Two Great Tastes That Could Go Great Together

During this year’s PCA General Assembly Tim Keller (and Ligon Duncan) held a seminar on why he thinks the denomination should strive to stay together and resist any tendency to split apart. He invoked Marsden’s classic typology of American Reformed and Presbyterian which classifies the tradition into the triad of doctrinalists, pietist and culturalists. The doctrinalist, best embodied by the Princetonian likes of Machen and Hodge, holds that “The Christian religion is based upon a body of truth, a body of doctrine, which will remain true beyond the end of time.” The pietist, perhaps best embodied by the likes of Jonathon Edwards, seeks to cultivate the interior religious life and experience of the individual believer and is much more open to revivalism. The culturalist outlook owes much to the work of Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper who, upon his address at the opening of the Free University famously stated that, “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Thus was born, or at least given voice, the so-called Reformed world-and-life view.

Keller’s main point was that all three strains need each other in order to survive. The doctrinalist needs the pietist to make sure he doesn’t fall into “dead orthodoxy,” and the pietist needs the dotrinalist to make sure he doesn’t veer off into heterodoxy. And they both need the culturalist so neither becomes irrelevant.

But as some have pointed out, whatever else might be said about it, the whole taxonomy itself seems to forget that not everyone locates himself neatly in any one of these categories. Some of us understand our religious expression to be more ecclesiastical in nature. As Hart suggests in Recovering Mother Kirk:

As accurate as this typology of the contemporary Reformed world in North America may be, its strangeness is also glaring to anyone at all familiar with the ministry and work of John Calvin, who did so much to define the Reformed tradition. What this description lacks is one of the chief features of church reform that Calvin spearheaded. In addition to clarifying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the French Reformer believed that the Protestant Reformation would not amount to much without the reform of worship. In fact, Calvin placed worship ahead of justification in his list of things that, as he put it, encompassed “the whole substance of Christianity”: “first, the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and second of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” (The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 4) If worship was so important to Calvin and the Reformed wing of the Reformation, why are contemporary expressions of the Reformed tradition not known for their interest in worship? In other words, why aren’t there at least four groups of the Reformed—the doctrinalists, the culturalists, the pietists, and the liturgicalists? (RMK, 12).

Meanwhile, Jonathon Bonomo has recently given us a helpful sketch of a little known yet highly important debate between two figures in the American Reformed and Presbyterian landscape. In Incarnation and Sacrament: The Eucharistic Controversy between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin, Bonomo traces out the details of what set each man against the other with regard to both Christology and sacramentology. His main concern seems to be to give Nevin a fairer and more sympathetic hearing than history, or Hodge, seems to have done. What is interesting here is that Hodge may be said to represent the doctrinalist wing of Reformed-dom and Nevin, it may be said, the ecclesiastical. Nevin was Hodge’s student who later became the subject of Hodge’s intense scrutiny, to the point even of suggesting that Nevin’s teaching was in opposition to Protestant orthodoxy. It could be that at least part of the reason that the liturgicalist tradition never got off the ground owes to this theological rumble. As Bonomo points out, the liturgical may have “won the historical battle,” but the doctrinalist “won the theological war.” And to the extent that the latter, amongst other seemingly less-than-charitable conclusions, cast Nevin as simply a re-formulation of Schleiermacher, a pox on the liturgical house may have been sealed. Writes Bonomo:

The great American born theologian John Williamson Nevin, it seems, was just not American enough for his ideas to have gained a fair hearing in a country so enamored with the ideals of common sense. And on top of being too German, Nevin’s theology was too historically oriented, too sacramental, and in general too “churchly” to have had much hope for survival in “the land of the free.” (I & S, 126)

