Stuart Olyott caused such a stir with his slangy persiflage of Luther in his Where Luther Got It Wrong – and Why We Need to Know About It 1 that the BOT magazine had to spend part of the following two issues striving to repair the damage. Olyott claims, without giving either source or context, that Luther’s position on the Word of God was the following:
‘I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . (Olyott’s truncation) I could have started a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.’
This source-less snippet has appeared in multifarious versions on the web for years, usually with positive comments. Olyott has borrowed one of these versions, added further material of his own and interpreted his result most negatively. Olyott has not only got Luther wrong, he has proved that his own theology is far from Reformed. Olyott depicts Luther as looking back ‘on all that had happened’ during the Reformation. Actually, this hardly recognisable mock-up of what Luther actually wrote stems from his 1521 series of eight sermons on the Roman Catholic Mass versus Protestant witness preached during Invocavit Week on Luther’s return to Wittenberg. It is thus an early work. Furthermore, in Olyott’s ‘quote’, unlike in the original, Luther sits drinking beer in Wittenberg with a certain Philip of Amsdorf. Obviously Olyott has confused Philip Melanchthon’s name with that of Niklaus von Amsdorf to give us this fictive person. Olyott has also ‘summed up’ the forty-odd pages of what Luther actually said in a one-paragraph paraphrase, giving the reader no idea of Luther’s topic and purpose in preaching.
Olyott challenges Luther’s understanding of Scripture
Olyott presents Luther’s alleged thoughts in a jargon educationally far under Luther’s own stately, succinct, style. True, Luther adopted the language of the common man but the common man in those days appears to have been more accurate and expressive in his diction than Olyott and certainly capable of producing far better theology. It is common knowledge that Luther, like his contemporaries Zwingli and Calvin had reservations about the canon of Scripture. We also accept that Luther called his Reformed brethren ‘Anabaptists’ and ‘heretics’. For a fully-fledged doctrine of the Word in writings outside of the Bible itself, we must rely on Whitaker and Fulke in England and Bullinger in Switzerland. The Puritans hardly ever reached this Reformed standard as they followed Samuel Rutherford and John Calvin too strongly concerning the analytical logic of Plato and Aristotle which the Swiss and English Reformations had rejected but which came back into much Puritan preaching and especially their theories of education. In all farness, it must be said that even Rome was turning from its Aristotelianism at this time as seen in their educational curricula. The result was Rutherford’s Enlightenment work Lex Rex and many systematic theologies which separated the flesh from the blood and marrow from the bone of gospel preaching. This paved the way for modern Neo-Orthodoxism, Natural ‘Common-Grace’ Theology, Pentecostalism, Fullerism, Dispensationalism and the Antitrinitarianism prevalent in much modern ‘Reformed’ preaching. Happily, Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession has become the Reformed Standard concerning the Word of God. Nevertheless, any perusal of Luther’s massive works on the Word of God and especially the context from which Olyott has cut his pseudo-quote, would show that Olyott’s own doctrine of the Word is not only far inferior to Bullinger’s but also Luther’s. It comes nearer the three Bs (Bultmann, Barth and Brunner) of the Neo-Orthodox sect. So what is Olyott talking about? He starts by defining what he feels is Luther’s error.
Without allowing Luther to speak for himself, Olyott claims that he was wrong. We must therefore ask why Olyott chose Martin Luther for a platform for his own wishy-washy theology as Superman’s Lex Luthor would have done just as well for an Aunt Sally. Olyott’s arguments have as little to do with the one as the other. We are merely given Olyottism pure and verbatim. What is Olyott’s ‘gospel’ as opposed to Luther’s? It is that the Word of God has no mediating function between God and man in regeneration. This sounds the death knoll of Bible-based exegesis and expository preaching which the BOT formerly re-pioneered. Now Olyott has reversed this teaching, ignoring that the Word of God itself declares that it never returns to God void and that it always does that which it sets out to do2 and it is the very breath of the Spirit.3 But Olyott stays firm and says the Word of God does nothing because it can do nothing. The Word is a lone entity, void of the Holy Spirit and Luther is to be condemned for propagating a ‘word ministry’. However, in Luther’s sermon under suspicion, Luther scolds those who are men of the Word only and thus quench the Spirit who works through, by and with it. Olyott has got it mega-wrong!
