Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevin’s Theology of Incarnation
by Adam S. Borneman
(Wipf & Stock, 2011, 202 pages)
The Mercersburg Theology and its primary theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, are undergoing something of a revival. This nineteenth-century theological movement was defined by a high view of the sacraments, an emphasis on the catholicity of the Church, and a focus on the doctrine of the Incarnation. These emphases ran counter to the revivalistic ethos of much of the era’s Protestantism. Nevin in particular has begun to earn a reputation as one of the century’s most important American theologians.
Adam Borneman explores the political dimensions of Nevin’s theology in Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy. He examines the antebellum political context that Nevin was working within, and he shows how Nevin’s view of the social character of the Church and the sacraments challenge important American democratic principles. Borneman looks at the influence of Hegel and German idealism on Nevin. Nevin’s critical reception of continental philosophy is a clear indicator of the unique place that he holds among the American Reformed theologians of his day (most of whom were indebted to Scottish common sense philosophy, which sat much more comfortably alongside democratic ideals). Nevin is brought into conversation with the Eastern Orthodox tradition and with Radical Orthodoxy, a contemporary theological sensibility. The parallels that are to be found between Nevin and these theological traditions show just how unique a figure Nevin really is.
Borneman does an excellent job of drawing out the major themes of Nevin’s writings and looking at them through a political lens, drawing out the contemporary relevance of Nevin’s thought for questions regarding church/state relations. This relevance is further established through demonstrating the ways that Nevin anticipates contemporary trends in theology. This book should be helpful to those interested in political theology and the history of American Christianity.