Indeed, Keller would have it that the doctrinalist and the pietist and the culturalist all need each other, to the relative exclusion of the liturgicalist, but let’s throw him into the mix in order to help make the point. How can one be all four when they seem to be at odds with each other? The pietist guffaws at the liturgical’s extrinsic notion that Word and sacrament worship is the principle good work of the individual believer and corporate church, saying instead it’s an intrinsic matter of personal holiness and grooming the inward life. And the liturgical is opposed to the culturalist’s idea that all of life is worship, as well as the naïveté resident within notions of transformationism. And if the Hodge/Nevin debate is any measure, it would appear that the doctrinalist and the liturgical are at loggerheads. But could it be that despite the enmity between the one doctrinalist and the one liturgical that they actually have more in common with each other than either has with the other two? Bonomo cites B.A Gerrish who observes that, “Hodge was a predestinarian Calvinist, Nevin was a sacramental Calvinist, and their debate may make one wonder if it is possible to be both at once.” (Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, 170).

Contra Keller, the only pair conceivably working together in the present era like peanut butter and chocolate would be the doctrinalist and the liturgical. The others seem to be three great tastes that don’t really go so great together, especially the pietist and the liturgical. Nevin versus Finney and Hart versus Keller seem as obvious as Geneva versus Rome, but Nevin versus Hodge might be a fight worth turning into a tag-team combination. As Bonomo concludes:

Yet, Calvin himself was both at once. So for those who wish to hold on to their Calvinist heritage fully—both in terms of its doctrine of the divine decrees as well as Calvin’s robust sacramental theology—the situation is not hopeless. From such a perspective, it might be held that both Hodge and Nevin erred equally in that they allowed one of these important elements of traditional Calvinist theology to drown out the other. And it might also be held, from such a perspective, that it is of utmost importance for Reformed Christians of the present day to listen attentively to the concerns of both Charles Hodge and John Nevin, so that we do not end up unwittingly covering over important elements of the very historic tradition to which we confess to adhere. From this standpoint, in fact, it might even be argued that the theological schools of Princeton and Mercersburg needed each other in the nineteenth century, and that they continue to need each other today. (I & S, 127)

This entry was posted in Ecclesiology, High church calvinism, Nevin, Reformed Confessionalism, Reformed piety. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Two Great Tastes That Could Go Great Together

  1. RubeRad says:

    could it be that despite the enmity between the one doctrinalist and the one liturgical that they actually have more in common with each other than either has with the other two?

    Yes; that’s probably the reason Keller (and Marsden) doesn’t bother to subdivide that category. After all, isn’t a liturgicalist just someone who is doctrinalist about worship?

    And whatever happened to calling the 4th category “confessionalist”? Is that the same as doctrinalist, or is it subtly different like liturgicalist?

  2. adam says:

    Fwiw, Nevin’s program strongly opposed the historic Reformed priority of a pulpit-based liturgy and instead advocated “altar”-based liturgy. The use of the term altar instead of table giving a clue to the theological paradigm shift that he proposed. To Nevin, the sacraments functioned as objective means of grace (opus operatum), contra the Reformed confessions.

    The Mercersberg approach ought to sound familiar, because in a nutshell it’s Federal Vision theology. Hostility to creeds, theological development, opus operatum sacraments and altar based liturgy. In my experience, its Mercersberg theology that animates Federal Visioning much more than Theonomy. In fact, I’ve never met a Federal Visioner who wasn’t a hard core proponent of Mercersberg/Nevinism.

  3. Zrim says:

    Rube, I don’t think Keller subdivides probably because he’s not really cognizant of a liturgical category, not because he sees it as synonymous with the doctrinalist one. I’m using confessional/liturgical/ecclesiastical synonymously here. I do think there is a difference between these categories and a doctrinalist category, and I think Bonomo’s book helps trace out what that might be.

  4. Zrim says:

    Adam, Hodge had legitimate concerns about Nevin’s theological outlook. But from what I’ve been reading, there was quite a bit of bluster and misunderstanding as well. I’m not sure where you get that Nevin proposed an altar-based liturgy against a pulpit-based one, nor the hostility to creeds. It may have been misguided to ground justification in the incarnation (instead of the cross), but I don’t see how that would mean anti-creedal. Doesn’t one have to be creedal to have the sort of christological grasp Nevin did?

