The True Mystery of The Mystical Presence

True Mystery cover
Price: $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-9839046-0-1
Publisher: Pilgrim Platform
Copyright: ©2011

“Nevin’s Mystical Presence fell into my hands quite providentially at the most impressionable stage of my theological formation, and it made a lasting impression on me. Nevin’s burden is a theological genealogy: to evince that the paltry sacramental teachings in the Reformed churches of his day (mid-19th century) had degenerated from the robust views of the original Reformed testimony. He exhibits that even by the mid-17th century the rich sacramentalism of Calvin and other Continental Reformers as well as the Scotch had begun to wane, and the sacramental views of Nevin’s own contemporaries were, to him, positively bankrupt. We can only imagine what Nevin would have made of the utterly de-sacramentalized Reformed churches of our own time. I therefore commend Phillip Ross’s noteworthy revised re-release of this work and, without endorsing Nevin at every point, commend this rich—and equally convicting—study to your most careful reading.”

— P. Andrew Sandlin
President, Center for Cultural Leadership
Preaching Pastor, Church of the King-Santa Cruz

“One of the most encouraging developments of recent years has been the resurgence of interest in the 19th-century Reformed movement known as the Mercersberg theology. The publication of Philip Ross’s edition of John Williamson Nevin’s “The Mystical Presence” represents a welcome addition to this revival. Ross has updated Nevin’s language and clarified his obscurities to make Nevin speak in a direct way to contemporary Christians.”

— Peter J. Leithart, Ph. D.
New St. Andrews College
Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho

I have finished a new book project that might be of  interest. I recently read John Nevin’s The Mystical Presence (1846) and decided to provide an edited, enhanced, expanded version of it.

I’m looking for help.  If you are interested in reviewing, proofing and/or interacting with the manuscript, let me know where you will review it and I’ll send you a copy.

Here’s the introduction:


You have in your hands an unusual book—well worth your time an effort. It is a work of plagiarism of sorts, but don’t be dismayed. According to Augustine, Christians are supposed to plagiarize the Word of God, to think God’s thoughts after Him. Paul insists that Christians imitate him. We are to take God’s Word, and the work of the great theologians, and make it our own. God is not after originality or novelty, but the faithful reproduction of His thoughts and ideas. This is what I have tried to do. Of course, Nevin was not God, nor am I denying that the bulk of the work belongs to him. Indeed, I stand in awe and have profound respect for his work.

So, it might be helpful to think of this as a contemporary edition of Nevin’s book, The Mystical Presence—A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (J.B. Lippencort & Co., 1846). It’s a sort of dynamic equivalence approach to editing in order to make it more available to contemporary people. I have simply tried to take his work and make it my own, in the sense of comprehending its significance and application. In doing so, I have taken broad license to edit, interpret, clarify and expand what I think Nevin is saying. My efforts will surely annoy Nevin purists, academics and intellectuals who are more concerned with form than content.

Why have I approached The Mystical Presence in this way? Because I understand what Nevin said. His book, like no other I have ever read, has brought together various strands of my own life and pursuits in such a way that has astonished me. It is like he is already where I have been trying to go. I have been working over the past forty years to get where he was more than a century and a half ago.

Nevin was the American voice of the German Reformed tradition. Having studied under Charles Hodge at Princeton, he accepted a position with the German Reformed Church to lead their only seminary. It is wonderfully curious that German immigrants would put an American in such a position, but that’s what they did. Nevin then called Philip Schaff, a Swiss born, German educated, Christian historian to join him in this effort. They then made a huge splash in the American Christian scene, after which Schaff went to Union Seminary to support the cause of liberal Christianity. And Nevin slipped into obscurity and an early retirement. It is often thought that Nevin also fed the liberal Christian stream in America, but that’s not what happened. Nevin simply held his ground and the world passed him by.

But there has of late been a resurgence of interest in Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology. It seems that Nevin is at the center of what is still a little known controversy that has erupted in the conservative Reformed churches (the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America, and a few others). Other Christians and denominations will be completely unaware of these issues. That controversy is known as the Federal Vision.¹ The Federal Vision is often confused with the “New Perspective on Paul,” another current controversy, but the two issues are not the same and must not be conflated. Exactly what the Federal vision is and its impact on Christianity today is yet to be determined. My concerns here are not for or against the Federal Vision, but for Nevin’s contribution to American theology.

These things connect to my life because I was raised and ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC), the heir of the German Reformed tradition in America. And what is even more astonishing to me is that having grown up in, graduated from a UCC seminary and served UCC churches for fifteen years, I had never been exposed to Nevin in any meaningful way. In hindsight, that is all the more significant because it appears that Nevin’s work provided the impetus for the founding of the UCC and its original ecumenical focus. It was Nevin’s ecumenical vision of Christianity, supported by Philip Schaff, that provided the central stake for the UCC ecumenical efforts.

And yet, Nevin’s name is not associated with the UCC in any significant way, probably because the UCC never actually did anything with Nevin’s work. They likely got the idea that something important was afoot with Nevin, and got distracted by the excitement of novelty and went their own way to do their own thing. Unfortunately, what began as an effort to unite Christianity, the founding of the UCC in 1957 has actually resulted in the most divisive denomination in the Mainline. Too bad! Had they run with Nevin, things would have been quite different. Anyway, Nevin connects me with my own Christian roots, which is important to me because I left the UCC more than fifteen years ago for a variety of reasons that are not germane here.

