A few days ago, a short YouTube came out called, “Don’t Elevate Doctrine above the Holy Spirit.” It’s a clip from Mark Driscoll’s sermon on Revelation 2:1-7 preached at the ancient Celsus Library in Ephesus. Apart from the excerpt on youtube, there are some helpful things said at various points in the sermon. However, the portion in the video is a perfect example of a wider error often seen in the church today: the pitting of “doctrine” (cue ominous music) against the work of the Spirit in the heart.
In Driscoll’s latest hit, he warns against the supposed consequences of elevating doctrine over the Holy Spirit with statements such as: “You don’t need to pray much anymore, because you have a theology that tells you what to do. You don’t have to listen to the Holy Spirit anymore, because you have a theology that directs all your steps. I’m not saying we avoid our doctrinal clarity, but we still need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He proposes that “cessationism…[is] a clever way of saying, we don’t need him [the Holy Spirit] like we used to.” One of the repercussions of cessationism, he says, is that “Christianity goes from a relationship we enjoy to a belief system we adhere to.”
Whatever cessationism is, it’s anything but these things (see Nate Busenitz’s article here for helpful clarification on what cessationism is not).
But more to the point: Can doctrine be elevated over the Spirit? It’s a charged issue, no doubt. Much could be said in response to the quotes above, but the bottom line is this: to say, “Don’t elevate doctrine above the Holy Spirit,” is to make a boogeyman distinction. It’s a non-existent dichotomy that sounds catchy, but is false through and through, and needs to be laid to rest.
For one thing, the whole statement suggests that the Spirit speaks to people different things in addition to what he has said in Scripture. This is a non-existent dichotomy because doctrine is the summation of what the Holy Spirit has said about any issue. What the Holy Spirit has said is Genesis 1:1-Revelation 22:20. He is the divine author of Scripture and so his words are Scripture. Inspired by the Spirit, Peter wrote, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20-21). So then, to say, “Don’t elevate doctrine above the Holy Spirit,” is equivalent to, “Don’t elevate what the Holy Spirit has said over what he has said.” Doctrine is the knowledge of the who and what of God from the Spirit-spoken word, which is why the distinction is non-existent. As John Calvin wrote (whom Sinclair Fergusson has said was the “theologian of the Holy Spirit”), “Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which as nothing useful and necessary to be known has been omitted, so nothing is taught but what it is of importance to know” (Institutes 3.21.3). Because of the Spirit’s work, both in inspiration of the canon and illumination of the believer, doctrine vs. the Spirit is a false dichotomy.
…the office of the Spirit promised to us, is not to form new and unheard-of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine, by which we may be led away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends. Hence it is easy to understand that we must give diligent heed both to the reading and hearing of Scripture, if we would obtain any benefit from the Spirit of God…and, on the contrary, that any spirit which passes by the wisdom of God’s Word, and suggests any other doctrine, is deservedly suspected of vanity and falsehood…what authority can the Spirit have with us if he be not ascertained by an infallible mark? (Institutes 1.9.1)
What is that infallible mark? It is not subjective human impressions, or, for example, inner promptings, dreams, verbal words, and so on, but Scripture and the Spirit-breathed doctrines therein which, by the illumination of the Spirit, set forth all things for life and godliness.
