From Mercersburg in 1846

This Reformed theologian of the 19th century sure sounds different than a lot of Reformed leaders of today.

ďAs the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship, so it is clear that the entire question of the church, which all are compelled to acknowledgeóthe great life problem of the ageócenters ultimately in the sacramental question as its inmost heart and core. Our view of the Lordís Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christís person and the conception we form of the church. It must influence, at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology, as well as all our ideas of ecclesiastical historyĒ (John W. Nevin, ďMystical PresenceĒ [1846] in The Mystical Presence and other Writings on the Eucharist eds. Bard Thompson and George Bricker [Boston: United Church Press, 1966]).


19 thoughts on “From Mercersburg in 1846

  1. Actaully, I think Calvin would disagree with many “Calvinists” of today.
    The so-called “Mercersburg Theology” was in my eyes a reaction of high-church Calvinists to the excesses of Finneyite evangelicalism (so far, so good).
    But even though some on their terminology sounds appealing to Lutheran ears, the movement had its own set of issues. Like other liturgical movements of the 19th century, it was Romantic to the core, and tended to seriously deemphasize the Cross. Some of its proponents defected to Rome. Others shaped the ethos the Reformed Church in the US, which ultimately gave birth to the United Church of Christ (hardly a bullwark of orthodoxy!!).
    As a Calvinist turned Lutheran,I think Mercesburg shows the deep problems Reformed Theology has with the sacraments, and how difficult it is for Calvinists to find an altetrnative without falling back to Rome. At least, they should read Calvin.

  2. Hi Lawrence,

    Yes, I do think so. It is visible in American Reforemd circles with guys like Horne (a Google search will probably be helpful to you here).
    Always this idea of guys being disgusted with the state of today’s evangelicalism and trying to find a counter-model in the past, even though this model might not ever have actually existed. This is what I call the “smells and bells syndrom”. It makes you look smart. Classy. But, ultimately it can take you away from the Gospel as easily as a mega-church.
    A true view of the means of grace and of our historic liturgy is one of the most preciuos treasures I found in Lutheranism. Too bad too many are looking for in the bad places (Rome or the East).

  3. How have you been, J.M.?

    I have seen significant efforts by LCMS pastors over the last 4-5 years to lean away from the contemporary services and lean toward the more reverant formal traditions.

    I recently moved to a new town and church. One of my first sundays the young associate pastor lead the service out of the old red Hymnal. (I’m not sure he was borne yet when the Blue Hymnal came out.)

    After all this time, I still have most of those old services memorized. It was really moving for me to hear this young pastor presenting the old traditional service I remember from child-hood.

  4. I’m doing fine thanks. How about you?
    At least, in the LCMS, you have the choice between liturgies and forms of services. In our synod, it’s one liturgy for the “without eucharist” services, and one for the “with eucharist” ones. Period. Both texts are pretty traditional. I like that, but they are “heavy” and tend to be an hindrance in smaller congregations (or church-plants) where people are not necessarly ready to sing all the respons, etc…
    Have you had a chance to look at your new “hymn-book” (if it has yet been published?). What do you think of it?

  5. Is your liturgical format choice a congregation/pastor thing, or does your synod dictate only the two? {I do not know which synod you are in}

    Let’s make sure we are talking the same thing.
    {keeping in mind we are talking about different incarnations of “the liturgy”, not different liturgies} You know, like having a contemporary service vs. a traditional service.

    Contemporary would be like using more modern music compositions, modern instruments and choirs instead of traditional composers and pipe-organ, and kantors.

  6. Very true, Tim. But I still think there are more “traditional” forms of worship and some more “modern” ones. The historic liturgy (OK, liturgIES) exists, and it is different from what we see commonly those days. I am not a huge fan of liturgy per se (was it not Preus who talked about high-church pietism?, but I still have my preferences.
    Lawrence, to answer your question, our synod only endorses those two liturgies. Faithfulness and creativity do not always come together, I guess!
    And, if you really want to know, I am a proud member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church-Synod of France and of Belgium.

  7. Thanks J.M,

    (My paternal Great Grandfather hails from Belgium) ūüôā

    I think this discussion of liturgy may be heading off course. There really is only one standard liturgical format, even though we may change the order of a few things, or add a piece here and there. The main liturgical pieces are primarily all the same.

