Monday, June 15, 2015

The Word, the Spirit and the churches

The business about Big Men and the reactions to the post at Helm’s Deep (See here and herehas prompted a further thought or two. Once it is recognized that the institutions which the church has adopted to order congregational life are flawed, then the critique of the Big Men is, I am afraid, crippled. Rules and procedure may seem flawless in draft, but it’s another thing when men and women commit themselves to them. All seem agreed on that point. Darryl Hart maintained that presbyterianism produces virtues that other ecclesial patterns fail to reach. He highlights humility. But if it’s humility we wish to cultivate, why not start by making sure that at church we sit in a circle, or take turns to preach?  

But all such suggestions start the wrong way round. First make the tree good and its fruit good. is the dominical rule. When Peter urges the churches to be clothed with humility, I don’t suppose he thought that reading Roberts’s Rules would do the trick. Churches are flawed because the people who make them up are flawed. The churches or congregations, filled with fallen men and women, are not immune to the general imperfections of the institutions of society, what Anthony Quinton called the ‘politics of imperfection’. But it is much worse for the church than it is for a business or a college or the House of Commons.


What is it to be reformed, we ask? Some answer: adherence to the solas of the Reformation: sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia and so on. The Five Points? Somewhat out of fashion and in any case they have the drawback that they are confined to the distinctives of reformed Christianity. The Reformed Confessions? Good answer! But if I’m not mistaken they present the answer that we are searching for in only a muted form, I think. They rather muffle it, or perhaps muff it. Here’s a clue; it has to do with another phrase identifying ‘reformed’ that we haven’t yet mentioned: it is word and spirit.

Is Calvin reformed? Throughout his discussion of the Church, one motif recurs: Word and Spirit.  The church is where the Word is preached, and where through the Word, and the Spirit's illumination and application of it, people are justified and regenerated, and as a result undergo life-long conversio.  Word and Spirit is what we were searching for.

But in the Reformation’s  emphasis on Word and Spirit is a source of a more serious tension, or potential breakdown, in the life of churches, which as far as I am aware reformed churches do not recognise formally. It seems to me that both critics and criticised would do well to ponder this phrase.

In the central Reformation motif of 'Word and Spirit' the two elements can only be linked together rather uneasily. The reason is this: matters to do with 'the Word' can be humanly organised. But matters to do with ‘the Spirit’ are divinely sovereign and free, out of human hands. Matters to do with the Word may be dispensed through secondary, creaturely agency alone, but matters to do with the Spirit  can never be so dispensed. People can be trained for the Christian ministry, study the Bible, and preach it. Churches can be set up, pastors, teachers and deacons appointed, the sacraments may be administered, people catechised, and the unruly disciplined.  All this can be undertaken in a routine, institutional way. All very orderly, in the Calvinian manner.  All this is, we might say, (ecclesiastically speaking) concerns the area of 'the Word'.

But what of 'the Spirit'?  Here there is a dramatic difference. For God the Spirit, though he attends the Word, is free not to do so.  Nowhere, as far as I know, does the Reformed faith teach that the linkage between Word and Spirit is automatic or necessary, or that God is under a covenanted  obligation always to accompany the Word with the salvific influence of the Spirit. No such covenant has been established. It is true that in general terms God has covenanted to accompany his Word by His Spirit, but the exact distribution of the Spirit's saving influences are at his disposal. As Calvin puts it:

But who, I ask, can deny the right of God to have the free and uncontrolled disposal of his gifts, to select nations which he may be pleased to illuminate, the places which he may be pleased to illustrate by the preaching of his word, and the mode and measure of progress and success which he may be pleased to give to his doctrine, - to punish the world for its ingratitude, by withdrawing the knowledge of his name for certain ages, and again, when he so pleases, to restore it in mercy? (Inst. II.11.14)

And in the case of the authority of Holy Scripture, while it is possible for human agencies to educate people in an appreciation of the external proofs that it is the word of God, they cannot in a similar way convey the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to people.  That testimony cannot be, so to speak, boxed and wrapped. (Adapted from Paul Helm. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp.125-6)


And the confessions? Well, the Westminster Confession makes this important point about persuasion of the authority of Scripture:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is to give all glory to God,) the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the word of God; yet notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.(I.V)

In the Chapter on the church (XXV.V) it notes that church may degenerate, but doesn’t go into details. And the same is true of the 1689 Baptist Confession. (Ch. 26)  Nor is the degeneration and regeneration of the church, which is not the same as the regeneration of a soul, a notable theme elsewhere in those documents. No doubt it can be inferred from this and that. But nowhere as far as I can see is it given confessional prominence. Certainly not as much prominence as that, say, in the Letters to the Seven Churches in the prologue to the book of the Revelation.  I wonder why not?


So while certain factors are in human hands, other factors are in the Lord’s hands. This is a point that characterises all Augustinian ecclesiology. (Not, of course Augustinian sacramentalism, which envisages the Spirit being piped into the churches via the priesthood.) We may have a book of congregational or presbyterian rules, be well-versed in points of order, the proposal and seconding of motions, and so on.  By applying these skills,  deacons and elders may be appointed, services organized, the Word, the Supper and Baptism offered, and arrangements made for the discipline of church members. We may have strategies for church growth, a five-year plan and a building programme, and ways for increasing the giving. A pastor for this responsibility and a pastor for that. All these things are under human control.

But there is no church without the work of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal. And that work is manifestly not within human control. Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God alone gives the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers.
Not that God, Apollos and Paul are fellows, but workers who are in concert, like Apollos and Paul, are fellows in God’s work.

So Calvin himself, the Calvinists, the Reformed, Particular Baptists, neo-Calvinists, cool-Calvinists, and whoever else, worshipping in mega churches or small local congregations, fronted by Big Men or small, profess the same dependence on the sovereign giver. And if they believe what they profess they all usually recognise the fact. They cry, Who is sufficient for these things? They know that all may supply the ministry and so be God’s fellow-workers. (Finneyite revivalists and the Roman church see things differently). But only God can give the growth. And only God must be honoured for it. Appreciation of this fact is what is of central importance to those congregations with a Reformed soteriology, and should be uppermost in the minds of the ministers. When compared to this need, the current critique of one group by another surely fades into insignificance. Or perhaps this is a case of ‘These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others'.