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Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit — Part I: The Holy Spirit in Divine Revelation

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

Introduction

The twentieth century has witnessed an amazing revival in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Although biblical theology has been assailed by higher criticism and there has been widespread defection from traditional orthodoxy, two significant developments have characterized the twentieth century as the era of the Holy Spirit. The first of these has been the revival of Pentecostalism witnessed by the rapid increase in membership in Pentecostal denominations in the United States and extensive Pentecostal missionary effort throughout the world and especially in Central and South America.

Second, as a reaction against the sterile liberalism of the first quarter of the twentieth century, neoorthodoxy sparked by Karl Barth has revived interest in the doctrine of the Spirit in theological studies in our age.

From an evangelical point of view, both the Pentecostal movement and neoorthodoxy are to some extent deviations from what was previously considered as biblical theology. Both Pentecostalism and neoorthodoxy are based upon experience. In the case of Pentecostalism, there have been claims to revival of apostolic gifts—of miracles, healing and speaking in tongues. In neoorthodoxy there has been an attempt at a new approach to the doctrine of revelation which was restored by Karl Barth to a supernatural work of a transcendent God in communication to finite man. Both Pentecostalism and neoorthodoxy have been scripturally oriented in more specific terms than contemporary liberalism. Both appeal to experience, and to this extent have departed somewhat from purely theological formulations based upon scriptural exegesis. They have, however, avoided the sterility of pure intellectualism, ritualism, and the emasculated theological concepts of liberalism. Regardless of how these movements are evaluated, they have served to focus attention on the theology of the Holy Spirit, elevating it to one of the major issues of the twentieth century.

The author has previously published a theological textbook, The Holy Spirit, setting forth the biblical doctrine in the Old and New Testaments. This present series of articles attempts principally to gather the major issues of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit being debated in contemporary theology. The discussion is intended to be understood by college and seminary students as well as lay students of biblical doctrine, and technicalities not essential to the study have been avoided. The focus of the entire treatment draws attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in our contemporary church and the world and the divine provision afforded by the Spirit in making God known, in providing spiritual revival for man, in guiding into high standards of moral behavior, in providing gifts for service, and finally in supplying power for effective living. These are the major issues relating the Spirit to the believer in Jesus Christ. The substance of the articles which comprise the series was delivered first as the Lyman Stewart Lectures at Talbot Theological Seminary on Jan 26-30, 1970, and later at the Instituto Biblico Seminario Teologico in Guatemala in August, 1970.

The Doctrine of the Spirit in a Day of Rapid Change

The twentieth century has been a period of rapid change. Never before in the history of man have there been so many scientific, political, and social developments. The advent of the atomic bomb, rapid communication and travel, and multiplied social and economic problems have set the present age apart from any similar period of history. It is only natural in such a scene that alert minds should ask new questions about what God is saying to our generation. In theology, especially, the leading questions are how God speaks to man and what He is saying today. Those who believe in divine revelation believe also that this is the key to understanding our day and its problems.

The nature of divine revelation to man is one of the profound questions of theology and philosophy. The problem first of all concerns the nature of God. If God is infinite in His wisdom and is the sovereign Originator of all things, He is obviously infinitely greater than what He has created. The question must be faced as to whether God, being what He is, would desire to communicate to His creatures. Most theistic explanations of the universe assume that one of the primary reasons for creation was that God wanted to reveal Himself and to display His infinite perfections. This is behind the revelation of God in natural theology.

In the creation of man, God deliberately created a creature with intellect (mind), sensibility (feeling), and will (power of moral choice). Man, although on a finite plane, was made like God and, therefore, was the kind of a creature to whom God could communicate. Under these circumstances, God being what He is and man being created in the image and likeness of God, communication between them would seem possible and reasonable.

Into this picture, however, came the problem of sin with its dulling of man’s sensitivity to divine revelation and a natural blindness to truth about God. It is because man is a sinful creature that a need arises for a special work of God to make divine communication to man effective. This introduces and makes necessary the role of the Holy Spirit as the divine Communicator of truth to man.

