Monday, January 11, 2010

Word and Spirit

The main point of 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 is to criticize the doctrine of "mediate regeneration". Apparently this teaching stands poised to "soon take us over completely" and if it does so, "gospel work in the country will be ruined." (p. 26). What is this pernicious doctrine? Olyott offers a definition,
"when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word - the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately tied to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose." (p. 26).
I wonder whether Olyott has slightly oversated his case here? What he says in the first two sentences of the quote, that the Spirit works by the instrumentality of the Word does not necessarily imply what is said in the remainder of the citation. It is perfectly legitimate to hold that the Spirit ordinarily works by and with the Word in granting sinners new life in Christ. Indeed, some Scriptures seem to teach this, for example James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. But this does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit always works in the same way and with the same effect so that, "If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Spirit loose." According to Charles Hodge this is how Lutherans tended to describe the relationship between Word and Spirit. The Princeton theologian argued that this construction is both unbiblical and detrimental to church life, see here. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Olyott took exception to the Luther saying with regard to the Reformation, "I did nothing: I left it to the Word." Although as I pointed out in a previous post, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Reformer's statement in itself.
However, I believe Olyott is right to raise an alarm that Lutheran-type teaching is gaining ground in Reformed circles. It is believed by some that all that is needed is for preachers to teach the Bible for Holy Spirit to work. Consequently there is no need for men to pray for a special empowering of the Spirit when they preach. Spirit and Word are so indissolubly tied together that whenever the Bible is taught the Spirit's power is invariably active. However, this is quite wrong. The Holy Spirit is a sovereign divine Person who works by and with the Word as he pleases. He is not a prisoner of the Word, but its Master. In some instances he may even work apart from the Word, see here. To quote Paul, what we need is a kind of preaching that is "not in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and much assurance" (1 Thessalonians 1:5 - emphasis added).
Of course in a sense the Holy Spirit is always at work when the Word is preached. Our authority is "the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (WCF I:X). Whenever the Bible is read or its message proclaimed we are subject to the communicative action of the Spirit. By the Word he is revealing truth about God, making promises, issuing commands and so on. But something more is needed if revealed truth is to be understood, promises believed and commands obeyed. The Spirit who speaks in the Scripture must also apply the Word to those who hear and enable them to respond appropriately. This is what drives us to our knees in prayer - that the Holy Spirit will make the Word effective and fruitful in the lives of those who hear its message, 1 Thessalonians 2:13. For me this is the point at issue - the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching rather than "mediate regeneration" per se. I hope to reflect further on the issue of "mediate regeneration" itself in a future post. See here for more on Word and Spirit in preaching.


Jonathan Hunt said...

As I have nothing profound to say (I generally agree with SO although perhaps he has gone just a little too far) I shall say just this: I had a nice roast dinner in Westbury yesterday.

Guy Davies said...

Very pleased for you, J.

Glyndle said...

Just a quick note to say I enjoy reading your blog Guy...I can't promise that I always understand what you write as it sometimes goes quite deep into the theology, and hence way beyond my knowledge as I'm not quite there yet !

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this article which addresses an issue which I certainly think is worthy of some discussion. I agree with you that the preacher must be always seeking God for the outpouring of His Spirit on the proclamation of His word. It is possible that the Word could be preached in the absence of such unction and therefore not have a spiritual impact upon the hearers.

There is a hymn which speaks about the "Spirit breathing on the Word", I think it is a Wesley hymn, but it sums up what I believe is the Bible's position on this.

Conversely I suppose we have to recognise too that whenever the Word of God is preached it is never without significance.

Kind regards,

David Mackereth