Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016

A Reply to Stephen Clark

I would like to thank Stephen Clark for his interesting contribution, with the vast amount of which I agree. Indeed, it would be sad if this important matter, which I described in my foreword to Ralph Cunnington’s book as a friendly discussion, were to be turned into a controversy. It would be akin to two parties of climbers approaching the summit of Everest, glorious vistas all round, and turning aside to engage in a fierce brawl. Rather, this is a matter that should be sine ullo mutuae caritatis et fraternitatis dispendio.[1]

Stephen takes me to task for my criticisms of Martyn Lloyd-Jones; I expect nothing less of him. On some of them, I stand corrected; I am very happy to say so. Of course, I am far from alone in these criticisms. The lecture of Lloyd-Jones that I cited in my address gave Donald MacLeod cause to believe that something was wrong with his pneumatology.[2] MacLeod considered that his views on the baptism and sealing of the Holy Spirit were “a serious disparagement of the ordinary Christian”, that it was evidence of a “the theology of plus”, “impossible to harmonise… with the New Testament”.[3]

However, this is incidental to the question of the relation between the Word and the Spirit. While there is much about which to comment, I want briefly to mention a couple of points in connection with what Stephen has written.

Stephen’s focus in his article is on the saving work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, my attention – and I believe that of Ralph Cunnington too – was on the effective work of the Spirit, whether in salvation or judgment, reflecting the two-edged nature of God’s covenant. If this difference is missed, confusion can result.

A confusion of sorts could easily arise in the mind of the reader in the reference to Pajon and his idea of mediate regeneration. This is only relevant to my paper to the extent that the phrase “mediate regeneration” as such has a precedent. The discussion in Ralph’s book and in my presentation was occasioned by the suggestion of Stuart Olyott that the Spirit works independently of the Word, and is frequently absent, such that it is necessary for us to storm the gates of heaven to persuade him to act. Pajon’s claim concerned the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the human person. Quite rightly, it was rejected as being outside the bounds of acceptable doctrine. There can be no ontological substratum between God and the human soul. Nor can there be any privileged part of the human constitution. Additionally, Pajon – with an apparently diminished understanding of depravity – effectively separated the Word and Spirit, so undermining the sovereignty of God’s gracious action. Pajon’s claims concerned the work of the Spirit in conversion, whereas Ralph was addressing, as I was, the inseparability of the Spirit and the Word in preaching. Moreover, to assert that the Spirit always accompanies the Word does not entail that he does nothing else, nor does it imply that humans have a residual ability to exercise faith apart from his transforming work.

Closer to the context of Ralph’s book and my comments, as Sinclair Ferguson points out, “although regeneration is seen by John as a sovereign and monergistic activity, it does not take place in a vacuum, but is effected by the ordinances of God directed to the whole person”.[4] He continues, “this is underlined in the New Testament by statements which suggest that regeneration itself takes place by means of the word of God”. Moreover, “there is no hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause”.[5] Indeed, “regeneration and the faith to which it gives birth are seen as taking place not by revelationless divine sovereignty, but within the matrix of the preaching of the word… Their instrumentality in regeneration does not impinge on the sovereign activity of the Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together.”[6] Or as Warfield remarks, “This new birth pushes itself into man’s own consciousness through the call of the Word, responded to under the persuasive movements of the Spirit; his conscious possession of it is thus mediated by the Word.”[7]

While the issues in the Pajonist controversy surrounded the relationship between the Spirit and the human mind or will, the questions raised by Ralph and myself, following Calvin, are quite different and address the relation between the Spirit and the Word. In this, the Word and Spirit are distinct but inseparable. There is no disjunctive dualism. The written Word, which testifies of Christ, has God for its primary author and is breathed out by the Spirit. The written and preached Word are not Christ, but its existence as Word is inseparable from him, and exists as the mind and will, as well as the originated work, of the Spirit, given through the concursive and receptive engagement of the human authors. 

At the same time, the Spirit and the Word are distinct, not to be reduced to something else or to the other. As distinct, the Word and the Spirit cannot be separated in this particular relation by saying that the Spirit operates independently of the Word any more than one could attribute power to the Word independently of the Spirit. This cannot be true in Trinitarian terms. Even when the Spirit is active – with the Father and the Son in the indivisible trinity – in governing the cosmos, that government is conducted by “the powerful Word” of the Son (Heb 1:3) just as in creation “the worlds were formed by the word of God” (Heb 11:3) while “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gn 1:2).

