The Perpetuation of Faith

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…That the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act of baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s Table…the system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children in the sense of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Inst 4.1.4) where, speaking of her title, Mother, he says: “There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end.”

John Williamson Nevin, My Own Life, The Early Years.

In any household, there is the question of the perpetuation of that which identifies the core of the household. A family passes down its particulars to its descendants. What makes us who we are up one side and down the other is largely inherited. And whatever isn’t effortlessly inherited is deliberately engendered.

When it comes to the Christian faith, the confessional Reformed ethic, once again, differs from the evangelical one. Where the evangelical ethic seeks to perpetuate the faith by bringing outsiders into the fold, the confessional one emphasizes the mini-congregation within the congregation. Where the evangelical ethic looks to seek those who are “afar off,” the confessional one looks to live births, namely the covenant family. It is not that the evangelical has no consciousness toward his children, or that the confessionalist places no value on missions or evangelism. While how each does those respective activities differs (i.e. Reformed do evangelism differently than the evangelical), it is also worth noting that the question of emphasis is also a distinguishing mark. In a word, where the evangelical emphasizes “afar off” evangelism, the confessionalist practices the catechism of covenant children.

The pull for the confessionalist to “do better” in his evangelism is more a push by the evangelical ethic upon him, wholesale. It is typical for the confessionalist to be made to feel somehow inferior, but really he should not. He is not an evangelical. Just as it would be unrealistic for the confessionalist to expect the evangelical to adopt his emphasis, it is equally unrealistic for the evangelical to expect the confessionalist to turn his attention primarily outward instead of nurturing his own. Yet, it is often not the evangelical who feels relatively ashamed of his inability to catechize his children so much as it is the confessionalist who senses the need to hand out just as many Bibles to the natives and be as obsessed with “growth” and “numbers.”

It is, after all, the evangelical ethic that fuels much of the mega-church phenomenon being compelled to behave more like a conference center that “packs ‘em in” than a church nurturing souls. Very often, I have found, the Reformed are accused of not being particularly strong when it comes to evangelism. This is usually laid at the doorstep of our Calvinism or the very idea that “God saves sinners,” the doctrines of election or predestination, etc. This, I think, is a great miscalculation on the part of the evangelical. Still greater, and even more pathetic I might add, is the confessional acquiescence to the idea and subsequent efforts to behave more “evangelically.” I am not beyond admitting that Reformed confessionalism can lend itself to a less-than adequate purview on evangelism. But, at the same time, I think that once it gets to this stage one is really beginning to deal with forms of hyper-Calvinism or other errant forms of determinism over against sound and biblical Calvinism.

No, our perceived “weakness” with regard to evangelism really comes from a skewed understanding not only of our Calvinism but also a misunderstanding of the confessional ethic of an inherited faith, a covenant theology that informs us that the faith is one handed down more than it is propagated amongst the outside world. But it is not a weakness if we truly understand this dimension of a confessional tradition, one that is increasingly eaten alive by the surrounding evangelical ethic. That it is perceived as a weakness really is to reveal an underlying Evangelical assumption, which is itself informed by an individualism and set of assumptions about what it means to perpetuate the faith. Look around any church of any tradition, including Evangelical, and the evangelical ethic simply falls apart. Most heads in pews are there because they have indeed inherited the faith of their forbears. Most are, in point of fact, not made up of converts from outside the group. Just as covenant theology itself acknowledges the realities of near-eastern phenomenon of treaties and applies them to the understanding of cultic truth and praxis, the confessional ethic in this way mirrors what is true in natural or cultural life: belief systems are primarily handed down from within, inherited, perpetuated by younger generations that begin by mimicking the elder and then internalizing that system through a natural human process of maturation.

