What is the Mercersburg Theology?

The Mercersburg Theology was a distinctively American yet cosmopolitan nineteenth-century theology–catholic, sacramental, both modern and ancient, romantic and Reformed.  Its eclecticism and historical awareness in an age of rigid orthodoxies, its ecumenism in an age of confessional quarrels, its theological seriousness and lofty speculation in an American landscape dominated by anti-intellectualism, set it apart from the crowd of competing American theologies.  Of course, these very qualities that make it such a fascinating object of study for us today conspired to make it an object of contempt to contemporaries.  Vilified by the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy in its own communion, the German Reformed, as well as the Lutheran, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, the Mercersburg Theology was doomed to fail in its task of transforming the American religious landscape, and it is thus no surprise that it has lain largely forgotten in the century and a half since.

The Mercersburg Theology was the product of the fusion of two powerful theological minds, the mature and brooding intellect of John Nevin and the youthful vigour of Philip Schaff, on his way to becoming the most renowned church historian of his century.  It was also the fusion of two cultures and theological heritages–the Anglo-Scotch Reformed theology, mediated through two centuries of American practical divinity, in which John Nevin was brought up, and the German romantic theology that was reaching its zenith just as Schaff was pursuing his studies in the Universities of Halle and Berlin.

In 1840, Nevin was called to be professor of the fledgling German Reformed seminary at Mercersburg, Pa, where he was introduced to Hegelian philosophy and the theology of the German mediating school by his colleague Friedrich Augustus Rauch, who passed away prematurely only a year later.  Increasingly Nevin, dissatisfied with what he saw as the shallow revivalism and arid orthodoxies of the American religious scene, began to study both the modern German theologians and older Reformation theologians to develop a more “churchly” and sacramental practice of the faith.  The arrival of the remarkably like-minded Schaff at the Seminary in 1844 confirmed Nevin’s new theological trajectory and added Schaff’s remarkable historical abilities, and the Mercersburg Theology was born.  Over the next few years, both Schaff and Nevin, together with many of students and colleagues, were to pursue an alternative to the prevailing religious mentality of America, which they saw as hopelessly sectarian.  This alternative involved using the tools of new German historical and theological science to retrieve the theologies of the Reformation era and the early Church, where Nevin and Schaff found a more Christocentric, ecclesiocentric paradigm which could, they hoped, cure the ills of an overly subjectivist American religion.  This endeavour invited tremendous opposition, which helped ensure that the Mercersburg Theology did not survive as a movement for more than a generation or so; however, it bore rich and lasting fruits in the liturgies it bequeathed to the German Reformed Church, and the historical scholarship it pioneered.

 

Mercersburg merits further study today on numerous counts.  Mercersburg was far ahead of its American contemporaries in cultivating the discipline of church history as a modern science, and represented the first appropriation of German romanticism on the American religious scene.  Mercersburg’s ecclesiocentric critique of religious subjectivism will ring true for many today who are frustrated with the still-revivalistic character of so much American Protestantism.  Its attempt to retrieve a more faithful approximation of the theology of the Reformation for traditions that had distorted their Reformational heritage remains highly relevant to debates within Protestant confessional traditions today.  And yet remarkably little study has been done and the study that has been done remains largely scattered and unnoticed.  It is our hope to bring the Mercersburg Theology the attention it deserves and help foster a rich and fruitful field of Mercersburg studies.