It’s difficult to perform a Google search these days on any Protestant church without uncovering headlines about the latest denominational controversy. This past month, the nation watched with interest to see how the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church would address some critical sociopolitical issues. As several mainline denominations, including the PC(U.S.A.), have already discovered, the method in which a church body handles controversy determines, in many ways, its ability to remain unified. Denominations, like the PC(U.S.A.), are still bleeding due to rifts and divisions, so it’s no wonder that the UMC has decided to be very cautious in addressing its own controversies.
It’s true that the very nature of our Protestant heritage implies controversy. Even our very name implies controversy, since the word “Protestant,” of course, comes from the word, “protest.” And so for centuries, Protestants have argued amongst themselves about different aspects of the Christian faith. These historical arguments have often caused divisions or splits within the Protestant tradition itself, which is usually how different denominations are formed. And while some debates have been loud and prominent, shaping the course of our Church heritage forever (the events that sparked the Reformation most definitely fall into this category), other debates, while certainly creating a stir at the time, have since slipped through the pages of history but certainly deserve a second look.
One such debate occurred in 19th century America between Charles Hodge from Princeton Seminary and John Williamson Nevin from Mercersburg Seminary. Nevin took it upon himself to challenge Hodge’s spiritual understanding in many areas, but primarily, he challenged Hodge’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Now, Charles Hodge was one of the most prominent teachers and theologians at the time, and he shaped the overall course of Reformed and Protestant orthodoxy in America. Hodge’s pupil, John Williamson Nevin, on the other hand, was merely a blip on the Protestant radar and unfortunately never gained much influence in the course of history. Yet the mere fact that Nevin took on the Princeton school, one of the most influential theological centers in America at the time, shows that meaningful controversy can come from the most unlikely of places.
In my next post, I will examine the content of Hodge and Nevin’s very interesting debate, but for now, it’s important for us to see in their example a hope for the controversies of our day, no matter how debilitating and divisive today’s controversies may seem. Protestant debate is certainly not a new phenomena! Protestantism was born out of controversy, and as Protestantism continues to grow and develop in new times and places, new controversies will arise. But John Williamson Nevin, for all intents and purposes, was a very fascinating underdog. He shows us that even the most unlikely of voices can cause a stir. But he also shows us that just because a tradition is large and established doesn’t necessarily make it correct. Nevin took on the “status quo,” so to speak, of Reformed orthodoxy in America. He also took on Revivalism in America. Both huge movements, and he made a stand against both.
Now whether or not Nevin was right or wrong is not the issue at stake here. What is important is that Nevin embodies this very spirit of Protestantism, and his example teaches us not to shy away from debate, not to shy away from controversy. When Nevin found something in Hodge’s theology that he found unbiblical and unfaithful to the tradition, he challenged it. And even though Nevin may not have ultimately won the debate, for Hodge’s thought and Princeton theology continued to dominate American Reformed and Protestant thought, Nevin threw a wrench in the system and encouraged his brothers and sisters in Christ to wake up and to see what the living Christ is doing in the world, not simply to follow the status quo…
To be continued.