Calvin and the Appeal to the Spirit
Geoffrey J. Paxton
In Book 1, chapter 9, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin has some timely and helpful comments concerning the Spirit and the Word of God.
First, Calvin speaks of a wrong appeal to the Spirit. There is, he says, an extolling of the Spirit which amounts to nothing less than contempt for God's Word. Those who extol the Spirit in this manner effect a separation between the Spirit and the Word. Such a separation finds absolutely no precedence in the apostles of Christ. Calvin proceeds to quote Isaiah 59:21:
My Spirit which is in you, and the words I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your seed . . . forever.
All who separate Spirit and Word separate that which the prophet joined together with an inviolable bond. Calvin then gives us a memorable statement:
". . . the Spirit promised to us [by Christ] 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." — Institutes, Bk. 1, ch. 9.1.
Calvin speaks to all who would separate the Spirit from the Word, whether
they be ethicists of a situationist stamp, charismatics, or evangelicals. Here
we have a sober Scriptural injunction: Do not make an appeal to the Spirit
apart from the teaching of the Scripture. To do so is to put asunder that which
God has joined together. If we wish to know the Spirit, let us know the Word.
Second, Calvin tells us how we may
recognize the Spirit:
. . . if any spirit passing over the wisdom of God's Word, foists another doctrine
upon us, he justly deserves to be suspected of vanity and lying." (Gal.
1:6-9). — Ibid., ch. 9.2.
After this statement Calvin poses
the important question, ". . . what
authority will the Spirit have among us unless he be discerned by a most
certain mark?" Satan, we are reminded, disguises himself as an angel
of light (2 Cor. 11:14). What is this "most certain mark" by which
we are able to recognize the Spirit and not be tricked by the evil one? The
pure and simple, is the Spirit's agreement with Scripture.
Is this putting a test on the Spirit?
We may say this if we wish. However, Calvin hastens to add that "it
is a test by which it pleased him to establish his majesty among us." The
Spirit is the Author of Scripture, and
He cannot vary and differ from Himself. Hence, he must ever remain
just as He once revealed Himself there. This is no affront to Him...
If teaching does not square with Scripture, then it matters not how
enthusiastically, influentially, or emotionally it is presented, it
does not issue from
the Spirit of God. To honor the Spirit we must honor the Bible; and
means to seek above all things else to arrive at its precise meaning.
Honoring the Spirit and careful Biblical exegesis are two ways of saying
Third, for Calvin Word
and Spirit not only agree, but belong inseparably together. Calvin says that Paul
calls his ministry "the ministration of the Spirit" (2
Cor. 3:8), meaning,
...doubtless, that the
Holy Spirit so inheres in his truth, which he expresses in Scripture, that
reverence and dignity are given
to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power.
God, Calvin goes on to say, has
so ordered things that when the Spirit shines, "the
perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds."
We hear much today about "the
outpouring of God's Spirit" and the
new and epochal "shining of the Spirit." We must
ask, Where is the perfect religion of the Word? A grand display
display of the Word. There are those today who see the current
charismatic awakening as the greatest revival since Pentecost.
Ought we not to
see the greatest revival of Biblical preaching and teaching
we see it not!
Calvin throws some good light upon
a phrase which is thrown about a lot today: "Quench
not the Spirit." 1 Thess. 5:19. This is often understood
to mean that if we are skeptical about so much of today's
we are, ipso facto, quenching the Spirit. What is not realized
is that it appears from the
passage in 1 Thessalonians that the way the Spirit is quenched
par excellence is by having a wrong approach to the preaching
Word! Calvin says:
By this, no doubt, he [Paul] intimates
that the light of the Spirit is put out as soon as prophecies fall into
Refusing to become preoccupied with
the Spirit is not to quench the Spirit, but rather the Spirit is quenched
Chapter 9 of the first book of Calvin's
Institutes is only a short chapter. But how packed full of wisdom
it is! The current
scene needs this Biblical and therefore spiritual balance.
We fear that the appeal
to the Spirit in neo-Pentecostalism, neo-Romanism,
and neo-evangelicalism is an appeal which, in the final analysis,
Holy Word of God. If
the claims of the enthusiastic adherents of these movements
are correct, this age ought to be second only to the
apostolic age in the preaching
of the Word. We should be treated to gospel preaching
and teaching which overshadows even that of the Reformers
Alas, how conspicuous
is the lack
of such today!
John Calvin challenges us to beware
of falling into the clutches of the one who masquerades as an angel
crying, "The Spirit, the
Spirit!" without crying, "The gospel, the
gospel!" or, "The
Word, the Word!" Any appeal to the Spirit, if
it is created by the Spirit Himself, will mean, automatically,
an appeal to the
Word of God.
have ears to hear, let them hear.
Read Part I
Read Part III