Foundations: No.69 Autumn 2015

Book Review

Preaching with Spiritual Power:
Calvin’s Understanding of Word and Spirit in Preaching
Ralph Cunnington, Mentor, 2015, 144pp, £9.99

This is an important and valuable book because it sheds level-headed light on a topic which conservative evangelicals have debated with some vigour in recent decades: the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Word of God in preaching. The topic is a significant one because various tribes within evangelicalism have taken it to be a major point of disagreement among them, often regarding the other tribes’ views on the matter as dangerous for ministry. Cunnington succeeds in picking his way thoughtfully through these debates. It is also a significant topic for reasons which go much deeper than contemporary evangelical spats. What a preacher assumes to be the role of the Holy Spirit in and through his preaching will have a significant impact on the way in which he prepares both a sermon and himself for preaching, and on the approach he brings as he comes to the act of preaching. Cunnington’s insights help the preacher think with clarity about this, too.

He establishes his focus at the beginning. It is to answer the question “Is the Spirit present whenever and wherever the Word is preached?” (1). He then narrows his intention further. He is conducting a historical investigation, enquiring whether the Protestant Reformers, and in particular John Calvin, “not only distinguished Word and Spirit but separated them” (3). The answer, we discover in the case of Calvin, is no.

In chapter 1 he notes that a number of recent writers who would identify with the Lloyd-Jones tradition argue that Calvin did indeed separate them, and that therefore their understanding of the topic has the best claim to be the legitimate heir of historic Reformation Protestantism. Such writers (he refers to Philip Eveson, Robert Strivens, Stuart Olyott and Hywel Jones) think, variously, that so-called “Moore theology” from Sydney (represented in this work by John Woodhouse) teaches that accurate exposition in and of itself brings with it the Spirit’s saving efficacy, and therefore falls into an (allegedly) Lutheran position. They worry that this leads preachers to rely for the effectiveness of their preaching rather more on the exegetical skill they put on display in the sermon than on heart-felt prayer for the Spirit to come and do his work.

This very specific focus is all to the good as it keeps the argument streamlined. Cunnington knows that he is not settling the issue and that much careful exegesis and theology is needed. Now of course it may be that not every participant in the debate thinks that much will be decided by haggling over historical theology. But Cunnington is right to point us back to our historical forebears, if only because a number of recent writers attempt to bolster their argument by appealing somewhat loosely to Calvin to support their own position and to Luther to criticise others, and therefore some historical ground-clearing needs to be done if the debate is to continue in an informed way.

Chapter 2 gives brief portraits of the views of Word and Spirit held by a range of sixteenth-century figures: those Radical Reformers with whom Luther most engaged, Luther himself, and the Swiss Zwingli and Bullinger. This inevitably covers complex ground sketchily, but it is sufficient to establish what seems to be Cunnington’s primary intentions in the chapter: to show that Luther’s view was rather more nuanced than the portrait of it painted by some in contemporary debates, and therefore to warn against damning anyone’s position by labelling it “Lutheran”, since to do so trades on a number of historical inaccuracies. (However later it emerges that post-Reformation Lutheranism did flirt with a failure to distinguish Word and Spirit, even if Luther did not, 122.)

In chapter 3 Cunnington turns to a discussion of Calvin’s view of the Spirit’s role in the Lord’s Supper. Why this apparent detour, in a short book on preaching? Because, as he will shortly argue, Calvin’s view of the nature of spiritual presence in the sacraments bears very closely on his view of the Spirit’s role in preaching. The key point that emerges is this: Calvin views the relation of sign and reality in the sacrament as one of “distinction without separation”, says Cunnington, through analogous appeal to Chalcedon. Thus for Calvin the Spirit is not sporadically present in the Supper, but always accompanies it; the only question is whether his presence is met with faith and so brings blessing, or with unbelief and so brings judgment. The alert reader probably sees where this is heading in relation to preaching.

