Word and Spirit

Is it possible to discern the truths in the Bible solely by the independent application of human reason? Is it actually possible to approach the Bible completely objectively and devoid of preconceptions? Or does the Holy Spirit work with truth-seekers to enable their understanding and bring them to Christ? Does the Holy Spirit continue to work in the minds and hearts of believers to enlighten them through his word?

The Christadelphian position as described by Fred Pearce[1] is as follows. The Spirit of God is the expression of God in all his activities. Through his Spirit-power in the Old Testament times, God made known his words, thoughts and ways. He also granted special powers to his servants occasionally, to add his divine authority to the words they spoke. The Spirit of God also displays God’s character, his mercy, forgiveness and goodness. To oppose God’s character and purpose as Israel did, was to “grieve his Holy Spirit” (Isa 63:10). The Spirit is “the sheer quality of the Divine mind, expressed in God’s thoughts and purposes, and in all his communications with mankind” (p 13), hence this “Spirit of the Lord” could rest upon Jesus (Isa 11:2–4). God caused the Law and the prophets to be written down to convey his mind and be the vehicle of his Spirit. “It is not primarily an appeal to human emotion, but to the reasonable comprehension of sincere minds, willing to be taught in Divine ways and desiring to absorb the Spirit of God’s mind by their humble submission to his will” (p 16).  The Holy Spirit brought about the miraculous conception of Jesus, by which he could “manifest the Spirit of the Father.” God granted Jesus special Spirit powers at his baptism to give power to his message and underpin his God-given authority, and develop Jesus’ mind through the inspired written word (p 24). Jesus passed on some of his miraculous Spirit powers to his disciples for the work of preaching the word. They were subsequently empowered, by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to witness throughout the known world. The Spirit also worked in the early church, bestowing gifts for the building up of the church. But once the apostles passed from the scene, so did all the manifestations of the Spirit. This is because the written revelation of God’s will had been completed in the writing of the New Testament by these apostles. The Spirit now works, not by miraculous means, but by the transforming power of written revelation (p 37). The Bible, created by God’s Spirit, is now the full expression of his mind, his will, his Spirit and is capable of exerting a profound effect on the mind of readers. This current work of the Spirit is entirely through the written word, and almost exclusively on the mind. The only way the Spirit now acts, Pearce asserts, is by people willingly applying their reason to the Bible.

Note that the onus is on the believer. He must not expect God to change his mind for him. God has provided the revelation and the faithful must give their minds to it… the spiritual quality of the mind of God and of Christ must be reflected in the faithful. Here is no internally injected Spirit but the response of believers to the revelation of the quality of the Spirit of God” (p 55).

According to Christadelphians, the Holy Spirit is not required in order for anyone to believe. “Our salvation depends not upon some independent influence, descending upon us direct from God, but upon our understanding of and obedience to His truth through our humble submission to the message and the Spirit of His Word” (p 107). Robert Roberts expressed it this way:

“The result of an intelligent apprehension of what the word of God teaches and requires… has its seat in the judgment, and lays hold of the entire mental man, creating new ideas and new affections, and, in general, evolving a “new man.” In this work, the Spirit has no participation, except in the shape of the written word. This is the product of the Spirit — the ideas of the Spirit reduced to writing by the ancient men who were moved by it. It is, therefore, the instrumentality of the Spirit, historically wielded: the sword of the Spirit by a metaphor which contemplates the Spirit in prophets and apostles in ancient times, as the warrior. By this, men may be subdued to God — that is, enlightened, purified, and saved, if they receive the word into good and honest hearts, and “bring forth fruit, some thirty-fold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” By this they may become “spiritually minded,” which is “life and peace.” The present days are barren days as regards the Spirit’s direct operations.” [2]

The obvious problem with denying any current influence of the Spirit in the conversion experience, is that it places salvation in our own hands. An intellectual appreciation of the complexity of doctrines becomes necessary for salvation, and this has to be achieved by the independent application of human reason, as founder John Thomas did, without any additional guidance from the Spirit.[3] In this great work, Thomas must have been intrinsically superior in ability, objectivity and discernment to the early church fathers, the Reformers such as Calvin, Luther, Wycliffe, and every Christian scholar prior to his time, for none had any external guidance from God. Remarkably, in this whole 1800 year period, no Christian thinker drew the same set of doctrinal conclusions as John Thomas did, and which Christadelphians hold today.

So, either the Bible is not so plain and open to full interpretation on the basis of reason alone and requires some other influence, or everyone other than Thomas, Roberts and their followers was/is too unintelligent or too biased to understand it, or just haven’t read the Bible as much. Blunt as that statement is, it’s essentially the Christadelphian platform — logically.

Christadelphian aversion to any contemporary operation of the Spirit stems, not from an unbiased reading of Scripture, but from anti-supernaturalism, and a reaction against the revivalist movements and awakenings of the 19th century which were seen as sensational emotionalism. This preconception then directs their exegesis of passages about the Holy Spirit. To this day, the Christadelphian opposition to a continuance of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, such as tongues and healings, blinds them to any contemporary Spirit activity. Thankfully, despite being still enshrined in the Basis of Fellowship, many Christadelphians are questioning this stance and becoming more open to a fresh consideration of the ongoing work of the Spirit.

The heart of the issue is, can any appropriately intelligent and sincere person come to salvation by reading God’s word independently of any divine calling or assistance? Do we have a Deist God who has handed us an instruction book and left us to figure it all out, or an immanent, loving God who seeks relationship with us through the very indwelling in us by his Spirit?