Revelation in Nature

The universe as a product of divine creation is one of the important means of divine revelation to man. According to Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead;…” The universe in its immensity, complexity, design and beauty testify to the God who created it; and as Romans brings out, it is a testimony to the power of God and to the personality and deity of God. Only a God of infinite power and wisdom who is sovereign over all material things could have created a universe with its precision of natural law and its inner adaptations which cause it in many respects to be self-functioning. This revelation of God in nature, which is perceivable by man in his normal intelligence, is stated in Romans to be so clear that according to Romans 1:20, “They are without excuse,” that is, all men should worship the Creator. This is the ground of condemnation of the heathen world. Scripture frequently calls attention to the wonder of the created universe as a display of the glory of God. Psalm 19 is an excellent illustration of this, beginning with the familiar statement, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Spirit worked through the authors to accomplish His purpose of producing the Scriptures.

As indicated in connection with oral revelation in 2 Peter 1:20-21, the revelation of divine truth was possible because “Holy men of God spake as they were moved [borne along] by the Holy Spirit.” All who are willing to accept the Bible as the Word of God recognize that inspiration is a work of the Holy Spirit and that the Scriptures would have been impossible apart from this supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The proofs for the inspiration of the Bible are both internal and external. There is abundant testimony by writers of the Old Testament to their belief that they were writing by inspiration (2 Sam 23:2-3; Isa 59:21; Jer 1:9, etc.). The terminology of the prophets and the expressions such as, “Thus saith the Lord,” found in hundreds of instances, testify to the hand of God in the production of the Scriptures. The very titles of the Bible, such as “The Word of the Lord,” “Thy Word,” and similar expressions, are found over a hundred times in the Old Testament and in many cases refer to direct quotations of what God has actually said and in other cases to what the prophets said as God’s representatives (Ps 107:11; 119:11 ; Prov 30:5). Hundreds of prophecies were made in the Bible and when these were fulfilled, often with minute accuracy as for instance in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), it serves to prove that the Bible unlike any other book in the world is accurate in its prophecies of future things. As about one-fourth of the Bible was prediction of future events when it was written, fulfillment of prophecy becomes an important proof of the inspiration of the Bible.

One of the most decisive evidences for inspiration is the testimony of Christ to the Scriptures. Often in quoting the Old Testament, Christ affirmed that it was inspired of the Spirit, as in Matthew 22:42-43 and Mark 12:36 quoting Psalm 110:1. In the New Testament as a whole the apostles frequently quote from the Old Testament indicating their belief that it was inspired of God, as in Peter’s quotation of Psalm 41:9 in Acts 1:16, and in the quotation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:24-25. Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in Acts 28:25-27. Similar references may be seen in Hebrews 3:7; 10:15-16 . These sample indications of common recognition by Christ and the apostles of the inspiration of the Old Testament, as well as the claim of inspiration of the New Testament as in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, and 2 Peter 3:16 referring to Paul’s epistles as Scripture, tend to support the claim of inspiration of both Testaments.

Inspiration extends to all forms of Scripture and relates to the unknown past, to history, to moral and religious law, to devotional literature, to the contemporary prophetic message, as well as the eschatological portions dealing with prophecy of the future. Inspiration extends equally to all kinds of Scripture, whether direct quotation from God or whether the statements of men, and is the basis for the conclusion that the Bible is factually true.

The abundant evidence in support of the inspiration of the Bible, which is discussed here only briefly, is so extensive that some of the finest scholars of all time have found this evidence quite sufficient to affirm the infallibility and inspiration of the entire sixty-six books of the Bible. Within orthodoxy, inspiration of the Bible can be claimed with equal cogency today as in former years with the added evidences of archaeology and advanced scholarship. Although ever since the Garden of Eden the Word of God has been questioned, there is really no adequate explanation of such an unusual book as the Bible apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The evidence supports the conclusion that this book is indeed the very Word of God.