During my undergraduate years of wandering, I studied philosophy, Eastern religions, mysticism and New Religious Movements. My studies in mysticism led me to many mystics, Eastern and Western, and to Meister Eckhart, whom I adored for a while. I adored him because I thought that I understood what Eckhart was talking about. Eckhart is important because he is the preeminent Christian mystic, and because Nevin’s work corrects Eckhart’s error—and that is no small feat! Eckhart continues to have a small but loyal following. So, I pray that Nevin’s correction will be clear in the text. It’s brilliant!

Nevin was also unapologetically Reformed, which connects to another strand in my life. You might think it not unusual for a person who grew up in and was trained in the UCC to be Reformed. If so, you may not be aware that not all Reformed are Reformed in the same sense that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). While Congregationalism began as the most consistent of the Calvinistic Reform­ed denominations, by 1865 it had mostly lost its Reformed distinctive, though many have soldiered on.

I belong to that cohort, though I didn’t realize that I was Reformed until I read Calvin’s Commentaries after a decade of church difficulties as a pastor. These difficulties helped me better understand how far the church has fallen from being “a city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:9) in the new land of America. In the 1600s and early 1700s ninety-five percent of American churches were Reformed.² Today, those numbers are completely reversed. Today, there are two versions of Reformed—liberal and conservative. And Nevin faults them both for falling away from the original teachings of the Reformation. No doubt, this played a major role in Nevin’s unpopularity among his contemporaries. He had a serious theological dispute with his teacher, Charles Hodge, where Nevin won the argument but Hodge won the day.³ Popular opinion would not tolerate Nevin’s biblical fastidiousness. Those who were not Reformed had little in common with Nevin to begin with. Those of the liberal wing of the Reformed churches liked his ecumenism, but not his biblical integrity. And those of the conservative wing of the Reformed churches took umbrage at his accusation that they, too, had fallen from Reformation truth.

Nevin didn’t have much respect for Lutheran theology, either. His criticism of consubstantiation put Lutherans in the same category as the Roman Catholics and their transubstantiation. Both, Nevin argued, made the same error, but in different ways. Both mistake Christ’s presence in the Eucharist with the physicality of the elements, which blurs the distinctions between spiritual and material by bridging the differences with various ideas of superstition and magic. Transubstantiation takes the hard position of saying that one substance actually becomes another, where consubstantiation takes a muted or blended view of saying that the spiritual substance is locally and materially near the material bread and wine. Nevin rejected both.

There is some speculation that Nevin seriously thought about converting to Roman Catholicism because of his emphasis on the ancient church and the importance of liturgy. But it is hard for me to understand how anyone who has seriously read The Mystical Presence could entertain such a thought. Nevin’s criticism of transubstantiation is so clear and accurate that he could not possibly convert without losing his own integrity. I’m not aware that Roman Catholicism has ever dealt with Nevin’s criticism of transubstantiation or his doctrine of the mystical presence—nor is it likely that they would be able to, in my opinion. But I haven’t looked into that yet.

While The Mystical Presence is probably Nevin’s most important book, it is also his worst. The edition I worked from is a facsimile of the original 1846 edition by J.P. Lippencott & Co. Why is this edition so bad? Because it seems as if the original editor read and edited the first few chapters, but stopped editing for whatever reasons. It is not simply that Nevin’s English is antiquated by today’s standards, or that he loves to wax philosophically and mystically eloquent—which he does, but that in too many places the language is just plain sloppy.

So much so that I was compelled to correct it as best I can simply to understand it. Short of completing my first reading, I decided to edit the text in order to bring greater clarity to his arguments. At first, I tried to maintain Nevin’s voice, but as I progressed I found myself enthusiastically adding explanations and references to clarify and expand his thoughts simply because I knew exactly what he was saying. He was articulating the same kind of perspective that I have been writing about over the past twenty years. Nevin’s context and clarity were so encouraging that my own voice simply replaces his at various points. I pray that this will not trouble you, but that it will enhance Nevin’s work.

My overriding concern has not been to produce a scholarly or intellectual work that accurately preserves Nevin’s words or arguments, but to produce a work that honors and make his arguments better available to people today. Indeed, Nevin is not an easy read. His language is labored and archaic, as was much of the literature of his age. And his ideas are grandiose by today’s standards, but if you can catch on to what he says you will understand the necessity of his largesse.

His work was very contemporary when it was first published, so he referred to various people and books as if they were common knowledge, without references. And he was immersed in contemporary (1850s) German theology, philosophy and literature. Consequently, I have added many footnotes to identify the various people and references in the text. In addition, his own footnotes and text are strewn with Latin, Greek and Hebrew—to the point of distraction for today’s readers. So, I have endeavored to locate and translate these references so that contemporary readers today can focus on his arguments and not get distracted by the languages. My efforts in this regard are spotty, incomplete and undoubtedly inaccurate in some cases. Again, I readily admit that I am not a scholar, and that scholarship is not my contribution here. Nonetheless, I pray that my efforts will be useful for the forwarding of Nevin’s work and the Spirit’s vision for the future of Christianity in the Twenty-First Century.
¹ Wikipedia: Federal Vision;; OPC Federal Vision Article; etc.
² The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, Rutgers University Press, 2005.
³ Mercersburg Literature

2 comments for “The True Mystery of The Mystical Presence

Leave a Reply