The confessionalist understands this about the order of things and applies it to his system of faith. For my confessional money, I would much rather be about the business of molding young souls that are naturally designed to mimic and internalize in the privacy of my own home and church than err on the side of making myself a nuisance to those who couldn’t care any less and over whom I have absolutely no jurisdiction. Granted, it has its obstacles (does any parental duty not?), but I tend to find I have much more success six days a week with those malleable souls given to me for such a task than always looking to legitimate my secular vocations by seeing how many times I can force any given situation for an in-road toward awkward personal evangelism.

With this in mind, I think we might begin to ask whether what we do to answer the questions pertaining to the perpetuation of faith seem more evangelical (outward bound) or confessional (inward bound)? Are we as congregations assuming much too much about just how the faith is handed down while evangelistic efforts keep getting more and more ramped up? Do we intuit that the promise is less for “you and your children” and really more for those that “are far off”? We should be wary of the American impulse to say both, which can be at once an unrealistic and frenzied drive to “be all things to all people” or a lazy answer designed to merely bark out an ideal response when we all know it is impossible. Just as in most secular life issues, we must all make choices and create emphasis when we do sacred life. The evangelical ethic places its emphasis on those that are far off and makes no apology for it; they should not be begrudged and only congratulated on being consistent.

In the same way, confessionalists should feel no shame in also taking a side and being consistent, since we have historically done just that. We should resist the push to be evangelical in this way, seek and recover the lost art of being true confessionalists.

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12 Responses to The Perpetuation of Faith

  1. Pingback: Water Is Thicker Than Blood

  2. whitword says:

    Nevin scares me. 🙂 But beside that excellent post. Although can 2k advocates be “confessional”? I thought we were just a bunch of “anabaptist” “antinomians”. (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

    Wayne

  3. Zrim says:

    whitword,

    I might ask if confessionalists can be 2K. It almost seems like kingdom theology is the last frontier amongst us.

  4. Wayne says:

    Of course being facetious. By the way Zrim in case you weren’t aware let me introduce myself as a dude pastored by Todd who participates from time to time on the board. I have really enjoyed reading your blog. I’ll post from time to time under Wayne but I guess whitword is my wordpress logon so you may see that as well.

  5. Zrim says:

    Wayne,

    Yes, I got your sarcasm (good one), I was just trying to be a good host.

    In case I haven’t said it yet, welcome. Glad to have you pipe up.

    Todd’s the 2K man. I think I know what you mean by it, but don’t let Nevin scare you too much. There is some cause for concern, I think, but it’s not as much theological pornography as it’s made out to be.

  6. Wayne says:

    Ok well I don’t feel that guilty then since you’ve given me the thumbs up to look at Nevin. Thanks again for the welcome and you’d be right about Todd however he has been MIA lately. Busy getting settled in more than likely.

  7. Sam says:

    Nevin was a heretic. Anybody with clear understanding of the gospel can see that by reading his writings and or those of others in the Mercerburg movement.

    Some of the greatest evangelistic efforts, resulting in a huge number of conversions, were Reformed efforts. The truly Reformed have always had a strong desire to win the lost. Reformed churches were leaders in missionary efforts. Your theory is greatly flawed. The apostle Paul and the Great Commission disagree with you. We are not only to care about “me and my own”.

  8. Zrim says:

    Sam,

    If you had read carefully you would have easily seen that no where have I implied that “we are to only care about ‘me and my own.'”

    “It is not that the evangelical has no consciousness toward his children, or that the confessionalist places no value on missions or evangelism. While how each does those respective activities differs (i.e. Reformed do evangelism differently than the evangelical), it is also worth noting that the question of emphasis is also a distinguishing mark. In a word, where the evangelical emphasizes ‘afar off’ evangelism, the confessionalist practices the catechism of covenant children.”

    It’s a matter of emphasis, that’s the point. Note that I don’t so much fault the evangelical ethic as point out its different emphasis. That’s called charity. Hip-slinging the H-word usually indicates charity has gone by the boards.

    Besides, you seem to think bigness and numbers finally measures success. Why? I have no problem with bigness and numbers, but I fail to see why that is always the mark of success and can’t ever be a mark of failure.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. Sam, I’m not aware that Nevin was declared to be a heretic. Do you know what church body declared him a heretic?

