Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
The Word and the Spirit Together
Those who imagine that they have some peculiar way of penetrating to God apart from Scripture are not so much under the influence of error as madness. Certain giddy men have lately appeared who make a great display of the superiority of the Spirit, reject all reading of the Scriptures themselves, and deride the simplicity of those who only delight in what they call the dead and deadly letter.
I wish they would tell me what spirit it is whose inspiration raises them to such a sublime height that they dare despise the doctrine of Scripture as mean and childish. If they answer that it is the Spirit of Christ, their confidence is exceedingly ridiculous. They will have to admit that the apostles and other believers in the primitive church were not illuminated by any other spirit, yet none of these learned to despise the Word of God. Instead, every one of them was imbued with greater reverence for it, as their writings most clearly testify.
This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who said, “My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and forever.” He does not tie down the ancient Church merely to external doctrine, but he rather shows that under the reign of Christ, the true and full felicity of the new Church will consist in their being ruled not less by the Word than by the Spirit of God. These miscreants are therefore guilty of fearful sacrilege in tearing asunder what the prophet joins in indissoluble union.
Moreover, Paul, though carried up even to the third heaven, ceased not to profit by the doctrine of the law and the prophets, while, in like manner, he exhorts Timothy, a teacher of singular excellence, to give attention to reading (1 Tim. 4:13). And the benediction he pronounces on Scripture well deserves to be remembered: “it is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect” (2 Tim. 3:16).
What kind of Spirit did our Savior promise to send? One who should not speak of himself (John 16:13), but suggest and instill the truths which he himself had delivered through the Word. Hence the office of the Spirit promised to us is not to form new and unheard-of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine by which we may be led away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends.
Hence it is easy to understand that we must give diligent heed both to the reading and hearing of Scripture, if we would obtain any benefit from the Spirit of God, and on the contrary, that any spirit which passes by the wisdom of God’s Word and suggests any other doctrine is deservedly suspected of vanity and falsehood.
These men, however, say it is insulting to subject the Spirit, to whom all things are to be subject, to the Scripture—as if it were disgraceful to the Holy Spirit to maintain a perfect resemblance throughout, and be in all respects without variation consistent with himself. True, if he were subjected to a human, an angelical, or to any foreign standard, it might be thought that he was rendered subordinate, or, if you will, brought into bondage; but as long as he is compared with himself and considered in himself, how can it be said that he is thereby injured?
Their complaint about our cleaving to the dead letter carries with it the punishment which they deserve for despising Scripture. It is clear that Paul is there arguing against false apostles (2 Cor. 3:6), who, by recommending the law without Christ, deprived the people of the benefit of the New Covenant by which the Lord promises he will write his law on the hearts of believers and engrave it on their inward parts. The letter therefore is “dead,” and the law of the Lord kills its readers, when it is severed from the grace of Christ and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart. If, however, it is effectually impressed on the heart by the Spirit, it is the word of life converting the soul and making wise the simple. In the very same passage, the apostle calls his own preaching the ministration of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8).
There is nothing repugnant here to what was said before: that we have no great certainty of the word itself until it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit. The Lord has so knit together the certainty of his word and his Spirit that our minds are duly imbued with reverence for the word when the Spirit shining upon it enables us there to behold the face of God; and, on the other hand, we embrace the Spirit with no danger of delusion when we recognize him in his image, that is, in his Word.
God did not produce his word before men intending to abolish it the moment the Spirit should arrive; but he employed the same Spirit, by whose agency he had administered the word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the word. In this way, Christ explained to the two disciples (Luke 24:27), not that they were to reject the Scriptures and trust to their own wisdom, but that they were to understand the Scriptures. How is this answered by those swollen enthusiasts in whose idea the only true illumination consists, in carelessly laying aside and bidding adieu to the Word of God, while, with no less confidence than folly they fasten upon any dreaming notion which may have casually sprung up in their minds? Surely a very different sobriety becomes the children of God. As they feel that without the Spirit of God they are utterly devoid of the light of truth, so they are not ignorant that the Word is the instrument by which the illumination of the Spirit is dispensed. They know of no other Spirit than the one who dwelt and spoke in the apostles—the Spirit by whose oracles they are daily invited to the hearing of the Word.
Questions for Devotion
- Is there a sure way of learning about God from the Spirit apart from Scripture?
- What effect should the illumination of the Spirit have on our esteem for Scripture?
- What work did Christ send the Spirit to perform in regard to his teachings?
- What “dead letter” does Paul warn against, and how does the Spirit remedy that for us?
- What relationship, then, did God design for us between the Word and the Spirit?