The Holy Spirit: Looking Back For A Way Forward Pt. 2

By: Garrett Best

Robert Richardson’s 1872 work A Scriptural View of the Office of the Holy Spirit deserves our attention because it was one of the first systematic studies of the Holy Spirit in the Stone-Campbell Movement.

I believe the Stone-Campbell Movement (mostly the “Campbell” part of that equation) began as a rationalistic religious alternative to the excessive emotionalism of frontier Calvinism in America in the 1800s. With the advent and rapid success of Pentecostalism in the 1900s, Stone-Campbell heritage reverted to its Campbellian roots in order to respond to the emotional excesses of Pentecostalism. Because of this, some in Stone-Campbell heritage churches began to closely relate the Spirit to the Bible. The Bible can be held, touched, and studied by proper hermeneutical methodologies. The Spirit, on the other hand, cannot be quantified. There was a strong desire to ground the work of the Spirit in the Bible. Many brothers began to teach the Holy Spirit only indwells the Christian representatively through the written text of the Bible. Once the Spirit inspired the written text, he self-limited his work and presence in and through the text. Do you see what happened there? Now, the Holy Spirit could be quantified.

Because some brothers believed the Holy Spirit works “through and only through” the written text, this doctrine became known as the TAOT doctrine. According to TAOT, all of the Holy Spirit’s work could be explained in relation to the Bible. As we read the Bible, the Spirit works through the text to produce in us the fruits of the Spirit. As Christians read the Bible, the Spirit reminds us of the guarantee of our inheritance. The two most famous verses in the TAOT discussion are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. By setting these verses side-by-side, being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:19) is equated with “Let the word of Christ richly dwell in you” (Col. 3:16). I find that to be an interesting interpretation because in Colossians 3:16 “the word of Christ” is not referring to the written text of the New Testament. Nevertheless, according to them, we are full of the Spirit when we are full of the written text.

I was surprised to find that all the way back in 1872, Richardson had already dealt seriously with the TAOT idea. Here is an excerpt from his book:

It may be proper to notice here also, a much more common error, where the indwelling of the Spirit is confounded with that of the word. Because Christ says of his words in a peculiar sense, as to their import and the results which proceed from them, that they are “spirit and life,” and Paul exhorts Christians to let “the word of Christ dwell in them richly,” some have hastily adopted the conclusion that the indwelling of the Spirit is nothing more than the presence of the word in the mind or memory. These philosophers go on accordingly to attribute the entire results of Christianity, as evolved in the life, to the natural influence of “words and arguments” addressed to the intellect. They do not believe in any actual impartation of the Spirit as such, but the New Testament is with them tantamount to “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”… It will be sufficient to say here, that while this notion is plausible from the partial truth which it contains, and flattering to human pride from the position and efficacy which it assigns to the mere rational and moral faculties of men, it is altogether incompatible with Scripture teaching and with the facts of history. (pgs. 81-83)

He says further:

To confound the word with the Spirit, is to assert that the world is capable of receiving the Spirit, in direct contradiction to the declaration of Christ, since the world can receive the gospel commanded to be preached to every creature. The word is indeed the instrument which the Spirit employs both in converting the world and in sanctifying saints, but it is a singular confusion of thought which mistakes the instrument for the agent, and leads men to the absurdity of making the word, the Spirit, or the author of the Spirit; while, at the same time, they speak of the Spirit as the author of the word! (pg. 84)

Richardson says that equating the Spirit and the word is “plausible from the partial truth it contains.” I do believe that the Holy Spirit has worked throughout history to inspire and preserve the Scriptures. When the words of Scripture are proclaimed, the Spirit is active in those words converting the world and transforming us into the image of Christ. I believe that is a clear truth taught in Scripture. But, I agree with Richardson that to elevate that one truth and make it the only or leading truth in dealing with the Holy Spirit would be a mistake.

What this means on a practical level is that someone might be reading the words of the text and not experience the transformative work of the Spirit. This is certainly what happened in the case of Stephen in Acts 7. After proclaiming the word of the Lord to them, Stephen said that they were a “stiff-necked people” and that they were “resisting the Holy Spirit” (7:54). Possessing the written text does not guarantee that you possess the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Have you opened your heart to the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance? It seems that has to be the starting place if we are truly to understand God’s revelation in Scripture.




  1. Good post! I loved the second quotation from Richardson, and he makes the same argument against the “Word only” position that I always have: if the gift of the Holy Spirit is nothing more than the Bible, then Peter’s words at Pentecost make no sense, and the baptized Christian has no more access to the Spirit than the person staying in a motel room who happens to pick up a Gideon Bible.

    1. It refers to the verbal proclamation about Christ. When Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, there is no New Testament. There couldn’t be. If you assume Colossians was written sometime in the early 60s, then many of the books in the NT hadn’t even been written yet.

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