s The Anxious Bench, AntiChrist, and the sermon Catholic Unity ed. By Augustine Thompson.)


8 thoughts on “Antichrist & Catholic Unity

  1. (… and I wish that) All of God’s people said Amen! This is really a great post Tim. I don’t think I am quite as well versed in Nevin as you are. But I did do my Final research paper for Todd Billings’ Theology of the Lord’s Supper class on Mystical Presence and for Billings’ Theology of Salvation class on Nevin and Schaff’s ecclesiology. It was one of those things where it was my final semester of seminary and I was expecting to have a couple of refresher courses and perhaps have my views solidified. But instead I had my understanding significantly rocked!

    I feel like if we cannot argue (about such things as you have suggested: flags, sexuality, complimentarianism, evangelism, worship genre, etc.) and argue well and at the end of the day still be able to pass the elements to those whom we disagree with and say ‘the body of Christ/the bread of life and the blood of Christ/the cup of salvation for you’ and believe it for them every bit as much as we believe it for ourselves then we have already ceased to be the church. We might as well close the doors and go home. I don’t know if that is a slight overstatement. But most days that is pretty much how I feel. I mean we happily coexist with functional arians, binitarians and docetists in our pews (and sometimes our pulpits) and we lovingly try to bring them along. But God forbid we have a disagreement about sex.

  2. I also wonder what we as the universal church would look like in the midist of discussions with many differences but remain totally committed as the unified body of Christ. How is it that so many do not practice what they preach?

  3. In my recent ecumenical engagements I have come to see that it is easier to be tolerant of differences in opinion among people of another denomination over such matters as you cite. It’s harder with people with whom you expect to be roughly in agreement, especially when disagreement presents as judgment upon moral integrity. it seems akin to what happens in families: it’s easier to walk away from cousins with whom you have little contact and investment than it is to disagree and feel judged by a close sibling.

    1. Lisa,

      I agree. It’s sad really. Perhaps one of the main problem is the tendency to see each other as “cousins” instead of “siblings” and to imagine our “familiness” as something we’ve chosen instead of something that *IS* regardless of whether or not we’d choose one another if it were up to our own decisions.

      Of course, I think the *theoretical* answer is really pretty simple in the RCA – We’re a confessional denomination. Our unity (in theory) is found in our confessions – a basic set of beliefs that define our core identity (the rest of which, though perhaps important, we expect diversity in) and hint at our hermeneutic. Obviously (in the RCA) we’ve gotten away from that (we try to define our willingness to be together in a lot of ways – rarely our “standards of unity”)… thus many of our problems.

      Most families don’t disown one another over most disagreements. I understand that the “family” metaphor can be problematic in the church (unquestionably!) but it does make one think, doesn’t it!

      Grace and peace,

  4. Thanks for the post, Tim. I can remember the days when General Synods could be a real tussle, but in the end, the closing worship (not, in those days, rushed by shadow of people’s bags loaded on idling buses just outside the worship space) was a time of humility and reconciliation. Now, I read of persons (I’ve read it from those of the more conservative — or, perhaps, “Westminster” ilk, but I’m sure it’s happened on the more progressive side, too) refraining from receiving the Lord’s Supper at that last service, because they couldn’t stand to partake with “those people”. This is a total, and I believe, for some intentional, misreading of Reformed Eucharistic theology, and a complete abdication of Reformed ecclesiology. But no matter. “Purity” is the god of many, (leaving behind unity and peace, for some reason) not the God of our fathers and mothers.

    1. Paul,

      I remember closing out my first half-a-dozen synods or so (maybe even my first 10) with “The Church’s One Foundation” — I always thought it seemed to put things into perspective. Big. Powerful. Not at *all* pretentious… just the delegates confessing their/our faith in song with a solid conviction that Christ’s church is bigger than we are, has gone through a lot, and – because of her foundation – will stand.

      The Unity/Purity/Peace question is such an important one. My sense is that unity *is* a God-made reality that we don’t have the right to destroy; purity is a process that we are called to continually work on, and peace… well… peace is very different thing than there mere “lack of conflict” that we often seem interested in.

      Grace and peace,

  5. “Peace”–recalling our roots in Israel–is “wholeness,” “shalom.” This would suggest that, where there is schism, where some of us get up and leave, there cannot be peace. Thus “unity” and “peace” are intertwined, and, if we assume that “purity” is also meant to be inexorably linked to the other two–not a checklist, but some sort of triune dance, with three aspects of one reality (what a concept for an orthodox Christian!)–then it is impossible to achieve purity either by getting up and leaving or throwing others out. This is reinforced by the idea that discipline is intended to restore relationships, that excommunication is not just the failure of the excommunicate, but the entire Church. Add into that the statement of one of our doctrinal standards (Belhar) that unity is “a gift and obligation of the church of Jesus Christ,” and one might think that we already have an unbreakable commitment to one another, that, once we even consider splitting, the game is up and we are no longer Church.

    Here is where the motto on our old crest is superior to anything that the little green man running from the cross can offer: “Eendracht maakt macht” (please forgive me if I have misspelled the Dutch), best translated as “concord makes strength.” We are stronger when we all pull in the same direction, all work for the same goal, not when we all move in lock step. We just can’t let go of each other.

    Except that it sees that now (in the RCA, at least) we can.

    1. Thanks, James.

      I, too, think the “peace” component is key here (and – like you – I root my understanding of it in the concept of Shalom).

      It’s interesting that you reference excommunication. We so rarely even discuss the concept, but at least it’s based on the hope for reconciliation (in the Reformed tradition, anyhow). I’ll admit, I’m a bit nervous to bring it into the conversation… it seems that church discipline – more often than not – is used to “get rid of” inconvenient parties, rather than as a way of engaging all people in faithfulness and incorporating them fully into the life and ministry of the church.

      Grace and peace,

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