Continued from Part VIII
The Anti-litugical Effect of Immediacy and Individualism in Modern American Calvinistic Soteriology
Apparently, in order to safeguard the sovereignty of God’s work we often think that we must remove all external means, all mediation, indeed any human or created instrumentality and confine the work of salvation and sanctification to private, unmediated operations of the Spirit on the individual soul of man.
Conservative Reformed theologians and pastors are particularly susceptible to this error because of the undue influence of B. B. Warfield’s little book The Plan of Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915). Before I even say anything about this book let me head off some criticism from Warfield purists. Warfield was a great biblical and systematic theologian. I don't doubt that for one minute. I've benefited enormously from his work. That's the first thing to say.
Secondly, I'm concerned not so much with Warfield's overall theology, but with what is expressed in this little book The Plan of Salvation. A lot of people have no contact with Warfield except through this book. I know that's true of many seminary students. My problem is that this little book, apart from Warfield's other work, presents a badly skewed picture of his theology and therefore of the theology of Calvinism on the sacraments, liturgy, and the church.
Without producing a shred of biblical evidence Warfield asserts that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation” (p. 66, emphasis mine). Any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit” is labeled “sacerdotalism.”
This is profoundly disturbing. If this little book is taken in isolation from Warfield's larger work, then it will lead the reader to break free of the magisterial Reformation, especially the Lutheran and Calvinian insistence that God does indeed use human instrumentalities (water, bread, wine, the human voice of another, etc.) to communicate himself and his grace to his people.
Warfield’s conception of a purified Calvinism as consisting of the immediacy of the Spirit’s work on the soul of man was motivated more, I fear, from his own prejudice against the sacramental systems of Rome and Canterbury than by a careful reading of Holy Scripture. This continues to be a problem in Reformed circles.
Warfield argues that immediacy is the essence of the Reformed faith and biblical religion come to its own.
On the contrary, I would argue that the unbiblical notion of immediacy is the Achilles’ heel of American Calvinism. Why do we feel that it is unworthy of the Holy Spirit to bind himself to such unimpressive external means as the homely words of Scripture heralded by the gravelly voice of a flesh-and-blood preacher or the bread and wine of the Supper or the water of Baptism? Is it not often because of a false spiritualism, a kind of gnosticism that has crept into our thinking as Christians? An alien, unbiblical notion that the Spirit must operate immediately upon the soul of a man without external means or instruments? Where is this taught in the Bible?
The real essence of biblical religion is perhaps the hardest thing we modern spiritualistic Christians must learn again. We are so accustomed to think of body and soul, flesh and spirit, physical and spiritual as opposites that we no longer understand that the whole magnitude of God’s love lies in the astonishing fact that God’s Son came to us in the flesh and that the Holy Spirit graciously binds himself to the external means of grace. To deny this is to slip into a form of Gnosticism.
Philip Lee argues persuasively that American Protestantism in particular has, perhaps unwittingly, embraced a form of Gnostic spiritualism (Against the Protestant Gnostics [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987]). I think he's right. Modern Reformed folk don't like liturgy because they think it introduces an unwelcome "intermediary" between God and the individual soul. All that stuff just complicates things. We don't need it. After all, if I have direct spiritual contact with Jesus, why do I need all this other material stuff?
(To be continued)