  10. Sam says:

    The first definition in the dictionary states that, in the non-RC context, heresy is “religious opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine.” As one who is called to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world,” it is clear to me that he was a heretic.

    But the RCUS, while not explicitly calling him a heretic, has officially stated that he did not hold orthodox Reformed doctrine. You can find their official history of his influence at

    He is at best someone not to be recommended as a sound teacher. Nevins’s teachings nearly destroyed the RCUS, but God preserved a remnant of faithful saints through it all. The majority who followed the Mercersburg theology ended up in that great bastion of truth called the United Church of Christ.

    You might also check out “A Perverted Gospel. or, the Romanizing Tendency of the Mercersburg Theology” published in Leben magazine, an official publication of the RCUS, at

    Or also take a look at B.S. Schneck’s “Mercersburg Theology Inconsistent with Protestant and Reformed Doctrine” at

    Look not primarily at Schneck’s comments, but at the Nevin quotes.

    Here are some snippets.

    From the RCUS website: “The believer’s union with Christ, he (Nevin) taught, must not be conceived of as a merely moral union but as a transfusion of the soul and body of one into the other. Accordingly, Nevin located the atonement not in the propitiatory death of Christ (as the catechism teaches), but in the incarnation itself, that is, by “an organic union of the Incarnate Word with humanity, as a whole, and this in order to form a basis for the regeneration of the race.” Therefore, believers are not saved by the sufferings and death of Christ but by Christ conveying to them the very substance of his incarnate life. This impartation of Christ’s theanthropic life (Nevin’s definition of justification) finds its consummate expression in the Lord’s Supper.”

    From Leben:

    Attend now to the statements of Dr. Nevin: “The atonement, as a foreign work, could not be made to reach us in the way of a true salvation. Only as it may be considered as immanent in our nature itself, can it be imputed to us as ours, and so become available in us for its own ends.”
    This accords, substantially, with the views of the Catholic Church, the righteousness by which we are justified is not a righteousness without us—a righteousness inherent, or as Dr. Nevin
    expresses it, “immanent in our nature.” So, too, the editor of the Messenger remarks on this
    subject: “The Protestant doctrine of Justification is but very superficially and one-sidedly apprehended, when it is conceived that the sinner is justified pretty much in the same way, as if an
    innocent, good-natured individual were to impute his innocence to a guilty murderer, and offer
    his own life as a ransom for his, and that, thereby, violated justice were satisfied.” Another writer in the same paper speaks thus: “The
    justification of a sinner cannot be a merely external work. The righteousness of Christ is not
    merely thrown around the sinner as a cloak, a
    shield, or a coat of steel to defend and screen him
    from the wrath to come.” What is this but a virtual
    denial of the great principle both of Substitution and of Justification? Are we not taught that “he who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him?”
    that “he suffered, the just for the unjust, that we might be brought to God?” Are we not called upon
    to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ?” Was it not the great desire of Paul “to be found in him, not
    having his own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ?” “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with
    the robe of righteousness.”

    Decide for yourself. Such statements are very disturbing. FVers love Nevin.

  11. Sam says:

    Oops. The links did not show up.

    The Leben article is at http://www.leben.us/p12.asp

    The RCUS Website article is at http://www.rcus.org under “History” and then “The Nineteeth Century Period”

    The Schneck article is at http://www.archive.org/details/mercersburgtheol00schnuoft

  12. Zrim says:

    Sam,

    That’s why I suggested in comments above that Nevin had problems.

    But what does any of that have to do with the subject of the post? FVer Jeff Meyers’ “The Lord’s Service” is a very nice work on Reformed worship, minus the jazz on paedocommunion, etc. Are you suggesting Catholics have nothing worth reading, or Baptists, or Lutherans, or Anabaptists like Hauerwas? Believe it or not, it is possible to retain confessional Reformed orthodoxy and learn a great deal from others.

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