Real Union or Legal Fiction?
July 21, 2020

John Williamson Nevin’s Controversy With Charles Hodge
Over the Imputation of Adam’s Sin
(with a Comparison to Robert L. Dabney)

If one is blessed to discover George P. Hutchinsons’s monograph on Original Sin in nineteenth-century Reformed thought,[1] no student of American presbyterianism can fail to be fascinated. What once seemed to be a monolithic certainty while sitting in the standard theology class is suddenly uncovered to reveal a great deal of variety that had formerly been hidden from view.[2] Hutchinson’s account of the controversy between Henry B. Smith of the “new school”; Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary; William G. T. Shedd, Samuel J. Baird, and James H. Thornwell of the “realistic school”; and Robert W. Landis and Robert L. Dabney of what Hutchinson calls the “agnostic school” is simply must-reading for anyone who wishes to understand the issue.[3]

But it is not a complete reading. In the nineteenth century there was another American theologian who held distinctive views regarding the imputation of Adam’s sin. John Williamson Nevin of “the Mercersburg movement,” aroused the ire of Charles Hodge on more than one occasion because of his theological writings. Nevin was a member of the German Reformed Church, so perhaps Hutchinson decided that he was outside his scope. Nevin was raised a Presbyterian, however, and served as a Presbyterian minister for many years before accepting the call of the German Reformed Church.[4] Furthermore, Nevin was Charles Hodge’s best student, and taught his classes for the two years Hodge was in Europe, though Nevin had only just graduated.[5] His close connection with Presbyterianism, as well as the merit of his ideas in themselves, make him worth listing with the other schools.

My hope for this essay is that it will serve as a sort of appendix to Hutchinson’s book. For reasons of space and because of inherent relationships which will hopefully become clear, the discussion will center on Nevin’s conflict with Hodge.[6] Then similarities will be emphasized between Nevin’s alternative to Hodge and Dabney’s alternative.

The Mercersburg Movement [7]

The “Mercersburg Movement” was principally begun and propagated by John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, professors at the German Reformed Mercersburg Seminary. After years as a Presbyterian quite committed to the teaching he had received at Princeton, Nevin began a shift in theology which involved a new understanding of the historic development of doctrine and a corresponding vision of the Church as a growing entity, a respect for the ancient and medieval Church, a more thoroughgoing awareness of and loyalty to the sacramental theology of the sixteenth-century reformers. This shift seems to have started with his exposure to the tracts of the Oxford movement and German philosophy and theology, fueled by an opposition to “new measures” revivalism which he apparently (and ironically) picked up from Charles Hodge.[8] When Philip Schaff left his homeland in Germany and joined Nevin, the Church historian found a person with whom he shared a common vision.

The Mercersburg Theology stressed the centrality of the incarnation. As we will see, Nevin insisted that the atonement was necessary for salvation, but he violently rejected the idea that the incarnation was simply for the purpose of the atonement, which would render it as simply a means to an end. Rather, the incarnation was an end in itself, whether or not sin necessitated the atoning death and justifying resurrection of Christ. Through union with Christ, man can have union with God.[9]

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 the mystical body of Christ, the mother of all believers. Nevin discarded the categories of “visible” and “invisible,” discussing instead the “actual” Church (present) and the “ideal” Church (eschatological). The ideal exists as a seed in the actual, and inexorably takes shape in history until the resurrection.[10]

The mystical union between Christ and His Church made the sacraments quite important in the Mercersburg view. Nevin promoted a return to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as the means by which the Church’s union with Christ is nourished and strengthened. In defending this view, he touched on almost all the distinctives of the Mercersburg Theology.

Nevin never set out to specifically discuss the imputation of Adam’s sin.[11] Rather the imputation of Adam’s sin is mentioned as an aside to his discussion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which in turn was only mentioned by Nevin to explain why the Reformation Tradition found it so important to affirm our union with Christ and the importance of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist sets forth Nevin’s views on the sacrament, and covers all these (for his purpose in the book) subsidiary issues. Not only is Mystical Presence Nevin’s most thorough treatment (and one that articulated views which remained essentially unchanged for the rest of his life), but it was also the presentation to which Hodge responded.

Thus, the best way to explain Nevin’s view of the imputation of Adam’s sin is to first briefly set forth from this work his beliefs concerning the importance of union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness, as well as the nature of this union.

The Importance of Union with Christ

Nevin would emphatically agree with the Liberal catchphrase, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[12] Yet just as emphatically, he would insist that only by proclaiming Christianity as a life and not a doctrine can supernatural Christianity be set apart from rationalistic naturalism. Socinians, by reducing Christianity to a moral message, throw “the man back always upon himself, his own separate powers and resources, the capabilities of the flesh as such, to perfect his nature and make himself meet for heaven.”[13] Likewise, in Pelagianism, “we are thrown back again, upon such material in the way of life, as the subject of it may be found to possess in his own nature, when brought under the action of this divine process of education.”[14]

So far, this is rather standard fare. But Nevin takes a further ingenious step: What about those who claim that salvation depends on the supernatural enlightenment of the Holy Spirit? Of such a view, he says:

