Revivalism, Rationalism or Real Union?


World Communion Sunday seems to me a good day to revisit what we mean when we talk about celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In Reformed communities this has been the subject of a good deal of internal debate.  In 1846 John Williamson Nevin published his magnum opus, The Mystical Presence: A vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. The catalyst to much of Nevin’s public writings had initially been Charles Finney’s “New Measures” for evangelism that were sweeping the nation, across denominational lines and dividing churches. This included the Presbyterian Church of Nevin’s early faith formation and his religious training at Princeton Theological Seminary (where he was an acquaintance of Charles Hodge) as well as the German Reformed church in the US that he joined in the 1840’s.

However, in The Mystical Presence it is the in vogue treatment of the Lord’s Supper in Reformed (including Presbyterian) and Lutheran churches that comes under serious scrutiny. Nevin writes,

All who have any knowledge of whatever of history are aware that the American Lutheran Church, in its reigning character, has entirely forsaken at this point the position originally occupied by the same communion in the old world. Not only indeed has the proper Lutheran position been surrendered in favor of the Reformed doctrine, but even this doctrine itself – as it stood in the beginning – has come to be looked upon altogether as too high-toned… But this falling away of the orthodoxy of the sixteenth century is not confined to the Lutheran Church. The view of the Eucharist now generally dominant in the Reformed Church also, involves a similar departure… from its proper original creed, as exhibited in its symbolic books. An unchurchly, rationalistic tendency, has been allowed to carry the church gradually more and more off from the ground it occupied in the beginning, till its position is found to be at length, to a large extent, a new one altogether (John W. Nevin, The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, ed. By Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker. Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1966).

Nevin charged Lutheran and Reformed communities with falling away from their heritage. He accused American Lutherans of forsaking the original Lutheran position on the Eucharist for a Reformed doctrine. But by this Nevin did not mean a classic reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper as he saw in Calvin. Rather, he is referring to a prevailing rationalistic interpretation of the Supper in his day that has more common with a mere memorialism. This is a position Nevin calls “sacramentarian heresy.”

From there, Nevin embarks on a historical and theological survey. He contends that the historical Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper developed out of “antagonism to the Lutheran dogma on the one hand and, and the low Socinian [here Nevin means the Zwinglian/memorialist view] extreme on the other.” He writes, “To obtain a proper view the original doctrine of the Reformed Church on the subject of the Eucharist, we must recourse particularly to Calvin.” Nevin contends that “the sacramental doctrine of the primitive Reformed Church stands inseparably connected with the idea of an inward living union between believers and Christ, in virtue of which they are incorporated into his very nature, and made to subsist with him by the power of a common life.”

Throughout The Mystical Presence Nevin offers a doctrine of the Eucharist and the Church that protests the individualistic, and rationalist spirit of his day. And in doing so he offers a robust picture of the Christian life as a one of growing in mystical union with Christ, the new Adam. This union is “deeper than all thought, feeling, or exercise of the will. Not a quality only! Not a mere relation!” But it is “a relation in fact like that of the ion to the magnet; but one that caries into the center of the subject a form of being which was not there before. Christ communicates his own life substantially to the soul on which he acts, causing it to grow into his very nature. This is the mystical union – the basis for our whole salvation.”

In 1848, Nevin’s view of the Eucharist finally drew the attention of his old acquaintance and colleague Charles Hodge. In his “Review of The Mystical Presence” in the Princeton Review in April 1948, Hodge concedes some of the stronger uses of mystical union language by Calvin and other Reformers to Nevin but argues that “almost all of the Reformed confessions were for the express purpose of compromise. One great object of Calvin’s life was to prevent schism between the two branches of the Protestant Church.” It seems Hodge frames the issue in terms of compromises in order to discredit language which Nevin picks up on in Calvin and in the Reformed tradition that would readily lend itself to participation not only in the divinity of Christ but also in his humanity, mystically via the Eucharist. Furthermore Hodge contends “that while the Reformed held a doctrine which admitted of expression of the language adopted, it might be much more expressed simply and intelligibly in other terms.”

