The Trial of Phillip Schaff


What is most remembered about the celebrated historian Philip Schaff is his “History of the Christian Church,” a multi-volume work that remains, even today, a must-have for the student serious about understanding the role of the church in history. What is less known, however, is that shortly after arriving on America’s shores, he was embroiled in a heresy trial that rocked the American church community and presaged the development of the ecumenical movement among Protestant denominations.

PhilipSchaffDr. Philip Schaff arrived in the United States in October 1844, and preached his inaugural address to the Synod of the German Reformed Church at Allentown, PA, on October 25th. The address was entitled The Principle of Protestantism as related to the present state of the Church, and swiftly became the focus of intense debate in the church leading to a contentious trial before his newly-adopted church’s Synod meeting in York, PA, October 16, 1845.

The address, which was later expanded and printed in a translation by Dr. John Williamson Nevin, was an emotional German flag-waving event. Germany is described as the womb of the Reformation. Luther’s great accomplishment of breaking the grip of the Roman church on the whole of European society, and the liberation of the rational mind were its strongest themes. The Reformed church is frequently mentioned, but predominantly in its agreement with Luther on justification by faith rather than the works required by Rome.

Dr. Joseph Berg, editor of The Protestant Banner and pastor of Race Street Church in Philadelphia, began the assault on Dr. Schaff, charging him with “exalting tradition over scripture, and the sacraments over personal faith.” And the trial in the church press was on. It appears that Dr. Berg failed to recognize the problem in Schaff’s theological position. He attributed the novel Hegelian Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis dynamic to an effort to return all Christians to the Roman church. Ironically, Dr. Schaff seems to have despised the Roman church as much as Dr. Berg.

His desire for a truly “catholic” (i.e. universal) church was based on the aforementioned dynamic. The Roman church was the thesis, the Reformation provided the antithesis, and Dr. Schaff believed that he represented the beginning of the synthesis, a church which revered the tradition of the early and medieval church, as much as it revered the individualism and subjectivism of the Reformation. He desired to destroy the chains of the Papacy and to liberate the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the individuals in the church.

Schaff’s thesis, The Principle of Protestantism, set out the idea that the church was an organic development. Protestantism was neither restoration nor revolution, simply an evolution from medieval Catholicism. The commonly held idea that the Waldensian tradition preserved the New Testament church, proclaimed that the Roman church was defective and the Reformation had restored the true church. If the Medieval Roman church was the evolutionary ancestor, then they were not heretical at all, just retarded in growth. The fear that showing any respect for the Roman church was to soften the need for the Reformation, (and consequently the very existence of Schaff’s adopted German Reformed Church), lit a fire in the “conservatives” which Dr. Berg led. That the thesis went on to long for a day when the best of both churches (Protestant and Catholic) could work and worship together as they both grew into the synthesis Schaff desired, provided the “gasoline” necessary to explode.

NevinNo one seems to have noticed that the adherence to the Reformed Standards was not in the picture. The scripture is exalted with the caveat that the voice of God in all forms of revelation sheds light on the truth.
As a result of the assault, the Classis Philadelphia met in September of 1845, and passed a series of resolutions which emphasized the Protestant positions on scripture and faith, and the Reformed position on the Lord’s Supper, in a context of contradictions to Roman Catholicism. A small minority voted contrary and filed a protest in which they “do not at present consider the work The Principle of Protestantism as containing any heretical principles or even teaching doctrines contrary to the acknowledged doctrinal standards of the German Reformed Church.” Rev. Jacob Helffenstein calcified the debate as Roman Catholic verses Protestant in a resolution declaring the Roman Church “the man of sin.”

The Synod of 1845, meeting in York, PA, in October, erected a committee to study The Principle of Protestantism. The committee immediately declared the complaint which brought the resolutions out of order on the grounds that they should have been presented to the Board of Visitors of the Seminary first, and through that body to Synod. The Professors waived this technicality and the matter was referred to a special committee made up of one member of each Classis. Dr. Bernard Wolff chaired the committee.

