John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

Three Critiques of Stuart Olyott on The Trinity

Stuart OlyottA few months ago I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s useful and short book, What the Bible Teaches about the Trinity. In that post I raised two areas where I felt the work fell short: meaningful application and developed understanding of the Holy Spirit. Both of those criticisms may be a little unfair, considering the brevity of Olyott’s book. But upon further reflection I became convinced that some of Olyott’s material warrants more detailed interaction. So under the three points below, I will raise some of my concerns and respond to them.

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

In a section on the full deity of the Holy Spirit, under the heading, The Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and honoured (p47-8), Olyott touches briefly on blasphemy against the Spirit: “Blasphemy is insulting the honour of God, and if the Holy Spirit were not God, it would be impossible to blaspheme against him. As it is, this sort of blasphemy is the most serious of all, and can never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31–32).” While the potential to blaspheme against the Spirit is a convincing argument for his deity, Olyott’s point is both pyric and inconsistent.

For starters, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son of Man will be forgiven. By this logic, we could question Jesus’ full deity. Secondly, Olyott fails to interpret these verses in the context of Matthew’s gospel, resulting in a position that has caused much harm and anxiety over the years. Quoting Isaiah 42, Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Spirit empowered servant, who embodies God’s promised rescue and hope (Matthew 12:17-21). He then triumphs over an afflicting demon, prompting the question pervasive to the Gospels, ‘Who is this? Can this be the Son of David?’ (12:22-23). The reader of Matthew knows the answer, because of the quote from Isaiah, but the Pharisees are predictably suspicious and dismissive claiming Jesus was only capable of such feats because he was a servant of Satan (12:24), rather than the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus highlights the folly of their accusation (12:25-29), and significantly in his defence states that he is empowered by the Spirit of God (12:28).

Mihaly MunkacsyWhat does any of this matter? Just before he mentions blasphemy of the Spirit, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (12:30). The Pharisees failed to recognise the beginning of Satan’s defeat and the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the ‘eucatastrophy’ they longed for. For they opposed the one who had come preaching the good news, partnered by God’s Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is therefore not some abstract offence, or loose word I might have muttered only to never be forgiven; it is the deliberate rejection of God’s Christ, to set oneself up against the Spirit empowered servant. Apart from him there is no forgiveness of sins.

Praying to the Son and the Spirit

In chapter 3, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Olyott writes, “Prayer to God is not to be addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to the one who is distinct from him—the Father” (p25). Later, while discussing the established Trinitarian heresies, Olyott labels thanking God for dying on the cross or for his indwelling presence Modalism (p86). Admittedly Olyott is defending the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, cautioning us against saying of the Father what can be said only of the Son or of the Spirit. But this does not mean we cannot address the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Both clearly receive worship and praise. Why then do we prohibit prayer to the Son or the Spirit?

Richard BauckhamOlyott writes, “The New Testament knows very little of praying to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p91). Yet we can clearly read of prayer being addressed to the Son. “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:12, writes, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus even invites his disciples to pray to him, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As Richard Bauckham points out, in Jesus and the God of Israel, “Acclamations and prayers addressed to Jesus go back to the earliest times…The New Testament evidence for personal prayer to Jesus as a regular feature of early Christianity has sometimes been underestimated.” Even if the prevailing practice was prayer to God the Father, Bauckham goes on to say, “Since Jesus was understood as the active mediator of grace from God…and as the Lord for whose service Christians lived, prayer addressed to him was natural.”

Orthodoxy and Salvation

Of the three points I make in this post, I imagine this last one might draw the most criticism. It also is not one that Olyott makes explicitly. However, he seems to make two contradictory statements about orthodoxy and salvation. Correctly he writes about Sabellius, most likely the father of what would come to be called Modalism, “Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks on our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. And yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God” (p86). I made a similar point in an old post on Origen. But a few pages on, Olyott undoes his generous statement about heterodoxy or heresy, lumping Modalists with Muslims, animists, and pagans (p87). “The only true God is the one who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, and this is what he has revealed…A belief in the Trinity is essential to salvation.” Bringing his book to a close, he states this point more emphatically: “There can be no salvation where there is no belief in the Trinity” (p90). I feel like I might lose my job by disagreeing with such a statement. But should we really base salvation on the grounds of orthodox Trinitarian belief? I know nothing of that in Scripture.

