[This is part of an ongoing series of posts I am calling “Calvin & Coffee”]

 

I just finished ch. IX in Book I of Calvin’s Institutes.  Here we see the insistence that Word and Spirit are conjoined in “an inviolable bond” [1].  Calvin has in his sights what we might would call “charismania,” an excessive emphasis on the Holy Spirit and supernatural phenomena to the neglect of orderliness, sound doctrine, and the honoring of Scripture (trends apparently associated with the Libertines in Calvin’s day):

For of late, certain giddy men have arisen who, with great haughtiness exalting the teaching office of the Spirit, despise all reading and laugh at the simplicity of those who, as they express it, still follow the dead and killing letter [2].

I have written about this sort of excessive emphases in Faith Without Illusions—the chapter on Experientialism required the greatest degree of sensitivity and precision in writing—spiritual gifts and the more mystical elements of Christian faith are such controversial topics.  I have friends who lean in opposite directions when it comes to experiential manifestations and emotional sensations in the life of the church… and Scripture itself demands a meticulous degree of balance.  Calvin’s own sensitivity and balance on the issue is impressive (and so also one of his successors in the reformed tradition, Jonathan Edwards).  His objective is not to demonize supernatural manifestations per se, but to address the alarming dissociation between the Word of God and the Spirit of God:

God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display , intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it.  Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word [3].

It is strange that Word and Spirit so often tend to become a dichotomy rather than a complementary and inseparable pair in the life and history of the church.

Here is a case in point.  A young pastor approaches the pulpit and then announces, “I was going to come with a detailed manuscript for this morning, but I think I just need to tear up my notes and go with the Spirit.”

Now, I acknowledge that sometimes God may indeed lead us modify our homiletical agenda in the moment of preaching.  But so often, so-called reliance on the Spirit can be justified to forgo the hard, meticulous work of exegesis, theological interpretation, and then the careful organization of the material and its crafting into a coherent message.  But when someone announces that they are scratching their notes or manuscript, it serves as an alert of sorts that now, now that the encumbrance of prepared material is out of the way, now the Holy Spirit is really about to speak.

But where was the Spirit in the preacher’s preparations?  Was He not guiding and stirring in those unseen hours, late and early?

Again, sometimes notes do need to be torn up.  Sometimes the manuscript is to be left in the pew.  But for the most part, this “inviolable bond” between Word and Spirit has to do, for the preacher, with hard, prayerful, cognitive labor; and it has to do, for the congregation, with the hard, challenging task of diligent listening.  Sometimes the most impressive feat accomplished by the Spirit in our midst may be the enabling of minds, hearts and ears to stay attentive to the presentation of the Word.  And every preacher surely knows the desperate need for the Spirit’s help while pouring over the Word in anticipation of Sunday.

So, Word — Spirit… any thoughts from you readers?  How do you see the union of the two in life and ministry?  What disciplines or practices might we employ in the cause of keeping them together?

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960),93.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid., 95.

3 thoughts on “Calvin & Coffee: Word — Spirit

  1. I think one of the more difficult homiletical tasks is the patient,humble, kenotic opening of space within the sermon for “the efficacious confirmation of the Word” by the Spirit. That is the age old question of the interplay between the power of rhetoric and the power of the Spirit in moving the hearts of the hearers. How does the homilist allow for this interplay between Word and Spirit within the course of the sermon? How do we speak the Word well without being rhetorically manipulative?

  2. Dear brother… I was just thinking of you! I was citing from ‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’ in a little writing project.

    As usual, your words and thoughts are far superior to mine. Very, very well said, John.

  3. I love that story! It functions still as a cherished Christmas eve tradition. Though as my girls grow older, I am hoping it widens from an individual to family memory embracing their own Christmas wonder and imagination. I hope your studies are going well–praying for you.

Leave a Reply