This inseparability is grounded in the indivisibility of the trinity and the inseparable works of the three, the most basic axioms of classic Trinitarian theology, dating from the fourth century crisis. It is in those terms that the appropriations, the works attributed to any one of the Trinitarian persons in distinction from the others, are to be seen, not as acts undertaken independently of the concerted operation of the three, but rather together in indivisible union.

Added to that is the perichoretic, mutually interpenetrative relationship between the living Word, the Son, and the derivative forms of the Word, in Scripture and proclamation. There are not three Words. The eternal Son, indivisibly one with the Father and the Holy Spirit (the great theme of Athanasius, the Cappadocians and Augustine), became incarnate for us and our salvation, sent by the Father, conceived by the Spirit. When he ascended to the Father, now and for ever in our nature, he sent the Spirit to the church. It was the same Spirit who breathed out the Scriptures through the minds and work of the human authors, who testifies of the Son in the Word he inspired, which Word itself speaks from first to last of the Christ, who is the eternal Son of the Father. When that inspired, inscripturated Word is read, and when it is proclaimed, it is the very word of God. When the gospel is preached Christ is heard (Rom 10:14), Christ preaches (Eph 2:17), the voice of the Son of God resounds (Jn 5:24-25).

These two foundational realities, taken together, point to the inseparable working of the Spirit in, through and with the preached Word. This is an objective matter, independent of the human response. In this it may indeed, and does, vary in its manifestation in this situation or that as God pleases, and since the human audience differs, whether in faith or unbelief.

Unfortunately, Stephen refers to only eight pages in Ralph’s book out of 126, while the passage he mentions from my address to ministers at the International Conference of Reformed Churches is 120 words out of 9,300. The result is less than fully representative.

In answer to Stephen’s first question he was to address – does the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of hearers of God’s Word always and in the same way and to the same degree? – the following extract will supply the answer, which should be obvious. To his second question, on whether the Spirit works at any point directly or immediately on the soul or is his work accomplished always by and through the Word, the answer is both. It is a fallacy to oppose what should go together. There can be no ontological substratum between us and God, neither does the Spirit work apart from the Word.

I said the following, in the paper Stephen mentions, which I presented to a gathering of ministers of the gospel in the International Conference of Reformed Churches, a presentation not originally intended for publication but rather to encourage some in countries where persecution is rife, and others in the West where preaching is disparaged:[8]

As a result we can expect the blessing of God upon the preaching of his Word. This is not presumption. It is simply faith, confidence that what he has promised he performs, and will continue to perform. This blessing can cut both ways; in some instances it is a form of judgment. As Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance of death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”

Hughes cites Calvin to the effect that the gospel is never preached in vain, but is effectual, leading either to life or to death.[9] Indeed, Calvin states that “wherever there is pure and unfeigned preaching of the gospel, there this strong savour that Paul mentions [in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16] will be found… not only when they quicken souls by the fragrance of salvation but also when they bring death to unbelievers”.[10] Hodge comments, “The word of God is quick and powerful either to save or to destroy. It cannot be neutral. If it does not save, it destroys.”[11] Elsewhere I have written that preaching has a two-fold cutting edge, bringing life and death wherever it goes.[12] It is best to say, with Strange, that “the Holy Spirit makes the Word efficacious to different people in different ways at different times, according to his sovereign will”.[13]

So yes, the Spirit accompanies the Word invariably but asymetrically, as Stephen puts it. The darker side, seen in Hebrews 4:12-13, in a context reflecting the unbelief of the wilderness generation, and in Matthew 11:25-27, where Jesus thanks the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise, happens per accidens, adventitiously, incidental to his main purpose, “for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). Resistance to the Word will be judged but the central purpose of the history of redemption is salvation. Each time we mount the pulpit, what happens counts for eternity, whether for salvation or judgment. The Spirit is never an absentee. To suggest so is to open the door to acute Trinitarian problems.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV).

“No word of God shall be powerless” (Luke 1:37, my translation).

Disposer supreme, and judge of the earth;
who choosest for thine the weak and the poor;
to frail earthen vessels, and things of no worth,
entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure.

Their sound goeth forth, “Christ Jesus is Lord!”
then Satan doth fear, his citadels fall:
as when the dread trumpets went forth at thy word,
and one long blast shattered the Canaanites’ wall.

J.B. de Santeuil, 1630-97.[14]


(Editorial note: A rejoinder from Stephen Clark to this reply from Bob Letham will be published in the next edition of Foundations.)

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