Nevin was the American voice of the German Reformed Church. Having studied under Charles Hodge at Princeton, he accepted a position to lead their only American 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 theological 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 theological ground and the world passed him by.
But there has of late been a resurgence of interest in Nevin and Mercersburg Theology. It seems that Nevin is at the center of what is still a little known controversy that has erupted among the conservative Reformed churches (Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS) and a few others). Other Christians and denominations outside of these circles will likely be completely unaware of these issues.
That controversy is known as the “Federal Vision.” The Federal Vision is often confused with the “New Perspective on Paul,” another current controversy. The determination of exactly what the Federal Vision actually is and its impact on Christianity today is still in discussion. My concerns here are not for or against the current expressions of Federal Vision, but for Nevin’s contribution to American theology. Nevin will demonstrate that this concern is not new at all, but goes back to the original teachings of the Reformation. It was hotly disputed then and still is today.