Helffenstein on Mercersburg Theology



Delivered in the German Reformed Church in Germantown, PA.,
on the 27th of March, 1853.


“There be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.”
—Galatians I. 7.

It has ever been the policy of Satan, when he cannot lead to the denial of the gospel, to obscure its lustre and neutralize its power by connecting with it the “commandments and doctrines of men.” It was so in the early days of Christianity. Through the influence of Jewish tradition and pagan Philosophy, many, even in the Christian church, were “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” Some rejected the doctrine of the Saviour’s humanity — others, that of his divinity — some, under the pretext of seeking justification solely by faith, “made void the law,” and “turned the grace of God into lasciviousness;” others, discarding the idea of a gratuitous justification, maintained not merely the necessity of good works, but their absolute merit. The defection had found its way into the church at Galatia, and the apostle here denounces it not only as a perversion of the gospel, but as in fact “another gospel.” “There be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”

Unhappily for us, as a denomination, there have, for some years past, been gradually introduced among us principles “which we cannot but regard as at variance both with the formulas of our church, and with the teachings of the word of God. A system of theology has found currency among us which in its influence must be most disastrous. To present a full and detailed statement of this system, would require a volume. The limits of a discourse will permit us to point out only a few of those errors which appear to us as the most prominent. Our main object on this occasion will be to show that this new theology is, in its spirit and tendency, decidedly Romanistic — that it aims to undermine the very foundation of our Protestant faith, and that if carried out to its legitimate results, it must lead us back to Rome itself.

The position we have taken, bold as it may seem, is one which we might suppose would hardly be questioned. So legibly is it inscribed on the productions of the Mercersburg theology that it cannot, but be “known and read of all men.” Honesty would at once demand that those who advocate the system should acknowledge the truth of our charge. Were we alone in our judgment of the case, it might be alleged that our decision is founded on prejudice or misapprehension; but when we find ourselves sustained by the general sentiment of the evangelical church, we feel confident that we utter “the words of truth and soberness.” The press of various religious denominations has uttered its voice of warning in tones distinct and forcible. Lutherans, Reformed Dutch, Evangelical Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists—Presbyterians, both Old and New School, have all borne their decided testimony against this new movement towards Papal corruption, and deplored the sad defection from the faith of Zwinglius. Now what does all this mean? Are all men liars? Have the wisest and best men been duped? Has Archbishop Hughes, who expects soon to welcome Dr. Nevin to the Papal communion, entirely misapprehended the meaning of the man? Listen for a moment to the exultation of the Freeman’s Journal, the organ of the Archbishop and the Pope. Speaking of Dr. Nevin, the editor of the “Mercersburg Review,” it says: “We find grounds assumed by the leader of the German Reformed Church which convince us that the day is not distant when another triumph will be added to the faith, in the conversion of this profound and learned scholar.” Again, “Without concerning ourselves with the issue, we have in the case before us another instance of a Protestant, distinguished alike by station, intellect and learning, renouncing the main theory of Protestantism as absurd, and bearing the strongest testimony in favour of Catholicity.”

