The Deadliest Enemies of True Faith

David Virtue DVirtue236 at AOL.COM
Sun May 13 20:44:19 EDT 2001



By David W. Virtue

The two deadliest enemies of true faith are formalism and spiritualism,
says a seminary professor of theology.

In his book "The Holy Spirit," Dr. Donald Bloesch argues that we cannot
put the Spirit of God in a sacramental box, but the Spirit is
nonetheless free to make use of outward signs in communicating to us
the truth of the gospel.

"We must affirm both 'the sovereign unpredictability of the Spirit'
(David du Plessis) and the faithfulness of the Spirit to honor Jesus
Christ by kindling the gift of faith in those who hear the church's
proclamation of Christ," writes Bloesch in his new book.

"Against the sacramentalist churches I am constrained to make the
audacious statement that it is possible to be baptized, confirmed and
even ordained to Christian ministry and still not to have received the
Holy Spirit. At the same time, I maintain against the Pentecostals and
charismatics that it is possible to have hands laid upon one and to
speak in other tongues and yet have no enduring relationship with the
Spirit. It is even possible to be divinely healed of sickness and not
have the Spirit as an indwelling principle of new life."

Bloesch argues that rites and sacraments can aid and strengthen us in
our spiritual journey, but they do not guarantee that the Spirit is
present-either in the outward ceremony or in the inner self.

"If we have been baptized and have made a sincere profession of faith,
we are not then obliged to seek a higher experience of the Spirit that
would purify us from all sin and thereby render us worthy to receive
the graces of God. Those who blithely urge believers to seek a baptism
with fire that supercedes sacramental baptism with water should
remember that the former is a baptism of judgment as well as of grace
(Mk. 10:38-40; Lk 12:50)."

At the same time, Bloesch argues, if we are only nominal Christians, if
we have fallen away from our baptismal commitment, if we have only the
faith of servants and not of sons and daughters, then it is not only
permissible but laudable to seek baptism with the Spirit, for not until
that event are we truly engrafted into the mystical body of Christ.

"We must also not close our eyes and minds to new works of the Spirit
within us after we become Christians, to gifts that equip us for the
ministry to which we are called as sons and daughters of the most high

Bloesch said he agreed with John Mackay, former president of Princeton
Theological Seminary, that it is better to err on the side of
enthusiasm than of formalism. "A cold formalism is an insidious threat
to Christian faith because it quenches the Spirit even while it
preserves theological propriety. Yet we need to realize that
Pentecostalism can become a new formalism, that words of prophecy and
speaking in tongues can simply be outward acts that assure us of
acceptance by our peers and be completely bereft of the sanctifying
presence of the Spirit of God."

Bloesch, who speaks from the perspective of the Protestant Reformation
said he did not see the Reformation as encompassing the whole counsel
of God, though it did indeed recover the essence of the gospel-
justification by grace through faith alone.

"Where I fully concur with the Reformers is in their emphasis on the
complementarity of Word and Spirit, the priority of grace over works,
including works of faith and repentance, and the practice of Christian
love as the cardinal sign and evidence of genuine faith. Where I agree
with the Pentecostals is in their perception that the work of the
Spirit involves empowering for witness as well as being sealed into the
Body of Christ for salvation. I also endorse their contention that the
gifts of the Spirit continue in the church in every age, though unlike
some Pentecostals I do no limit the gifts to the particular charisms
enunciated in Paul's epistles."

In addition, Bloesch said, he acknowledges the truth of the mystical
tradition of the church as we see it in Roman Catholicism and Eastern
Orthodoxy, that the Spirit calls us
to holiness of life as well as to a decision of faith. "We are obliged
to draw near to God through the disciplines of the spiritual life as
well as to serve our neighbor in outgoing, sacrificial love."

"I am firmly convinced that we must constantly be on guard against
certain perilous delusions that incontrovertibly lead us away from the
vision of an evangelical catholicity. One of these is that we are
already regenerated at our baptism, even if this rite takes place in
our infancy and real faith is not yet a viable possibility for us. A
second is that the spectacular charismatic gifts belong to the past
history of the church and that the mission of the church is simply to
preach faith without also cultivating the gifts of the Spirit. A third
deception is that we can attain the baptism of the Spirit through
carefully defined methods or techniques, thereby making our conversion
rest on human preparation rather than on divine grace. A fourth
misapprehension is that salvation consists only in God coming to us,
not also in our coming to God."

Bloesch says that if our message is exclusively sola gratia (salvation
by grace alone), we then lose sight of the truth that we are justified
not only by grace but also for holiness.
"Finally we must resist the temptation to entertain a pathway to God
that bypasses faith in his Son. In certain strands of Christian
mysticism it is sometimes implied that we can come to the Father by an
immediate work of the Spirit on us rather than by the necessary
mediation of Jesus Christ."

"The new birth, the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire, is not
within the purview of any human being or agency, not even the church of
Jesus Christ. The new birth must not be confounded with any particular
experience or outward sign. Instead, it signifies the invisible and
unexpected movement of God into the inner recesses of the human
creature. The Spirit ordinarily works through outward signs, what in
the Reformed tradition is called 'means of grace,' but it is not bound
by these signs."

Yet, argues Bloesch, if we continue to stand on the promises and
testimonies of God revealed in the Bible, we can then have solid
grounds for hoping that we will receive the Spirit-not only at the
beginning of our faith pilgrimage but throughout our sojourn here on

Luther was right in describing the new birth as in itself "impalpable"
and "insensible," said Bloesch, but it will have many visible
manifestations. It does not arise out of human effort, but human
decision and obedience arise out of the new birth.

"Our being in Christ is finally a matter of faith, not of visions and
raptures. Martin Luther and leading mystics like Meister Eckhart, John
of the Cross, Francis Fenelon all affirm that true spirituality does
not involve aspiring after extraordinary experiences of God or the
Spirit. At the same time we should earnestly pray that the fruits of
the Spirit might be manifested in our daily walk."

Bloesch said he refused to dismiss the Pentecostal experience, as some
"sectarian religious enthusiasm" even while taking issue with certain
aspects of Pentecostal doctrine and practice.

"I wish to maintain the integrity of faith of the holy catholic church.
Faith must not be reduced to experience, but faith will entail
experience-not only of God in his awesome holiness but also of God in
his inexpressible joy and abounding love."

"Faith will always point us beyond our experiences; it will finally
take us out of ourselves into the service of God in the darkness of the
world. The evidence of our new birth by the Spirit of God lies in the
depth of our devotion to the gospel of God in our daily lives.


Note: Dr. Donald Bloesch is professor of theology emeritus at Dubuque
(Iowa) Theological Seminary. This story maybe forwarded and used freely
with acknowledgement to Virtuosity, the nation's largest Evangelical
and orthodox Episcopal/Anglican online news service.

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