Erickson’s three chapters on the Holy Spirit are not the strongest section of his work. Nevertheless, in his chapter on the person of the Holy Spirit, he argues effectively on the basis of indirect biblical testimony that the Holy Spirit is a divine personality, at once fully God and fully personal. This is crucial, for the Spirit is the God who in a supremely personal and intimate way, is God with us. “The Holy Spirit is a person, not a force, and that person is God, just as fully and in the same way as are the Father and the Son” (786).
The deity of the Holy Spirit is not as easily established as is the deity of the Father and the Son. It might well be said that the deity of the Father is simply assumed in Scripture, that of the Son is affirmed and argued, whole that of the Holy Spirit must be inferred from various indirect statements found in Scripture (782).
Erickson helpfully provides a thumbnail sketch of the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the history of theology, moving quickly through the pre-Nicene period to the controversies which resulted in the creedal affirmation of the Spirit’s deity at Constantinople. He notes in passing issues such as the Montanists and the Filioque, treats minimally developments in the medieval and Reformation periods and notes the long period of decline with respect to the doctrine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “due to a variety of movements, each of which in its own way regarded the Spirit and his work as either superfluous or incredible.” I note with interest his fascinating comment with respect to the first of these movements:
One of those movements was Protestant scholasticism. It was found in Lutheranism, and particularly the branch that derived its inspiration from the writings of Philipp Melanchthon. As a series of doctrinal disputes took place, it became necessary to define and refine beliefs more specifically. Consequently, faith came increasingly to be thought of as rechte Lehre (correct doctrine). A more mechanical view of the role of the Scriptures was developed, and, as a result, the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed. Now a Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis of authority. Since belief rather than experience came to be viewed as the essence of the Christian religion, the Holy Spirit was increasingly neglected (779).
This problem, unfortunately, persists today—see my post on Paul Helm’s treatment of Calvin’s inner testimony of the Spirit. There are many today who want to establish the authority of Scripture not simply on a doctrine of Scripture, but on an authorised interpretation of Scripture that also presupposes an implicit hermeneutic and application. Erickson is correct to insist that Christian faith cannot be reduced to correct doctrinal belief. This is not to say, of course, that doctrine is unimportant; Erickson would be the first to reject such a view. Good doctrine helps ground, secure and explain our faith intellectually. It protects us in the face of the variety of experiences which we and others have. Nonetheless, this experiential aspect of Christian faith, this reception of the Spirit, is crucial. “Let me ask you this only: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2).
The narratives of Scripture are not simply interesting stories to inform, entertain, or edify us. They aim to engage, liberate, convert, and transform us. Their purpose is to tell what God has done for us and to invite us to enter into the new freedom that is ours in Christ. They make truth claims about God and about the world in relation to God, and they call for our personal response. Only as these narratives of the activity of God intersect our own lives, personally and corporately, opening us to a new relationship to God, a new identity, a new life, and a new mission, do they become for us genuine media of the revelation of God (Faith Seeking Understanding 3rd edition, 39).
Daniel Migliore’s chapter on revelation is a study in theological clarity. He defines revelation as God’s self-disclosure in Christ narrated in Scripture. He models revelation as analogous to interpersonal communication, whereby another may become known to us through the persistent patterns seen in their activity, through their promises, and the story in which their character is narrated. Scripture plays an essential and irreplaceable role in communicating divine revelation, while in and of itself Scripture is not revelation but witnesses to the revelation given in God’s redemptive activity in Israel and Christ.
In the citation above, some of Migliore’s commitments are evident. Scripture aims at human liberation and transformation, announcing the redemptive work of God on behalf of all. Yet God’s activity calls for personal response; revelation has both an objective and subjective aspect. Scripture becomes a medium of revelation as it intersects and opens our lives in and through the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Revelation must come to fulfilment otherwise it is not revelation proper, for revelation is not simply the provision of information. Revelation is salvific and transformative, conferring a new identity, life and mission.
Yet Migliore also insists that “the biblical narrative of God’s self-disclosure is an unfinished narrative. It remains open…” (39, original emphasis). Is Migliore saying that Scripture is unfinished, that revelation also is unfinished, that new revelation might be given in the present age that has equal authority to that given in Scripture, or which may even surpass Scripture? He does not say so. He does say that God “continues to work by the Holy Spirit to illuminate and complete the narrative.” His intent is to honour the divine freedom, insisting that God’s self-revelation never becomes our “fixed possession.”
The role of Scripture as a means of revelation is central, and calls for free human response.
On the one hand, there can be no reception of the revelation of God in Christ apart from attentive and trustful reading and hearing of the witness of Scripture in company with other members of the people of God. Only in the context of faith, prayer, proclamation, sacramental life, and service of the church does the transforming power of Jesus Christ attested by Scripture become effective for us. On the other hand, there is always a need for critical appropriation of the revelation of God in Christ as mediated to us by Scripture and the proclamation and life of the church (43).