    It could be that FV misunderstands Nevin as much as it does Hodge.

  5. sean says:

    We really need to re-confess our faith before I’d be comfortable entering into that marriage. Which in terms of the WCF means even more clearly ruling monocovenantalism and theonomy out of bounds, or just simply confessing less.

  6. Zrim says:

    I understand, Sean, and point well taken. Rushing might be good for frat’s and sorority’s but not marriages.

  7. tbordow says:


    Adam is correct, I will look for that in Nevin and post back if I can find it. Federal Vision is the rightful stepson of Mercersberg.

  8. tbordow says:


    A good summary – though not original source

    “[John] Nevin, [Phillip] Schaff and their followers sought to return to the ancient ecumenical creeds and argued that the mystical presence of Christ, mediated by word and sacrament, was the essence of the church. Reverence for creeds, catechism and liturgy, they believed, would unify the church and ward off the danger of sectarianism which already had split Protestantism in the United States into hundreds of competing denominations. In liturgy, the Mercersburg reformers restored the altar as the center of worship along with litanies, chants, prayers and vestments, while the Old Reformed pastors preferred a central pulpit towering over a small holy table, extemporaneous prayer and informal worship.”

    From the United Church of Christ:
    Short Course: German Reformed Church

  9. Zrim says:

    Todd, thanks. I don’t have my Bonomo book handy. I’d like to consult it before responding.

  10. RubeRad says:

    I’ve read a similar point before too, from Donald J. Bruggink (big book: Christ and Architecture, small book: When Faith Takes Form). He makes the point that “reformed” architecture aligns with a doctrinal priority of Word over Sacrament by the size and position of their pulpits relative to their tables and fonts, whereas it is Catholic to put the altar as the central focus of a sanctuary. I don’t recall any mention of Mercersburg in particular though.

    Another interesting architectural point; it is common for Catholic churches to have a baptismal font not in the sanctuary, but in the, I don’t know what it’s called — nave? foyer? But the point is they build a lowered section with steps down and back up, so that (a) you (physically) cannot enter the church but by the font, and (b) to do so, you have to descend and come up from the waters of baptism. I kinda like that, although it would take baptisms out of the Lord’s Day liturgy, because the whole congregation couldn’t fit in the church’s entrance.

  11. Zrim says:

    Rube, our worship committee has recently taken up issues surrounding sanctuary furnishing. There was reference about a Reformed church that put its font in the entrance of the sanctuary to convey to all believers that they came into the church by way of baptism. I’ll admit, that has a certain appeal, but I’m inclined to think that font and table should flank the centralized pulpit (which, preferrably, would be elevated like ours).

    So, if Nevin/Mercersburg was all about an altar-based liturgy that would be one flaw. I’m still doubtful that it was. Per Todd’s reference, though, the flaw in what’s dubbed “the Old Reformed” seems to be their preference for informal worship. If one slouches toward Rome then the other toward Saddleback. What says we have to choose between the two and can’t take the best of each? What says to be doctrinalist means we have to have informal worship, and what says to be liturgical means we elevate sacrament over Word?

  12. tbordow says:


    That’s just it – Nevin did elevate sacrament over Word. To Nevin, preaching was not the primary means of grace, the Eucharist was. His theology of worship flowed from this. Nevin had a lot of good things to say – but mixed in with some really bad stuff.

  13. John Yeazel says:

    That was an interesting post to read and the discussion was helpful too. I never really got the Nevin/Hodge dispute and now I see it more clearly. I really have not spent the time trying to understand the dispute going on with Keller and Hart either. Is Keller considered part of the New Calvinists? Or, is the dispute more complicated than that? Keller seems to want to bring together that which may not be compatible. Is that part of the problem too?