Whatever support the teachings of Mercersburg may have received from the German Reformed Synod, we are happy to say, there have been, and still are among us, some, few as they may be in number, who have entered their solemn protest against the spreading heresy. The secession of our friend Dr. Berg is so well known to the public, that we refer to it only as an honourable testimony in favour of Protestant truth, against those papal innovations which he laboured so faithfully, and yet, we fear, so unsuccessfully to resist. The North Carolina Classis with one accord has dissolved all further connexion with the German Reformed Synod, and from henceforth no one tinctured with the semi-popery of Mercersburg can find any footing within their bounds. The following language from the Rev. Dr. _____, one of our prominent ministers, it will be seen is in perfect harmony with our position. “We have fallen upon perilous times, and it becomes every true friend of the Reformation and of the church, to speak out his sentiments fearlessly and fully, and to take a firm and decided stand against innovation and error. Until lately, peace reigned throughout our borders, and we were a united and happy people. At present there is considerable distraction and division among us. The source of this mischief is well known. At a certain point the flood-gates of error have been lifted high, and the muddy and bitter waters have poured in upon us. Not satisfied with the good old beaten paths of our fathers in this country, our Professors have attempted to open up new and better ones, and in the attempt have well nigh made shipwreck of themselves and us. Oxford and Rome have appeared so lovely in their eyes, that they could refrain no longer from expressions of sympathy and regard. They have viewed those cities in the distance, very minutely, as it would seem, and have discovered therein certain excellencies, which all orthodox Christendom could never see, not with standing their full and oft-repeated observations and investigations. For us as a church, these discoveries have been most unfortunate; and I could and do wish from the bottom of my heart that they had never been made. They are useless in their nature and destructive in their tendency.” From a communication addressed to me by the Rev. Dr._____, one of our oldest ministers, and the pastor of a large congregation, we extract the following: “Differences do exist among us, and I have long felt that they are fundamental; they begin at the very foundation, and I feel, more than ever, that the lesson taught us is not a lesson of charity, but a lesson of fidelity; charity is out of the question, because the gospel is at stake. The great doctrine of justification by faith, the turning point of a standing or a falling Church, has been gradually weakened and undermined; and in addition to this there have been special and untiring endeavours to break down all the distinctive and cherished land-marks of what has been regarded by all evangelical Christians of the present day as evangelical religion. In the first instance of the movement, it appeared so gradually to steal upon us, it carried so much plausibility, it had so much love to the church and zeal for its rites and ceremonies, and distinctive character, on its front; it had so much of apparent fitness to meet the exigencies of the times, that it deceived many, and gained their confidence, and they lent their sanction more or less to it before they were aware of its real purpose and drift. What was the real purpose and drift? I am bold to say — a desire to approximate again to the apostate church, from which we were rescued at the glorious Reformation, an adoption of what were insidiously termed ‘Catholic principles,’ but which in very deed were nothing else but Popish principles. Stripped of its enamelling, what more or less has Dr. N____ said than that Protestantism is an enormous lie and a cheat?”

We will bring in one more witness to justify the fears we have entertained in regard to these innovations. The senior Editor of the “Messenger,” the principal organ of the German Reformed Church, though formerly one of the warmest supporters of the Mercersburg vagaries, became himself so much alarmed at the rapid progress of the “developments” that he was eventually brought to a stand, and felt it incumbent upon him to raise the note of admonition and warning. “The Mercersburg Review,” he says, “has, for the last six or nine months furnished, us with articles from the pen of Dr. Nevin, on the ‘church question,’ rising in regular gradation, higher and still higher, until our head has become dizzy — We are at a dead halt — He has traveled too fast for us, and we can therefore only commend him to God and the word of his grace,” &c.

We proceed now to direct your attention to some of those points in which this defection from Protestant principles is most clearly manifest.

And first of all, we may notice the denial of the great principle that “the Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.” On this point the formulas of the German Reformed Church are remarkably explicit. In the installation of a Professor of Theology the Constitution requires that he make the following declaration: “That the Holy Scriptures contain all things which relate to the faith, the practice and the hope of the righteous, and are the only rule of faith and practice in the Church of God; that consequently, no traditions, as they are called, and no mere conclusions of reason, which are contrary to the clear testimony of these scriptures, can be received as rules of faith, or of life,” &c. As the chairman of the committee appointed to induct our late Professor into office, it devolved upon us to administer this solemn oath, in the presence of God and the congregation. Compare now the obligation which was then assumed with the following quotation from the “Mercersburg Review,” (Vide Vol. II No. 4.) “A purely Biblical Christianity can never be a complete Christianity.” Could any language be in more direct opposition to the language of the Constitution, or more insulting to the great principle of our Protestant Christianity? Hear it, ye unlettered Christians, who know nothing of the opinion of “the Fathers, and who have been content to make your appeal simply” to the law and the testimony” a Christianity derived alone from the Bible is, after all, only a defective religion! Consult the word of God as much as you please, implore the illumination of the Holy Spirit as much as you please, the Bible is to be fully understood only by the aid of tradition. “The Bible must be read with the mind of the church – which starts in the Apostle’s creed,” — “tradition is absolutely indispensable — by its means we come first to the contents of the Bible.” “It is an abominable presumption for a single individual to cast off all respect for church authority and church life, and pretend to draw his faith immediately from the Bible, only and wholly through the narrow pipe-stem of his own private judgment.” To ascertain what the Bible teaches you must first be careful to ascertain what the church teaches. Admitting that the Scriptures contain the richest treasures of knowledge and wisdom, tradition is ‘the key,’ without which those treasures never can be reached. It is needless for me to occupy your time in exposing this Popish dogma. It is at once condemned by the voice of all Protestant Christians. It is directly at variance with the teachings of the inspired penmen, who have assured us that the Holy Scriptures – not the Scriptures and tradition, but the scriptures alone — are able to make us wise unto salvation. It is opposed to the very principle on which was based the Reformation; for the Reformers, instead of appealing to the authority of the Papal hierarchy, arrogating to itself the title of “the Church,” made their appeal to the “sure word of prophecy.” It is, in fact, inconsistent with the position of our Professors themselves; for their theology, instead of being a true presentation of the Church, is universally repudiated by evangelical Protestants. What right have they to set up their judgment in opposition to the orthodox Church any more than other men? Is not the right of private judgment as sacred with one man as with another? If a Professor of Theology may be allowed to exercise this right, why not allow the same liberty to others?