Migliore insists that the people of God be “active and responsible recipients” of revelation, practising legitimate interpretation informed by a christological hermeneutic. Perhaps most important for Migliore is “the new freedom in Christ” which is to guide all interpretation of Scripture in order to “resist every form of bondage, including those that may be supported by certain elements of Scripture and church teaching.” So important is this hermeneutical lens that in his chapter on the authority of Scripture he insists that,
A major task of theology today is to recover a liberative understanding of the authority of Scripture. Toward this end I will contend that the authority of Scripture has to be understood in relation to its central content and its particular function within the community of faith. Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ (46).
But this function and power of Scripture can never simply be assumed:
Revelation can never be considered our possession, something we can take for granted. It is an event for which the church must continually pray: “Come, Holy Spirit! Speak once again to your people through your Word” (44).
In his discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture, Paul Helm betrays a somewhat rationalist approach to the internal witness of the Spirit:
Calvin is not here saying that the activity of the Spirit which is sufficient to establish the authority of the Word of God is unreasonable or irrational or non-rational in character. How could that be when the Spirit is the Spirit of the most wise and all-knowing God? “Scripture is its own evidence” means what it says. The Spirit’s work is not purely subjective persuasion, a groundless feeling of conviction. It is rather that the Spirit testifies to or illumines the cognitive content of the objectively true Scripture. Strictly speaking, such illumination does not need any rational or empirical considerations external to the message of Scripture to add further support to it even though such data may be provided.
In Calvin’s employment of both internal and external proofs of this fundamental feature of his theology, we must note the tension between what we may call the “orderly” versus the “disorderly” aspects of Calvin’s thought. Appealing to the external proofs is “orderly”: such “proofs” can be studied, taught and argued about. By the use of them in preaching and teaching the authority of the Scripture can be safeguarded in the churches. By contrast the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to the Word is “disorderly”, or at least potentially so; it is granted personally, at the behest of the Spirit who is, as Calvin stresses, sovereign in dispensing this gift. Such a gift and its reception cannot be built into the educational and political structures of the church: it cannot be bequeathed by the church’s ministry to the next generation in any way that guarantees success (Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, 33).
Again, on page 31 Helm argues that,
Self-authentication is a consequence or corollary of Calvin’s emphasis that only God can witness to God and that only if God directly witnesses to himself is that witness thoroughly trustworthy. … How does the Spirit witness? … By powerfully disclosing to us the cognitive and affective content of Scripture, its “message” (original emphasis).
In this instance Helm reports what he wishes Calvin had said rather than what Calvin actually said. In Institutes 1.7.4 Calvin asserts,
Thus, the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it. … We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit. … For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.
Calvin’s reference to the Spirit is not that the Spirit illumines the content of Scripture to modern readers as Helm suggests, but that the Spirit convinces the heart of the divine origin of Scripture:
Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty…that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! … We feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there (1.7.5).
It is true that in chapter eight Calvin does detail a number of reasons for regarding the Scripture as inspired and authoritative. But his argument is framed at the beginning and end with statements which insist that such reasons are not authoritative, and are not proofs by which to convince the unbeliever, although they do serve to strengthen the faith of those who are already convinced of Scripture’s authority:
Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves…those arguments—not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds—become very useful aids (1.8.1).
Calvin’s conclusion to the chapter is similar:
There are other reasons, neither few nor weak, for which the dignity and majesty of Scripture are not only affirmed in godly hearts, but brilliantly vindicated against the wiles of its disparagers; yet of themselves these are not strong enough to provide a firm faith, until our Heavenly Father, revealing his majesty there, lifts reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy. Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known (1.8.13).
Helm seeks to avoid any subjectivity in the person’s relation to God, and to objectify and rationalise the work of the Spirit. His claim with respect to the nature of the internal witness of the Spirit is at odds with Calvin, and misrepresents his teaching. It is also at odds with the Apostle Paul’s concept of the internal work of the Spirit as an immediate inner witness in the believer’s heart (e.g. Romans 8:12-16 cf. 1 John 2:20, 27).
Of course, we should by all means preach and teach the Scriptures, and even the reasons we might give for trusting the Scriptures. Calvin, too, said this. He also taught the illuminating work of the Spirit with respect to doctrine in Institutes I.ix.1, where he asserts that the Spirit has the task of “sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.” But to limit the work of the Spirit to this cognitive-illumining work is to go beyond what Calvin said.
Rather than marginalise the work of the Spirit in the life of the church and the believer, we should teach it and pray for it, expect it and celebrate it, and truly trust that Scripture is indeed self-authenticated because God reveals his grace and power there, as Calvin taught. But never let us be guilty of having more confidence in our own ability to defend and interpret Scripture than in God’s grace and power to make himself known in and through these sacred writings.