  14. RubeRad says:

    our worship committee has recently taken up issues surrounding sanctuary furnishing

    I highly recommend the committee get ahold of a copy of Bruggink&Droppers’ Christ and Architecture and acquaint themselves with the history and categories of the theology of architecture. I know my church’s design committee (we have a few architects among us) referred to that book, and later I checked it out of the library and thoroughly enjoyed just flipping through and looking at all the pictures of beautiful little reformed churches all over Europe. I believe the book can be had fairly cheaply used off Amazon.

  15. Zrim says:

    Todd, I’ve consulted again Bonomo’s and Mathison’s books. What I find interesting is that even Nevin’s harshest and most uncharitable critic, Hodge, never seemed to say that Nevin’s theology “elevated sacrament over Word.” Maybe given the chance he would have.

    But I have to say that I can’t help but wonder if Nevin’s quest to restore Calvin’s and the sixteenth century’s sacramentology (and ecclesiology for that matter) so irritates the memorialist and low-church sensibilities of today that he is uncharitably interpreted to have “made the Eucharist central at the expense of the Word.” But is to restore the doctrine of the Supper really the same thing as making it primary?

    Hodge charged Nevin with no less than eight different heterodox views:

    1. Schleirmacherian mystcism
    2. Rationalism
    3. Pantheism
    4. Socinianism
    5. Eutychianism
    6. Mothelitism
    7. Romanism
    8. Sabellianism

    As Bonomo points out, never mind that “some of these categories are mutually exclusive,” or that Nevin explicitly demonstrated his opposition to most of these charges. But shall we today add “Federal Vision” to the list and never mind that our doctrinal commitments against the Visionaries speak for themselves?

  16. tbordow says:


    Of course Hodge wouldn’t phrase it like that, but read Nevin’s “Mystical Presence” to see for yourself. Even Mark Noll understood that the Supper, more than the preaching of the Word, was for Nevin the center of all theology, and where we best received Christ’s person. Here is Noll’s summary:

  17. Jonathan Bonomo says:

    Hey guys,

    A couple thoughts in light of this discussion.

    First, Nevin did propose an altar based liturgy. But he didn’t propose this in elevation over the word. Pulpit and altar went inseparably together for Nevin (As they did for Calvin).

    Second, it’s simply mistaken to say, as adam does above, that holding to an objective grace in the sacrament automatically equals an opus operatum view of its efficacy. Calvin everywhere argues for an object grace in the sacrament, while at the same time insisting that what is made objectively present by the Spirit (Christ himself) must be received by faith in order for the the reality to be received along with the signs. Numerous passages in Calvin can be cited. But a couple should suffice:

    in responding to Heshusius’ objections to his view, he insists,

    “We maintain that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers, but in such a manner that those who profane the Sacrament by unworthy receiving make no change in its nature, nor in any respect impair the effect of the promise. But although Christ remains like to himself and true to his promises, it does not follow that what is given is received by all indiscriminately.” (“Clear Explanation,” Theological Treatises, 283.)

    He makes the point even more clearly in the Institutes, 4.17.33:

    “And this is the wholeness of the Sacrament, which the whole world cannot violate: that the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God’s elect believers. At the same time, it is true, however, that, just as rain falling upon a hard rock flows off because no entrance opens into the stone, the wicked by their hardness so repel God’s grace that it does not reach them.”

    This is precisely Nevin’s view.

  18. Zrim says:


    Noll also has this to say:

    “The influence of Nevin and Schaff was slight in the 1840s and 1850s. American Protestants were ill at ease with immigrants and with anyone who spoke a good word for any aspect of Roman Catholicism. They were wholeheartedly given to revivalism. They were busy making plans for interdenominational cooperation and did not look kindly on Mercersburg’s new reading of history. And America’s dominant Protestant philosophy, commonsense realism, had little room for the developmental ideas of Nevin and Schaff.”

    So, if Mercersburg can be said to have “slouched toward Rome,” it can also be said that Princeton “slouched toward Muenster.” But I’m more inclined to say that both suggestions are quite over-wrought. It seems pretty clear to me that the doctrinalism of Princeton wasn’t enough to resist the influences of revivalism and broad evangelicalism in American Protestantism. A dose of the liturgicalism of Mercersburg, whatever its flaws, would’ve done American Presbyterianism some good.

