Friday, November 20, 2009

Charles Hodge on the Spirit working apart from the truth

On Monday I gave an address on Word and Spirit in Preaching to the Evangelical Ministers' Fraternal, Bradley Stoke. I quoted Charles Hodge in defense of my thesis that the power of Holy Spirit does not always accompany the Word in the same invariable way,
"In short, the whole Bible, and especially the evangelical history and the epistles of the New Testament, represents the Holy Spirit not as a power imprisoned in the truth, but as a personal, voluntary agent acting with the truth or without it, as He pleases. As such He has ever been regarded by the Church, and has ever exhibited himself in his dealings with the children of God." (Systematic Theology Vol. III, p. 484).
In the discussion time after the paper someone questioned Hodge's assertion that the Holy Spirit acts "with the truth or without it, as He pleases." The questioner argued that while the Spirit is sovereign in the way he operates, he always works with the truth and never without it. Stupidly perhaps I hadn't given sufficient thought to this aspect of Hodge's teaching. I waffled a bit saying, "It depends what is meant by 'truth'." As some aspects of the Spirit's work may occur apart from specific biblical revelation. But I couldn't come up with anything more convincing to say and so I conceded the point. It seemed that Hodge was mistaken. But was he?
An article by Stuart Olyott on Why Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We Need To Know in December's Banner Magazine got me going on this one again. Criticizing the idea that the Word innately contains the converting power of the Spirit, Olyott wrote, "In fact if he [the Spirit] wishes, he can even work without the Word. He can!" Reflecting further, I think that the old Princeton theologian was thinking along the right lines. The Spirit does not normally work apart from the truth of biblical revelation in the salvation of sinners. But his action in the world is not limited to the presence of the Word of God whether written or preached. He may act apart from the truth of of special revelation in speaking to the conscience of a sinner in order to convict of sin. People who have never heard of the Bible's message of salvation in Christ have sometimes been given strange visions that help prepare them to receive the gospel. The Spirit has given us the written Word of God, but he may work apart from the Bible as he pleases. Having said that, salvation is not usually possible apart from the sinner believing Holy Scripture's witness to Christ, Romans 10:9-14, 2 Timothy 3:15. But perhaps there are some instances where the Spirit may work apart from the truth of the gospel even in the salvation of sinners. The Westminster Confession of Faith makes allowance for this,
X:III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
A couple of important truths need to be safeguarded here. 1) Only special revelation is salvific. No one will be saved merely by the light of general revelation - Romans 1:18-25. What the WCF seems to have in mind here is not the unevangelised, but those who lack the capacity to believe and be saved, such as infants and those with severe mental disabilities. 2) The Spirit is sovereign and may act savingly apart from the word. For the reasons just given some human beings are incapable of being 'outwardly called by the ministry of the Word'. In that instance the Holy Spirit, "who works when, and where, and how He pleases", is able to regenerate the sinner apart from the truth. So, in the end Hodge was right. While the Spirit usually works with the Word, he may act "with the truth or without it, as He pleases." Note the way Hodge echoes the language of the WCF on this point.
Why is this important? Because we need to maintain the free and sovereign agency of the Holy Spirit as a divine Person. "The wind blows where it wishes" (John 3:8). Two dangers need to be avoided. One is a Lutheran understanding of the relationship between Word and Spirit that virtually imprisons the Holy Spirit in the Word. The other is the Barthian view that so disconnects Holy Scripture from the Spirit that the Bible only becomes the Word of God in an event of divine self-disclosure. We need to confess that all Scripture is the product of God's creative breath (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). Our supreme authority is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. Whenever the Bible is read or its message preached, the Spirit of Christ speaks. But he does not always work with the Word in the same uniform way. That is what drives us to pray, "Come great Spirit, come!" Apart from his working with the Word nothing can be accomplished, 1 Thessalonians 1:5.

No comments: