19th-century Mercersburg theology emphasized sacramental, Christ-centered church
Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
April 2004
April 1, 2004

Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

During this Lenten season, all Christians have been challenged to think more about the life and death of Jesus in response to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." No matter what we think of the movie, being able to explain the importance of Jesus Christ is something we all need to do—especially at Easter. Conflicting Christologies—explanations about the significance and importance of Jesus Christ—have led to great theological controversies.

Within UCC history, one such controversy developed among German Reformed leaders on the mid-19th-century, North American frontier. Led by John W. Nevin (1808-1886) and Philip Schaff (1819-1893), two seminary professors at the German Reformed Theological Seminary in Mercersburg, Pa., they argued for a Christocentric, rather than a bibliocentric, theology. Although Nevin and Schaff were not very popular at the time, in recent years many members of the UCC have come to appreciate the insights of Mercersburg Theology.

Nevin and Schaff emphasized continuity in the history of the church, rather than the usual frontier Protestant rejection of the pre-Reformation Church. They focused upon the "incarnation"—the concept that God out of love for humanity redeemed humanity—rather than saying that human salvation was dependent upon the atonement, the suffering and sacrificial death of Jesus.

They did not deny the atonement, but wanted to interpret it in the light of the incarnation. They accentuated the sacramental practices in the Church, encouraging faithful Christians to be part of the church—the ongoing "body of Christ"—rather than promoting revivalistic preaching designed to bring about individual conversion.

Nevin wrote that the incarnation itself (the fact that God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world) brought about union between God and humanity. The incarnation was not simply a framework for Christ's atoning death; the incarnation was God's plan that through union with Christ, humanity would find union with God.

This view of incarnation led to a rich ecclesiology, or theology of the church. Mercersburg ecclesiology argues that the church is the continuation of Christ's life on earth through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The church is not simply a collection of believers, but in the church, Christians are mystically united with Christ into one spiritual whole as part of the mystical body of Christ.

Therefore, Mercersburg Christology and ecclesiology are extremely ecumenical. The church is one and Christian unity in Christ is a divine gift, never a human accomplishment. Inspired by Mercersburg theology, the UCC continues to call itself a "united" and "uniting" Church.

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Currently, she is a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board. She teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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