November 07, 2018

Philip Schaff

Stephen Nichols
Philip Schaff

On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces us to Philip Schaff and explains why a library is named after him.


Today, we are outside of the Philip Schaff Library at Lancaster Theological Seminary. The seminary was built in 1893, the same year that Philip Schaff died. It served as the American theological seminary of the German Reformed Church.

Philip Schaff was born in 1819, and he died in 1893. His life, much like John Williamson Nevin’s, spanned the nineteenth century. He was born in Switzerland and was educated in universities throughout Germany by the country’s towering figures in church history, biblical studies, and theology.

In 1841, he received his degree from the University of Berlin, and he taught there for a couple of years before he received a charge to go to America. In 1843, he arrived in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania to serve at what was then the only seminary serving the German Reformed Church in America.

As we look at Schaff's career, we can see that he had three primary roles. The first was his role as a churchman. Throughout much of his life, he gave his energy and efforts as the editor of the hymnal for the German Reformed Church. He also spent a great deal of time writing about and talking about the German Reformed Church’s liturgy. Along with Nevin, he was an architect of what has come to be called the “Mercersburg Theology” and was a very significant theologian in the German Reformed Church. So, his first role was as a churchman.

His second role was as a scholar. He taught at Mercersburg for a number of years. The school was closed during the Civil War, and at that time, Schaff found himself in a variety of places. He ended up at Union Theological Seminary teaching church history and a variety of subjects. He held that post until the time of his death. He was also a scholar in the sense that he founded a very important organization called the American Society of Church History in 1888.

So, he was a churchman, he was a scholar, but he was also an author and editor.

The final aspect of Schaff's legacy that we need to talk about is his legacy of books, and that's why it's so fitting to be sitting outside of the Philip Schaff Library. One of the main works of Philip Schaff was his History of the Christian Church. This was an eight-volume work covering the span of church history. He served as an editor of a wonderful three-volume work called The Creeds of Christendom. It pulls together the creeds of the early church, a number of the medieval creeds, rulings from church councils, and some wonderful texts from the Reformation, even going into the post-Reformation era. He was also the editor of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, a significant work pulling together the writings of the early church fathers prior to the Nicene Creed.

His name can be found on the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. It was originally the Herzog Encyclopedia, which was a German work, and Schaff was the editor/translator of the English edition. It was a thirteen-volume work that was a tour de force reference of all things of religious knowledge.

One of my favorite quotes from Philip Schaff is from his eight-volume History of the Christian Church, where he says, "We find everywhere in this world the traces of a revealed God and of a hidden God; revealed enough to strengthen our faith, concealed enough to try our faith." A quote from the many, many writings of Philip Schaff—the churchman, the scholar, the author, and editor.