I recently finished Geoffrey Nuttall’s The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. It was overall a very helpful book on understanding some of the key theological and practical issues that 17th century Puritans and their opponents were wrestling with. Throughout the book Nuttall compares the conservative Puritans and nonconformists (largely though not exclusively relying on Sibbes, Petto, Owen, Baxter, T Goodwin, and Howe), the “radical Puritans” and Separatists (Saltmarsh,
Llwyd, Ebury), and the Quakers (Fox, Dewsbury).
One of the dividing lines between Puritans and Quakers was the relationship between the Spirit and the Word. The Puritans followed Calvin (see my past blog ) in the indivisible connection between the Spirit of God and the Word of God, whereas George Fox and the Quakers allowed for a separation between the two. What this led too in the Quakers was an elevating the Spirit within over the Word of God that we’ve received, which then quickly progressed to a trust in inner impulses over the written and authoritative Word of God. The relationship between the Spirit and the Word wasn’t a 17th century matter but is a Church matter…in every century (see past blog on Spirit and Word in Acts). How does God speak to us, lead us, and open our eyes? How does the written Word become alive in our hearts and minds? Do we trust first something inside of us which may or may not be the Spirit or do we trust first what we know is the Spirit since He has spoken through the inspired Word? These are questions that aren’t talked about enough in churches today but are absolutely essential for how we live the Christian life. Here are a few important thoughts and quotes from the book on the relationship between the Spirit and the Word as a fault-line between Puritans and Quakers.
Nuttall summarizes the Puritan’s stance as follows: “The normal, central emphasis throughout Puritanism is upon the closest conjunction of Spirit and Word” (23). What this means, in sum, is that God’s Spirit always speaks to us today in, by, or through the Word of God. Also, the Word of God, written or spoken, is only made effective or enlightened in the reader/hearer by the Spirit’s illumination of the Word. This means the Spirit and the Word always work in tandem. The Spirit has spoken authoritatively and infallibly through the Word, and the Word needs the Spirit’s illumination for it to penetrate our minds and hearts. This neither set the Spirit over the Word nor do it set the two in opposition. Rather, since it is the Spirit who inspired the Word we cannot and should not imagine the Spirit now contradicting himself or setting up a different authority. Richard Sibbes explains it like this: “the breath of the Spirit in us is suitable to the Spirit’s breathing in the Scriptures; the same Spirit doth not breathe contrary motions” (23).
This is immensely helpful in testing our faith and experience. How do we test something we feel “led to do” or we think “God is saying to us” through an internal prompting? “Hitherto, God’s Word in Scripture has been treated as the criterion by which to test faith and experience. Now, the Holy Spirit is introduced as the touchstone by which all else is to be tried, including the Bible itself….Throughout the years from 1650 onwards there is a perpetual controversy, whether the Word is to be tried by the Spirit, or the Spirit by the Word” (28). Here Nuttall summarizes the issue between the two groups: do we test the internal Spirit by the external Word or do we test the Word by the Spirit? In other words, do we take our internal promptings we suggest are from the Spirit and submit them to the Word of God, or do we validate the Word of God by what we feel or experience as an internal leading?
The author continues: “Cause for sorrow arose from the Quakers tendency to contrast (as it seemed) even to oppose the Spirit in themselves to the Spirit in the Word, and to treat the former, not the latter, as the criterion. One chief charge against them was the charge which had already been brought against the Grindletonians, namely, that they held ‘that their spirit is not to be tried by the Scripture, but the Scripture by their spirit.’ The Associated Ministers of Cumberland and Westmorland, for instance, complained of the Quakers that ‘the Scripture binds not them, if not set on their hearts by a present impulse” (30).
We can see here both a theological and a practical problem. The theological problem was noticed by Sibbes and will be exposed in the next couple of Puritan quotes. It is that the Spirit of God has authoritatively and infallibly spoken in the Word of God so he would not speak differently in us. Because our internal promptings are not infallible and harder to discern what is from us and what is from the Spirit we must test them by the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word are inseparable and so the Spirit will be consistent in what he says. The practical problem is this quickly tumbles into a blind approval of one’s sinful desires and actions. If the Scripture is no longer binding, and what is binding is a present impulse in my heart, than it quickly becomes easy to dismiss what God’s Word has plainly stated in favor of what my heart wants. There is always a connection between separating the Spirit and the Word and rise of Antinomianism. The same link in the Quakers was the same link in the Antinomians of the 17th century. The Puritans were not only safeguarding the connection between the Word and the Spirit but they were promoting the holiness of the Church. Here are a few quotes typical of Puritan responses.
John Owen insists on the conjunction between the two: “he that would utterly separate the Spirit from the Word had as good burn his Bible” (31). Richard Hollinworth writes: “God’s people are led by the Spirit, when they are led by the word inspired by the Spirit, and they are taught by God, when taught by His Book” (31). Richard Baxter is clear about which source to trust if we feel any discrepancy between the Spirit in the Word and the Spirit in our hearts. “We must not try the Scriptures by our most spiritual apprehensions, but our apprehensions by the Scriptures…This trying [testing] the Spirit by the Scriptures, is not a setting of the Scriptures above the Spirit itself; but is only a trying of the Spirit by the Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s operations in ourselves and his revelations to any pretenders now, by the Spirit’s operations in ourselves and his revelations to any pretenders now, by the Spirit’s operations in the apostles and by their revelations for our use. For they and not we are called foundations of the church” (32).
Finally, John Howe provides his thoughts on the matter. “It’s not that God doesn’t speak extraordinarily to people, but that this is both not what is ordinary and to be expected and even in extraordinary cases it is never against what He has already spoken in the Word. “We speak here not of what God can do, but of what he does do…Nor do we speak of what he more rarely does but of he does ordinarily, or what his more usual course and way of procedure is in dealing with the spirits of men. The supreme power binds not his own hands. We may be sure the inward testimony of the Spirit is never opposite to the outward testimony of his gospel which is the Spirit’s testimony also;…he never says anything in this matter by his Spirit to the hearts of men repugnant to what the same Spirit has said in his word” (33).
Here are a few implications from this discussion.
- The Spirit and the Word are inseparably joined. The Spirit will speak to us by, in, and through the very same Word that He inspired and we also need the Spirit to be the one speaking to us when we open the Word. The Spirit will never speak or lead us contrary to the Word and we should not expect him to speak to us apart form the Word. Conversely, the Word is illuminated by the Spirit and so we must ask his help to take what He’s said and drive it into our minds and hearts.
- Test what you feel or think you experience by the Word. Any leadings, impulses, or speaking by God internally to you must be tested against and judged by the sure Word of God. God might be prompting you internally but it also might not be God, so test the internal Spirit in you by the external Spirit in the Word.
- Be wary of modern movement that downplay the authority of the Word for life and godliness. Some of the present forms (emphasis on some) of free-grace antinomianism and “new covenant theology” tend to separate the Spirit and the Word so that we rely too much on our internal leadings and not enough on God’s fixed Word. The Spirit of adoption who speaks to us is the Spirit of sanctification that changes us. The Spirit that applies grace to our hearts is the same Spirit that leads us into making war on the flesh, pursuing conformity to Christ, and enjoying communion with Christ.
All quotations are from Geoffrey F. Nuttall. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1947.