Keepin’ the Heid and Stirrin’ the Heart: Are Reformed Churches All Word and No Spirit?

Within the Reformed community there is, and has often been, the increasing impression (if not reality) that there has been a polarisation of ‘Word and Spirit’ and ‘head and heart’. Gerald Bray argues that “spiritual formation”[1] is an area, which requires “special consideration.”[2] Bray further argues that whilst the Reformed belief is that, “God cannot be known apart from experience”[3] he says it would be wrong to deny “the reformed and the spiritually minded live in two different worlds.”[4] Another Reformed writer presents the case in even stronger terms by claiming that there is “particularly deep embedded resistance to spirituality within the denominational tradition called Reformed.”[5] Anglican Bishop, Leslie Newbigin, argued that whilst Protestants were to be commended for their endeavour to “safeguard the uniqueness, sufficiency, and finality of God’s saving act in Christ.”,[6] their “excessive emphasis upon those immutable elements in the gospel”[7] which they have “concentrated attention” has created a situation where the church has become a “mere shell”[8] having only “the form of a church but not the life.”[9] The late doctor Martin Lloyd Jones is said to have believed that reformed people in his day had become “dry and arid in their Christian lives” and that “although their doctrine was sound, “their day to day life lacked the fire and sense of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit”.[10]

Many more voices could be added, each expressing a similar concern that the Reformed have maintained doctrinal faithfulness at the expense of spiritual life; they have built up knowledge in the head at the expense of love in the heart, and they have valued theological precision over the Holy Spirit’s power. The essence of the complaint is that the Word of God has been separated from the Spirit of God and that rationality has replaced spirituality.

But is it true? Is Newbigin right when he says that protestants, in pursuing gospel purity, have ended up with a church which is a “mere shell”? Do Reformed believers have a tendency to be “dry and arid” and lacking “the fire” and “presence and Power of the Holy Spirit?”

Bray, in tackling the idea that “Reformed Christians are all ‘head and heart”[11] says that it is a “popular belief”[12]. And whilst he argues that “issuing denials of this are not enough”[13] he maintains that we need to deal with the “popular perception”[14] that the “Reformed and spiritually minded live in two different worlds”[15]. So whilst it is clear that there are issues in the relationship between biblical teaching and the spiritual life, we need to do some digging in order to discover whether or not this is fact or simply “popular belief.” Before we can provide solutions, we need to know if the problem is simply a “popular perception” (misperception) or if it is actually the case that Reformed churches have maintained doctrinal fidelity at the expense of spiritual formation.

Bray seems to be of the view that it is the perception, which needs to be addressed – this becomes clearer when we consider the solution he proposes. He argues that “God cannot be known apart from experience”[16] and claims that “Modern Reformed theologians have never denied it”[17] and therefore, he says the claim that Reformed Christianity is Word without Spirit and informs the mind without fuelling the heart is a false and that “theologians must demonstrate in their teaching and in their behaviour that this dichotomy is a false one.”[18]

In exploring the issues surrounding reformed spirituality, it is important to demonstrate that the ‘Word and Spirit’ dichotomy, as it is often presented at a popular level, is in fact a false dichotomy. As we engage with the theology and history of the reformation we will observe ‘Word and Spirit’ working in heavenly harmony.

However, it is also important to raise the point that the Reformers, and Puritans, recognised that there can be a separation of ‘Word and Spirit’. In fact, such recognition underpinned their approach to theology and spirituality. In other words, the realisation that theological knowledge and spiritual experience could be separated, and the understanding of the detrimental effects of doctrine without experience, drove the reformers and puritans to emphasise the inter-relatedness and essentiality of the Word and the Spirit. So whilst Bray is correct to highlight the fact that we need to correct false dichotomies where they appear, we also need to be careful that we do not deny the fact that Word and Spirit can in fact be separated.

For example, whilst Calvin maintained the harmony of the Word and Spirit, Paul Helm has identified that the Word and Spirit hold a place of tension in Calvin.[19] In other words, although Calvin said, “He that would separate the Spirit from the Word would as good burn his bible.”[20], Helm highlights that “In the central motif of ‘Word and Spirit’ the two elements can only be linked together rather uneasily.”[21] In other words, whilst the Word can be read, and preached, only the Holy spirit can impart faith, understanding and life to the hearer – and because God is sovereign, he may choose not to, “But, who, may I ask, can deny the right of God to have the free and uncontrolled disposal of his gifts”.[22] Helm makes the point that Calvin does not teach that the “linkage between the Word and the Spirit is necessary.”[23] In other words, whilst the church has the responsibility to not create false dichotomies between Word and Spirit, there is a tension in the fact that the church can distribute the Word, but it can’t distribute the Holy Spirit. The church can preach the Word of Life, but it can’t impart the Spirit of life. John Owen identified the same issue:

For though the letter of scripture, and the sense of the proportions, are equally exposed to the reason of all mankind; yet the real spiritual knowledge of the things themselves is not communicated to any, but by the special operation of the Holy Spirit.[24]

It is clear, therefore, that the present crisis of Word and Spirit may be the consequence of two separate factors. On the one hand, the church can be devoid of a fuller Christian experience because it has been denied the harmony of ‘Word and Spirit’. However, it may also be the case that much of the energy that has been expended over the years teaching doctrine has not been accompanied by the work of the Spirit.

[1] Bray, Gerald, ‘The Trinity: Where do we go from here?’ in McGowan, Andrew, T.B, ed., Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology (UK, 2006, Apollos), p35.

[2] Bray, Always p35.

[3] Bray, Always p35.

[4] Bray, Always p36.

[5] Rice, Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers (USA, John Knox Press, 1991), p 9.

[6] Newbigin, Leslie., The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (USA, WIPF and Stock, 1953). P87.

[7] Newbigin, Household p87.

[8] Newbigin, Household p87.

[9] Newbigin, Household p87.

[10] Christopher Catherwood, Introduction in Jones, Martyn, Lloyd., Joy Unspeakable: The Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit (England, Kingsway, 1995), p12.

[11] Bray, Always p35.

[12] Bray, Always p35.

[13] Bray, Always p36.

[14] Bray, Always p36.

[15] Bray, Always p36.

[16] Bray, Always p35.

[17] Bray, Always p36.

[18] Bray, Always p36.

[19] Helm, Paul., Calvin, a Guide for the Perplexed (UK, T&T Clark, 2008), p125.

[20] Calvin, quoted by Ferguson in the Introduction to John owen’s Holy Spirit p26.

[21] Helm Guide p125.

[22] Calvin, in Helm Guide p25.

[23] Helm, Guide p126.

[24] Ferguson, Sinclair, ed., Owen, John., The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power (Scotland: Christian Heritage Imprint, Christian Focus, 2004). p30.