To the force that belongs to the truth itself in its relation to the human mind, it may join the influence’s of God’s Spirit, graciously interposed to clothe the truth with effect. Such agency we often hear attributed to the Spirit, by those who at the same time reject altogether the thought of any immediate change wrought by it in the nature of the human soul itself. God’s grace in this form, they say, is brought to bear on the soul, mediately only, by the intervention of his word which he uses instrumentally for the purpose, infusing into it light and power. But surely those who talk in this way do not stop at all to consider the exact sense of their own words. What do they mean, when they speak of the Spirit, as infusing light and power into the truth? Can he do so (apart from a direct influence on the soul itself) in any other way than by so ordering the presentation of the truth to the mind, that it shall be placed in the most favorable position for exerting the power which belongs to it in its own nature? But what is this more than such moral suasion, as may be exercised over the spirits of men in a merely human way, by appeals addressed to the understanding and will? The order of influence at least remains the same, though it may be exhibited under a divinely exalted form.[15]

This view, though partially supernaturalistic, still falls back into naturalism on the crucial issue of salvation, and still does not escape the error of Socinianism and Pelagianism:

In this view, the process of salvation, in the midst of all the high-sounding terms that may be employed to describe it, falls back again to the standpoint already noticed. It is a salvation by the power simply of truth, presented in the form of doctrine and precept. This truth includes the supernatural facts of the gospel, the mission, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ–the outward apparatus in full, if we may use the expression–of the Christian redemption; and along with this we have the “moral suasion” of the Holy Spirit, which according to the unintelligible hypothesis, invests the whole representation with a more than natural evidence and power. All turns at last, however, on the way in which the mind thus addressed, may be wrought upon and moved to act, in the use of such resources and capabilities as are already comprehended in its nature.[16]

Even affirming regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit is not enough to escape the problem. It remains if the union with the Spirit does not also involve intimate mystical union with Christ’s new humanity, if “Christ dwells in his people by his Spirit–but in the way only of representation, not in the way of strict personal inbeing on his own part.”[17]

The same Spirit, it is said, that works in Christ works also in us, fashioning us as we are into the same image. But how does he work? By supernatural influence, it may be said. But is not this to fall back again to the theory of a merely moral union with Christ, by the power of the truth only; which we have found already to be under its highest form, but Pelagianism in disguise? Is Christ in us at last only by the divine suasion of his Spirit?[18]

This conception of regeneration, then, makes it not an ingrafting into Christ, but some sort of merely moral transformation, as if man could be saved through some sort of change in his own fallen condition. Because man is totally depraved and has fallen irrevocably in Adam, there is no miracle which can correct the problem of man’s sin and guilt–except to send God as a new man, the second Adam, to provide a new source of life to conquer the death spread from the old man, and then give that life to men dead in their sins.

The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Nevin has not yet exhausted the attempted alternatives to the mystical union with Christ. American protestants, realizing that the suasion of the Spirit is not enough to give them a truly supernatural soteriology, think they have yet another option:

Here we are brought, then, to stand upon higher and more orthodox ground. The doctrine of imputation is introduced, to meet the demand now mentioned. The work of Christ is no longer thought of as a mere display for moral effect; it is something to be appropriated and made available in the person of the believing sinner himself, for the purposes of salvation. Mere doctrine will not answer. The case calls for an actual personal participation in what Christ has done and suffered to take away sin and reconcile man to God. By imputation. we are told. As the guilt and fall of Adam were reckoned to his posterity, though not theirs in fact, so the righteousness of Christ, and the benefits of his mediatorial work generally are, in virtue of the terms of the new covenant, made over to all who believe in his name, and accounted to be theirs as truly as though all had been wrought out by them, each for himself, in truth. Their justification in this view is a mere forensic act on the part of God, which is based altogether on the work of Christ, and involves as such in their case no change of character whatever, but only a change of state. God regards them as righteous, though they are not so in fact, and makes over to them a full title to all the blessings comprehended in Christ’s life. At the same time, he regenerates them by his Spirit, and puts them thus on a process of sanctification, by which in the end they become fully transformed in their own persons, into the image of their glorious Savior.[19]

This imputation appears to escape the problem of naturalism in Nevin’s mind. Nevertheless, it is an insufficient explanation because it is flatly impossible. “The imagination that the merits of Christ’s life may be sundered from his life itself, and conveyed over to his people under this abstract form, on the ground of a merely outward legal constitution, is unscriptural and contrary to all reason at the same time.”[21]

The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God.[21]

In explaining why a “bare” legal imputation is not enough, Nevin knew that the accusation would be made that he was denying justification by Faith. He (futilely) attempts to cut off this line of attack: “Do we then discard the doctrine of imputation, as maintained by the orthodox theology in opposition to the vain talk of the Pelagians? By no means! We seek only to establish the doctrine; for without it; most assuredly, the whole structure of Christianity must give way.”[22]

Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, writes Nevin, when the Holy Spirit actually gives us union with Christ. If we have union with Christ we possess all that is His. His active and passive righteousness count for us because “He is joined to us mystically.”[23] Christ’s righteousness is truly imputed, and justification is truly forensic and declarative, but the basis is not simply God’s imagination that we are justified, but “our actual insertion into Christ himself.”[24]

The Nature of the Union

How are we united to Christ and to Adam? What does Nevin mean by “mystical union”? In what sense is the incarnation so all important to this union, so that this union, though with His whole Person, especially involves his humanity? This question becomes more acute when we realize that Nevin is insisting on following Calvin that in the Eucharist we partake of Christ’s flesh and blood without any transfer of particles or physical presence involved! All this relates to the point of this study: How is this union with Christ parallel to our union with Adam? And how does this union with Adam undergird the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity?

