Imaginary Differences: Part 1

Yet from the very beginning there was already some difference as well. Whereas the Reformed usually say that the Holy Spirit unites with the Word (cum verbo), the Lutherans prefer to express themselves by saying and increasingly emphasizing that the Holy Spirit works through the Word (per verbum) as his instrument.1

This passage in Bavinck was called to my attention recently by an X (formerly Twitter) account, which publishes quotations from Bavinck and other Reformed writers. This passage caught my attention for two reasons. First, as soon as I read it my mind flashed to numerous passages in our confessions which say precisely what Bavinck considered to be a “Lutheran” way of speaking. Second, my memory took me to places in Ursinus, Calvin, and other of our writers who spoke the very same way. As we will see, it is easy to demonstrate that Bavinck is not right here. But his language raises a larger problem: imaginary differences between the Reformed and the Lutheran traditions.

Through The Word

Let us begin with God’s Word as the Reformed in the classical period typically read and even heard it—in Latin: ergo fides ex auditu auditus autem per verbum Christi (“Therefore faith is from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ,” Rom 10:17).2 That prepositional phrase, per verbum, is one the Reformers were intimately familiar with.3 The Latin Bible was for them what the English Bible is to the Anglophone world. It was important enough that the Reformed made their own Latin translation. Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Calvin’s colleague and successor, made a very popular Latin translation of the New Testament (which was later bound together with the translation of the Old Testament by Franciscus Junius and Immanuel Tremellius). His translation of Romans 10:17 was almost identical: Ergo fides ex auditu est, auditus autem per Verbum Dei (“Therefore faith is from hearing and hearing through the Word of God”). Both translations used the same prepositional phrase, “through the Word.” That prepositional phrase indicates the instrumentality of the Word. The Spirit works through the Word.

The Confession Of The Churches

In the Latin translation of Belgic Confession 12, authorized by the great Synod of Dort (1619), the churches confess, in part, Credimus Patrem per Verbum suum, hoc est, per Filium, coelom, terram, et reliquas naturas mones ex nihilo creasse (“We believe the Father through his Word, i.e., his Son, out of nothing, created heaven and earth and all other creatures”).4 We confess that God created the world through the Word, that is, the Son. This is a direct allusion to John 1:3, which in turn is an allusion to Genesis 1:3, “And God said, ‘Let there be.’” The Word spoke creation into existence through his powerful creating Word, the same Word whereby he regenerates us. We confess this in Belgic Confession 35, quae fit per verbum Evangelii in unione corporis Christi, et haec vita non est communis nisi solis Electis Dei (“which is through the Word of the Gospel, in union with the body of God, and this life is not common except only to the Elect”). The analogy here is between ordinary secular food, by which the bodies of both believers and unbelievers are strengthened, and the sacred food by which believers alone are fed in holy communion, namely, the body and blood of Christ. The paragraph begins by speaking of those who are “regenerated” (regenerati sunt). It is they who have a “twofold life” (duplicem vitam) (i.e., secular and sacred). The first is “carnal and temporary.” The second is “spiritual and heavenly.” When we speak of how the elect come into possession of the second, spiritual, heavenly life we say it is “through the Word of the Gospel.”

In our Heidelberg Catechism we say the very same thing:

65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments. (italics added)

In the Latin translation, first made shortly after the catechism was published in German, the text says, per praedicationem Evangelii.5 Again, this is the very language that Bavinck attributed principally to the Lutheran tradition.

Against the Remonstrants, the Synod of Dort confessed on the doctrine of election, “And so he decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through his Word and Spirit” (per verbum et Spiritum suum, Canons of Dort 1.7).6 Synod repeated this language under the Fifth Head of Doctrine (5.7) on perseverance: “Secondly, through his Word and Spirit (per verbum et Spiritum suum) he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed.”7

Finally, though the Latin text of the Westminster Standards has no official standing among the Presbyterians, it is instructive to see how the confession was translated into Latin. In 13.1, on sanctification, the Divines confessed, in part, “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them (per verbum ejus spiritumque).”8 This is the language we find in the Canons, in the Belgic, and in the Heidelberg. Each time, it signals the instrumentality of the Word. It is through the Word that the elect are given new life and true faith. It is the Spirit operating through the Word that we are being gradually and graciously sanctified and renewed to repentance.


  1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 457. Berkhof repeats this formula nearly verbatim: “Though there was little difference on this point at first between the Lutherans and the Reformed, the former from the beginning stressed the fact that the Holy Spirit works through the Word as His instrument (per verbum), while the latter preferred to say that the operation of the Holy Spirit accompanies the Word (cum verbo).” Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1938), 611. Berkouwer wrote something similar: “The approaches to this problem have given rise to a good deal of debate. It is commonly said, in the history of dogma, that Lutherans have occupied a per verbum position, while the Reformed have spoken of cum verbo and the Spiritualists of sine verbo.” G. C. Berkouwer, Sin, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 213.
  2. Biblia Sacra Vulgata: Iuxta Vulgatem Versionem, electronic ed. of the 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1969).
  3. By contrast, the expression does not occur in the Latin texts of the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, or Canons of Dort. The Latin translation of the Westminster Confession uses the expression cum verbo only once (WCF 1.5), regarding the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
  4. H. A. Niemeyer, ed. Collectio Confessionum (Leipzig, 1840).
  5. Niemeyer, Collectio, 444.
  6. Philip Schaff ed., Creeds of Christendom, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 3.553.
  7. Schaff, Creeds, 3.572.
  8. Schaff, Creeds, 3.629.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. I was once taught the idea of the “Trinitarian Avenue” where we approach God by the Spirit through the Son to the Father. God approaches us from the Father, through the Son by the Spirit. Is this an orthodox concept? Is “through the Son” and “through the Word” the same? If so, wouldn’t it be out of order to say that the Spirit works through the Word/Son?


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.