Still Protesting: The Protests of the Spirit

Five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation changed the theological and ecclesiastical landscape forever. And yet, was that something that only made sense in their historical context? Is the Reformation over, a quirk of history, only brought up in Church History classes? Perhaps we should we put down our picket signs and end the long forgotten protest? No one cares anymore; the world has moved on to other things. But the more I read Calvin, the more I see the need for reclaiming that forgotten motto of Protestantism, semper reformanda (always reforming).

One of John Calvin’s great reformation insights was his insistence that the word and Spirit always go together. This was a theological dictum aimed at the twin errors of Rome on the one hand and Zwickau on the other. Roman Catholic theology had institutionalized the Holy Spirit, “locking him up”, says Sinclair Ferguson, “in the institutions and instruments of the church.”[1] With their doctrine of ex opere operato and the magesterium, the blessings of the Holy Spirit given to all believers were now hijacked by the priests and the pope of the church.

“The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.7.4).

Opposite Rome’s cold institutionalizing of the Holy Spirit, Calvin saw on the other extreme the charismatic chaos of the Anabaptists. To them the Christian life was to be solely focused upon and preoccupied with the Holy Spirit. If Rome denied any assurance of faith by the Spirit, the Anabaptists sought assurance only in “the leading” of the Spirit.

But sadly, this was completely subjective. Any thought, dream, feeling, or fancy was claimed to be the leading of the Spirit. What was missing was the objective guiding of the Spirit-inspired word. Anabaptists were just not regulated by “all Scripture [which] is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Hence Calvin would insist that the correct balance between both errors was the keeping together of the Spirit and word. The truly Spiritual church was one which was submitted to and regulated by the word of God, properly preaching the word of God. And likewise, true catholicity was not invested in the institution of the magesterium, but rested upon the illumination and persuasion of the Holy Spirit through the authority of God’s word alone.


Five hundred years have now passed since the Protestant Reformation first took root, and so it’s fair to say we’ve had ample time to assess and judge the tree by its fruit. And certainly the small seed of Luther’s protest has become like “a large tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”[2] But are all the branches of this thing called Protestantism healthy branches? Sure, our roots are of a different stock from that of Rome’s theology, distinguished by our five solas. We still want to affirm that Rome preaches a different gospel. But what of those who identify as Protestant? What about our modern “Spiritualists” as Calvin would call them?[3]

Well, the word alone should still be our guide. Sola Scriptura still helps us today! If Rome’s central guiding principal is found within the church and our more charismatic friends are guided by the subjectivity of what they would term “the Spirit”, Calvin would point us back to the word.

“Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away by frenzy. For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter. But I would like to know from them what this spirit is by whose inspiration they are borne up so high that they dare despise the Scriptural doctrine as childish and mean” (Institutes 1.9.1).

Calvin understands those who focus upon the leading and guiding of the Spirit, a leading separated from the Word of God, to be guided by another spirit altogether![4] “Under the reign of Christ the new church will have this true and complete happiness: to be ruled no less by the voice of God [i.e., the Word of God] than by the Spirit. Hence we conclude that by a heinous sacrilege these rascals tear apart those things which the prophets joined together with an inviolable bond” (Institutes 1.9.1).

Calvin thus leads us to keep united the word of God with the Spirit of God, judging the fruit of true Christianity by His word alone. He argues from John 16:13 that the true leading of the Spirit comes through being led by His word. “[The Spirit] would speak not from himself but would suggest to and instill into [believer’s] minds what he handed on through the Word. Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel” (Institutes, 1.9.1).

What then is our task today, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation? How can we continue to protest? May God’s Spirit lead us by His word and through His word to be a church continually grounded in His word alone. Semper Reformanda through Sola Scriptura.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, “Christology and Pneumatology: John Calvin, The Theologian of the Holy Spirit” in Some Pastors And Teachers, (Banner of Truth, 2017), p. 110.

[2] See Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Brazos Press, 2016), 1-3.

[3] Sinclair Ferguson, “Christology and Pneumatology: John Calvin, The Theologian of the Holy Spirit” in Some Pastors And Teachers, (Banner of Truth, 2017), p. 112.

[4] “Then, too, I should like them to answer me whether they have drunk of another spirit than that which the Lord promised his disciples” (Institutes 1.9.1).


Stephen Unthank