Schaff, Philip

views updated Jun 11 2018


Church historian and theologian; b. Chur, Switzerland, July 1, 1819; d. New York City, Oct. 25, 1893.

Schaff was the son of a poor village carpenter and obtained his education through scholarships, first at Chur and later at Korntal Academy and the Stuttgart Gymnasium in Germany. In 1837 he entered Tübingen University, studying under Ferdinand Christian baur. Two years later he transferred to Halle and, in 1840, to Berlin, where he was profoundly influenced by F. A. G. Tholuck, E. W. Hengstenberg, and J. A. W. Neander.

His theories of history and the development of the Christian Church are drawn from Neander, a debt he acknowledged in his biographical study of Neander. As a Privatdocent in the theological department at the University of Berlin in 1843, Schaff was invited to accept a professorship at the Reformed Seminary, Mercersburg, Pa. His inaugural address, The Principle of Protestantism (Chambersburg 1844; new ed. Philadelphia 1964) linked him with his colleague John Williamson nevin in its theory of doctrinal development and its stress on the Catholic and Reformation heritage as the dynamic force in Protestantism, opposed to rationalism and sectarianism. Although favorably reviewed by theologians as diverse as Charles hodge and Francis P. kenrick, the address led to his trial (1845) before the Reformed Synod on charges of Puseyism; he and Nevin were vindicated. Their joint efforts developed a tradition of liturgical renewal, ecumenism, and a return to Reformation theology that became known as the Mercersburg movement (see mercersburg theology).

Besides his contributions to the Mercersburg Review, Schaff founded and edited (184854) Der Kirchenfreund to popularize these views. Visiting Europe in 1854, he lectured on church unity and on American democracy; the latter was published as America (New York 1855; new ed. Cambridge, Mass. 1961). His chief work began with the publication of The History of the Apostolic Church (New York 1857). Although he moved to New York in 1864, he did not sever his connection with Mercersburg until 1867. He held a lectureship at Hartford Seminary, Conn. (186871), and accepted a call to Union Theological Seminary, New York City (1870) where he taught until 1893.

Beginning in 1866, his ecumenical efforts were concentrated on the evangelical alliance. Holding that reunion was only possible on a firm doctrinal basis, he issued The Creeds of Christendom and A Harmony of the Reformed Confessions (New York 1877). His historical studies generally were intended "to remove ignorance and prejudice and bring Christians closer together." His History of the Christian Church to 600 A.D. (New York 1858) was enlarged and revised in 1882. He organized the American Society of Church History, contributed to its publication series (from 1889), and edited the pioneering series of American denominational histories (begun in 1891). He made the writings of the patristic age available in English translation through the Select Library series. From 1870 to 1885 he was closely engaged in the revision of the English Bible. His own scriptural studies include A Companion to the Greek Testament (New York 1883) and A Commentary on the New Testament (New York 1881). He served as general editor of the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. His last effort, an address on The Reunion of Christendom (Chicago 1893), was written on his deathbed.

Bibliography: d. s. schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (New York 1897). j. h. nichols, Romanticism in American Theology (Chicago 1961).

[r. k. macmaster]

Philip Schaff

views updated May 21 2018

Philip Schaff

Philip Schaff (1819-1893) was a Swiss-born American religious scholar and a great historian of religion. His evolutionary view of Christian development led him to support ecumenical efforts in religion.

Philip Schaff (originally Schaf) was born on Jan. 1, 1819, in Chur, Switzerland. He studied in German schools. At the University of Berlin he came under the influence of the famous theologian August Neander, who impressed upon him the importance of historical insight to Christian understanding. Following his graduation in 1841, Schaff traveled in southern Europe as a private tutor, during which time he observed appreciatively the Christian heritage embodied in Roman Catholic culture.

On his return to Berlin Schaff joined the university faculty but soon accepted a post at the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pa.; this post was apparently created to save German-Americans from religious error in the New World. He arrived in the United States in 1844. He was soon married and rapidly embarked upon an exceedingly fruitful collaboration with his brilliant Mercersburg colleague John Williamson Nevin. Schaff and Nevin, cosponsoring the "Mercersburg theology," challenged several popular Protestant attitudes in the United States, particularly hatred of Roman Catholicism, belief that the Reformation marked a radical break from the Christian past, and fondness for revivalistic enthusiasm over organic growth. Shocked churchmen brought Schaff before the Pennsylvania Synod for heresy in 1845, but that body exonerated him.

Schaff's reputation as historian and theological critic reached a new plane with publication abroad and in the United States of his America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character (1854). In a series of lectures given during a visit in Germany, which were the basis for the book, Schaff criticized Puritanical, antihistorical, and denominational facets of American religion. But he also told his German audiences they might well admire the religious vitality of Americans, which he attributed to the voluntarism of churchly life in the United States.

Schaff moved to New York City in 1863, and in 1869 he accepted a professorship at Union Theological Seminary. He now produced many of his most important works, among them a 25-volume Commentary of the Holy Scriptures (1865-1880) and a 3-volume Religious Encyclopaedia (1882-1884), still a major reference source. He edited a 13-volume American Church History Series (1893-1897), a project of the American Society of Church History, which he founded in 1888. Schaff also participated in national and international ecumenical movements. He retired in 1893, and on October 20 he died. His dedication to religious history inspired succeeding generations of scholars.

Further Reading

Probably the best book on Schaff is by his son, David Schley Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (1897). James Hastings Nichols discusses Schaff's years with Nevin in Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (1961). Also revealing is Perry Miller's introduction to the edition of Schaff's America which Miller edited (1961).

Additional Sources

Shriver, George H., Philip Schaff: Christian scholar and ecumenical prophet: centennial biography for the American Society of Church History, Macon, Ga.: Mercer, 1987. □

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