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.)