In the article before Olyott’s, we find Calvin agreeing with the testimony of the Scriptures and Luther on mediation in salvation. Olyott disagrees with both, telling us that the Scriptures do not teach ‘mediate regeneration’. ‘Mediate’ describes the act performed as a connecting link between two estranged persons in order to reconcile them. So, whatever happens in the regeneration necessary for sinners,4 it is certainly mediate because three factors are involved, the sinner, God and the means of mediation. We thus read in the Scriptures that mediating the Word to us, and mediating therewith the gospel of salvation to sinners, is the work of Christ the Mediator and Christ’s Co-worker in salvation, the Holy Spirit.5 Luther is very forceful about this point in his Wittenberg sermons. Olyott hotly denies this, claiming there is no mediate regeneration, arguing that you cannot shut up the Holy Spirit in His Word. However, to claim that Luther taught the shutting up of the Spirit in his own Word in his Wittenberg sermons reveals both Olyott’s weird un-Biblical thinking and his ignorance of Luther’s message. As Luther so often explains, we cannot separate the Word from the Spirit. The Spirit is the very Word-breather and His Word is as versatile and free as He is Himself. IF it is wrong to identify the Spirit with His Word, and wrong to believe that the Word has mediatory functions, at least in regeneration, what is right according to Olyott’s new gospel? Olyott tells us under his next sub-heading.
Olyott maintains that the Holy Spirit does not work THROUGH the Word. ‘Through’ points to mediation and here there is none. However, he continues, the Word and the Spirit may work together, though not in a mediate way. This is the typical BOT Newspeak which has fallen back on Roman Catholic Aristotelian analysis and in dealing with God the Father, God the Son and their Word, makes them all totally separate entities with different wills and different ideas of redemption, sometimes working together but sometimes not as in atonement, predestination and election where their Trinity is of different minds. Regarding the Godhead, Olyott and his BOT colleagues take us neither to Mount Sinai, nor to Mount Sion but to Mount Olympia. Olyott’s position is that God works individually and directly to gain a sinner’s salvation so that no mediation through God’s Word is necessary. Olyott is accusing Luther of believing the Word of God works magically on its own bat. Those sympathetic to Olyott’s position say he is thinking of the salvation of infants dying before an age of discretion and the educationally sub-normal. This is not the thrust of Olyott’s message and that topic is not even included. But Luther’s argument is not that a verse of Scripture must be read and understood before a child is saved. Such saved infants and less privileged adults are taken care of according to Luther under God’s electing mercies in Christ and the fact that He always acts according to His Word. Olyott’s narrowness in interpreting Luther is purely because he does not know Luther. However, Olyott is totally inconsistent in his arguments and after rejecting what he calls pro verbum (through the Word), he now claims that God can work BY the Word and the Spirit. If redemption is worked out BY the Word and the Spirit then this is also mediatory.6 Here, Olyott’s concept obviously becomes too confused and difficult to follow for even him, so he abandons it unfinished and stranded and goes on to major on the point that the Spirit works directly on the sinner’s will and leaves the Word aside. Then he trims his sails again arguing that salvation is a direct one-to-one process between God and the sinner without the use of any mediator. He states emphatically, ‘THERE IS NO GO-BETWEEN’! So where is the Spirit and where is Christ and where is the Word in Olyott’s theory? Has Olyott become a Spirit-less, Christ-less, Word-less Deist?
Baulking from his own logical consequences, Olyott again changes tack. The Holy Spirit, Olyott says, gives us sight to see the truth in the Word and helps us hear Christ’s voice in the Word so that we learn to love the Word. Redemption is to be found in the Word but not by means of the Word or through it. Olyott again is giving a description of mediate regeneration as if he had never denied it! Olyott is also agreeing with Karl Barth and modern Pentecostalism, that the Scriptures are not in themselves the Word of God. He is repeating that the Word of God has no function of its own but it becomes a Word only when the Spirit, as an external phenomenon, uses it. For confused and confusing Olyott, it appears that the Word which is sharper than a two-edged sword is not the Bible itself but God’s mediatory use of part of it in particular situations only. The truth is, however, that those who believe in Olyott’s Barthian/Pentecostal way nevertheless believe in mediate regeneration so Olyott’s gospel is more Liberal than Barth’s, Brunner’s and Bultmann’s.