    In fact the liturgy with communion, and liturgy without communion are really basically the same liturgy, even though the service elements change a bit.

    And thanks for the correctin Tim. I am not using ‘contemporary’ in the correct context.

  8. I also see that ELC-France/Belgium is concidered by LCMS as a “Partner Church”. Apparently we share Altar and Pulpit Fellowsip. I didn’t know that ’till I just looked it up.

  9. Yes, we are in Altar and Pulpit Fellowship. Actually, our two churches are part of the International Lutheran Council (with this difference that we are a very, very small synod and that you guys are really big).
    Concerning the relation between liturgy and the eucharist: I think that many people think give its right place to the Lord’s supper if they adopt a very high-church liturgy. This is common misconception in Reformed circles and, again, that’s what happened with Nevin, Schaff and the Mercesburg theology.
    Nothing but Lutheran confessional theology can make us understand what the means of grace really are, even in the most low-church context imaginable!!

  10. Yes, these are better terms to use. I do see a trend from Low-Church back to High-Church liturgical focus the last few years.

  11. This is really what I’m trying to get at.

    I think the church I attend tries to steer away from the more liberal aspects of the “new” Christian movements. It’s not that high or low church is bad, just that the older high-church traditions sometimes tend to provide a more formal worship environment.

    Really an effort to get back to the basics.

    There are times when my pastor gets the idea to march in with the cross with all the alter helpers in their white vestments, get a Kantor to chant through the service, the choirs singing, and basically have everything but a big hat and an incense thing-a-ma-bob. Creates a very serious and reverent atmosphere.

    (First time I saw this served in this current church I had to look twice to make sure I didn’t accidentally enter the Catholic Church just down the street.)

    Kneeling is also coming back into vogue again for those churches with kneeling ‘benches’ {name?} on the pews.

    But, is this pageantry realy just for show? If yes, then what’s the difference between the old reverent pageantry and the newer contemporary services? And why is it important if the basic liturgy remains the same?

  12. That’s the real question to ask, I guess. I have quite a few friends (and a cousin) in the Traditionalist Catholic movement. St Pius’ liturgy is everuthing to them, but they could hardly explain its articulation. “it’s more reverent” and “that how things have to be done” are the basic answers you get from the average layman in those circles. Nice, but very convincing, to say the least.
    Also, is the “liturgical” movement in your church promoted by the pastor or is it something that reflects an evolution of the entire congregation?

  13. Tough question to answer J.M. Changes in the Lutheran church are usually a subject of jokes, with a punchline reflecting that nothing changes. Depends on which side of the argument you’re on if this is good or bad.

    The liturgical issues here are really Synod driven, such as you relate in your case. What is really up to the congregations and pastors is which order of service, and how “contemporary” the feel. It also depends on the resources of the congregation to support “fancier” service formats. But I guess, really, the base liturgy stays the same. I suspect if we swapped churches for a day, we would see little difference.

    If a church has a professional organist and large choirs, the formats reflect that. If the congregation averages older or younger that is reflected. In my case our German heritage pastor, who’s dad was also pastor, and has a lot of old stoic German congregants; the preference tends toward the older more conservative service traditions.

  14. Well, the churches of our synod tend to reflect a strong Alsatian (eastern, germanic part of France) Lutheran sub-culture. It’s less true in our parisian congregation, where you have people from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds. It might be challenging for the old generation, but if we want to see confessional lutheranism grow in this country, we have to quit some old habits.
    It’s true too that most our churches are fairly small, and that keeps our services pretty much un-fancy ūüėČ

  15. Similar issues here with smaller churches. But that’s not bad. Smaller churches usually reflect a more homey, family feel which I think gets lost in larger congregations.

    My previous church was similar to yours in that, due to regional issues, there were a mix of people from various synods and other protestant denominations. The pastor insisted on keeping to the traditional liturgies, but the general feel of the congregation remained very “contemporary” because that was the most comfortable for the larger congregation.

  16. {I meant comfortable for the majority of the congregation}

    From personal experiences: Our previous church was also more comfortable for my wife, who didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church like I did. But now that she’s been involved for a few years, she has come to appreciate the more traditional feel of our current church.

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