    Jonathon, thanks for the comment (and the book). It seems to me a mistake to say that wanting to restore the complimentary relationship between audible and visible Word is the same as wanting to subsume the audible under the visible.

  19. tbordow says:


    Of course Nevin would not say he exalts the Supper over the Word, but a theology centered in the Supper over the propositional Word preached does just that. But no use going back and forth on this; people can read Nevin and Hodge for themselves and come to their own conclusions; that being…just kidding.

  20. Jonathan Bonomo says:


    Yes, folks can read Hodge and Nevin for themselves and draw their own conclusions. But it’s one thing to read, and it’s another to understand. As I think Hodge demonstrates in the controversy in question, it’s quite possible for even a great mind to do the former without accomplishing the latter.

  21. tbordow says:

    “it’s quite possible for even a great mind to do the former without accomplishing the latter.”

    Even true of JB!

    have a good week

  22. John Yeazel says:

    I sense I am being ignored- a typical Calvinist move, I have discovered, if they decide they do not like some of your comments. Oh well, life goes on. Is the Keller/Hart debate off limits or what? Or, am I being too inquisitive and “gossipy” without looking into it on my own? I have just never quite figured out what they are arguing about but I have noticed it a few times. Inquiring minds want to know, you know. And please don’t tell me that God has prepared a place for inquiring and curious minds. I will probably get ignored again anyways. Maybe it is an off topic thing too that seems to piss Calvinists off too. It seemed related to me though- the Hodge/Nevin and Keller/Hart thing that is.

  23. John Yeazel says:

    Too many too’s there.

  24. Zrim says:

    John, Keller seems to represent the tradition of the New School Presbyterians, while Hart the Old Schoolers. One wants to transform the city, the other wants to know what’s wrong with it in the first place and, even if there were something wrong with it, what makes the believer any better than the unbeliever at making it better.

  25. Great article, and thanks for all the quotes. I meant to pick up Jonathan’s book a while ago – but now I know I must!

    The issue raised is more important than it comes across at first blush IMO. ‘Doctrinalists’, ‘peitists’, and; ‘cultralists’ are more than leaning in certain directions – they are defining Christianity by their own terms and excluding brothers along the way. But why? Didn’t many of the Reformers and Puritans understand and whole in-concert all of these?

    Anyway, I am sorry that we continue to fight over basic elements of our faith. Worship is at the center of our being. And God in His wisdom has given us that worship in Word and Sacrament.

  26. John Yeazel says:

    Thanks Zrim for the explanation. Faith in Christ does seem to bring along with it an arrogance that makes us believe that we have instant answers for all problems that confront mankind. Christianity really only applies to the sin problem and what Christ did to remedy it. We have no special insight into governmental issues which God providentially seems to be able to handle much better working through believers and unbelievers alike.

  27. adam2 says:

    Nailed it Jonathan. Thanks.

  28. Tim Keller says:

    Hi, John–

    I don’t think I have instant answers for all problems. Honestly, I don’t!

  29. Zrim says:


    I live, move and have my being at ground zero for neo-Calvinst notions of urban renewal where Christian believers outnumber unbelievers by quite a margin (even the dogs are Dutch), and yet, it looks like pretty much any other place I’ve ever been to or lived. But it wouldn’t be my take that transformationism has “instant answers for all problems that confront mankind.”

    Even so, as long as I have you on the line, my honest question for calls to “bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world” is this: it sounds like something is essentially wrong with NYC, so what would it be?

  30. Rick says:

    Hey Zrim, who else you got back there?

  31. tbordow says:

    TK reads the Outhouse?

  32. Chris Donato says:

    I have to state emphatically that all kinds of Liturgical Pietists are in Reformed circles, not including all those who come in drifting from the low church on their way to the high church traditions.

