Monday, February 01, 2016

Preaching with Spiritual Power by Ralph Cunnington

Preaching with Spiritual Power: 
Calvin's Understanding of Word and Spirit in Preaching,
Ralph Cunnington, Mentor, 2015, 126pp

In the last decade or so something of a controversy has been rumbling on in the Evangelical and Reformed world on the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching. On the one side some are so concerned to guard against Charismatic excesses that they almost go so far as to identify Word and Spirit. At least functionally, if not ontologically. When the Word is preached it is held that the Spirit is active in a virtually unvarying manner. We could call it (slightly unfairly) the 'Moore College view'. On the other side some are so concerned to safeguard the sovereignty of the Spirit that they hold that the Word may be preached as a 'bare Word', apart from the Spirit's activity. We could call it (with some justification) the 'London Theological Seminary view'. 

In pitting Moore against LTS I am oversimplifying rather. I should also point out that Cunnington's book isn't framed at an attempt to adjudicate a battle of the bible colleges. But it was former LTS Principal Philip Eveson's critique of 'Moore Theology' in Foundations (2006) that helped to bring the controversy to public attention. Current LTS Principal Robert Strivens added his two penn'orth in his 2008 Westminster Conference paper on 'Preaching - 'Ex Opere Operato?'' Strivens attempted to align the 'Moore view' with Martin Luther's alleged changed stance on the relationship between Word and Spirit as he reacted against the views of certain radical reformers. They tended to exalt the Spirit to the denigration of the Word. Stuart Olyott also weighed in against the Reformer in his Banner of Truth Magazine article on 'Why Luther Got It Wrong - And Why We Need to Know About It', (December 2009). Over and against Luther and his explanation of the Reformation in terms of 'the Word of God did it', Olyott  was at pains to argue that the Spirit brings sinners to new life apart from even the instrumentality of the Word. (It was a poorly argued piece, see here). In addition, Cunnington takes into account the views of ex-LTS man Hywel Jones in his 2011 Foundations article on 'Preaching the Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit'.

You might be forgiven for wondering why this controversy, carried out in the pages of magazines and theological journals, should be of interest to anyone beyond the the honourable guild of ministerial theology geeks? But it is important, because the view we take on the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching will have a significant impact on how we view the preaching of the Word, both in terms of its manner and intended impact. Those who tend towards binding the Spirit to the Word  may veer towards seeing preaching as little more than a well-delivered exposition of Scripture. We can trust that the Spirit will without variation be present and active whenever the Word is proclaimed. Others who emphasise the Spirit's sovereignty in relation to the Word may be more inclined to see preaching as an event where the Spirit's activity may be more intense and evident on some occasions than others. That may stimulate a longing to pray for 'more'. 

Cunnington's contribution brings a detailed study of historical theology to bear upon the debate in hand. He questions the contention of Robert Striven that Luther shifted his position on the relationship between Word and Spirit in reaction to the extreme views of certain radical reformers. In fact, Luther had a nuanced view of the Spirit's work in relation to the Word, and the same basic stance is is evident throughout his ministry. The Spirit's work may be viewed as distinct from the Word and therefore subject to variation in its effects, but Word and Spirit are never separated. However, as Charles Hodge pointed out in his Systematic Theology (Volume III p. 482) and as Cunnington acknowledges, in later Lutheran theology there was a tendency to blur the distinction between Word and Spirit. In Reformed thought however,  it was held that the Spirit works not only in and by, but also with the Word. Thus making due allowance for sovereign variation in the Spirit's work. As Herman Bavinck comments,
[The Holy Spirit] always works through the word but not always in the same way…Hence the subjective activity of the Spirit has to be added to the objective word. In the nature of the case it cannot be enclosed in the word; it is another activity, an additional activity, a subjective activity, not through but along with the word. (Reformed Dogmatics,Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And New Creation. (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008), 459-460). 
The idea of Word and Spirit as 'distinct yet inseparable', borrowed from the filed of Chalcedonian Christology, is key to understanding Cunnington's thought. It preserves him from a tendency to functionally merge Word and Spirit and also from saying that the Word may sometimes come to us totally bereft of  the Spirit's presence and action. He draws upon Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper to show that according to the Reformer the Spirit is distinct from the symbols of bread and wine in the Supper, but never separate from them. Whenever the sacraments are received by faith the Spirit is at work enabling believers to feed upon Christ. But even if they are not received by faith, the Spirit is nevertheless present with the bread and wine, although in that case only the sign is received, not the grace signified by it. 

