Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mediate Regeneration

Some concluding thoughts (see also here and here) on Stuart Olyott's article in the Banner Magazine for December 2009 entitled Where Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We need To Know about It. I especially want to focus on his claim that the doctrine of "mediate regeneration" as he calls it will be the ruin of gospel work in the UK. Why does he take issue with the idea that the Word is the instrument by which the Spirit brings a person to new life in Christ? We start with his proposed definition of the new birth,

"Regeneration is a supernatural enlightenment of the human soul brought about by the direct and immediate energy of the Holy Spirit working within that soul. There is nothing 'mediate' about it. It is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside." (p. 26)

This statement is typical of what might be found in the standard works of Reformed systematic theology. Olyott stresses the unmediated character of regeneration in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the Spirit. He wants to avoid any suggestion that the Word inhrently contains the Spirit's saving power. But is it right to suggest that regeneration is ordinarily an immediate act of the Spirit apart from the instrumentality of the Word? Part of the problem is that the discourse of systematic theology is not always the same as that of the Bible itself. Systematics in its drive for conceptual clarity can sometimes ride roughshod over the differing nuances of the biblical material. Regeneration, or being born again is sometimes described in the Bible as a work of the Spirit without mention of the instrumentality of the Word. The classic passage is John 3:3-8. But this is not the whole story. Other texts attribute the new birth to God working by his Word, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. Olyott is aware of this and addresses the issue in his article. He suggests (p. 28) that these verses are "not [about] the act of germination (where new life comes into being) but to the moment of birth (where a new life becomes visible)." But I'm not sure that such a distinction can be justified. Biblical writers use a variety of terminology to refer to the same saving event. In the Gospel According to John Jesus speaks of being "born again" (John 3:3, 8), Paul writes, "if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), he teaches that the dead in sin are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5), and uses the language of "regeneration" (Titus 3:5). In each case Scripture is referring to God's great work of bringing the dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, take Peter's teaching on the new birth in his First Epistle. In 1 Peter 1:3, we read that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". This stands in parallel with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5, where God makes those who were dead in sin alive together with Christ. In neither case is the Word explicitly mentioned as an instrument of regeneration. However, Peter uses the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1:3 (translated "begotten again" NKJV) and 1 Peter 1:23 (translated "born again" NKJV). Note that in the latter text we read, "having been born again... through the word of God". The word is the "incorruptible seed...which lives and abides forever". This "word" is identified with the gospel that was originally preached to Peter's readers, 1 Peter 1:23-25. For Peter the Word of the gospel is clearly the means by which God begets us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Reformed systematic theology needs to be revised to take this fact into account (see John Murray's attempt to do this in The Collected Works of John Murray Volume 2, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 196-198).

Now, Olyott knows that regeneration ordinarily takes place in the context where the Word of God is proclaimed (p 27), but he denies that the Word is the means by which the Holy Spirit regenerates people. But from what we have just seen in 1 Peter, the gospel does not simply provide the context in which the new birth takes place. We are born again "through the word of God". Of course, this does not mean that the Word in itself contains the saving power of the Spirit. The Word is only an instrument of the regenerating power of God. But it is just that. Is regeneration any the less a monergistic act of God if he uses his own Word to bring those who are dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit?
Sinclair Ferguson comments helpfully on this,
"For the New Testament writers, however, there is not hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause. This is signalled in the New Testament by the use of the preposition ek to indicate the divine originating cause (e.g. Jn. 3:5; 1 Jn. 3:9; 5:1) and dia to express the instrumental cause (e.g. Jn 15:3; 1 Cor 4:15; 1 Peter 1:23).
"Since the Spirit's work in regeneration involves the transformation of the whole man, including his cognitive and affective powers, the accompanying of the internal illumination of the Spirit by the external revelation of the word (and vice versa) is altogether appropriate. Since faith involves knowledge, it ordinarily emerges in relationship to the teaching of the gospel found in Scripture. Regeneration and the faith to which it gives birth are seen as taking place not by revalationless divine sovereignty, but within the matrix of the preaching of the word and the witness of the people of God (cf. Rom. 10:1-15). Their instrumentality in regeneration does not impinge upon the sovereign activity of the Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together." (Contours of Christian Theology: The Holy Spirit, Sinclair B. Ferguson, IVP, 1996, p. 125-126).
The big issue then is not "mediate regeneration". It is how we construe the relationship between Word and Spirit in the preaching of the gospel. I have enormous respect for Olyott and agree with the main burden of his piece. He is right to point out that Spirit's power is not so tied to the Word that the Word in effect contains the saving power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is sovereign and his use of the Word is subject to variation as he pleases. We cannot therefore take his power for granted. Rather, we need to plead with God that the proclamation of the gospel of Christ will be accompanied by the empowering presence of the Spirit, Acts 4:31, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Failure to grasp this will lead to preaching being seen as little more than a well-delivered exposition of the Bible. Such an outlook will indeed have a damaging effect on gospel work in this country. The New Testament presents an altogether more dynamic picture of the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching. The Spirit’s empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power. That is the crying need of the church and the world today. We should give God no rest until we know more of what it means to preach the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.


Phil Walker said...

I think this is right. In fact, Reformed orthodoxy (later systematics may differ) is very much on the side of mediate regeneration. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism says,

'True faith is not only a certain knowledge … but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart.'

Later, the Westminster Assembly and the Synod of Dordt would also say similar things. It's orthodox Reformed theology to say that the Word is an instrument in the hands of the sovereign Spirit.

It's also biblical, as you detail. And it's good news, because it means that we can have a confidence in the gospel while casting ourselves in preaching on the work of the Spirit.

I wrote a longer post about this on my weblog. Incidentally, I can count two Lutherans among my readers, and they commented: one agreeing and another contructively commenting (and trust me, if he disagreed with me I'd have known about it), so I'm not sure that Olyott's got either Reformed or Lutheran theology right on this one.

Exiled Preacher said...

Cheers, Phil. Another problem with Olyott's article is that the people he's aiming at - Moore College types don't habitually think in terms of the categories of systematic theology. The big issue isn't "mediate regeneration". It's that they tend to believe that we don't need to seek the Spirit's empowering presence in preaching. That kind of talk is dismissed as worryingly Charistmatic. Just preach the Word they say and the Spirit will work.

Phil Walker said...

Yes, I think Olyott should have tried to restrict himself to the dodgy practice of not praying over the sermon. He'd not have got such short shrift from me, not that my opinion is exactly going to move mountains!