In this short chapter Calvin address the error of the Libertines – not the British punk-rock band, but a group in Calvin’s day that claimed the Spirit spoke to them apart from the written word. They are even so bold to “reject all reading of scripture themselves, and deride the simplicity of those who only delight in what they call the dead and deadly letter”. Thus they promote the superiority of the Spirit over the word of God and separate the two by their teaching.
Calvin shows how ridiculous this position is by drawing attention to the attitude of the apostle Paul who, although he received direct revelations from God, always had the utmost respect and reverence for the written word. Paul exhorts Timothy to commit himself to the public reading of scripture and describes every part of the written word as useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16). The witness of the other bible authors is the same – despite many of them hearing God directly or seeing visions and dreams, they all have the deepest regard for the scriptures.
Indeed, in contrast to the view of the Libertines, the role of Spirit is “not to form new and unheard of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends”. Calvin finishes by admitting that the letter of the law can indeed be dead when not read with the grace of Christ, and when it only “sounds in the ear without touching the heart”.
The word without the Spirit leads to legalism and dead orthodoxy, the Spirit without the word quickly leads to error and false teaching. Both are necessary to a healthy discipleship where our lives are brought under the authority and teaching of the word, powerfully applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is where real liberty is found.
“Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. Ephesians 6.17
Father, keep us from the errors of empty orthodoxy and passionate error. We rely on the final and sufficient revelation found in your word, send your Spirit to transform our understanding of you. Magnify the Lord Jesus through your word by your Spirit today, Amen.