Another evidence of the Romanizing tendency of the Mercersburg system may be seen in the inherent efficacy which it ascribes to the sacraments. The sacraments, it says, are “objective institutions” of the Lord that hang not on the precarious state of the subject.” “We must not say that faith puts into the sacrament the virtue which it is found to possess. The virtue of a real presence on the part of the Saviour, is in the sacrament itself, objectively considered, as truly as the same virtue was exhibited in his living form in the days of his fleshy Baptism is “no mere sign, no simple outward adjunct or accident.” “It is the washing of regeneration; it saves us; it is for the remission of sins. The ceremony, of course, is not this per se, but it goes actually to complete the work of our salvation, as the mystical exhibition in real form of that divine grace, without which all our subjective exercises in the case must amount to nothing. We have this faith formally proclaimed in the creed; for the article there affirming the remission of sins, as may be easily shown, refers to this as a fact accomplished in the church by baptism.” “The baptism of infants was continued in the Protestant church on this ground alone (i.e. the mystical supernatural power of the sacrament,”) and has been spoken of from the first, as in their case, emphatically the sacrament of regeneration. Hence, also, the frequent use, by the advocates of this system, of the terms “sacramental grace,” “baptismal grace,” “the mystical force of the sacraments.” If this is not the opus operatum of the Catholic Church, it at least comes so near it, that it would be puzzling indeed to define the distinction. What more than this could any Romanist ask? and what can be better calculated to quiet the conscience with the fearful delusion that a man is in a state of grace, while yet he remains an entire stranger to the power of godliness?