Nevin explains himself by making the rather bold claim that a living organism is not reducible to material particles. He uses the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree to prove this idea.[25] We classify an acorn and the tree which grows from it as a single organism–the seed becomes the tree. Yet, the tree is exponentially more massive than the acorn, and has obviously acquired mass from the soil around it. Indeed, it is easily possible that the old oak tree does not contain a single material particle which was present in the acorn. Yet the lack of identical material particles means nothing. The life of the acorn is the same life which animates the leaves on the tree. The branches are connected to the root by a shared life which cannot be reduced to material particles. Furthermore, in thinking this way, it becomes apparent that to limit the life of the acorn to the single oak tree is quite arbitrary–for the oak bears acorns from its life which grow themselves into other trees. “Still, in the end, the life of the forest, in such a case, is nothing more than an expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn.”[26]

Thus, the life of Christ’s flesh and blood is not found in any physical particles, but in an animating force or “law.” A “clear distinction” must be made between

the idea of the organic law, which constitutes the proper identity of a human body, and the material volume it is found to embrace as exhibited to the senses. A true and perfect body must indeed appear in the form of organized matter. As a mere law, it can have no proper reality. But still the matter, apart from the law, is in no sense the body. Only as it is found to be transfused with the active presence of the law at every point and in this way filled with the form of life, can it be said to have any such character. . . The principle of the body as a system of life, the original salient point of its being as a whole, is in no respect material. It is not bound of course, for its identity, to any particular portion of matter as such. If the matter which enters into its constitution were changed every hour, it would still remain the same body. . . A real communication then, between the body of Christ and the bodies of his saints, does not imply necessarily the gross imagination of any transition of his flesh as such into their persons.[27]

Thus, by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, we can truly and really participate in the life of Christ. We can be united with His flesh and blood. This is an ultimately mysterious identity, yet it is the same sort of mystery which confronts us in all living beings.

The Imputation of Adam’s Sin

At this point we can easily see how Nevin understands the unity of the human race with Adam. Nevin is quite certain that, just as a “mere outward imputation” would be impossible in the case of Christ’s righteousness, so would it be in the case of Adam’s sin.

Can we conceive of any constitution, for instance, in virtue of which it could have been proper or possible for the Divine Mind, thus to set over to the account of mankind the apostasy of angels, which kept not their first estate, the two natures being relatively to each other what they are at this time? If all depended on the arbitrary pleasure of God, the force of a mere outward arrangement constituting one the representative of another without further relation, we cannot see why the transfer of guilt might not take place from angels to men, as well as from Adam to his posterity. The very fact that our whole reason and feeling revolt against the thought of the first case, serves only to show that the proceeding must rest upon some deeper ground in the other.[28]

In the case of Adam’s sin, the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree can be more literally applied. We are all Adamites. Our bones are Adamite bones; our flesh Adamite flesh; and our very life a true continuation of Adam’s life. The fact that the billions of individual human beings are made up of material particles other than those which originally constituted Adam when he was first created is utterly irrelevant. For all we know Adam himself, at the time of his death, may have been constituted by a completely different set of particles from those which constituted him 920 years earlier. The fact is that we all grew out of him and are no less a part of him, in one sense, than a branch is part of a tree.[29]

By his fall, Adam became corrupted in his nature, and all his children who come from his nature share in that corruption. What he did freely, Adam’s children continue to do spontaneously and naturally. They inherit his sin and his guilt.

Just as he expected some to accuse him of denying justification by Faith, Nevin knew others would accuse him of denying the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Thus, he took the space to argue that the Westminster Standards are not guilty of reducing original sin to a “mere outward imputation.” On the contrary, “The language of the catechism is literally and strictly correct. We sinned in Adam, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” Furthermore, question eighteen of the Shorter Catechism does not define original sin as only “the guilt of Adam’s first sin,” but lists a threefold definition which also includes “the want of original righteousness” and “the corruption of his whole nature.”

Nevin admits that “the friends of the catechism, in their attempts to vindicate its doctrine at this point, have not always planted themselves on the proper ground for its defense,” because they have rested their case on “a merely external imputation” which can give us “only a quasi interest in the real fact that it represented” at best. But in so doing they are not only failing to defend the doctrine, but inadequately stating what the catechism actually claims.[30]

Hodge’s Position Against Mercersburg

Two years after the publication of Mystical Presence, Hodge reviewed it. He explained the delay saying:

We have had Dr. Nevin’s work on the “Mystical Presence” on our table since it’s publication, some two years ago, but have never really read it, until within a fortnight. We do not suppose other people are quite as bad, in this respect, as ourselves. Our experience, however, has been that it requires the stimulus of a special necessity to carry us through such a book.[31]

With that inauspicious beginning, Hodge proceeds to perform what can only be called a “hatchet job” on Nevin. The inaccuracies and unkindnesses are amply apparent to anyone who bothers to read the book and then the review. However, because the issues raised are predominately sacramental, other aspects of theology involved in the discussion have received relatively scant attention. Despite Nevin’s attempts to defuse the issue, one of Hodge’s major accusations is that he denies both the Reformed doctrine of justification and that of Original Sin, by denying imputation:

