Meet Philip Schaff

Born in 1819 in Switzerland, the son of a carpenter, Philip Schaff was raised in the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union, and later converted to the German Reformed Church. He was a brilliant student and earned several scholarships. After graduating from the gymnasium in Stuttgart, he attended Tubingen University and subsequently attended Halle and Berlin universities where he studied under F.A.G. Tholuck, E.W. Hengstenberg, and J.A.W. Neander. In 1844, Schaff was invited to become professor of church history and biblical literature at German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. During his first lecture, titled The Principle of Protestantism, he presented his view of the rift between Protestantism and Catholicism as a divinely ordained development in the history of Christianity which would eventually lead to a merger of the two factions into one evangelical Catholic church. His vision was met with outrage and he was branded a heretic, although he was later absolved.

Controversy continued to swirl around Schaff as he joined John W. Nevin in formulating the Mercersburg Theology. Both men were concerned that the emotional revivalism spawned by the Awakening was inauthentic and would eventually overshadow the teachings of the Heidelburg Catechism, the central embodiment of German Reformed doctrine. To counter the sectarian trend of revivalism within the church, the Mercersburg Theology reflected the leadersí desire to embrace, in Nevinís words, "not the notion of supernatural things simply, but the very power and presence of the things themselves." To this end, Schaff and Nevin stressed the centrality of the Eucharist, believing that only through the sacrament could the individual believer gain true spiritual knowledge. Calling for a new vision of the church as one, catholic, and holy, they also sought to combat sectarianism and promote unity through the use of the creeds, catechism, and liturgy.

The influence of the Mercersburg Theology was strongest from 1840 until both men left the seminary, Nevin in 1853 and Schaff in 1870. However, the movementís challenging call to self-examination is still being felt among todayís denominations in the form of the ecumenical movement.

Schaffís dedication to ecumenicism never wavered and, beginning in 1866, he worked with the Evangelical Alliance which actively promoted Christian unity. After the Civil War nearly destroyed the seminary at Mercersburg, Schaff left in 1870 to become a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a post he held until his death in 1893. During his lifetime, he published a huge body of literature, including the 12-volume History of the Christian Church. He also edited translations of the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge and the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, and compiled a collection of documents known as The Creeds of Christendom.

Information gathered from and New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.)

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