In perfect accordance with this view, Dr. Schaf, in his “Principle of Protestantism” has asserted that as “out of the church there is no Christianity, there can be no salvation,” (page 177.) And one of our classes not long since, gravely passed a resolution of the same purport, and though brought before Synod, in the examination of their minutes, it was passed by with almost universal silence and with an evident determination to leave the error unrebuked. If the sacraments are what they are represented to be, the great channels through which grace is communicated to the soul, we wonder not why the advocates of this sentiment should be chiefly concerned, not about the conversion of men, but their introduction to the church, and their submission to gospel ordinances. Their practice is certainly in perfect keeping with their theory. Hence we find a certain writer in the German Reformed Messenger expressing himself thus: “It is evident that many keep back from joining the church because they desire to be converted out of the church, and only go into it afterwards for safe keeping. Instead of viewing the church as a garden, in which, as Tholuck says, plants are to be cultivated, they regard it as a barn into which ripe sheaves are to be gathered. They regard the church, not as the means of regeneration, but only of sanctification. Thus they wait to be converted, (and assured at once,) without taking that step towards it which will place within their reach all the means of grace.” The Heidelberg Catechism, in answer to the question “For whom is the Lord’s Supper intended?” replies, “For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ,” &c. It regards the Lord’s Supper, not as the means of originating faith, but as the means of invigorating and confirming faith already in existence — the Church, not as the refuge of the unregenerate, but of those who are already born of God. With the evangelical view of conversion, as held by such men as Baxter, Doddridge, Banyan, Owen, and Edwards, the system which we are now exposing evidently has no land of sympathy, But experience is stigmatized as Puritanism, spiritualism, pietism, and revivals of religion, the hope and the glory of the church, as the mere effervescence of fanaticism and human folly. The great thing is to be brought into connexion with the church. That step taken, the attainment of salvation is made easy, if not absolutely sure. Speaking of the conversion of Augustine, one of the Fathers of the Church Dr. Kevir remarks: “The very crisis of conversion, in the case of the African father, turns on the principle of absolute and unconditional submission to the supernatural authority of the Church in a form that would be considered any thing but evangelical with the Pietistic or Methodistic tendency of the present time.” We hah always thought that submission to Christ constituted that crisis, but no, we are told it is submission to the Church! The manner in which the African Father is referred to is evidently designed, though in a very sly way, to present, not an historical fact, but a theological theory. Agreeably to this exaltation of the church, as the only organ through which grace is communicated to man, one of the disciples of Mercersburg in a late obituary notice, says of the deceased. “When he looked at Christ in the Church, he had not a single doubt; when he looked at himself, he saw nothing but sin!” This is one of the worst tendencies of the Mercersburg movement. Carried out to its legitimate results it must sweep away every vestige of vital godliness, and substitute in its place a religion of mere rites and forms. This effect may not at once be perceptible, but the end must eventually be reached. The leaven is working, and will ere long leaven the whole lump.
The denial that the Papacy is an apostacy, “the great apostasy,” is another significant indication of the Mercersburg movement, the views of the Reformers on this subject must be familiar to every intelligent Protestant. When their eyes became fully opened to the evils of Popery, they denounced it, in the most unsparing terms, as the very “master-piece of Satan.” In declaring this conviction their tongues never faltered. “You,” says Calvin, in addressing the pretended Vicar of Christ, “you, the successor of St. Peter! you, who have no more resemblance to him than any Nero, Domitian, or Caligula! you, the vicegerent of Christ! you, whose every thought and wish and action are directed to the extinction of Christ, provided only the empty name remain, with which, as a meretricious glare, you would deceive us! you, the vicegerent of Christ, whom now the very children know to be the very antichrist!” With this view of the Papacy has accorded the general sentiment of the Protestant Church. They have been accustomed to look upon the system, as it is indeed represented by the inspired penmen, as “the man of sin — the mystery of iniquity — the mother of abominations — the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.” They have regarded it as destined not to be reformed but destroyed, as totally and incurably evil — the smoke of her torment to ascend for ever and ever. Listen now to the apologizing and flattering terms with which this system of corruption is spoken of by the Mercersburg school. Here we find it represented as “an onward movement,” “a movement whose general ultimate tendency is forwards, and not backwards,” “the grand channel,” “the central stream by which the general life of the church” is carried forward. Such witnesses to the truth as the Waldenses, Albigenses, &c., were but “side currents,” “separate particular movements,” “miserable sects at the outside of it.” “We do not,” say they, “hold the Papacy as such to be antichrist;” “it was necessary for the wants of a particular period,” just as Judaism was adapted to the wants of the former dispensation. “Catholicism in this view is justified as a true and legitimate movement of the church.” “It would seem the credit of Protestantism absolutely demands a much larger concession in favour of Romanism than many are willing to make.” “No church has been more monstrously slandered. Our religious papers, it is to be feared, lie here too generally under dreadful guilt.” The middle ages, which, according to the testimony of Ecclesiastical Historians, were ages of darkness, superstition, and every abomination, are painted by the Mercersburg Professors in such colours of light and beauty that we might almost be ready to conclude that the church was then in her very best estate, and as might well afford us occasion to weep that we cannot roll back the wheels of time and once more realize the departed glory. Compared with the superior illumination of that period the boasted light of the present age is but like a taper to the sun. “The mighty dead” of that glorious period are represented by Dr. Schaf as pointing, “with a compassionate smile,” the dwarfish race of the nineteenth century to their “own imperishable giant works, and exclaiming, Be humble, and learn that nothing becomes you so well.” “The middle ages are the cradle of the Reformation.”