Here we reach the very life-spot of the Reformation. Is justification a declaring just, or a making just, inherently? This was the real battleground on which the blood of so many martyrs was spilt. Are we justified for something done for us, or something wrought in us, actually, our own? It is a mere playing with words, to make a distinction, as Mr. Newman did, between what it is that thus makes us inherently righteous. Whether it is infused grace, a new heart, the indwelling Spirit, the humanity of Christ, his life, his theanthropic nature; it is all one. It is subjective justification after all, and nothing more. We consider Dr. Nevin’s theory as impugning here, the vital doctrine of Protestantism. his doctrine is not, of course, the Romish, teres atque rotundus; he may distinguish here and discriminate there. But as to the main point, it is a denial of the Protestant doctrine of justification. He knows as well as any man that all the churches of the fifteenth century held the imputation not only of what was our own, but of what though not ours inherently, was on some adequate ground set to our account; that the sin of Adam is imputed to us, not because of our having his corrupted nature, but because of the imputation of his sin, we are involved in his corruption. He knows that when the doctrine of mediate imputation, as he teaches it, was introduced by Placaeus, it was universally rejected. He knows moreover, that, with regard to justification, the main question was, whether it was a declaratory act or an effective act, whether it was a declaring just on the ground of a righteousness not in us, or a making just by communicating righteousness to us.[32]

Here we see Hodge manifesting his distinctive idea that immediate imputation is the only view that may be considered Reformed. This probably seems believable now, for through Murray and Westminster Seminary, this view has become the received opinion. But at the time this was considered by many theologians of impeccably orthodox credentials to be a rather innovative and narrow view, as well as a mistaken one. There is no point in trying to elaborate Hutchinson’s fine description here. Suffice it to say that, for Hodge, corruption and lack of original righteousness were inflicted on each of Adam’s descendants because God first declared him liable to punishment for what Adam did. Parallel to this, the elect receive the benefits of salvation, only because God declares us judicially worthy of being rewarded for what Christ has done.

Related to his immediate imputation, a theme that ran through Hodge’s entire review was that there were two incompatible views among the Reformers concerning the sense in which the body and blood of Christ were received in the Supper. “Some of them said it was their virtue as broken and shed, i.e., their sacrificial virtue; others said, it was a mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven…”[33] The former view was the true view, according to Hodge, both of the Bible and of the Protestant system of doctrine. The other view withered away as an unrelated and incompatible idea.

Nevin’s response appeared in the newly begun Mercersburg Review (Vol II, no. 5) in September of 1850. Nevin confined himself to the historical question of what Reformed creeds and confessions actually taught regarding the Lord’s Supper, and demonstrated that Hodge’s historical appeal was arbitrarily selective and question-begging.[34] Original sin was not mentioned, but Nevin maintained that, not only was there no contradiction between the “sacrificial virtue” and the “mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven,” but that the former required the latter.

Justification, to be real, must also be concrete–the force and value of Christ’s merit brought nigh to the sinner as a living fact. Strange, that there should seem to be any contradiction here, between the grace which we have by Christ’s death, and the grace that comes to us through his life. Could the sacrifice of Calvary be of any avail to take away sins, if the victim there slain had not been raised again for our justification, and were not now seated at the right hand of God our Advocate and Intercessor? Would the atonement of a dead Christ be of more worth than the blood of bulls and goats, to purge the conscience from dead works and give it free access to God? Surely it is the perennial, indissoluble life of the once-crucified Redeemer, which imparts to his broken body and shed blood all their power to abolish guilt… Abstract it [the sacrifice of Christ] from this, and it becomes in truth a mere legal fiction. The atonement, in this view [Nevin’s] is a quality or property of the glorified life of the Son of man.[35]

Conclusion: Formulating Nevin’s Doctrine

Since Nevin was never particularly interested in original sin per se, he never systematically set forth his position on the subject. He says enough, however, for us to summarize a systematic position:

Adam was the natural root of the human race as well as its representative. When he sinned by eating the forbidden fruit he (1) incurred guilt, (2) lost his original righteousness, and (3) became corrupt. It is important to realize that (temporally) all of these things happened simultaneously. Obviously, he could not sin and only later lose his righteousness. Furthermore, the sin itself was the beginning of his corruption (indeed, corruption and want of original righteousness could easily be understood as different aspects of the same reality). Finally, the guilt was imputed because of the sin at the same time that the sin was committed.

Now, all Adam’s descendants who come from him by ordinary generation, come from Adam and Eve as sinners. They are guilty, lacking in righteousness, and corrupt. From this nature springs all subsequent human beings, who as separate individuals manifest this same guilt, lack of righteousness, and corruption. This corruption is simply the continuation of Adam’s first sin.[36] Thus, the guilt attending that corruption is the guilt of Adam’s first sin. All Adamites have solidarity with Adam’s sin and guilt. We are guilty, lacking in righteousness, and corrupt because we have union with Adam.