Now Olyott gives his definition of ‘The Bible’, again claiming that Luther got it wrong. In the Bible, he argues, the Spirit and the Word do not work in the same way. Whether true, or false, this is not the point. The point is, do they work in a mediatory way? By truncating the Acts account of Lydia’s conversion, and using a most odd translation, Olyott seeks to show that they do not. The AV of Acts 16:14 reads, ‘And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul’. On reading the full account, I immediately thought of Rom. 10:13-15 and the mediating function of the preached Word. Olyott’s abridged translation reads differently, ‘And a certain woman named Lydia …. was hearing us, whose heart the Lord opened by a single act, with the result that she heeded to the things being spoken by Paul.’ Olyott cuts out the reference to Lydia’s openness to God and tells us she did not listen to the preachers but merely ‘heard them’ until God converted her immediately and directly in spite of the Word preached. Only then did she start listening. Contrary to Luther, Olyott appears to be teaching that the Word is for the already converted. To me, the Biblical account is saying that there was a God-fearing woman confronted with the gospel to which she listened. The Lord gave the seed sown in her heart growth and she was converted. Here Olyott’s Greek needs correction. The word ήκουεν (ακουω) in this text certainly refers to sense perception and also carries the meaning ‘attend’ or ‘listen to’ as when all the different nationalities of Jews followed the gospel in their own languages at Pentecost. Luther, too, in his commentary on the passage, says Lydia attended to the word preached, using zuhören not hören. Olyott’s, ‘was hearing us’ is bad English. Either Lydia heard them or she did not. Furthermore, the opening of Lydia’s heart is referred to as ηνοιξε (ανοιγω) (aorist 1, indicative). Olyott wrongly says this is a passive aorist and not active, it was BY a single act. So even Olyott’s questionable understanding of the Greek does not rule out that Lydia’s heart was opened through or by the aid of the Word or some other mediation.
Olyott now asks if there is clear teaching in the Bible that the Word brings about regeneration. He says James 1:18 and 1 Pet. 1:23 appear to teach mediate regeneration but actually do not because they refer ‘not to the act of germination (where a new life comes into being) but to the moment of birth (where the new life becomes visible).’ How’s that for a piece of sophism? Then he tells us that ‘conception and birth are not the same thing’. Even if one accepts this attempt to dodge the issue, spiritual conception and birth are the essentials of regeneration but even if one separates them artificially like Olyott, James and Peter still refer to a mediate act promoted by the Word. Besides, the words used in 1 Peter 1:23 clearly state that through (δια) the Word (the very term which Olyott argues is not used in the Bible accounts of regeneration) the Second Birth or regeneration (αναγεγεννημενοι) is mediated. Olyott’s acceptance of mediate germination but not mediate regeneration, in spite of what the text says, shows that Olyott has clearly lost his argument.
Olyott concludes by declaring that it is a question of the right or wrong mind-set. If we preach and explain the Word in what Olyott calls disparagingly a ‘Word ministry’, and trust that God will bless it and people will be converted, our ministry is doomed. We have not the right mind-set. Such ministers, Olyott argues, are those who do not pray and beseech God for blessings on their (Wordless?) ministry. In other words, Luther preached the Word believing that God used it in mediating conversion so he was wrong. Olyott claims that Luther should have rather prayed for God’s blessing on people so that He would answer prayer and convert directly ‘by a single act’. He does not view Luther as a praying man but a man of the ‘Word ministry’ who thus got it all wrong. Here again, Olyott is showing great ignorance of the text he is supposed to have based his findings on. In that disregarded text, we find Luther teaching his congregation the necessity of prayer, preaching, witnessing verbally and writing in God’s service. This is Luther’s essential Christian ministry which Olyott mocks as a ‘word ministry’. Olyott affirms that whereas prayer works mediately, the Word ministry does not. This view is clearly refuted by Luther in his Wittenberg sermons as he does not share Olyott’s straight-jacketed view of the Word. It is easy to spot who is right and who is wrong here. Olyott ought seriously in the striving, agonising and prevailing prayer he demands rather than a ‘Word ministry’, to ask the Lord if he has, in his anti-Word and anti-preaching tirades, forgotten to listen to and take heed of what his heavenly Father is telling him.
- Issue 555, pp. 25-29. ↩
- Isaiah 55:11. ↩
- 2 Tim. 3:16-17. ↩
- ‘Unless ye be born again, ye cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’ ↩
- I Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 12:24; Luke 4:4; Acts 6:7; Acts 1224; Rom. 9:6; Acts 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:5 etc.. Indeed, it is impossible to find any reference to Christ, the revealed Word and the Holy Spirit which rules out mediate redemption or regeneration. ↩
- I am aware that Olyott separates redemption from regeneration but this, again, is part of Olyott’s Aristotelianism. See also below regarding Olyott on ‘conception and ‘rebirth’. ↩