Mastricht, Bavinck and the Efficacy of Scripture

The visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

By insisting God’s word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit’s activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that “God, working through means, can be resisted” in a way that “God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot” (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God’s word to save all people indiscriminately. 

 

The general contours of the doctrine of Scripture are familiar. Orthodox Protestants confess that Scripture has God as its primary author and is self-authenticating, supremely authoritative, necessary for this age, clear enough to be understood by the masses, and sufficient as a rule of faith and life. The word of God is also the primary means of grace. As such, the visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

Protestants on the Efficacy of Scripture

Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ somewhat, however, on the efficacy of Scripture. Lutherans argue that the word has an inherent power to save; Reformed critics suggest this view is a little too close to Rome’s more magical notions of sacramental efficacy. Some of those same critics can also claim, however, that “Lutherans are completely correct” in at least one respect: “always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit.” God’s word, Bavinck continues, “is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective,…continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit” (RD, 4.459).

So, Protestants agree on the efficacy of Scripture but disagree on how to construe its saving efficacy. By insisting God’s word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit’s activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that “God, working through means, can be resisted” in a way that “God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot” (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God’s word to save all people indiscriminately. They instead restrict the saving power of Scripture to the elect and argue it is efficacious to this end only through the personal, particular, and irresistible work of the Spirit.

The Universal Scope of Biblical Efficacy in Reformed Theology

In their discussions of the point, Reformed theologians are primarily concerned with the efficacy of God’s word as the primary means of saving grace. This does not prevent them, however, from recognizing a wider, variegated, and universal scope to the efficacy of Scripture. Consider two examples from the Dutch tradition.

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