Historically and logically, belief in the Bible has been inseparable from faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and unbelief in relation to the inspired Word of God has always inevitably also questioned the validity of Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The proofs for the one are proofs for the other.

Revelation to Man in Bible Times

The inspired Word of God in many cases records and alludes to the fact of special divine revelation to man throughout the past centuries. It is clear that God in various ways spoke to individuals revealing Himself, His will for them, and His direction for their lives long before Scripture was ever formulated. In the period before the Bible was written many instances are reported in the Bible itself of God’s direct dealings with man from Adam to Moses. Two large books of the Bible—Genesis and Job—record numerous instances of such direct communication, as well as allusions to general knowledge of God which must have come by special divine revelation forming the traditional theology of the day of which the Book of Job is a preeminent illustration. Even before the Bible was written, God had so effectively communicated Himself to man that the major truths about His own person, His moral law, His purpose for man in time, and His plan for man in eternity had already been revealed in simple form.

Beginning with Moses, while special revelation continued, the Scriptures began to be formulated and stated in permanent and written form the divine revelation that God wanted man to possess. It is clear, however, that Scripture recorded only a portion of such revelation, and then only when it was normative and intended for the permanent knowledge of man.

The extent of such divine revelation is especially recorded in Genesis, where some men were raised up as prophets and others, even though not prophets, were made the recipients of divine revelation. Enoch and Noah stand out in the period before the flood as those to whom God spoke in detail. Abraham is an outstanding illustration of the period before Scripture of one to whom God gave broad revelation concerning his posterity, his title to the Holy Land, and the broad purpose of God to produce through Abraham blessing to the entire world, fulfilled in Christ and in the Scriptures. Moses was given detailed revelation, recorded in the Pentateuch, for the guidance and direction of the nation Israel. Throughout the Old Testament times, God raised up many prophets who delivered divine messages to their generation, only portions of which have been preserved in the Bible. The outstanding personalities of Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the minor prophets, and many of the psalmists (some of them unnamed), were used of God to declare His message.

The basic method of special revelation, alongside written Scripture, is continued in the New Testament, much on the same pattern as found in the Old Testament but with more explicit testimony to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Divine revelation was given in various ways. Sometimes God appears to have spoken to man as if He were a man Himself, and communication was in words. This was true in the case of God’s relationship to Adam as well as many who followed.

A secondary means of revelation was through dreams of which there are many instances in the Bible (Gen 20:3-7; 31:10-13, 24 ; 37:5-20 ; 40:5-16 ; 41:11-13, 15-32 ; 42:9 , etc.). Even after Scripture began to be written, dreams continued to be used in some cases as a means of divine revelation (Num 12:6; Dan 2:1-35; 4:1-18 ; 7:1-14 ). Along with dreams were visions as a means of revealing divine truth, in which case the word “seer” or one who sees visions became characteristic of prophetic revelation. Illustrations are Isaiah’s experience (Isa 1:1; 6:1 ), Ezekiel’s experience (Ezek 1:3), Daniel’s visions (Dan 8:1-27; 9:20-27 ; 10:1—12:13 ), and Micaiah’s vision of heaven in 1 Kings 22:19. Still a similar method was that of trances as in Ezekiel 8:3; 11:24 . Whatever the means of divine revelation, the important point is that God sought by supernatural means to communicate Himself.

Divine revelation, of course, received a tremendous addition when Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He was a revelation of God in His person and life as well as in His prophetic utterances. Throughout the apostolic period special revelation continued as God communicated truth to individuals and to churches. The Lord appeared, for instance, in a vision to Ananias relative to his relationship to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Cornelius likewise was given a vision in Acts 10 in relation to Peter. Peter also was given a vision of his relationship to Cornelius in the same chapter. Another illustration is found in Acts 11:28 in the revelation given to Agabus of the coming famine. Many other illustrations could be cited, including the special revelation given to Paul in Acts 27:21-26. The whole book of Revelation records the special revelation given to John. From these many instances it is clear that God is not limited as to the means and channels of divine revelation, and in each case suits the means to the end.

