Imaginary Differences: Part 2

Calvin Et Alia On The Spirit’s Operation Per Verbum

Against the “fanatics”—early Anabaptists such as Thomas Müntzer, as well as spiritualists and Libertines, who claimed to receive additional revelations directly from the Spirit, apart from the Scriptures—Calvin wrote,

Then, too, I should like them to answer me whether they have drunk of another spirit than that which the Lord promised his disciples. Even if they are completely demented, yet I do not think that they have been seized with such great dizziness as to make this boast. But in promising it, of what sort did he declare his Spirit would be? One that would speak not from himself but would suggest to and instill into their minds what he had handed on through the Word (quae ipse per verbum tradidisset).1

He was just as zealous as Luther to keep the Spirit tied to the Word. He was so as a matter of general principle, but also as necessary in response to the very sorts of movements we face today in the Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements.2

Calvin used the same language regarding creation that we saw in Belgic Confession 12.3 “The Father created all things through the Word.4 In book 2 he argued that God the Spirit works in his elect in two ways (bifariam): inwardly (intus) through his Spirit and outwardly (extra) through the Word (per verbum). The Spirit illumines the mind and forms righteousness in the heart. By the Word (verbo) he “excites” the elect to renewal.

The first places I thought of in Calvin when considering Bavinck’s claim, however, were the titles of books 3 and 4 of the Institutes, which speak of the “means by which we perceive the grace of Christ,” that is, the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit, which correlates to the “inward” work about which we just read, and the “external means or the helps by which God invites us into the society of Christ and retains us in it.” Those external means are the preaching of the Word of God and the use of the holy sacraments.5

In Institutes 3.2.7, the famous section where Calvin instructs us to seek to know God’s disposition toward us, not in ourselves but in the Word, that speculum (mirror) in which we behold God’s favorable stance toward us, Calvin uses the phrase “through the Word.” “He always represents himself to us through his Word (per verbum suum).”6 The expression in question, per verbum, occurs eleven times in the 1559 Institutes; but that hardly captures the centrality of the Word in Calvin’s understanding of the operation of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, he used the expression cum verbo (with the Word) eight times.

Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), superintendent of the churches in the Palatinate under Frederick III, contributor to the Heidelberg Catechism, and a significant figure in the early development of Reformed covenant theology, used the expression per verbum nine times in his major covenant theology, On The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect.7 His usage mirrored Calvin’s. In that same work he used the expression cum verbo only three times. In his substantial (723 pages) 1579 commentary on Romans, he used per verbum twelve times and cum verbo only twice.

Olevianus’ colleague, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), the chief author and expositor of the Heidelberg Catechism and a significant influence on later Reformed theology, used per verbum once in his Summa theologiae (his larger catechism), in Q. 1: “How do you have a firm comfort in life and consolation in death?” Part of the answer reads, “And that he sealed his covenant in my heart by his Spirit, who renews me in the image of God and cries out in me, ‘Abba,’ Father, through his Word (per verbum suum) and the visible signs of this covenant.”8 He also quoted Romans 10:17. In his Corpus Doctrinae, which we think of as his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, he used the expression per verbum ten or eleven times and cum verbo only three times. As a quick electronic search of more than 470 classic Reformed texts (focusing on European Reformed writers) shows, the expression per verbum was widely used in the Reformed tradition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and just a little more frequently (259 times) than the expression cum verbo (206).

Distinguishing Between Real And Imaginary Differences

Bavinck was almost certainly repeating a claim made by a nineteenth-century doctrinal handbook. Berkhof and Berkouwer were merely following him and, over time, a claim which is now relatively easily disproved has become a sort of dogma. It is not as though Bavinck thought the Reformed and the Lutherans had nothing in common. Unlike some contemporary Reformed folk, he knew that we both distinguish between law and gospel. He wrote,

The Word is differentiated into law and gospel. The law finds its end in Christ, who sets believers free from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13; 4:5) so that they may walk according to the Spirit and delight in God’s law in their inner selves. Antinomianism exacerbates the antithesis between law and gospel, while nomism weakens or cancels the antithesis. Rome equated the old and new covenants with law and gospel respectively, and denied the presence of the gospel in the Old Testament and that of the law in the New Testament, but by accepting its laws and threats turned the gospel into a new law, thereby erasing the Pauline antithesis of law and gospel.9