Here we see the similarities and dissimilarities, between our union with Adam and our union with Christ. We are in union with Adam simply by virtue of being human. To be a human being means simply to have acquired our nature from Adam–a corrupt nature. Personal existence is inconceivable without him. Yet Christ is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit as an alien person with an alien righteousness so that we, because we are engrafted into Him, are given justification and sanctification–His righteousness is imputed to us and His holy life is imparted to us so that we ourselves grow in holiness. There is nothing in Nevin’s presentation which renders justification a “transfusion” as in Tridentine theology.[37] The fact that the basis of justification is mystical union through the Holy Spirit does not change the fact that the nature of justification is declarative and forensic. The point simply is that there is a basis for God’s declaration–union with Christ.[38]

Further Considerations: Dabney & Nevin contra Hodge

One reason for believing that Nevin belongs to the debate within American Presbyterianism is that Dabney seems to have articulated substantially the same view of the imputation of Adam’s sin. This is especially interesting because Dabney, 1) was a partisan to the same Common Sense Philosophy as Hodge, as opposed to Nevin’s idealism; 2) publicly repudiated Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper; 3) considered the Mercersburg theology worthless;[39] and 4) is above reproach in loyalty to the Westminster Standards and Old-School Calvinism.[40]

Dabney declared the immediate imputation articulated by Hodge to be groundless.[41] For one, Hodge’s strict parallelism between the two Adams (argued especially from Rom 5.12-21) entailed either a denial of human depravity or of justification by faith. For, if the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is related to our actual regeneration as Hodge claimed the imputation of Adam’s sin is related to our actual corruption, then justification causes regeneration–which means either that unregenerate men can produce saving faith or that justification precedes faith.[42] Thus, Hodge’s accusation against all who disagree with him as espousing “the popish theory of justification,”[43] virtually the same accusation which he made against Nevin, does not seem all that cogent to Dabney.

Furthermore, Dabney points out that a human person is not simply “given” a nature when God brings him into being. Rather we acquire our nature from Adam, and that nature is corrupt.

There is, then, no moral nature of the first Adam to which we can be naturally united save his fallen nature.[44] To this emphatically agree the Scriptures. Gen. v. 3: “And Adam . . . . begat a son in his own likeness, after his image and called his name Seth.” 1 Cor. xv. 48, 49: “As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy . . . And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” “Put off . . . the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, . . . . and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. iv. 22-24.) These words, in requiring conversion, allude to the two unions; the first, corrupt; the second, holy. (Compare Col. iii. 9, 10.)[45]

The importance of this for Dabney is to show that the union we have with Adam is not a legal fiction but depends on an actual natural union. He mentions a statement by Thornwell that “each individual sinner of us had a federal existence before we were conceived; that we bore a covenanted or legal relation before we existed,”[46] but responds that if “this language means anything more than a reference to foreordination and foreknowledge about us, it is incorrect.”[47] To Dabney it is obvious that a person cannot be guilty if he does not exist. God may plan to bring a person into existence, and that person may be guilty, but it is incoherent to talk of our guilt before we were conceived.

Let the clear, convincing language of the Confession of Faith, touching the counterpart subject of justification, illustrate this statement. Chap. XI., Sec. 4: “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” By parity of reasoning, we hold that God did, from all eternity, decree to condemn all men descended from Adam by ordinary generation; and that Adam did, some time after his creation in holiness, sin and fall for them as well as for himself; nevertheless, individual fallen men are not condemned in him until such time as their existence doth actually unite them to Adam. And then it is a corrupted Adam to whom they are united.[48]

Thus, Dabney insists that, just as quickening by the Spirit is simultaneous with justifying faith, so sinful corruption and imputed guilt both occur simultaneously in every human being from the moment of conception.

Previous to his existence in Adam, he has no innocent existence personally, not for one moment, not even in the metaphysical order of thought, for he has no actual existence at all. He enters existence corrupted, as he enters it guilty. He enters it guilty, as he enters it corrupted. This is the character of the federal union between him and Adam: that Adam’s conduct should determine for his posterity precisely this result, namely, that their personal existence should absolutely begin in that moral estate and under that legal relation which Adam procured for himself; that the two elements of this result should be mutually involved and coetaneous, as they were personally in Adam.[49]

Much more could be said about Dabney’s position if it were the purpose of this paper to defend his view. For the sake of pointing out his similarity to Nevin, however, the only remaining matter that seems important enough to mention is that Dabney insists he is defending John Calvin’s view of original sin against Hodge.[50] While Nevin did not particularly appeal to Calvin for this particular doctrine (as mentioned above, his primary concern was the Lord’s Supper, not original sin), he was in general appealing to Calvin over against certain “puritan” views as they had been articulated in America.


In summary, this essay has attempted to make a prima facie case that both Nevin and Dabney share a view at odds with the “immediate imputation” of Charles Hodge, but not, as Hodge claimed in the case of Nevin, at odds with notion of forensic justification. They seem to have held, implicitly or explicitly, the following points in common against him:

1. Union with Christ [51] is the basis for the justification of believers.

2. This union is brought about through the power of the Holy Spirit at a certain point in time in a person’s life (regeneration).

3. The inception of this union not only is the basis of justification, but the beginning of sanctification.

4. This union with Christ parallels the union with Adam which all people possess.

5. Whereas, in the case of Christ, the union is a Spiritual union (= through the Holy Spirit), in the case of Adam, the union is a natural union (= through the flesh).