The system of Mercersburg, instead of maintaining that the Papacy is destined to a fearful overthrow, maintains that it is to be perpetuated and brought to a glorious consummation. “The new order in which Protestantism is to become thus complete cannot be reached without the co-operation and help of Romanism.” “Protestantism cannot be consummated without Catholicism.”

All attacks on Romanism are, therefore, regarded as uncharitable and uncalled for. Romanism has its mission as well as Protestantism, and therefore must be left to pursue its course unmolested. It may burn the Bible, shed the blood of heretics, and throw its iron fetters over the human conscience — no matter for that, every tongue must be hushed. This “war with Romanism,” Dr. Nevin tells us, “is a rude profane assault in truth upon all ecclesiastical antiquity. No such controversy can stand. History and theology must in due time sweep it from the field.”

….Mercersburg has departed from the orthodox faith, on which time will hardly allow us to dwell. We cannot, however, omit noticing that great and cardinal doctrine for which the Reformers so earnestly contended, Justification by faith in the atoning merits of Christ. — If the system we are now exposing does not absolutely reject this fundamental truth, it at least speaks of it in the most disparaging terms, as one-sided, and, at the same time, utterly confounds Justification with Sanctification. Justification, according to the Protestant view, is an act of God’s free grace, whereby, for the sake of Christ’s righteousness alone, imputed to the believer, he is fully absolved from the sentence of the law, and obtains a title to eternal life. Unjust as he is in himself, he is pronounced just; and treated as such wholly on account of the merits of the Redeemer. Attend now to the statements of Dr. Nevin: “The atonement, as a foreign work, could not be made to reach us in the way of a true salvation. Only as it may be considered as immanent in our nature itself, can it be imputed to us as ours, and so become available in us for its own ends.” This accords, substantially, with the views of the Catholic Church, the righteousness by which we are justified is not a righteousness without us – a righteousness inherent, or as Dr. Nevin expresses it, “immanent in our nature.” So, too, the editor of the Messenger remarks on this subject: “The Protestant doctrine of Justification is but very superficially and one-sidedly apprehended, when it is conceived that the sinner is justified pretty much in the same way, as if an innocent, good-natured individual were to impute his innocence to a guilty murderer, and offer his own life as a ransom for his, and that, thereby, violated justice were satisfied.” Another writer in the same paper speaks thus: “The justification of a sinner cannot be a merely external work. The righteousness of Christ is not merely thrown around the sinner as a cloak, a shield, or a coat of steel to defend and screen him from the wrath to come.” What is this but a virtual denial of the great principle both of Substitution and of Justification7 Are we not taught that “he who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him?” that “he suffered, the just for the unjust, that we might be brought to God?” Are we not called upon to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ?” Was it not the great desire of Paul “to be found in him, not having his own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ?” “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.”

“Lord, thy imputed righteousness
My beauty is; my glorious dress;
‘Midst flaming worlds in this arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.”