Just this week, two people have contacted me to ask why some in the Reformed world call me a “Lutheran.” They ask this because they have been ill informed that, for example, the distinction between law and gospel is Lutheran and thus that anyone who distinguishes the law and the gospel is Lutheran. If so, someone forgot to tell Bavinck. They also forgot to tell Tyndale, Calvin,10 Beza,11 Ursinus,12 Olevianus,13 Rollock,14 Perkins,15 and a host of other Reformed writers. Indeed, at this point it is blindly ignorant to continue to assert such a distinction between the Reformed and the Lutheran traditions. The evidence against this claim is overwhelming.16

Why did Bavinck, Berkhof, and Berkouwer, who used a bit more nuance than the first two, find this claim plausible enough to repeat it? There are real differences between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but Bavinck (and his followers) were victimized by the nineteenth-century histories of doctrine by Schweizer, Heppe, et al.17 B. B. Warfield was right when he said,

But it is misleading to find the formative principle of either type of Protestantism in its difference from the other; they have infinitely more in common than in distinction. And certainly nothing could be more misleading than to represent them (as is often done) as owing their differences to their more pure embodiment respectively of the principle of predestination and that of justification by faith.18

There are things that do actually distinguish the two confessional traditions.19 As I have previously written, we can see significant differences under at least five headings:

  • Christology: the Lutherans confess the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity, and we deny it and confess what they call the “Calvinistic extra” (the deity is beyond the humanity)
  • Soteriology: the Reformed have a more developed covenant theology, and we confess the doctrine of reprobation and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints; the Lutherans are uncomfortable with covenant theology, and they deny reprobation and the perseverance of the saints
  • Ecclesiology: I think Lutherans have historically been more indifferent to the form of church government than we who are committed to some kind of presbyterial rather than episcopal church polity
  • Sacraments (baptism and the Supper): the Lutherans confess that baptism necessarily regenerates (i.e., confers new life upon administration) and that the body and blood is in, with, and under the elements; we confess that baptism is a sign and seal of what God does for his elect when he regenerates them, and that we receive the true or “proper and natural (BC 35)” body and blood of Christ by the mysterious work of the Spirit through faith
  • Worship: the Lutherans and Reformed confess two distinct principles of worship—the Lutherans confess what we call the “normative principle” whereby the church may do in worship whatever is not forbidden, but we confess that we may only do in public worship what God has commanded

It is fascinating to me that those in the Reformed world who are convinced that the differences between the Reformed and Lutheran traditions lie in the distinction between per and cum and between an alleged Reformed rejection of the distinction between law and gospel and the affirmation of the same seem utterly unaware or indifferent to the actual differences between the Reformed and the Lutheran traditions.


  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1.9.1; John Calvin, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Berolini: Gustavum Eichler, 1834), 1.9.1.
  2. For more on this, listen to the Heidelcast series, “Feathers And All,” where I trace the history of the Pentecostal impulse from the Montanists to Müntzer and beyond.
  3. Atque huc tendit quod alibi dicitur, Patrem per Verbum omnia creasse (Institutio, 1.13.17).
  4. My translation, my italics for emphasis.
  5. This is my translation of the headings of books 3 and 4.
  6. Calvin, Institutio, 3.2.6.
  7. Caspar Olevianus, On The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (Geneva, 1585).
  8. The English translation is to be found in Lyle D. Bierma et al. ed., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 163. The Latin text is in D. Zachariah Ursini . . . Opera theologica . . . in tomos tres (Heidelberg, 1612), 1.10.
  9. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.441–42.
  10. See R. Scott Clark, “Subtle Sacramentarian” or Son? John Calvin’s Relationship to Martin Luther,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 21, no 4 (Winter 2017): 35–60. See also, R. Scott Clark “Review: The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology by Peter A. Lillback.”.
  11. See R. Scott Clark, “Beza On Law And Gospel.”
  12. See R. Scott Clark, “Ursinus on Law and Gospel.”
  13. See R. Scott Clark, “Olevianus: The Reformed Retain The Distinction Between Law And Gospel.”
  14. See R. Scott Clark, “Is the Law/Gospel Distinction Only Lutheran?
  15. See R. Scott Clark, “Perkins: The Basic Principle In Application.”
  16. For more on this question, see the Heidelblog “Resources on the Law/Gospel Distinction” page.
  17. See R. Scott Clark’s comment under “Barth V. The Barthians On The Central Dogma Reading Of Calvin,” which quotes Richard Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of A Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 97. For more on Alexander Schweizer et al. see R. Scott Clark, “This Is Entirely Incorrect And Here Is Why.”
  18. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2008), 357.
  19. See R. Scott Clark, “Resources on Understanding the Differences Between the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions.”

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