Word and Spirit
Hinge of Reformed Theology
The relationship between Word and Spirit has been justly characterized as the pivotal point of the theology. This hinge holds the door in its equilibrium. When things go wrong at this point, they will influence just about every other part of faith. In this regard, the Reformation maintains its actuality even today. It follows a road between Rome and the Anabaptists. Even today we can follow this track that can bring us to the road we will have to take. It is good to notice the relationship of Word and Spirit at Pentecost. I would like to mention some of its aspects.
Acts 2 describes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The signs that accompany this event point to the presence of the Lord. The filling with the Spirit leads to the preaching of the Word. Indeed, this is what it says: they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak… When Peter explains what Pentecost actually is, he refers to the Word. The Scripture is being fulfilled. The whole first day of Pentecost has been a clear indication of the power of the Spirit, that revealed itself in the preaching of the Word. The Spirit fulfills the Word. The Scripture receives its power from him. Its contents are illuminated by the work of the Spirit. In itself this is nothing new, the Spirit has bound himself to the Word since creation. God spoke. Things came into being at his words. The Spirit gave life and strength to creation. The Spirit also gave life to man, real life. In this way the Spirit is already at work in creation.
The Spirit in the Renewal of Creation
But the Spirit is also and especially at work in the renewal of creation. He stretches out a protecting hand over the Scriptures. The prophets spoke through his inspiration. The prophetic Word has also come into being through him. He guarded his own Word throughout the centuries. We owe it to the work of the Spirit that we may have the Scriptures. It is thanks to the wonderful work of the Spirit that we may grow in the understanding of the Word. In all his work Word and Spirit are connected. This becomes especially clear at the birth of the Word, the Christ of God. The Spirit brought the Word into the world. It is he who came over Mary. So through the Spirit there is a very close connection between the Word and the Christ. In the Scriptures it is all about Christ. They witness and speak about him. He comes to us clothed in the garments of the Holy Scripture. As he presented his person through the lens of Scriptures to the travellers to Emmaus, this way the Spirit also reveals Christ to us. Peter witnesses of him at the Feast of Pentecost. When the Word is preached, Christ takes the centerstage. He has poured it out, that which you see and hear! Word and Spirit can never come to life except in the relationship between Christ and the Spirit.
The Reformation has always considered this double relationship. It knew of the Word. Over against the obscuring of the Scriptures, it placed “Sola Scriptura”: through Scripture alone. The Reformation did not yet make the highly questionable distinction between the Bible and the Word, the Scriptures and the Word of God. In the Scriptures it recognized the living voice of the living God himself.
Simultaneously, the Reformation placed the relationship between Christ and the Spirit in the right context. The work of the Spirit comes through the life‑bringing power of the risen Christ. He is not the reclining Christ, who after fulfilling his task on Earth is taking a well‑deserved rest. On the contrary, everything about him is characterized by action, decisiveness, governing, and priesthood that drives to the final day. The Spirit has been earned by him. The Spirit has been given by him. And the Spirit is the one who in turn glorifies Christ.
Calvin especially viewed Word and Spirit in this way. He places them on one line in the same light and tied together in a common bond. The Word comes to life through the Spirit, and the Spirit works through the Word. Calvin wrote clearly and plainly about this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is worthwhile to consider the passages in which he wrote about this.
It is the Spirit who brings the Word to life for us. The most important proof for the confirmation of the Scripture is extrapolated everywhere from the person of the speaking God. With this Calvin means that the Word of God is living and powerful through the working of the Spirit. Through this we rise above a probable meaning. We do not accept the speaking of the Scripture because of human reasoning, guesses, or judgments. It is the hidden witness of the Spirit that convinces us. “This is why it is wrong to pretend as if one can prove the absolute reliability of the Scriptures by reasoning.”
Calvin claims to be able to silence the craftiest despisers of God who are experienced in the misuse and abuse of Scripture. “If I saw profit in taking pains to counter their mockery, I would be able to destroy their bragging without much effort. But if one keeps the Holy Word of God safe from human slander, then one does not thereby provide the certainty that piety needs… The witness of the Spirit is far more excellent than all reasoning.”
The Spirit who spoke through the prophets has to penetrate our hearts to convince us. And so the Scripture are self‑reliable. Whoever is being inwardly educated by the Spirit will find complete rest in the Scripture. The witness of the Spirit is in complete accordance with the Scriptures because Word and Spirit belong together. Not the authority of the church, nor the logical argument with its power of persuasion will bring certainty. The Spirit speaking through the Word brings inner certainty. And in that we find rest.
Between Rome and the Anabaptists
Calvin painted this relationship as a vital interest for the church. Rome boasts about the Spirit who is integrated in the institute of the church. This ecclesiastically structured apparatus has the Spirit almost completely at its disposal. This is how the hierarchy is able to hand out grace, through the sacraments. At the same time, the Spirit is then also given. And whoever is ecclesiastically faithful receives the guarantee, that he shares in the mercy.
With the Anabaptists and the radical zealots it is the complete opposite: the Spirit works basically without any means, directly in the heart. The spiritualist is independent of the institution. He has his own disposal over the Spirit, who works inwardly. This is the road of total subjectivism.
The Reformed vision finds itself in between these two. The church is born at Pentecost, but this hour of birth does not mean that everyone automatically shares in salvation. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and whoever misses him, is outside of Christ. Simultaneously, Pentecost is the feast of the unity between Word and Spirit. The promises of the Word are worked into hearts through repentance. This leads to a new life, to a new song.
Let us now keep the way pure. Whoever wants the Word without the Spirit will find himself in a stuffy atmosphere of dead orthodoxy of the letter. But whoever leaves the Word aside with a call on the Spirit, will neither have life and certainty. We have to maintain and stick with the unity God has set between Word and Spirit. Pentecost wants to continue reminding us of this.