Mystical Presence and Reformed Doctrine of the Supper

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Nevin, John Williamson. ed. Debie, Lynden J. The Mystical Presence and the Reformed Church on the Lord's Supper. Mercersburg Theology Study Series volume 1.

This volume contains both Nevin’s Mystical Presence and extracts from his debate with Hodge (including some comments by Hodge).

Part 1: The Mystical Presence

Argument: if the Incarnation is the fact and principle of a new supernatural order of life, then the church can be no abstraction.

Outward social worship is essential to piety.

Chapter 1: The Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Nevin’s burden is that the Supper cannot be separated from the life-giving Person of Christ, and as such it cannot be an abstraction from the church. Of course, Nevin will also avoid any claim to eating the local humanity of Christ. We reject an oral manducation. Rather, our life as a whole cannot be separated from how we commune with our savior.

In the first chapter Nevin says we are “mystically inserted into Christ.” I’m not sure what he means by that. I understand why people chant “pantheist” when they read Nevin. They are wrong, of course, but I get it. If we read on to the next sentence, it clarifies: a real participation in the living Christ by which we are transformed into his image.

Our union with Christ: it is not simply that of a common humanity derived from Adam. While we share the consequences of Adam’s fall, we don’t have a direct communion with his person.

Further, the relation is more than a moral union. Throughout this opening chapter Nevin insists that this view on union will preserve the Reformed church from rationalism. Lest he be seen as capitulating to Rome, he offers the standard criticisms of transubstantiation.

Nevin is aware of the connotations of “substance” in his discussion on Calvin. He doesn’t give up on it, though. He wants a strong “union” with Christ, per Calvin, that allows a “substantial vigor to flow down.”

Heidelberg: questions 75-79. It rejects an oral manducation but nonetheless affirms a participation in the body and blood of Christ. Question 76 makes it clear that Christ is in heaven, but the Holy Spirit unites us to his body, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. Nevin drives the point home that to reduce “besides that” to a mere moral union is to introduce a gross tautology. Granting that the language is not carnal, Nevin points out that if it were only to signify a mental projection, then Ursinus and Olevianus were extremely careless and dangerous in their language.

Ursinus: we reject an imaginary figure but affirm the true body of Christ, albeit in heaven.

Modern Puritan Theory

Older Reformed view: it is an exhibition of saving grace. For the elect, inward and outward aren’t divorced, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, but are made to flow together to the believer. It includes the idea of an objective force.

Modern Puritan (by which he means New England) view: Christ is present the same way he is present everywhere.

The heart of the matter: with Calvin do we say that we have participation and communion with Christ’s humanity, or is that semi-popish mysticism?

Calvin Among the Hegelians

I don’t think Nevin was a Hegelian, nor do I think that 99% of the people who use that charge know what Hegel taught. Notwithstanding, I understand why people get nervous. Let’s not dismiss him too quickly. He does a good job in showing how far Calvin’s language can take us and where exactly it breaks down.

The organic law: Nevin doesn’t develop this point directly, but moves into something resembling Theseus’s Ship and the problem of an oral manducation. The point is that the principle of life cannot be reduced to the body.

The Doctrine Positively Stated

1. The union from our first parent descends from his entire person, body and soul.
2. Our union with the savior is not a naturalistic one; nevertheless, it is a union with the whole savior, the Word made flesh.
3) The power of Christ’s life passes into his people, the Church. The Church is located in history and experiences growth.
4) The humanity of Christ is the indispensable medium of our participation in him.
5) The connection with that humanity is faith, but we still have a real communion with the Person of the savior.
6) Christ’s Spirit constitutes the form and power of his presence.

Nevin and Hodge

If Christ’s vivific power flows from the theandric Spirit (Filioque!!!), this Christ’s being both truly man and God, and if it is flowing into our souls, how does Hodge get around Calvin’s teaching? Hodge operated under a common psychology that the soul and mind were synonymous. This meant he could say that all of this happens as an exhibition before the mind. Nevin doesn’t hold to that. Nevin holds to a more correct psychology that sees the soul as a totality of the whole person, not reducible to either mind or body.


While there are aspects of Puritanism that can be legitimately critiqued, Nevin is sometimes broad and sloppy in his criticism of “the Puritan principle.” He means New England. He positively quotes Owen and the Scots elsewhere, so he can only mean American Puritanism.

The editors overplay the “Calvin vs. Calvinist” scheme at times. It is true Nevin rejected a merely extrinsic forensic element in our soteriology. Further, it is true that Nevin was on point with Calvin in the Supper. This does not mean, however, that Calvin’s view of union with Christ can be played off against imputation, as they suggest in note 17 of chapter 1.
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