Human beings are fallen, we are incapable of obtaining salvation by any merit of our own, be it physical or intellectual “good works.” It is those whom God calls who he justifies. No one can come to Christ unless God calls them. (John 6:44; Rom 3:27; 5:2; 8:30; 11:6–8; 12:3; 15:13-18; Eph 2:8–10). Flesh and blood did not reveal to Peter that Jesus was the Christ; God did (Matt 16:17).
Acts 16:14 describes the conversion of Lydia as the Lord opening her heart to give heed to the words of Paul. God calls people “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). It is true that God’s word is a light and a lamp (Psa 119:105) but Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the light of the world to whom the Scriptures pointed (John 1:4–13; 8:12; 5:39). Nevertheless, some are blind and reject the light (John 9:39–41; 12:37–41).

The Holy Spirit regenerates; this is how we are born anew (John 3:5–8). The Spirit gives life (John 6:63). Salvation is wholly of God.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4–7).

And likewise, 1 Corinthians 6:11, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

To understand the Holy Spirit as divine and personal is not to discount his activity as the expression of God’s power, presence and character in salvation history. Even in the Old Testament his creative, redemptive, instructing and witnessing work was evident. But as with the Father, the fullest revelation of the Spirit comes through Jesus Christ (John 14:16–21). The Spirit is spoken of in distinctly personal terms in the New Testament, not only powerful and omniscient and eternal, but holy and able to make holy (sanctify), able to convict and regenerate human hearts (1 Cor 2:10–11; John 3:5–8; 16:8–11, 13; Luke 1:35; Rom 15:16, 19; Heb 1:10–12; 9:14). Both the Spirit and Jesus are parakletos, Comforter or Advocate and sent from the Father to teach and to witness (John 14:16–18, 26; 15:26; 16:7). The Spirit determines which gifts (not just the “miraculous”) to give and distributes them (1 Cor 12:4–6, 11; Acts 20:28). The Spirit intercedes and helps as we pray (Rom 8:26). The Spirit teaches (John 14:26, 1 Cor 2:13), convicts of sin (John 16:8), sanctifies (Rom 15:16), loves (Rom 15:30), indwells (John 14:17, 2 Tim 1:14), testifies (John 15:26; Acts 5:32, 20:23), hears (John 16:13), speaks (John 16:13; Acts 9, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11), forbids (Acts 16:6–7) and justifies (1 Cor 6:11). The Spirit knows the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10–11). The Spirit has fellowship (2 Cor 13:14).

According to the Christadelphian interpretation, all these functions of the Spirit are confined to the written word and can be apprehended by reading it with an open mind. It may be possible to interpret some of these works of the Spirit in this way, for example teaching, testifying and convicting of sin, but it is a stretch of reason to confine all of these activities to the Bible. Isn’t it more consistent to regard the Spirit-inspired Bible to be an essential means, but not the sole means, by which the Spirit works? The idea that the Spirit would inspire the Scriptures, leave the document with us and then vanish beyond arm’s length comes from Deism. A denial of any work of the Spirit in the hearts, minds and lives of Christians today forces a sharp division between apostolic times and ours, yet it is Christadelphians who claim to have revived original apostolic faith and practice! One cannot read the apostolic deeds and writings without appreciating the depth of their relationship with Christ through the indwelling Spirit.

The Christadelphian relegation of all works of the Spirit to the written word in the post-apostolic period, a concept fuelled by rationalist anti- supernaturalism, comes from a dubious interpretation of one passage; 1 Corinthians 13:8–10. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”

“The perfect” is said to be the completed New Testament. Once the church had that, they had no more need of Spirit gifts such as prophecy and tongues, nor, by unwarranted extrapolation, any active working of the Spirit, so all would pass away. However, by that interpretation, “knowledge” would also pass away with the completion of the very book designed to impart it! To read the canon into this passage which is clearly talking about the enduring nature of genuine love, is hardly legitimate. Nowhere else is there any clear indication that the Holy Spirit would step back from believers and the church at the end of the first century, even though reference to certain “miraculous” gifts does seem to cease in the ensuing centuries. If all active work of the Spirit in the church and in the lives of believers did cease, then many Bible passages would need to be erased (e.g., Rom 5:5; 8:9,11, 14–16, 26–27; 15:13; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 1:21–22; 3:3; Gal 5:16–25; Phil 3:3; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Tim 1:14; Titus 3:5; 1 John 3:24)!

Surely the Spirit-inspired word itself testifies that the Holy Spirit actively works in the believer in a very personal way, not just in the apostolic age but now when he is needed as much as ever. He regenerates, sanctifies convicts and helps us in the Christian life, our divine Comforter and Advocate. We are God’s workmanship, not our own. Thank God that our salvation is not an intellectual exercise accomplished in our own pitiful strength.

1. Fred Pearce, God’s Spirit in Work and Word (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1989).
2. Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray from the Bible, 1884. Repr West Beach SA: Logos Publications, 1984, 149-150. (My italics)
3. Robert Roberts’ assessment of the exceptional intellectual abilities of John Thomas, in single-handedly achieving the rediscovery of Truth in its entirety after 1800 years, may be found in Christendom Astray ch 1, and Dr Thomas, his life and works ch 1.

Interested in a comprehensive investigation into biblical revelation and the Holy Spirit? Try:
Donald G Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology, Downers Grove: IVP, 1992
Sinclair B Ferguson, The Holy Spirit. Contours of Christian Theology series, Downers Grove: IVP, 1996
Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God. Contours of Christian Theology series, Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.


9 thoughts on “Word and Spirit

  1. Thanks Ruth. Hopefully I am among those who worship in the Christadelphian tradition but yet take note that we are ‘born of water and the spirit’.

    How sad that our current Hymn Book has few references to the spirit, yet there are hundreds of such references in the scriptures.


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