Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nevin and Revivalism

Right now I'm reading an extremely interesting biography of the 19th century theologian John Williamson Nevin. On page 97 D.G. Hart describes Nevin's response to the theology of revivalism:
By conceiving of Christianity in organic or corporate, as opposed to individualistic, categories, Nevin had an easy time explaining the churchly system of religion symbolized by the catechism. If men and women were to be saved, such restoration would have to occur from outside themselves. Here the ministry of the church came to the rescue. Salvation came to sinners through the "institutions and agencies" of the church "which God has appointed, and clothed with power expressly for this end." So, as Nevin's logic proceeded, "where the system of the Catechism prevails great account is made of the Church" because it comprehended the means of grace that God ordained for the accomplishment of salvation. "In this view the Church," he concluded, "is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them." In other words, the church did not follow the dictates of individualistic Christianity but precisely the reverse was the case: "Christ lives in the Church, and through the Church in its particular members."

As Nevin fleshed out the catechetical system, he revealed that his concern was for a pattern of inheritance or familial religion. Church life was ideally one where parents passed on their faith to their children, with the church performing those religious ceremonies and functions that mediated the Christian religion and supported the care of parents. Nevin asserted, "It is counted not only possible, but altogether natural that children growing up in the bosom of the Church under the faithful application of the means of grace should be quickened into spiritual life in a comparatively quiet way." If the rearing of children were the natural way of producing Christians, as opposed to the mechanical and vulgar means of the anxious bench, then families were essential to the constitution of the body of Christ. The family was, he explained, "a vital and fundamental ofrce in the general organization of the Church." The family's importance in turn gave parents significant responsiblities, such as praying for their sons and daughters, family worship, catechetical instruction, and setting a "pious and holy example" in the home. The work of families in conversion was then an important part of the system of the catechism. In effect, the contrast between the bench and catechism was one of individualism and decision versus organic ties and nurture.
But as important as the family was in the catechetical scheme, Nevin devoted far more attention to the work of ministers and the institutional church. Word and sacrament were the most obvious duties of the Reformed pastor. But equally important was a sequence of pastoral visitation in the homes "to recommend and enforce the gospel [that the minister] is called to preach." This work of pastors was like that of a caretaker, or even better, a mother's care for her children. Its aim was to build up and strengthen the flock. Unlike the system of the bench that made the conversion experience "the all in all of the gospel economy," the catechism was designed to care for believers over the entire course of their lives, from birth to death...."It is in the kingdom of grace," he explained, "as in the kingdom of nature; the greatest, deepest, most comprehensive and lasting changes are effected constantly not by special, sudden, vast explosions of power, but by processes that are gentle, and silent, and so minute and common as hardly to attract the notice of the world." Or to put it another way, "The extraordinary," in the case of the catechetical system, "is found ever to stand in the ordinary, and grows forth from it without violence so as to bear the same character of natural and free power." As such, the catechism was not opposed to revivals. Rather, the system of catechetical religion involved a different notion of revival, one where the church enjoyed "special showers of grace" through the regular ministrations of the pastoral office."

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