Revelation to Man Today

Within orthodoxy there is considerable agreement on the role of natural revelation, the inspiration of the Bible, and the fact of special revelation in both the Old and New Testaments. The major problem in the contemporary doctrine of revelation relates to the nature and extent of divine revelation today apart from the facts of revelation to be found in the Bible. In a word, does God give special revelation today as He did in the Old and New Testament periods? To what extent does God communicate directly to those who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ?

In considering the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in revelation, it is generally understood that the Holy Spirit does have a contemporary relationship to an understanding of the written Word. The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit predicted by Christ (John 16:12-15) has had its fulfillment in the contemporary experience of the church. The Holy Spirit illuminates the Scripture and makes the revelation of God understandable. An extended statement of this is given in 1 Corinthians 2:9—3:2 . What the natural man cannot understand can be understood by a believer in Christ who is taught by the Holy Spirit. The epistemology (theory of knowledge) underlying the Scriptures is that man can know spiritual things only by the Holy Spirit. The illumination of the Scriptures, however, does not presume to teach anything which is not explicitly taught in the Bible. Although applications and illustrations may be gvien, the work of the Holy Spirit is designed to bring out that which is actually in the text.

It is understood in contemporary theology that God can give guidance today. Guidance does not constitute an additional normative revelation, but is rather the application of the Scriptures in their principles in general to the particular need of the individual who needs direction from God. Guidance is not in itself infallible, although God never misguides a person. Christians, however, can misinterpret guidance and can misunderstand God’s directions. Further, guidance is never normative, that is, what God guides one to do may not be what He will guide another to do. It is part of the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit to show the individual what the will of God is for him (Rom 12:1-2), and it is one of the marks of being a Christian (Rom 8:14). The guidance of the Spirit is personal and adapted to God’s individual purpose for the individual life, and as such is in contrast to general law (Gal 5:18). The general ministries of the illumination of the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit may be considered normative today as they were throughout the history of the church.

The particular problem that arises in contemporary study of the doctrine of revelation by the Holy Spirit is the question as to whether the Holy Spirit can give normative truth suitable for theological construction to an individual today apart from the explicit teaching of this truth in the Bible. In other words, does God directly communicate normative truth and provide additional information upon which to construct a theology for today? Here in a word is the issue between orthodoxy and neoorthodoxy, between the historic doctrine of revelation in the church and the contemporary teaching of Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr and many others. In order to understand the issues, a brief review must be undertaken of the background of this movement, its premises, and its conclusions.

Liberal theology in the early twentieth century had reduced the Bible to a natural record of religious experience and to various degrees had eliminated its supernatural element as well as its authority. The transcendent God who had created the universe was replaced by an immanent God indistinguishable from the process of evolution and for all practical purposes pantheistic in His relation to creation. Such a view left little room for a divine doctrine of supernatural revelation, a real communication between an infinite God and finite man, or any of the concepts that are taught in the Bible. Revelation was simply human discovery on a natural plane.

Liberal theology in the first quarter of the twentieth century was challenged by the writings of Karl Barth who is the father of neoorthodoxy. Karl Barth came to his arresting conclusions during World War I when he found the naturalistic doctrines of liberalism totally unsuited to meet the real needs of people during the crises created by war. He reasoned that the problem was in the area of revelation, that man being finite needed to have communication from the infinite God. He concluded this was naturally impossible, and therefore required a supernatural form of communication. Out of this came the teaching that God does communicate to man, although by natural means it is impossible, and that such communication constitutes a posit of divine truth. In effect, it was a reassertion of a form of special divine revelation devoid of its earlier characteristics of dreams, visons and trances, but constituting nobody an infallible or authoritative prophet. Barth’s new view was introduced in his Epistle to the Romans published in 1918.

