[Review] Preaching with Spiritual Power by Ralph Cunnington

Ralph Cunnington. Preaching With Spiritual Power: Calvin’s Understanding of Word and Spirit in Preaching. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor/Christian Focus, 2015. pp. 126.

A controversy has been going on for some time among generally Reformed churches in the United Kingdom (and regions beyond) regarding the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the public proclamation of the Word of God. Much of this kerfuffle surrounds the influence of Moore Theological College in Australia. Can the Word of God ever be preached without the blessing of the Holy Spirit? Do we need to wrestle with the Lord in anxious prayer like Jacob with the angel at Peniel? Is it possible to presume on the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity? Ralph Cunnington, pastor of City Church Manchester, enters into this discussion by seeking wisdom from John Calvin’s approach to the relationship of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in this concise but significant book Preaching With Spiritual Power.

Concerned with parched and passionless preaching seemingly devoid of divine unction, some have accused their brethren of adopting a Lutheran approach to the preaching of the Word where spiritual power is an inherent quality of the Word itself (a sort of ex opere operato) so that the preacher has no need to concern himself with earnestly praying for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the preaching event. The operating assumption of these critics is that it is possible to preach without spiritual power. It is possible to be devoid of unction.

Rather than entering directly into this controversy, Cunnington sticks to the historical question. Calvin has been cited by both sides in this debate and so it would be useful to get a sense of how Calvin thinks. Cunnington sets Calvin within the context of other Reformers including Luther and so we get a sense of the time and place rather than approaching Calvin ahistorically. Before considering how Calvin understood the relationship of the Word and Spirit in the public proclamation of the Word he looks at Calvin’s analogous treatment of the role of the Spirit in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Calvin was a theologian steeped in the theological method of the Chalcedonian formula in which the early church developed a way to properly understand the hypostatic union of the two natures in the one person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The expression that came to light is “distinct yet inseparable.” Medieval Roman Catholicism taught that in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the position known as transubstantiation. Lutheranism affirms consubstantiation in which the body and blood of Christ are in, with, and under the elements of the bread and wine. The Christological position undergirding this view involves the cross-fertilization (really, predication) of the divine and human natures of Christ so that the human nature becomes divinized. That is, whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated there Christ is to be found. So that Christ is located everywhere the Supper is commemorated. This is referred to as the ubiquity of Christ’s body.

The position usually associated with the Swiss Reformer Huldrich Zwingli is called the memorialist view. This view states that since the risen Christ has ascended to the Father’s right hand, where he is presently located until he returns, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is about the Christian’s remembering and being thankful for the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We might crassly say that for Zwinglianism, the emphasis falls not on the presence but the absence of Christ from the Supper. John Calvin formulated the view sometimes called the spiritual presence view of the Lord’s Supper. In this view, while Christ is ascended and at the Father’s right hand, he is present to the believing participant of the Lord’s Supper by the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Christ. Christ is present by his Spirit. Calvin’s emphasis is on a proper recognition that since Christ is one person with two natures, and these two natures retain their original properties (they don’t become blended or blurred), then Christ as the God-man is circumscribed by his human body (this is not to say that the Son is circumscribed, for that is another matter involving the so-called extra calvinisticum) which therefore is limited to a particular location. Jesus Christ’s two natures are distinct, yet inseparable. The Holy Spirit is always present in the celebration of the table but his presence is only favorable for those who partake of the elements by faith. There is no mechanical effectiveness of the bread and wine. The saint who eats the bread and drinks the wine by faith spiritually (i.e., by the Holy Spirit) feeds upon the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The spiritual benefit of the Lord’s Supper is tied to faith. The Spirit always accompanies the elements of the bread and wine, but only blesses those who feed by faith. Those who partake of the Supper without faith receive no blessing but only condemnation (as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 11:23–29). The Holy Spirit is distinct from the elements of the Supper but is inseparable.

When Cunnington comes to Calvin’s treatment of the Holy Spirit and the Word he is armed with a significant theological conviction. Many problems in theology can be resolved through remembering the maxim “distinct, yet inseparable.” Here we discover that Holy Spirit always accompanies the proclamation of the Word. Calvin sees no context in which the Word properly handled is devoid of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Analogous to his treatment of the presence of the Spirit in the Lord’s Supper, here Calvin rightly notes that the Spirit inspired the inscripturation of the biblical text and always accompanies the preaching of that Word. The analogy goes even further. The proclamation of the Word carries with it the presence and activity of the Spirit in either redemption or judgment. So the reason why there are different results from the proclamation of the Word stems from the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Word, as Isaiah 55 tells us, always achieves God’s intended purpose. But that purpose may be judgement. Once again we see that the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Word he has inspired, but he always accompanies its proclamation either to bring about redemption or damnation.

Cunnington has done us a fine service in bringing clarity to Calvin’s treatment of this important topic. I believe Calvin is correct. The proclamation of God’s Word is always accompanied by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. But the outcome of the presence and activity will vary from person to person. Some of the participants in this discussion appear to me to be falling into the trap of an incipient mysticism. You may or may not agree with Calvin. Calvin may or may not be biblical (he is!), but you know where he stands. Calvin does not give us carte blanche to be presumptuous about the secret ministry of the Holy Spirit. But we can always trust in the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity when the Word is preached properly. That is assuring to preachers. We ought to seek to be as persuasive as we can be, but ultimately the bestowal of redemptive blessing is in the hands of the Holy Spirit in preaching just as it is in the apologetic or evangelistic encounter. Rest in the sovereign ministrations of Christ and his Spirit to the glory of the Father.

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Owen Griffiths

1 year ago

Excellent article! I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve shared it to my church’s Facebook page.

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