Olyott v Luther
In this month’s Banner of Truth, Stuart Olyott has a provocatively titled article: ‘Where Luther got it wrong – and why we need to know about it.’
Of course there are many places where Luther got it wrong, and some of them Banner wouldn’t write about (infant baptism, anybody?). But this is a different issue.
Famously, Luther wrote ‘I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing… I did nothing: the Word did it all.’
Not so, says Stuart: ‘The truth is that he did nothing and the Word, on its own, did nothing either. Yes, the Word, on its own, did nothing. When the gospel has success, we can’t write about it as Luther did.’
The error, says Stuart, is called ‘mediate regeneration’ and it ‘did terrible damage to the Lutheran movement’ and ‘is on the march once more…[and] has taken over vast sectors of British Evangelicalism…. If we don’t wake up, it will soon take us over completely. From then on, gospel work in this country will be ruined.’
Strong words. What on earth is he talking about? WHO is he talking about?
The error is this: ‘the Spirit, or the principle of new life, is shut up in the Word… Just sow the seed and people will get converted! If they don’t, it will be because they have persistently resisted the appeals of God’s Spirit coming to them through that word. His power is resident in the Word, but that power has been resisted. Where the gospel has little success, there is a human explanation.’
Stuart goes on to argue that the Holy Spirit does not Work through the word, but that (normally) his operation accompanies the Word; sometimes, however, he can work without the Word.
It is, I think, (some of) our Anglican brethren that Stuart has primarily in his sights, including the Proclamation Trust, though they are not mentioned. ‘The great emphasis among those of this mind-set is therefore on what they call ‘Word Ministry’.’ And what it leads to, among other things, is ‘Most British preachers study more than they pray.’
I can only speak for myself. I ‘came under the influence’ of the Proc Trust in the early 90s. They taught me a great deal about careful exegesis. About structuring sermons. About care to make sure that the sermon said what the text said. About using illustrations. About compelling introductions and conclusions. They're all good things.
I shuddered a bit when one of their star preachers (rightly much respected) told me that all-night prayer-meetings in Korean churches were a sign that they hadn’t shaken off Buddhism properly (!); but generally, I lapped up what I heard.
And gradually, ever so gradually, I began to realise that I was putting my confidence in the sermon: if I structured it right, exegeted the text right, illustrated it right – then that’s all that was necessary. Nice of you to show up, Holy Spirit – but we don’t need you thanks. We’ve got your Word.
And that’s not right. Is it?