Today I continue to post some observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts which I highly recommend.
The living and true God, the high and holy God, the transcendent and immanent God, the one God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God the Wholly Other, the Good and Gracious God who has come to us and judges and calls us in Jesus Christ: this God was the centre of Barth’s existence, from whom and towards whom he lived. It was the reality of this God who ever stands over against us which drove Barth’s break with the Liberal theology of his student years, and it was the knowledge of this God revealed decisively in Jesus Christ that continued to drive his innovative theology over the course of his career.
Dismayed by the capitulation of all but one of his Liberal teachers to the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen knew they could no longer follow this theology, and so sought a “wholly other” foundation for theology (it was Thurneysen who first used the famous phrase). They tried starting again with Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel, but found them more and more dissatisfying. In the end, they turned again to Scripture and found, “Lo, it began to speak to us.” Barth began his career with exegesis, especially of Romans, and it was this work which catapulted him into public awareness. For much of his career he taught not only theology but also New Testament exegesis. His Church Dogmatics abound with extended passages of biblical exegesis and exposition. About to be expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1935, he said in his final words to this students:
We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time – but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us (259).
Theology and Church
Theology, of course, is what Karl Barth is most well-known for. This was not only the field of his expertise, but also his passion. As early as 1902, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, and on the eve of his confirmation, ‘I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time’ (31). Theology, for Barth, is a human endeavour of response to the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith seeking understanding, the free and joyful science of God who has given himself to be known by us. It demands our very highest, deepest and most concentrated thought, and yet it is still grace if we come to know God at all. Indeed, as Barth struggled to grasp how he might arrange and structure the doctrine of reconciliation, ‘I dreamed of a plan. It seemed to go in the right direction. The plan now had to stretch from christology to ecclesiology together with the relevant ethics. I woke at 2 a.m. and then put it down on paper hastily the next morning’ (377). Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV/1-4) is seen by many as a modern classic—and its outline came in a dream!
But theology, for Barth, is a discipline in and for the church, and indeed, for the entirety of his career Barth remained a man of the church. It is no accident that his major work is called Church Dogmatics—he had changed the title from an earlier attempt which was titled Christian Dogmatics. Barth wanted to make sure that theology is an activity of the church, and that the church rather than the academy was the proper locus for theology, although theology could legitimately be undertaken in the university so long as it remained true to its proper theme and method. Barth did theology to support and inform the proclamation of the church, and throughout his career pastors and preachers remained amongst his most avid readers. If only that remained true today! Theology is not an end in itself, but exists as a ministry of and to the church that it may be faithful in its other ministries of preaching and teaching. In so doing the church remains a teaching church and a hearing church, the place where God’s gift of revelation continues in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the church is thereby continually formed and reformed, gathered, built up and sent.
Not only is theology in and for the church, but as Busch makes crystal clear in his account of Barth’s life, theology is also and simultaneously in and for the world. Theology is done in the world as well as in the church, for God’s Word comes to us as people in the world and God’s call makes us responsible to the world. For Barth, then, theology and ethics belong indissolubly together, and always in this order: right thought about God issues in right thought about the world and the church’s life in the world, and so generates an active life in correspondence to the active God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth lived an active life in the world. During his Safenwil pastorate (1911-1921) he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ because of his socialist convictions and activity on behalf of the poor workers in his village undergoing industrial transformation. He was deeply involved in the Confessing Church and the theological and ecclesial resistance to Hitler. After the war he pleaded for the forgiveness of the Germans and participated actively in its reconstruction, and was just as deeply involved in the politics of the Cold War, at odds with his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic because he refused to be caught up in anti-Communist fervour, but instead sought to support the church living under Marxist regimes.
“Assuming the authority of Scripture is in many ways a greater act of submission to God than seeking to demonstrate the Bible’s uniqueness and accuracy. To some degree, trying to convince others that the Bible is reliable represents an effort to get people to trust us, to believe that we have sufficient arguments in our arsenal to prove that they should take the Bible seriously. … Much modern theology argues that we should trust the Bible because we can demonstrate that it is reliable. In contrast, the [early church] Fathers assumed that the Bible is trustworthy because it came from God, and they assumed this so implicitly and wholeheartedly that they rarely even mentioned the Bible’s uniqueness directly. They simply acted on the uniqueness of Scripture by memorizing it, studying it, citing it, using it” (Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers, 2).
What’s Fairbairn suggesting here? That we should not have arguments for biblical authority? No. But if our commitment to the authority of Scripture extends only to a rational justification of its authority, we are not actually committed to it. The authority of Scripture is demonstrated in the actual authority it exercises in and over our lives.
Why do you “believe in the Bible”?
How does its authority show up in your life?