Roman TrialJesus is fully God, as are the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet the salvation he offers, the work he accomplished, was not the overturning of our ignorance about the Trinity but the forgiveness of our sins at the cross. It is ours by faith, not intellectual ascent. Belief is primarily, as I read it in the New Testament, trusting in God’s grace made known in Christ, long before it is believing the right things about God. Surely this is what Jesus means in John 17:3 when he said that eternal life is knowing the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry and Jesus’ Humanity


Jesus If you share a similar Christian tradition to me then I am sure you that have heard comments akin to these about the Holy Spirit, “He is the shy member of the Trinity. He points away from himself and to Jesus. Spirit-filled ministry is Jesus-focused ministry,” and so on. But, developing a point made by Colin Gunton, this narrow, “under-determination of the person of the Holy Spirit,” does not only fail to appreciate Scripture’s presentation of the Spirit but also makes it difficult to give proper dogmatic weighting to Jesus’ humanity. Thus Gunton called the doctrine of the Holy Spirit “the Achilles’ heel of Western theology.” In this post my aim is to convince you that greater significance must be laid on the work of the Spirit if we are to appreciate the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Last year I posted on Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4 and suggested that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness and partnered him as he faced Satan (Matthew 4:1). This close tie between the Spirit and Jesus is apparent throughout Matthew’s narrative: as the earliest creeds state, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:18); John the Baptist foretold that Jesus’ ministry would be inseparable from the Spirit’s (3:11); when Jesus is baptised we are told that the Spirit rests on him (3:16). So when Isaiah 42 is quoted, in Matthew 12:17-18, “Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him,” we ought to understand the Spirit to be, borrowing a phrase from Gordon Fee, “God’s empowering presence.” Immediately following that quotation we read Jesus’ stern rebuke of the Pharisees, who were blaspheming the “Spirit of God” (12:28, 31) by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan (12:26-27). Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his mission, was inseparable from the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Dove of the Holy SpiritThere are, in my opinion, at least three reasons we often fail to clearly articulate this biblical truth. Firstly, Driscoll, in Doctrine, writes, “All of the major creeds compiled during the early church…overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.” Jesus’ life was not merely ‘God striding across the earth’ (Käsemann), but a window into the remarkable potential for Spirit-empowered humanity. The second reason, linked to the previous point, is most preachers’ penchant to view every miracle Jesus does as evidence of his divinity. When we do this we overlook Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit (as well as the Father) throughout his life. Thirdly, in discussions about Jesus’ temptation our default position is: because Jesus was God he could not possibly have yielded to Satan’s seductive promises. However, that position, in my opinion, makes the temptation no more than a stage drama. Instead, we should recognise that Jesus was truly tempted but also empowered to stay his course by the Holy Spirit.

Returning to our starting point, one can now hopefully see how underappreciating the Holy Spirit’s role throughout Jesus’ life can result in an overemphasis of Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. On the other hand, when we fully appreciate God’s empowering presence then, as Gerald Hawthorne writes, in The Presence and the Power, we rightly see Jesus as the archetype of what is possible in a human life, characterised by total dependence on the Spirit of God. In an old post I compared Jesus’ temptation with our own and concluded that when the Christian is tempted they are empowered by the same Spirit who bolstered Jesus’ resolve. By way of conclusion, a proper appraisal of Jesus’ humanity does at least two things: it (1) affirms the biblical emphasis on and importance of the Spirit in all of God’s work, and (2) reassures us in our struggle with sin and temptation of the Spirit’s presence and power.

Doodle: The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption

Preaching committed to exegesis of the Bible

It was as a teenager that I first encountered exegetical preaching. And it is significant, though not paramount, that I was converted under that model of preaching, as the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus. Within a year I was teaching the youth myself, but relying heavily on commentaries and sermons preached by others. But that too would change as I received training in bible handing. I was endowed with tools to exegete biblical texts (these can be studied in painful simplicity in Dig Deeper, or the classic How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth). I was taught the methods for ascertaining what the authors meant when they wrote a particular piece of literature (Schreiner, p7 in Interpreting The Pauline Epistles). I am inexplicably and immensely grateful for the people who practiced and modeled proper exegesis for it was their efforts of interpretation – illuminated by the Spirit – that caused me to faithfully repent. But my path has undoubtedly led me to a dangerous assumption regarding biblical exegesis, made by Evangelicals.