Calvin deploys a similar approach to the issue of the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching. The Spirit is distinct from the Word as a sovereign divine person, yet the Word cannot be separated from the Spirit. It is his Word and the Spirit is invariably present and active together with the Word he has given. But that does not mean the Spirit is unvaryingly present and active whenever the Word is proclaimed. Where the Word is not received in faith, he may be present and active in judgement. Where the Word is received in faith it is because the Spirit is present and active in saving power. 

Cunnington makes fleeting reference to the findings of speech-act theory to elucidate his point. This theory of how words work is a fruitful resource for formulating the relationship between Word and Spirit. Words at their most elemental are basic units of speech, or locutions. But words are uttered with a view to their illocutionary intent; they are meant to do something, like issue a command or make a promise. When a command is obeyed or a promise believed, words have had a perlocutionary effect upon those who heard them. The Spirit is the author of the biblical locutions and illocutions and is ever present, 'speaking in the Scripture' whenever the Word of God is communicated, but it takes a distinct action of the Spirit to ensure that the Word has the intended perlocutionary effect. That helps to account for texts such as 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and 1 Thessalonians 1:5. The gospel did not come in 'word only', but the Holy Spirit was present in saving power. 

The main insight that Cunniungton draws from Calvin's teaching, that Word and Spirit are distinct and yet inseparable helps bridge the divide between the 'Moore College view' and the 'LTS view'. It has the advantage of reassuring the preacher that the Spirit will always accompany his Word and accomplish what he desires through it. And yet, I wonder whether Cunnington has gone far enough in recognising what Bavinck called 'the subjective activity [of the Spirit], not through but along with the word'. The 'distinct and yet inseparable' formula, while valid, should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is without variation present and active with the Word. The Spirit is sovereign in his use of the Word as an instrument of his perlocutionay actions, whether they be saving, sanctifying, or hardening. 

Also, the Spirit is sovereign when it comes to the extent to which he makes the preacher aware of his empowering presence when in the act of preaching. Paul makes reference to this element in both 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 and 1 Thessalonians 1:5. The Spirit works in the preacher's subjective experience, granting a sense of his being clothed with authority, and granted liberty and boldness in preaching. The congregation may also be given an awareness that the Spirit is present and acting along with the Word in an evidently striking manner. This is hinted at in Acts 4:31. Paul requested prayer for this, Ephesians 6:18-20. 

I believe this this is the dimension that the 'LTS men' were keen to safeguard over and against the view Philip Eveson identified with the Moore College tendency. They may have been ill-advised to suggest that the Word ever comes to us as 'bare Word', totally bereft of the presence and power of the Spirit. That is to deny the 'distinct yet inseparable' principle. But we should not lose sight of the biblically sanctioned subjective element of the Spirit's work in preaching. Neither should preachers and congregations be discouraged from seeking an intensification of the Spirit's work when the Word is proclaimed. As Calvin wrote, preaching is 'dead and powerless, if the Lord does not make it efficacious by his Spirit'. Preaching is meant to be more than an well-delivered exposition and application of the Word. The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His communicative action makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.

Ralph Cunnington's work has made an important contribution to the development of a constructive theology of Word and Spirit in preaching. He has provided a helpful corrective to a tendency to overstate the extent to which the Spirit is either tied to the Word or acts separately from it. But more attention needs to be given to the subjective dimension of the Spirit's work in the preaching of the Word in so far as that affects both the act of preaching and the way in which the preached Word is received by those who hear it. The Spirit works in, by, with and upon the preaching of the Word. That is what makes preaching 'theology on fire'.

In the interests of full disclosure it it should be said that I trained for the Ministry at the London Theological Seminary (1988-90). Not that this makes me biased, of course.

Oh, and this blog gets a footnote on p. 26, n 69. Can't be bad, eh?

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