6. Whereas union with Christ is given to sinners who already exist, union with Adam is given by natural generation and starts their existence.

7. Though the basis for condemnation in Adam and justification in Christ are not simply legal relationships, both the condemnation and the justification arising from the respective unions are essentially legal states. To elaborate, to be justified is to be declared righteous and to be condemened to be declared unrighteous. The legal character of such declarations is not compromised by the fact that they are based on realities which are not themselves reducible to forensic concepts.

The similarities between Nevin and Dabney, despite real differences in theological and philosophical perspective, should provide additional evidence that Nevin, whatever his faults, was not simply the quasi-romanist as which Hodge attempted to portray him. The mere fact that Hodge’s depiction of Nevin as rejecting the Protestant doctrine of forensic justification was also applicable to Dabney should indicate a high probablility that Hodge was defending his own personal preferences, not the truths of the Reformation. However Nevin’s views later developed (or decayed), and no one claims he changed substantially in this area, he did not say anything in Mystical Presence that justified Hodge’s accusation that he denied forensic imputation.

While forensic notions are essential to the message of the Scripture, it is not at all clear that they are as central and exclusively all-important as Hodge seemed to want them to be. Perhaps Nevin could help us see some other aspects of the Biblical message which have been neglected in the Reformed heritage as it has been handed down to us, as well as altered, at the end of the twentieth century.

Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and  writes at He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.


1. The Problem of Original Sin in American Presbyterian Theology (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972).

2. John Murray writes on page iv of the foreword: “Mr. Hutchinson has done a great service by setting forth in lucid terms the viewpoints of the leading protagonists in the dispute, particularly from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the present. ….it fills what has been a conspicuous blank in historical presentation and assessment (emphasis added). From this I gather that my own experience of sudden and gratifying illumination upon reading Hutchinson was not merely idiosyncratic.

3. I realize that one would like to be able to read the doctrine out of the Scriptures, but the fact is that most of what is said about the imputation of Adam’s sin is more an explanation and/or defense of what the Bible teaches, not simply a reproduction of it. The theologian has to decide which explanation is the best. A direct appeal to the Bible is often not possible in this case, and the historic concerns are thus more important.

4. “Nevin had consulted President [Archibald] Alexander of Princeton and other leading Presbyterians. They encouraged him to view the move as simply a transfer from one to another branch of the Reformed Church. The synod he was entering, as Nevin put it, consisted simply of ‘German Presbyterians,’ just as the one he was leaving might be called the ‘Scotch Reformed.’ The platform on which he would teach at Mercersburg was that on which he had stood at Princeton and at Allegheny, old-school Calvinistic orthodoxy.” James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), pp. 35-36. Henceforward RAT.

5. RAT, pp 16-17.

6. For reasons of space, I have not given Hodge exhaustive treatment, but have concentrated on his opposition to Nevin. Hodge’s view are, in my opinion, well-known enough that the discussion would be redundant. Furthermore, in my experience the “immediate imputation” view of Hodge and Murray (I don’t find their differences great enough to classify as different schools of thought, unlike Hutchinson) is the majority position among modern Evangelical presbyterians. Additionally, since this is meant to read somewhat like an appendix to Hutchinson’s book, the clarity of his own discussion of Hodge renders further explication unnecessary.

7. The best overview of the Mercersburg movement is probably RAT. The only problem here is that Nichols seems to project his own views of the reliability and authority of Scripture upon Nevin–at least he doesn’t provide much evidence for what he claims is Nevin’s view. A better source would be from “The Library of Protestant Thought” in which one volume is The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), which is edited by Hastings. By far the best way to acquaint oneself with them is to read the books by Nevin and Schaff for oneself. The following introduction relies primarily on the introductory material in Jack Martin Maxwell’s Worship and Reformed Theology: The Liturgical Lessons of Mercersburg (Pittsburg: The Pickwick Press, 1976), which contains a concise summary of the history of Mercersburg in it’s introductory material. Henceforth: WRT.

8. WRT, pp. 11-15.

9. WRT, pp 25-26. However, Maxwell writes: “Nevin contended that as man is in and identified with Adam’s guilt, so he is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life; and this latter identification results in a “mystical union.” This reverses Nevin’s thought. It is because the Holy Spirit gives one “mystical union” with Christ, that one “is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life.”

10. WRT, pp 29-30.

11. This is probably the main reason no one ever thought to evaluate his views in the context of nineteenth-century Presbyterian controversy. Those who study Nevin are not the sort of people prone to care enough about Reformed orthodoxy to keep track of the other doctrinal debates between Old Princeton, the Southern Presbyterians, etc.

12. See The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, vol 4 of Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology, Bard Thompson & George H. Bricker, ed. (Philadelphia, Boston: United Church Press, 1966), p. 216ff. Henceforth: MP.

13. MP, p. 186.

14. MP p. 187.

15. MP, pp. 187-188.

16. MP, p. 188. Though it is outside the bounds of this paper, it would be interesting to investigate to whom Nevin was particularly responding. I can’t help noticing a similarity between the view Nevin repudiates and the view of regeneration ascribed to Hodge by Dabney. According to Dabney, Hodge reduced the work of the Spirit in regeneration to enlightenment of the mind, and was virtually guilty of Pajonism. See “Hodge’s Systematic Theology” in Discussions: Evangelical And Theological vol 1 (London: Banner of Truth, 1890, 1967), pp. 231-253).