With the evidence thus furnished, it will at once be obvious that the Mercersburg movement has a decided leaning towards Rome. To deny this is utterly out of the question. It would be a bare-faced insult to common sense, and the conviction of every unprejudiced mind. But we cannot stop even here. We unhesitatingly affirm, that the movement, if carried out to its proper tendency, must conduct to Romanism itself. Look at the case as it is presented in the article on “Early Christianity.” According to Dr. Nevin — the writer of these articles — the Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries was substantially the same as Roman Catholic Christianity. The Fathers of that period, were they now to appear on the earth, would find their home not in the bosom of the Protestant, but of the Papal Church. But how was it with the preceding centuries — the third, the second, and the first? “The fourth century,” we are told, “was a true continuation of the ecclesiastical forms and views of the third, and this again grew by natural and legitimate birth out of the bosom of the second. As far back as our historical notices reach, we find no trace this side of the New Testament of any church system at all answering to any Puritan scheme of the present time: no room or space, however small, in which to locate the hypothesis even of any such scheme; but very sufficient proof rather that, the prevailing habit of thought looked all quite another way, and that, in principle and tendency at least, the infant church was carried from the very start towards the medieval Catholicism in which that older system finally became complete. All this however, if presented merely as historical, though exceedingly questionable, might still be endured, were the state of things as it is represented to have been at that period, regarded as a corruption of a purer form of Christianity previously existing. This, however, is no where admitted. This is a mere “hypothesis — a mere “fancy.” Such “a truly golden age, representing, for a time at least, however short, the true original simplicity of the gospel,” is not allowed. We have no intimation that even in the age of the apostles, the state of the church was materially different. If Dr. Nevin believed that there then existed a purer Christianity which gave way to a subsequent defection, why did he not manfully, avow the sentiment, and thus relieve the minds of his anxious readers? How easy would it have been for him by a single sentence to have cleared himself of all suspicion on this momentous subject. Why did he not frankly express his conviction that the New Testament — that the founders of the Christian church, taught a Christianity free from those corruptions which like a flood afterwards swept over the church for so many long and dreary centuries? What means this mysterious silence when as a true Protestant it might reasonably have been expected he would have borne his testimony to the truth? We honestly confess that could we be convinced of the truth of the Doctor’s positions, we should, without a moment’s hesitation, utterly dissolve all connexion with Protestantism, and return to the bosom of that apostacy which, in all material points, we are taught was the same as “Early Christianity.”

We have thus endeavoured to give you a fair and candid view of the Romanizing tendency of those sentiments which now so extensively prevail in the German Reformed Church. Where this development will end God alone knows. Its march is not forward, but backward. Already has it endorsed some of the very worst errors of Rome, and, we fear, it will not rest until it has endorsed all. The Mercersburg school has no “stand-point.” It is in perpetual motion and moving with accelerated velocity to its fearful destination. The church of the future, of which it sometimes speaks in such glowing colours, is nothing more than the superstitions of the past. It talks, indeed, of a glorious union of Protestantism and Romanism, but it is a union in which Protestantism will have to sacrifice every thing, and Romanism nothing. For our part, we dare not throw ourselves in the current which is carrying forward so many to the wreck of every distinctive principle of our Protestant Christianity. We are Protestants, and Protestants we mean to remain. Our hearts bleed to witness the melancholy condition of our beloved Zion. We love the German Reformed Church; it is the church of our forefathers, the church in which, about twenty-eight years ago, we were ordained to the gospel ministry, and to which we have devoted a considerable part of our ministerial life. A better summary of Christian doctrine than that contained in the Heidelberg Catechism is no where to be found; but if those with whom we are now in fellowship depart from the faith of our ancestors, then we must depart from them. We have repeatedly entered our protest against the defection, but as yet we can discover no signs for the better. We charge not the entire body of the German Preformed Church with being thus untrue to her original faith. We are happy to say that within her pale are still many whose Protestantism remains firm, and who are deeply “grieved for the afflictions of Joseph.” The great mass of our people, did they but properly understand the present tendency, would resist it with all their might. We only regret that there has been no more combined and vigorous effort to stem the spreading tide of corruption, and, if possible, prevent the coming catastrophe. “0 God, give us help from trouble, for vain is the help of man.” We must look to him, and we feel confident that He will direct our steps. Only let this church remain firm in the faith, and it will have nothing to fear. Let none be moved from their steadfastness by any foreign interference or influence. Our position at this time is a responsible one. Momentous consequences are depending upon the decision and fidelity of this single Church. May the great Captain of our salvation lead us onward from victory to victory, until our warfare shall be accomplished, and from the Church militant we are ultimately introduced to the Church triumphant.

Jacob Helfenstein was the last of a long line of Helfensteins who had served in the German Reformed Church ministry since its earliest colonial days. His warning against Mercersburg theology went unheeded, resulting in the withdrawal of the Germantown congregation from the German Reformed Church. All of the Helfensteins still active in the ministry also tendered their resignations in the German Reformed Church, a move which strengthened the hand of the Mercersburg theology over the Church. The complete text of Rev. Helfenstein’s sermon may be found at www.CitySeminary.org