Sunday, January 25, 2009

0 The Institutes: The Spirit of God - Witness to the Word of God

John Calvin, in chapter 9 of book I of the Institutes, sounds as though he's writing to late 20th century America. How reminiscent were his admonitions to his readers that they not dispense with the Word of God in favor of 'new revelations' of the Spirit. 450 years have passed since the 1559 edition of the Institutes, and how much has changed? Not much.

Today we are besieged with voices telling us not to be so strictly observant of God's Word, and to 'relevantize it' to post-modern sensibilities and situations. We are supposed to be listening for 'fresh moves' of the Holy Spirit, it is said, so that we know what God is saying now, rather than hold ourselves too strictly to the written Word. Somehow, it seems to me from what such voices are saying, the dusty old Word is to step aside, so that new things can be said for today's believers - that old Word was written to people who didn't face what we face, and therefore it's too inelastic for what we need today. We're supposed to listen for a 'still, small voice' that will tell us something more pertinent.

It's astounding how poignant Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes can be at times like this - there is indeed nothing new under the sun. The same heresies that exist today, including the quest for illegitimate 'new words' from God, existed in his day. The listeners on the Areopagus also were always after something new. I suspect it goes further back than that, too - but 2000 years is a long time to be repeating the same errors.

Calvin lays out several important facts concerning the ministration of the Holy Spirit as connected to God's Word. These were helpful, I am certain, in his immediate context, but are also very helpful today as we encounter people who'd rather 'listen for the Spirit' then subject themselves to God's Holy written revelation, and find those of us who hold ourselves under the final authority of God's Word to be 'missing out' on what God's doing today. Calvin would argue, as I would, that such an opinion is truly the one missing what God's doing today in His people, as they feed on His abiding, living, everlasting Word.
For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter. But I should like to know from them what this spirit is by whose inspiration they are borne up so high that they dare despise the Scriptural doctrine as childish and mean.
What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?
Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.
(p. 93-94, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin writes simply that the Spirit - who inspired the prophets and the apostles, who put together, by means of these human instruments, a perfect record of revelation for us - does not speak with two tongues. He has revealed Himself in the Word of God, and since His Word is a perfect guide for leading the children of God to perfection (witness 2 Tim 3:16) then why would He give new doctrine over and above what has already been given us, and which the apostles themselves praised as perfect and sufficient for leading God's people home?

Calvin also gives rather simple and straightforward instruction concerning the Spirit's role today - there is no separation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit from God's Word, period. The test of all spirits - which we are told to do by the Apostle - is God's Word. (section 2, chapter 9, book I) Those who argue that today (or in Calvin's day) we need more, are looking for something illegitimate - some sort of religious experience (Yes, I'm reading Recovering the Reformed Confession too, and it's providentially dovetailing nicely with my reading in Calvin at the moment!) that "transcends the Word". They want something more than a dry, dusty old book to "inspire" them. Sorry - wrong answer. The Holy Spirit has had one role, and one role only, in the end - to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word. Again, He speaks not with a forked tongue, but with one voice - and will not contradict Himself. There is an inseparable union between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Again, Calvin:
For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God's face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word. So indeed it is. God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word. (p. 95, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Those who are bent on having spiritual revelations, new things taught them apart from the Word of God show their disdain for God's Word, to their peril. We must take heed of the Apostles' teaching through their example - to live daily by the Word of God - studying, meditating, and living it. It is our daily bread, much moreso than the bread we eat physically. It is a perfect preparation for us, as Paul wrote to Timothy. What more do we need to feed on, meditate on, and study? There is more than enough in it to teach us more than we'll ever learn on this side of glory - let us be content with what God has provided, and not seek for illegitimate trinkets and things that tickle the fleshly ears.



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