17. MP, p. 195.

18. MP, pp. 197-198. Nevin goes on to consider the only supernaturalistic alternative which avoids mystical union: “The Spirit, it may be said, creates new life in the believer.” Yet this involves insuperable difficulties: “But what now is this new life? Something, of course, that was not in the man before. From where, then, does it come? Is it the proper life of the Spirit himself–the life of God–directly extended to the soul? This would be to repeat the mystery of the incarnation, in the case of every new believer… From where, then, we ask again, comes this new life by the Spirit? Is it an absolute creation out of nothing…? Instead of one great miracle, then, in Christianity–the new creation in Christ Jesus–we should have miracles of the same order without number or end. Every believer would be a new creation, not in Christ Jesus, but in himself…”

19. MP, pp. 188-189.

20. MP, 192.

21. MP, pp. 190-191.

22. MP, 190.

23. MP, p. 192.

24. MP, p. 192.

25. MP, p. 156.

26. MP, p. 156.

27. MP, p. 151.

28. MP, p. 191

29. It is interesting that Louis Berkhof wrote in objection to “the realistic theory” that: “Every man is conscious of being a separate personality, and therefore far more than a mere passing wave in the general ocean of existence” (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941], p. 241). I doubt that Nevin was a realist, but he would probably respond that every man is a separate personality and a “wave” of a sort. Indeed, Nevin’s “law” sounds quite similar to the “wave form” which provides the backdrop to Tim Powers’ science fiction ghost story, Expiration Date (New York: TOR, 1996): “And he remembered the old notion that after some number of years every cell in a human body had been replaced, every atom, so that the body is just a wave form moving through time, incorporating just for a little while the stuff of each day; only the wave itself, and none of the transient physical bits, makes the whole trip. Even a scar would be no more significant than a wobble still visible in an ocean wave long after the wave had passed the obstruction that caused it, while the water molecules that had actually sustained the impact were left comfortably behind” (p. 147).

30. MP, p. 191.

31Princeton Review, April 1848. Also found in Essays and Reviews Selected from the Princeton Review (New York, Robert Carter, 1857), p. 341. Since this work is probably more accessible in libraries than back issues of the Princeton Review, and can actually be checked out, I will henceforth cite from it as ER.

32. ER, pp 385-386.

33. ER, p. 343.

34. Sadly, he also repudiated the doctrine of the decrees, and attempted to portray it as an idiosyncracy of Calvin. As Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker put it: ‘”In one instance Nevin was taken in by Hodge. Hodge convinced him–mistakenly it would seem–that Calvin’s doctrine of election was finally incompatible with Calvin’s churchmanship and sacramental interest. As a result, Nevin deciphered a way to extricate the German branch of the Reformed Church from this ‘inward conflict’ that beset the rest of Calvinism. Melanchthon, he noted, rejected Calvin’s doctrine of the decrees as “a metaphysical abstraction,” yet agreed in the main with Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, with just enough assist from history, Nevin proceeded to nominate the gentle Melanchthon as the founder of the German Reformed Church, and to insist that ‘through his favorite pupil, Ursinus,’ the spirit of Melanchthon ‘pervades every page . . . of the Heidelberg Catechism.’ The German Church, therefore, is ‘better situated theologically . . . for the right apprehension and utterance of the true Reformed doctrine of the holy sacraments’” (MP, p. 13).

35. MP, pp. 400-401.

36. Why aren’t additional sins passed on in this way? One must remember that Nevin did not deny that Adam was a federal representative of the human race. To this objection he could have simply responded that only the first sin was confirmed into permanent depravity by God, so that it affected his posterity. The first sin especially confirms Adam’s descendants in depravity and guilt for the same reason that it especially confirmed Adam in depravity and guilt.

37. In the January 1854 Biblical Repertory & Princeton Review, Hodge wrote a review of the English translation of Philip Schaff’s History of the Apostolic Church. Since he had already reviewed the original German version, Hodge took this opportunity to simply evaluate the “Mercersburg theology” and the furor it was causing. He magnanimously defends Schaff by claiming that he was himself quite sound but was too much influenced by Nevin! Of special interest in this review is the fact that Hodge praised Schaff’s defense of forensic justification as impeccably sound (pp. 154-155). Yet later in the same article he criticizes Schaff for holding the same view of justification as Nevin (pp. 175-176). Somehow, it is possible for someone who holds to a non-protestant, “romish” view of justification to simultaneously be a clear expounder of the pure Reformed doctrine!

