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Mercersburg Theology


Designates the theological school of the German Reformed Church that set out to oppose the emotional revivalism of the mid-19th century by re-presenting the faith of the early reformers and by stressing doctrine, especially Christology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology. It originated about 1836 with Profs. Frederick Rauch (180641), John Williamson nevin (180386), and Philip schaff (181993), all faculty members of the German Reformed Seminary at Mercersburg, Pa. Convinced that popular revivalism was not in harmony with the heidel berg catechism, they undertook a positive and historical reexamination of earlier writings in order to recover the pre-Puritan faith of the reformers and to promote a historical appreciation of the Church's past. The result was a system grounded on the centrality of Christ and the Church.

The Mercersburg theologians taught that the Incarnate Word, Christ, is the primary truth of Christianity; in Him all men are regenerated and united as members of His body, a spiritual organism called the church. The Church, extending through all ages and destined to include all peoples, is ever the same, yet each age appreciates its fullness differently. From this they concluded that no doctrinal formula or organizational structure can be final, and the church must modify its teachings according to its progressive knowledge of Christian truth. While strongly upholding the general priesthood of the laity, these theologians also maintained that Christ, who is ever present in the Church, perpetuates His mediatorial mission through an order of men, all equal, who speak in His name, dispense His Sacraments, and rule His flock. The Sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are not mere signs, but "real seals of God's covenant with man" and channels of grace, made efficacious by faith. As a consequence of these teachings, the leaders at Mercersburg urged a liturgical restoration and openly attacked the then prevalent emotional revivalism. Constantly questioned and suspected, the Mercersburg professors were tried three times for heresy and acquitted. Because of disagreements with Nevin and Schaff, several congregations left the Reformed Church, but they had little influence beyond their own membership.

The Mercersburg theologians had hoped that their studies would eventually lead the Reformed Churches to union. Their own German Reformed Church united with the Evangelical Church in 1934, forming the evangeli cal and reformed church; this Church, noted for its Christocentrism, experienced a liturgical revival. The Mercersburg influence helped to bridge the gap between the complete supernaturalism of the Calvinistic creeds and the religious liberalism of the early 20th century.

Bibliography: l. binkley, The Mercersburg Theology (Lancaster, Pa. 1952).

[t. horgan]

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