In order to round out his teaching Barth had to reassert the transcendence of God as well as the sinfulness and finiteness of man. His view included the concept that revelation by its nature is supernatural inasmuch as it had to transcend the infinite gap between God and His creature. In the process of exalting revelation, he made the incarnation of Jesus Christ the supreme fact of divine revelation and emphasized the experience of revelation as the norm for truth rather than the factual and historic revelation given in the Bible. In other words, revelation is not something that can be put on paper, but something that can be experienced in the life of the believer. He thus made revelation a contemporary, supernatural, personal experience.

His doctrine of revelation bypassed many of the problems which would be stumbling blocks to the liberal. Barth did not accept the infallible inspiration of the original writings of Scripture, and included in his view the findings of the higher criticism of the Bible. He did not accept the historicity of Adam and Eve and was cool to any particularized prophetic scheme, following probably what could be classified as an amillennial interpretation of the Bible. To him it was not too important whether the Bible was factually true or not, but rather how God would use the Bible as a vehicle of communication to us. In other words, God would speak to us through the Bible rather than in the pages of Scripture itself.

In the process of reasserting the supernaturalness of God and divine revelation, Barth parted with liberals on many points. He had no difficulty accepting, for instance, the virgin birth of Christ, and seems to have accepted the deity of Christ and His death on the cross and resurrection without too much difficulty. Many who followed him in neoorthodoxy rejected these doctrines, and neoorthodoxy as a whole, generally speaking, does not embrace the fundamentals of the faith as known in orthodoxy. Others who followed him, such as Emil Brunner, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Paul Tillich to various degrees departed from Barth’s system of theology while reaffirming the contemporary nature of divine revelation.

The difficulties confronting the neoorthodox interpretation of revelation are all too evident in contemporary theology. First of all, neoorthodoxy lacks any norm for divine truth. As divine revelation is traceable to the individual personal experience of an individual, and as such experiences vary widely, there has been no system of doctrine which has resulted as a byproduct of neoorthodox revelation. Almost any teaching from that which approaches orthodoxy to that which is extremely liberal can be found in the neoorthodox camp. The whole concept of such revelation as being authoritative is therefore brought into question because it is by its nature self-contradictory.

A second factor becomes evident in the subsequent experience of neoorthodox theologians, and that is that the Christ of neoorthodoxy tends to be a Christ created by the individual out of his experience instead of the Christ of history. This has resulted in neglect of the details of the life and ministry of Christ, the subordination of the important fact of His death on the cross, and open questioning of the doctrine of resurrection. All of these things are considered by many neoorthodox theologians quite secondary to the central fact that they have had an experience of Christ. Judging by the standards of Scripture, their experience can be questioned as to whether it is real, and in many cases a deceptive security results from a supposed experience with Jesus Christ which may be only psychological and emotional.

Orthodoxy is within its proper limits in raising serious questions concerning the neoorthodox doctrine of the Spirit. There still remains the questions as to whether they have proved that they have real divine revelation, whether such revelation is normative, and whether such revelation can be trusted. The facts are against this, as neoorthodoxy to date has not been able to produce one normative truth not already taught in the Bible. Accordingly, while neoorthodoxy may have the appearance of being more honoring to God than liberal theology in recognizing Him as a supernatural and transcendent being, and in declaring the possibility that such a God can communicate to man, it is faulty both in its doctrine and its experience in that it has not demonstrated anything superior to what orthodoxy has had for centuries. It still remains true that theological concepts must be tested by the written Word rather than by individual experiences. While collective experience in some cases may provide norms of testing the reality of truth, such norms are open to question unless they are also found in the Word of God.

It must be concluded that in the contemporary doctrine of the Spirit as related to divine revelation, neoorthodoxy constitutes a serious and deceptive error, probably the most deceptive error which has ever overtaken the church; and its findings and its influence must be resisted by those who desire to be true to the orthodox theology which is taught explicitly in the Holy Scriptures.

God is revealing Himself today, speaking through nature, speaking through the Bible, and guiding man in his daily life. Preeminently, however, God speaks to man through the Scriptures, and He does not reveal normative truth except as it is already revealed in the Scriptures themselves. The test of truth must remain not what man experiences today but what the Scriptures have stated long ago.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.