38. John Murray (in The Imputation of Adam’s Sin [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959] p. 70) wrote defending “immediate” imputation: “The one ground upon which the imputation of the righteousness of Christ becomes ours is the union with Christ. In other words, the justified person is constituted righteous by the obedience of Christ because of the solidarity established between Christ and the justified person. The solidarity constitutes the bond by which the righteousness of Christ becomes that of the believer.” Nevin could and would, I think, easily subscribe to this formulation. But Murray continues: “This is to say that the conjunction is immediate. If the case is thus on that side of the analogy which pertains to justification, we should expect the modus operandi to be the same in connection with condemnation.” Here we see that Nevin and Murray are of two different worlds. Nevin never took sides on the question of “mediate” versus “immediate” imputation, and I suspect that he would simply reject the distinction, as Dabney did, as an “over-refinement” (Discussions: Evangelical & Theological, vol 1, [London: Banner of Truth, 1890, 1967], p. 264). But for Nevin, the Holy Spirit is the One through whom there is a “solidarity established between Christ and the justified person.” For Murray this union or solidarity is somehow a transtemporal phenomenon–a legal union, or a property of God’s eternal decrees. Thus Murray makes original sin rest on that sort of solidarity, “[A]ll the members of the race were contemplated by God as destined to exist; they were foreordained to be and the certainty of their existence was thus guaranteed. It is important in this connection to bear in mind that as thus contemplated by God they were contemplated no otherwise than as members of the race in solidaric union with Adam and therefore as having sinned in him. In other words, they are not conceived of in the mind and purpose of God except as one with Adam; they are not contemplated as potentially but as actually one with Adam in his sin” (p. 91).

39. For example: “Now the advocates of the greatest theological absurdities never, in fact, assail these principles [of rationality]. Their plea is that their favorite propositions are only mysteries, and not contradictions. Thus the Papist seeks to excuse transubstantiation, the old-school Lutheran consubstantiation, the Mercersburg school, the spiritual yet literal communion in Christ’s corporeal body, which yet is not ubiquitous (Discussions: Evangelical & Theological, p. 278. Emphasis added). Henceforth DET.

40. Of course, this claim is significantly debatable in areas such as the status of infants in the Church, but for the purpose of this paper the assertion need not be modified. The point here is that Dabney was not vulnerable to the sorts of allegations made against Nevin, that he was compromising with Roman Catholic theology. Furthermore, Dabney, unlike Nevin, never wavered in affirming the doctrine of the decrees.

41. There are several sources to find Dabney’s view on the subject: His lectures on Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985); his review of R. W. Landis’ The Doctrine of Original Sin, as Revised and Taught by the Churches of the Reformation, Stated and Defended (Richmond, VA: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884), which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review October 1884; and his review of Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review April 1873. They are all quite similar in content. I am relying predominately on his review of Hodge as reprinted in DET. Though substantively the same, the discussion in his Systematic Theology is not quite as confident, namely because it is preceded by a polemic against the Arminian explanation of original sin that “Like must beget like.” Dabney replies that such a law must be ordained and the question is then raised how it was just to ordain such a law (pp. 330-331). Yet it is hard to distinguish this from his own position of “natural union.” This issue did not bother him as much when he was reviewing Hodge’s work, and he was quite sure that the justice of God ordaining such a law could not be legitimately called into question. Nevin never bothered to consider the justice of our organic union with Adam, so that point in the debate between Hodge and Dabney is outside the scope of this paper.

42. DET, pp. 267-268.

43. DET, p. 266.

44. This wording is quite similar to a statement made by Nevin: “Men do not make their nature; their nature makes them. To have part in the human nature at all, we must have part in it primarily as a fallen nature; a spiritually impotent nature; from whose constitution the principle of life has departed in its very root” (MP, p. 160).

45. DET, p. 270.

46. DET, p. 270. These words are Dabney’s statement of Thornwell’s view.

47. DET, p. 270.

48. DET, p. 271.

49. DET, p. 281.

50. DET, pp. 260-262. Note that in John Murray’s The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, he criticizes Calvin because “he has not been able to get above the Augustinian tradition in the exposition of Romans 5.12” (p. 18). Murray is arguing for a position substantially similar to Hodge’s (though Hutchinson claims Murray has created a new view) over against Calvin’s view.

51. Dabney radically rejected Nevin’s understanding of that union, however. He wrote: “Now, I cannot but believe that the gross and extreme views of a real presence and opus operatum, in the Lord’s supper, which prevailed in the Church from the patristic ages throughout the mediaeval, and which infect the minds of many Protestants now, arise from an erroneous and overstrained view of the mystical union. This union effectuates redemption. We all agree that the sacraments are its signs and seals. (See I Cor, xii:13: I Cor. x: 17, et passim). Now, the Fathers seem to have imagined that spiritual life must result from a literal and substantive intromission of Christ’s person into our souls, just as corporeal nutrition can only result when the food is taken substantially into the stomach, and assimilated with our corporeal substance. In this sense they seem to have understood the eating of Jno. [sic] vi: 51, etc. (which was currently misapplied to the Lord’s Supper). Hence, how natural that in the Lord’s supper, the sacramental sign and seal of the vitalizing union, they should imagine a real presence, not only of the God-head naturally, and of the Holy Spirit in His sanctifying influences, but of the whole Mediatorial person, and a literal feeding thereon. Hence, afterward, transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and the more refined, though equally impossible theory of Calvin, of a literal, and yet only spiritual feeding on the whole person. The same general law of thought appears in what may be called the Pan-Christism of the “Mercersburg School,” of modern semi-Pantheism. These divines have revived the old mystical idea of the substantive oneness of the human and divine spirit, through the medium of the incarnation, consistently assert a species of real presence of the mediatorial person in the Supper” (Systematic Theology, p. 617). Nevertheless, despite their differing conceptions of union with Christ, both seem to have a similar use for the doctrine in discussing imputation–that “This union effectuates redemption.”

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