Gospel preached by Paul at AthenThis year I have been placed in a few primary schools where I have the opportunity to preach at break times. Our church is part of a larger schools work which means I have been forced to rub shoulders with brothers and sisters of a more charismatic persuasion. These fellow servants may have never had the privilege of sitting under preaching that makes the main point of the text the main message for hearers today; they have probably never sat through classes where exegetical tools are explained and honed for working on passages; I do not think any of them have even heard of Dig Deeper, let alone the discipline known as hermeneutics. But for all that, these men and women give hours of their day to proclaim the gospel, the free grace of our Lord. And I have been shown my arrogance as a proud Evangelical. More than that, the Evangelical assumption that I inherited as a young Christian is being uprooted.

Glasses on open BibleWhat is this “assumption”, you ask, having patiently waded through two reflective paragraphs? It is this: if we work hard at our exegesis and get the passage right, the Spirit will work. I fear that this makes the Spirit a slave to our abilities of exegesis. He ceases to be the sovereign God who acts freely and despite us; and becomes bound to work as we do. Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me. Our experiences of preaching attests to the fact that God works as he pleases. The best sermons fall on deaf ears while the worst sometimes give new life and produce spiritual fruit. Praise God. Our task as preachers is first and foremost to proclaim the God’s grace, on offer in the gospel. Too many Evangelicals assume that faithfully exegeting texts will enable the work of the Spirit. Our task is to faithfully preach the gospel, praying that the Spirit will do his work of regeneration and conviction in the lives of our hearers. He does, after all, enable us to understand the Scriptures. As Evangelicals we need to relinquish our (erroneously assumed) control over the Spirit’s work, for he is not tied to our abilities and exegesis.

Jenson on Hegel: Philosophical and Trinitarian Principles for Relationships

Jenson, author of The Triune GodEarlier this year, for my systematics course, we discussed the modern issues surrounding Trinitarian theology I got to work on as essay dealing specifically with the difficulties regarding our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. While the readings – from luminaries such as T. F. Torrance, George Hunsinger, and Colin Gunton – were stimulating and helpful, it was the slightly unorthodox theology of Robert Jenson that grabbed my attention. And it is one particular point Jenson makes which I hope to draw out and apply in this post.

Jenson points out that one of Western theology’s major shortcomings is the trend (perhaps traceable to Augustine’s “bond of love”) to envelope the Holy Spirit within the other two Persons of the Godhead, reducing the Holy Spirit to the Personal Trinity’s capacity, void of any real personal capacity. Highlighting this problem in Karl Barth’s theology, Jenson notes that the Spirit is seen more prominently as the fellowship between Father and Son and not a partner of that fellowship. Similarly to Augustine’s phrase, Barth’s famous expression for the Spirit was, “the mediator of communion”. And according to Jenson, in practice we own an “I-thou” trinitarianism, which could more accurately be called binitarianism.

Jenson believes that the 20th century philosopher Hegel, whom he calls the greatest expositor of “I-thou” ontology, provides a helpful corrective for understanding relationships, both divine and human. Hegel was convinced that if persons are to be free for one another they must be both subject and object in their converse. But in a purely “I-thou” relationship a person can evade availability as an object, thus enslaving the other person. Relationships thus become open or hidden struggles for domination. Each person is vying to be the subject, or master, making the other party its object, or slave, intentionally or subconsciously.

Cover: Phenomenology of the SpiritHegel felt that mutually accepted objectifying and availability cannot happen without an intrusive third party who liberates the two parties and makes them free for one another. His solution to the “I-thou” impasse is that both subjects need to be objects of another. Otherwise each party can’t help but guard against increasingly becoming the object, by striving after ascendency as the subject. Jenson suggests that herein is the answer to many of the issues in modern trinitarian theology: Father and Son are free to love each other only when the Holy Spirit objectifies them, as subject the Spirit’s intention is mutual love between its objects.

Whether you fully understand Jenson’s pneumatological development based on Hegelian philosophy or not, let alone agree with it, it’s the corollary application I hope you’ll find helpful. You might think Jenson has overlooked significant answers the West does give, such as taxis in the Trinity and the monarchy of the Father, hierarchy without ontological inferiority. I remain unconvinced by process theology and the implications it has for trinitarian theology, such as the ontological derivation of the Son and Holy Spirit (a hallmark of Eastern theology). But that being said, Hegel and Jenson present us with a valuable principle for relationships, even if we have to limit it to the human sphere.

