Mastricht, Bavinck and the Efficacy of Scripture

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.

First, Petrus van Mastricht, who defines the efficacy of Scripture, its "eighth property," as the "moral and instrumental...power" it has "from the Holy Spirit" to "work effectually" in the world. Scripture is therefore said to be both "able" and "active," penetrating the soul, exposing its secrets, working on the spirit, illuminating the mind, regenerating and converting the heart, kindling faith, and sanctifying, strengthening, consoling, and preserving the saints. "Indeed, people the world over sense the efficacy of the Word when they are converted by the mere preaching of the gospel." But he describes a common and non-saving efficacy of Scripture too, since "even reprobates themselves experience it when they lose their speech (Matt. 22:46), when they yield (Mark 6:20), when they fear (Mark 6:20; Acts 24:25),...and when they are hardened and blinded (Isa. 6:9-10)" bit God's word (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1.131).

Second, Herman Bavinck, who argues that "the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance." Unlike the sacraments, therefore, which are only for the visible church, "the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences" (4.448-49). So, "this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness" (449). Again, the word "is always efficacious; it is never powerless" (459).

The efficacy of Scripture is not, therefore, one-dimensional. "Both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect." On the contrary, it has many diverse effects that can be organized into two general kinds: "If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down" (459). And so, "the word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth."

This is not only true of "the gospel but also of the law." When Paul says "the letter kills" (2 Cor. 3:6), Bavinck claims, "he is saying as powerfully as he can" that the law "is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death" (458). So also, "the gospel exerts its effect" not just on the elect and unto salvation, but "even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrances from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8)" (458).


Of course Scripture would produce none of these effects apart from the Spirit but it never is apart from the Spirit. It is "perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man's sanctification and salvation" but by the Spirit it "always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish." It may raise the hearer up to God or strike the reader down in the dust, but it always has its divinely intended effect and it "never returns empty" (458).