The central concern of the fourth and final chapter is to demonstrate that Strivens is mistaken in supposing that Calvin did not tie the Spirit “irrevocably” to the Word and therefore mistaken in supposing that there is such a thing as preaching “bereft” of the Spirit. (I take it that it is to Strivens’ credit that he provides a warm commendation on the back cover of a book in which his own work is regularly taken to task.) Cunnington uses a familiar concept to express his understanding of Calvin on this matter: in regeneration the word is the instrumental and the Spirit the efficient cause (95). His summary of Calvin’s view covers these points: the Word and Spirit in preaching are distinct yet inseparable (98); preaching is never without accompanying spiritual effect, whether that be of humbling or hardening (108); preachers themselves are God’s chosen means for bringing blessing, with the Word as the instrumental cause (114). This latter point, says Cunnington, lies at the very heart of the debates to which he is contributing. Although he does not explore it further, this may well be the one point he draws from Calvin that is most alien to most modern evangelical preachers’ self-understanding.

Cunnington notes in conclusion three particular points: (a) the post-Reformation histories of both Reformed and Lutheran theologies, down to the nineteenth century, demonstrate that one’s view of Word and Spirit in preaching is significantly related to one’s understanding of the sacraments. (b) Prayerlessness in the preacher is indeed lamentable, but it is oddly unbiblical to imagine that it can be remedied by believing that the Spirit does not promise always to accompany preaching. (c) A view such as Calvin’s allows both preacher and listeners to come to preaching with great confidence in the Lord, that this his appointed means of blessing.

Who is this book addressing? Primarily it has in its sights those in the Lloyd-Jones tradition who want to think of the Spirit as accompanying preaching in power only occasionally and sporadically. Cunnington has done a brief but effective job of calling seriously into question the legitimacy of wheeling in Calvin as support for such a view (and of throwing the accusation of “Lutheranism” at dissenters). There is always more to be said on Calvin on any issue, of course, but someone who disagrees with Cunnington on this is going to have to demonstrate better work on Calvin.

Of course in arguing against the “occasional and sporadic” view there is much more to be said, both in exegesis and theology, as Cunnington rightly acknowledges. To my mind an additional crucial issue to be addressed is one’s basic and unquestioned understanding of what constitutes the very essence of the function of preaching. The “occasional and sporadic” view has arguably driven the longing for preaching to be again the means for mass conversions in new periods of revival (and this is very evident in Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers). By contrast, the view of men like Woodhouse is much more driven by the notion that the essence of the function of preaching is to be the means of edifying believers through the semantic content of Scripture.

Perhaps because this book addresses mainly the arguments presented by the Lloyd-Jones tradition, only one representative of the opposing view, John Woodhouse, is quoted, and he only briefly. From the brief discussions of him, I did wonder if he could lay better claim to being closer to Calvin on this issue, although expressing himself at times with a slightly overheated anti-charismatic edge. Be that as it may, it would only be fair to point out for any reader who might not be aware of it, that Woodhouse’s views on the matter seem not to be shared universally, to put it mildly, at Moore College and in Sydney diocese. Not all British critics and aficionados of (what they take to be) “Moore theology” realise this.

All this may make it seem that the focus of the book is very narrow, but the nature of the subject matter means that that is not so. I found myself constantly wanting to go back to the many biblical texts referred to, and on which Calvin’s commentaries are often cited, to see if what I assume they say – and what Cunnington says Calvin says they say – is in fact what they do say. That is surely the right way forward, and I am grateful to Cunnington for clearing away some confusions and inaccuracies in current debates and so making that task a little easier.

One further virtue of this book ought to be mentioned. Although some may be surprised by the level of attention Cunnington gives to the Lord’s Supper, he makes a good initial case that one’s theology of preaching is fundamentally linked to one’s theology of the sacraments. The adherents of the strong anti-sacramentalism in much contemporary evangelicalism may not thank him for raising the issue, but I think he is right to point out that the close links between preaching and Lord’s Supper in our Protestant heritage mean that we are unwise to assume that we can reach a rich theology in one without due consideration of the other.

Tim Ward

Acting Director, Proclamation Trust Cornhill Training Course