And assuredly he [the Spirit] is pointed out to us by the Lord with sufficient clearness…they [some in his day who proposed a similar idea] seek the Spirit from themselves rather than from Him. But they say that it is insulting to subject the Spirit, to whom all things are to be subject, to the Scripture: as if it were disgraceful to the Holy Spirit to maintain a perfect resemblance throughout, and be in all respects without variation consistent with himself. True, if he were subjected to a human, an angelical, or to any foreign standard, it might be thought that he was rendered subordinate, or, if you will, brought into bondage, but so long as he is compared with himself, and considered in himself, how can it be said that he is thereby injured? I admit that he is brought to a test, but the very test by which it has pleased him that his majesty should be confirmed…he wishes us to recognise him by the image which he has stamped on the Scriptures. The author of the Scriptures cannot vary, and change his likeness. Such as he there appeared at first, such he will perpetually remain. There is nothing contumelious to him in this, unless we are to think it would be honourable for him to degenerate, and revolt against himself. (Institutes 1.9.2)
As Calvin’s point elucidates, the distinction is flawed from the beginning. It drives a non-existent wedge between the Spirit and his work through Scripture, suggesting an additional detached and subjective work in the regenerate beyond the content of biblical doctrine. The whole idea attributes a subjective work of the Holy Spirit in one category and Scripture in another. As John Owen wrote, “He that would utterly separate the Spirit from the word had as good burn his Bible.” What happens is that the supposed subjective work becomes superior to Scripture, with the result that I rely more on inner-promptings for life, godliness, and the knowledge of God, rather than what the Spirit has spoken in Scripture. The subjective feeling becomes more desirable, real, and reliable than what the Spirit says about himself in Scripture. This opens the door to actions and beliefs in one’s life that need not be grounded in Scripture, because the Holy Spirit is supposedly “leading me,” since we must not elevate doctrine over the Spirit. Ironically then, were this true, one could be going against the Spirit in the name of the Spirit.
But biblical doctrine is not subjective and neither is the illuminating work of the Spirit. The latter works in unity with the former. The Spirit is given to spotlight the knowledge of God from Scripture, not to illuminate additional revelation. So then, to say, “Don’t elevate doctrine above the Holy Spirit,” is like saying, “Don’t elevate God’s attributes over God.” God cannot be separated from his attributes anymore than the Holy Spirit from what he has spoken.
Think of it this way: it’s like saying, “Some are more about the word, but others are more about the Spirit,” which makes the same non-existent dichotomy. To “be about the word” is synonymous to being “about the Spirit.” We know this, for example, from biblically parallel passages like Ephesians 5:18-6:9 and Colossians 3:16-4:1, which demonstrate the equivalence. The results of being filled with the Spirit in the Ephesians passage are identical to those of being filled with the word in Colossians. For example, to be filled with the Spirit, or have the word richly dwelling within, both look like a thankful heart that sings psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:18-19, Col 3:16-17). To be filled with the Spirit is synonymous to having the word dwell richly in us. Since biblical doctrine is the summation of the Spirit-breathed word, being filled with the Spirit is to be filled with biblical doctrine. So then, the saying suggests a nonsensical idea, namely, that knowledge, relationship, and worship of God can be divorced from special revelation.
More could be said, but key to the issue is that the colloquialism, “Don’t elevate doctrine above the Holy Spirit,” is to divide the Spirit against himself, or God against God. But there is no such division. The Spirit spoke Scripture and subsequently, in the hearts of the regenerate, performs an accompanying and unifying work of illumination so that we elevate God through the objective knowledge of him in his word. What this means, as Calvin said, is that “we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it” (Calvin’s Commentary, 2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, elevating doctrine and God are one in the same act of worship. Objective biblical doctrine is traction for relationship with, and worship of, God through the work of the Spirit. And that illuminating and unifying work of the Spirit is the means of the glorious, joyful relationship we enjoy with God. In other words, as we meditate on biblical doctrine, which the Spirit has spoken (2 Pet 1:20-21), he grants illumination to both comprehend and rejoice in what he has said about God, thereby fueling our worship of God (Ps 1:3).
So then, part of the reason Scripture warns us against the neglect of doctrine, for example (i.e. 2 Tim 1:13-14), is because it’s precisely through the work of the indwelling Spirit, that we experience fellowship with and conformity to Jesus Christ. The Spirit works to elevate Christ through the knowledge of his word to produce all God wishes to do for our completion in Christ. Thus, to caution against elevating doctrine above the Spirit is an impossible dichotomy.
In a future post, I will address another issue this brings up, namely, the function of the Holy Spirit in our lives and how we live/walk by the Spirit.