The Spiritual Gifts: The Spirit & The Word (Part 1)

What is the relationship between the Spirit and the Word of God? The various views on Spiritual Gifts have often tended to pit the Word and the Spirit against one another. So, on the one hand we can emphasize the priority of the Scripture to the point that we don’t even really need the Spirit. Or, on the other hand, we can actually say that the Spirit so supersedes the Scriptures that He may even speak to us things contrary to the Word. What we end up with in this dynamic is either an Evangelical Rationalism or an Evangelical Spiritualism, both of which are faulty. A good theology of the Spirit and the Word will hold them in balance.

A Biblical theology of the Spirit and the Word values both. We do not need to pit them against one another, but we do need to understand the dynamic between them. To overlook the relationship between them will result in a reductionist approach to both. The church at large has tended to emphasize one over the other. So, what we end up with are factions of either rationalism or spiritualism within Christianity. It is worth our time to explore each of these factions and their shortcomings. Understanding the reductionist positions will help us to appreciate the nuances of the comprehensive Biblical picture.

Evangelical Rationalism on the one hand asserts that the Spirit’s role is simply to assist the human mind in reasoning its way to truth. The Spirit is not really necessary, but is more of a welcome addition. Reason is the real means of revelation, then, and what we learn about God we do so simply by exercising our rational faculties. In this particular way of thinking a rationalist may elevate the Word of God above the Spirit because it is through the Word of God that we receive propositional truth to be evaluated, understood, analyzed, and attained. In this approach Christianity is simply a message to be understood and to which we give mental ascent. “I believe,” means I understand and agree with these statements. Much of the church has fallen prey to this line of thinking over the centuries. While it is, perhaps, not as prominent in the contemporary setting it retains a hold in small ways, and it often appears in conflicts about the Spiritual gifts. There is an absolute distrust and disdain of emotion, experience, and of anything that hints at hearing from the Lord.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we find Evangelical Spiritualism. This position gives more weight to experiential and expressive components of faith and belief. In this approach the “Spirit” becomes an independent criterion of truth, over and against the Word. So, the Spirit may impress upon us things contrary to Scripture, but His voice supersedes the Word. The contrast is not simply one of Pneuma and Logos, but one of proposition and experience. The heart of the faith lies in what we feel, our experience of the Spirit. In the words of Anglican minister Jeremy Taylor a rational theology understand by means of reason, but a spiritual theology understand by means of love. The popularity of this particular approach today can be well seen in the plethora of Christian voices calling for a dismissal of the Biblical text over against the principle of “love,” we see this especially in relation to the issues of sexuality. We see it too in the preaching, teaching, and worship of churches who devalue the Word of God over against the experience of emotional highs.

A theology of Word and Spirit, however, understand that these are not two competing elements of our one faith. They are companions. The Word and the Spirit belong together. The Word cannot be separated from the Spirit, nor should the Spirit be divorced from the Word. It was the Spirit, after all, who wrote the Word (2 Tim. 3:16). The failure of Rationalism is that it assumes the Spirit is unnecessary or simply performing a perfunctory role. Reason alone would have gotten us the same result over time, the Spirit just hurried it along perhaps. Reason is the key, however, to our faith and reason becomes the standard. So God’s actions and activity are always explainable and our own understanding of theology or exegesis is functionally inerrant. The Spirit challenges our own self-confidence, and reminds us that our theology and His Word are not the same thing! The Spirit reminds us that we need Him to understand anything. The Spirit reminds us that faith is not ascent to  propositional truth, but relationship with the divine! Rationalism fails to present a comprehensive picture of the Christian faith. Spiritualism, on the other hand, creates too much subjectivity to the faith. Without any common grounds of discernment we wind up with only experience, experience unguided or unshaped by objective truth. The Word challenges our spiritualism by grounding it in something universally true. The Word challenges us to see that our “spirit” and the “Spirit” are not the same thing. The Word challenges us to believe that God means what He says and that He knew about today when He wrote what He did so many thousands of years ago. We need both the Word and the Spirit.

In the coming weeks I will unpack the dynamic relationship in more detail, but we start here with the important and necessary declaration that Evangelical Christianity is a theology of both Word and Spirit. Not just in theory, but our faith must also be this way in practice.

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