Hodge then continues with his own lengthy discourse positing what he believes are three views of the Lord’s Supper: “the Zwinglian view,” “the view of Calvin and the confessions formed under his influence,” and finally a synthesis view “in which both Zwinglians and Calvinists agree.” It is this third view which Hodge declares the real Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. In the process he deems unintelligible a distinction Calvin makes between believing and eating (Institutes 4.17.5). And in a display of the rationalistic tendencies which Nevin decried, Hodge contends, “There is, therefore, a real presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper; not local but spiritual; not for the senses but for the mind and to the faith; not of nearness but of efficacy.” Finally he concludes that in the Lord’s Supper “whether there is any special benefit or communion with Christ to be had there, and which cannot elsewhere be obtained, the Romanists and Lutherans answer in the affirmative; the Reformed unanimously in the negative.”

In the time of Nevin and Hodge, it seemed that Hodge had won the day. And indeed time has shown it Hodge’s version of Reformed orthodoxy that has remained most common in Reformed circles in the United States. Yet there is a growing scholarly consensus that even in their day there was some recognition that Nevin was the more faithful historian. Bradford Littlejohn writes, “When Nevin published his 128-page rebuttal of Hodge’s view of the Eucharist, Hodge never directly responded, probably because there was little response he could offer.” Littlejohn continues, “Most scholars have concluded that, whatever the virtues of Nevin’s theology, he manhandled Hodge on the historical question.” Similarly, James Nichols charges that what Hodge had done “was to comb over The Mystical Presence in a fortnight or so, with no significant independent study, and to rearrange its historical evidence completely out of context in accordance with his own ideas of theological propriety.” Nichols concludes, “It was not that he was dishonest; he just lacked understanding of what history is. For him the past was an armory of theological tenets, and a man had a right to pick and chose as he would.”

Indeed one need not sympathize with Nevin to see who read Calvin more faithfully. I will grant Hodge that Calvin’s distinction between mere believing and eating of Christ flesh is confusing; but that does not mean we should dispense with it. Calvin’s clear sense of the Eucharist as something “definite and elevated” is all over Book IV of The Institutes. It is there we find Calvin taking as conversation partners not only John’s Gospel but also, Matthew, Luke, Augustine and John Chrysostom. Calvin contends, quite tenaciously, that it is truly Christ himself that believers feed upon in the supper. Speaking to the reality of that which is signified in the bread and wine, he writes, “And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at the spiritual banquet.” And again he writes, “Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in his body through the breaking of the bread, there ought not be the least doubt that he truly presents and shows his body.” And again, and perhaps even more clearly, he explains, “I call Christ with his death and resurrection the matter, or substance.” Finally says Calvin, “Now even though all these things have to do with faith, I leave no room for the sophistry that what I mean when I say Christ is received by faith is that he is received only by understanding and imagination.”

In a similar manner the Belgic Confession declares “we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood – but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Article 35). And finally Nevin’s favored document The Heidelberg Catechism states that partaking in Christ’s flesh and blood “means to be united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us that, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, always living and being governed by one Spirit, as the members of our bodies are governed by one soul” (Q&A 76).

Unfortunately in our day Hodge’s near collapsing of the spiritual into the rational abounds: “not for the senses but for the mind and to the faith.” We need desperately in our time to recover a sense of the Christian life as union with God. As evidenced in my own faith journey – from my Charismatic youth to my first several years in Reformed circles – revivalism and rationalism still continue as the two dominant methods for locating our experience of God. Either the heart or the mind is identified as the central place our union with God is nurtured. But we are not merely the sum of our emotions or thoughts.

The chief way that our union with Christ is meant to be nourished is not by observing a particular method of preaching or music as prescribed by Finney in Nevin’s day or revivalist or seeker sensitive churches in our day. Neither is this union fostered chiefly in education, academic study or even our memory of Christ’s work, as important as all of these things are. By no means do I mean to downplay the importance of our emotions or our intellect in our faith formation. But the chief way our union with Christ is nourished is by coming in community into the presence of the triune God where our whole being is nourished by Christ himself. This as I believe Nevin rightly claimed is “the very heart of the whole Christian worship.”


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