Monday, October 22, 2007

The Church: Agency of Grace

I've just finished reading the biography of John Williamson Nevin written by DG Hart.

Hart only briefly addresses the childhood of Nevin before charging into the narrative of Nevin's ministry. The bulk of the book is an attempt to explain what Nevin had to say, the context in which he said it, and the impact (or lack of) that his work had in the German Reformed Church and the American Evangelical church-at-large.

Hart's work is helpful and well worth the time spent learning about this amazing theologian from our reformed past. However, the greatest work in this volume is the conclusion, in which Hart does a masterful job of demonstrating the importance of Nevin's contribution, and even criticism, of the church in America. While the lion's share of church historians consider the late 19th century to be the "critical period" in church history, Hart argues forcefully that given a different (more appropriate?) set of criteria, it can be demonstrated that by the late 19th century, the church had long since passed the critical period. This critique (drawn by Hart from Nevin) is most fascinating since it demonstrates Nevin's incredible insight into his own period. But more to the point, Nevin's arguments against the American church are no less true today than they were in his day, making this work, and particularly Hart's conclusion, decisively relevant for today's reader.

I leave you with a quote from the conclusion:

"...if the church is primarily an agency of grace through word and sacrament, then when those means of salvation become marginal, Christianity has entered an era fraught with abiding significance."

Isn't this the American church of today? Hasn't it been the American church since at least the 2nd Great Awakening?



Jared Nelson said...

Seems like the German Reformed in America could have had a lot to contribute if they would not have made the unholy alliance with the United Church of Christ. I'll have to put this book on my reading list...

Matthew Bradley said...

My impression from reading Hart's book is that Nevin was in the German Reformed Church, but not of it. While he had supporters, the denomination never really embraced him. Historically and doctrinally it could have followed him without abandoning itself, but he wrestled with them the whole time and after he died he left little impact in terms of bringing the change he hoped to affect.

Great read, Jared. I highly recommend it.