    (I have in mind those Reformed churches that employ orders of worship more akin to Lutheran or Anglican services that Genevan. And, of course, they have their doctrinal reasons for doing so, even if the locus of their motivation is pietistic.)

    But if your main point is that the only two who go together like peanut butter and chocolate are the doctrinalists and the liturgicalists, then I can kind of agree. Still, we may be short-shrifting the pietist movement within all branches of Christianity (except maybe for that Eastern one—well, at least for the cradle-to-grave Orthodox).

  33. Zrim says:

    Chris, I’ll take “kind of agree.”

    But I think the liturgical pietists can give the high church Calvinists a black eye. Maybe it’s over-reactive, but of all the strains, the pietist one seem seems to have the least nutritional value (to keep the food analogy going).

    Todd, not only does Tim Keller peruse the Outhouse but evidently so does Chris Donato.

  34. Chris Donato says:

    Note that by “short-shrifting” I didn’t mean “give these guys more credit”! I meant simply that they’re more pervasive among the doctrinalists and liturgicalists than you seem to be suggesting. Blurry lines, is what I’m saying.

    That, and I’m often skeptical of my own motivations for drifting in the direction I have over the past two decades…

    I’d like to think they’re purely doctrinalist/liturgicalist motivations, but, being a creature of my time, I get the sneaking suspicion that pietism plays in there somewhere—kind of like how Stellman’s more of a hipster than he cares to admit.

  35. Chris Donato says:

    Oh, and I peruse, baby! Yeeeaaa!

  36. Zrim says:


    Re the short-shrifting point, got it. Yes, pietism seems to be in the DNA of even those who oppose it. Probably because, deep down, we’re all naturally cultural-pietists instead of doctri-liturgicalists the way we’re all naturally legalists instead of antinomians.

  37. John Yeazel says:


    I just checked back on the blog and am flattered that you responded to my insignificant blurb. I have read some of your books and liked them a lot. I am reminded of a comment that George Orwell made about a lot of the people he disagreed with and battled with but hoped they did not take his comments personally. They had nothing to do with whether they were likable or dis-likable types.

    In regards to your comment, I am sure you do not think you know everything and I was probably wrong in making that assumption. Actually, I was not even thinking of you when I said it. It just seems, from my experience, that because people have faith in Christ they think they can talk of government solutions without much expertise in the arena. That is really all I was saying. Plus I have read a lot of Darryl Hart’s books too and am probably leaning towards to direction of his thought in my own thinking. I really have not followed the direction of the debate by you two.

  38. John Yeazel says:


    I was using hyperbole- you will find something contrary in whatever anyone says!! That’s what makes this site fun to check out

  39. Zrim says:

    Contrarian? Am not.

  40. John Yeazel says:


    Your dry and unflappable sense of humor is also very entertaining

  41. John Yeazel says:

    Noll says this: “And America’s dominant Protestant philosophy, commonsense realism, had little room for the developmental ideas of Nevin and Schaff.”

    Can someone please compare and contrast “commonsense realism” and “developmental ideas?” I do not know what Noll is talking about in regards to developmental ideas. I do know that commonsense realism is Thomas Reid’s philosophy used to refute the ideas of David Hume’s radical empiricism and the ideas of Locke of Berkeley. I do not get why commonsense realism would conflict with “developmental ideas.”

  42. Jonathan Bonomo says:

    Hi John,

    My book gives a treatment of the differences. But very briefly, Nevin and Schaff were moderate idealists and held to a tempered Hegelian understanding of historical development. It’s important to emphasize, though, that their idealism had a Christological center and retained an orthodox view of creation, providence, and redemption. Commonsense realism would regard such understandings of historical development as Nevin and Schaff held as mystical speculation not founded upon objective reasoning based on the principles of “common sense.”



  43. John Yeazel says:

    Thanks Jonathan, that was helpful!

  44. Pingback: What is Confessionalism? « The Confessional Outhouse

  45. Pingback: Presbyterian Sociology, part I | The Confessional Outhouse

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