The committee report to Synod vindicated the Principle and pictured the action of Philadelphia Classis as “revealing an absence of consideration and forethought”. The “trial” was actually a four day debate over the committee report. The rules of debate must have been different then; Dr. Berg spoke for two hours, Dr. Nevin for two hours and Dr. Schaff for three hours, then Berg and Schaff answered for an hour and a half each. The committee report prevailed by a 40 “yea” to 3 “nay” vote. It is incredible to realize that no records were kept of this “trial”. The reason is probably just as incredible: there was no trial. There was a days-long speech and response scenario which should be considered a shouting match between two sides each shouting “I’m more orthodox than you are.” While the accusation was thrown around that Schaff wanted to lead us all back to Rome, only the committee report denying the resolution of the Philadelphia Classis which implied (but did not accuse) that all the central doctrines of the German Reformed Church were denied in Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism. The lack of focus caused by such a resolution (it was too broad, too unspecific, and never actually made a charge of heresy) left those who were moderate with nothing to do but to assume that an anger fueled by jealousy or insult had caused the furor. Nevin accused the “Berg faction” of being “loveless, intolerant and harsh”.

WolfBernardIt must be said that the conclusion of Nevin that jealousy and insult had led to this seems to have merit, even though the charges of denying the central truths of the German Reformed Church are also true. It is possible to be right but act so improperly as to be wrong. Berg and company manipulated the Philadelphia Classis with rhetoric and scare tactics, perhaps because the substance of their attack was so vague that it was the only way they believed they could successfully advance their cause. Concise charges may well have carried the day, at least they would have made the positions clear, but the conservatives had also abandoned the central truths outlined in their church’s “Heidelberg Catechism,” which are not upheld in their rhetoric.

Schaff would insist that he was tried for heresy twice, once in the Synod and once in the church papers. He would admit that he had “thrown a firebrand, however I did so unintentionally.” His second conflict centered on an older work of his regarding the “intermediate state.” Schaff had speculated on what happens to persons between their death and the final judgment. It was a common speculation. What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel? Can general revelation save? He speculated that there was a middle state. This was not thinking like purgatory which is that the baptized are made to suffer for the sins committed after baptism and which have not been confessed and absolved. It was much closer to the “second chance” eschatology of dispensationalism. Schaff was aware of the work of Edward Irving and sought to interact with that work, although it is not clear that they were ever actually linked. As this charge made the rounds of the Philadelphia Classis, Schaff retorted that he did not think it fair that an older work of his should be called into account. He would later assure the Synod of 1846 that “the view had not been taught nor is it ever contemplated to be taught in the Theological Seminary.” Schaff’s ethics should have been charged, for during the 1859-1860 term, the doctrine appears in the class notes of one of the students. The notes are quite detailed and imply that this was a regularly taught subject in this course. The notes survive in the library at Lancaster. The Synod would never again entertain such charges or seek to stifle the academic freedom of the professors. The Synod, in effect, abdicated its place as the highest court of the church in matters of theology and deferred to the “scholars”. Many denominations in the following century would experience the same sort of crises. If no one is steering the car, it will go wherever it is pushed by whatever forces are acting on it. So, too, with seminaries which have no court of oversight and no resolution to doctrinal questions.

MarshallCollegeWhile the “trial” was de facto closed, the infighting did not go away. Berg and those who supported him continued to agitate, but neither the Classis nor the Synod would hear them. Berg represented the “conservatives” although it is not truly accurate to call them the “orthodox”, for they too had abandoned the orthodoxy of their own confessions and the Scriptures. Schaff would leave Mercersburg Seminary in September, 1865, and eventually become a professor at Union Theological Seminary where he finished his History of the Christian Church. He would not escape controversy, however, as he weighed in to defend Charles Briggs in his own heresy trial before the United Presbyterian Church.

Jay Fluck is Pastor of Rehoboth Chapel in La Habra, CA. His 18th and 19th century forebears were members of the German Reformed Church.