The principle that we can derive from Hegelian philosophy, which Jenson hints at, is the necessity of a third party in human relationships. Hegel argued that we see this in marriage, where a child (the intrusive third party and subject) objectifies its parents as well as serves as a mutual object of their love. Jenson goes a step further than Hegel in saying friendships that are too exclusive will wither or become destructive. Conflict and confrontation over hegemony is the destiny of relationships that don’t make room for a third party. To paraphrase Jenson, if I am to be your object, and you mine, there must be one for whom we are both objects, whose intention is our mutual love. That is accountability, friendship and God’s design for human relationships. It is also a warning that most of us need to hear today.

Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Volume 1Nearly all of what I’ve said above is a summary of Robert Jenson, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: The Triune God (1997), p153-156. If you are brave then you can find the relevant sections on p104-116 of A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1977).

The Agency of Definitive Sanctification: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Portrait of John MurrayThe unfortunate result of writing a thesis is that you end up with a lot of material but not enough space for its inclusion. There is a great tragedy in this, for apart from a few keen theological students and your honours supervisor these by-products are not really accessible reading. But that is not going to prevent me offering this brief piece, which is more of a hors d’oeuvre, on the agency of definitive sanctification.

John Murray on sanctification roused my interest in this question (see Collected Works: volume 2, p285-293). His answer to the question is given as a twofold progression where the second step, in my opinion, undoes the first. For he says that (1) while it is the saving action of each person in the Trinity that believers are sanctified, (2) it is by virtue of the Son’s complete work on the cross that the action of the Father and Holy Spirit take effect. So much for the old Latin expression opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (the external works of the Trinity are undivided). Murray appears to reduce the work of both Father and Spirit, within the Triune God’s sanctification of the creature. Below I will briefly outline why we should not limit the agency of our definitive sanctification to one person in the Trinity.

Father as Monarch: the initiating agent of the Trinity (Dr. Benjamin Dean, my lecturer in systematic theology at George Whitefield College)

Without presuming to address the myriad of questions surrounding the taxis (order) in the Trinity, this distinction made by Ben Dean is a helpful one: when we speak of the Monarchy of the Father we can do so with reference to his person but not his being. That is to say that the Father, without being ontologically superior, is the prominent person within the Trinity. His prerogative is privileged as he is the leading and initiating figure of the Trinity. Thus when we speak about the co-activity of the Triune God we need to bear in mind that it unfolds within a defined order. Bringing this back to sanctification we should remember that the Son’s work is carried out in submission to the Father’s desire that his creatures enjoy a relationship with him, and for this they must be sanctified.

The pactum salutis: the covenant of grace

Though it is often forgotten or unmentioned, the pactum salutis (pact of salvation) is a hallmark of Reformed theology. It presupposes communion with Christ, a union or bond forged between the mediator and God’s elect in eternity. Election is the Father’s decision to make a covenant of grace with certain creatures he chose before time. The Father gives the elect to his Son and unites them with him, which explains Jesus’ phrase in John 10:28-29 where he assures believers that he will lose none that the Father has trusted into his hand. Though not very different to the first point I have made, the pactum salutis teaches us is that in sanctification, we are not merely benefitting from Christ’s work and our position in him, but as covenant partners with the Triune God from eternity, the Spirit appropriates covenant blessings (salvation) to us.

 The Spirit makes us holy: the consecrating agent (John Webster, Confessing God, p128-129)

In eternity the Father looks ahead to our reconciliation and sanctification, in history the Son takes up the creature’s cause and reconciles them by his sufficient work, in which our sanctification finds its organic source. But it is the Spirit who completes the sanctification which was willed by the Father and effectively procured by the Son. The Spirit acts upon the creature filling out its history in completion of the divine purpose. He makes this sanctification actual. His work establishes creatures in fellowship with “the thrice Holy One”. Thus without his work the salvation initiated in eternity and secured at Calvary cannot be enjoyed by the creature.

Scutum FideiWe will finish where we started, with John Murray, who concludes his chapter on the pattern sanctification like this, “when Christ is truly honoured, the other persons of the Godhead are likewise honoured” for we see the Father’s glory in the Son’s face and know that the Spirit glorifies the Son (p312). I wholeheartedly agree with Murray, but ask if we would not gain a greater grasp of the Son’s work as we remember its integration within the Trinity’s.