First published: Klaas Runia, ‘Preaching and the Work of the Holy Spirit Part 1’, The Reformed Theological Review 59, no 3 (Dec 2000), 101–111.
In today’s world and today’s church preaching finds itself in a deep and disturbing crisis. On all sides there is criticism of the institution of preaching and of the sermons as they are actually delivered and heard in the worship services.1Cf. my book The Sermon under Attack, 1983,1-17. The deepest criticism comes from those who attend the service and who afterwards say: ‘his/her sermon was extremely dull and boring’. No wonder that many church people are no longer interested in the sermon.
1. Preaching IS the Word of God
This crisis is not only regrettable, but touches the very heart of the theology of the Reformation. When Luther rediscovered the Gospel of the justification of the sinner out of sheer grace, God granting and meriting to him the benefits of the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ2Lord’s Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism., the preaching of the Word became the very centre of the worship service. For in the sermon this liberating Gospel is proclaimed and its reality is promised to each hearer who accepts it in faith.
The Reformers did not hesitate to call the preached word the Word of God. Luther made a sharp distinction between the written and the spoken Word, without ever separating them. For him the preaching of the Gospel was always preaching out of the Scriptures. At the same time he again and again strongly emphasized that the Gospel itself is a form of preaching. In its original meaning the word ‘euangelion’ is not a book, but a message, which must be shouted into the world. Jesus Himself did not write books, but He transmitted the Gospel by proclaiming it. Before his ascension He instructed his apostles to preach this Gospel in the whole world.
This means that Jesus Himself is being heard even today. ‘Although He has ascended to heaven and no longer preaches on earth in person, He has not stopped speaking through his apostles and their successors; nor will He stop extending His Gospel farther and farther and powerfully working in it by means of the Holy Spirit…. He wanders through the world unceasingly, preaching His Gospel until the Last Day. Jerusalem, Greece and Rome refused to keep Him; so He came to us. If we also refuse to hear Him, He will find others who will listen to Him.’3Luther’s Works, 13, 324f. It does not surprise us, therefore, that Luther identified the voice of God and the voice of the preacher and that he called the preacher a ‘mouthpiece of God’.4Cf. L.W., 54, Table Talks, #505.
Calvin used similar expressions. Well-known is his statement that ‘when the Gospel is preached, his [i.e. Christ’s] sacred blood distils together with the voice.’5Commentary on Heb. 9:20ff. Bullinger summarized the view on preaching of all Reformers, when in Chapter I of the Confessio Helvetica Posterior (1566) he wrote: ‘The preaching of the Word is the Word of God’.6These words are one of the headings in chapter 1. These headings are not later additions, but were written by Bullinger himself. As one of his grounds he added that in the case of Cornelius God could have used angels, but the angel referred him to Peter: ‘He shall tell you what you ought to do’ (Acts 10:6). Bullinger also refers the reader to Mark 16:15; Acts 16:14; Romans 10:14-17.7Cf. also John Woodhouse, 4The preacher and the living Word’, in When God’s voice is heard. Essays on preaching presented to Dick Lucas (eds. Christopher Green and David Jackman), 1995, 49f.
One cannot help asking here whether this view of the sermon is not too exalted? Does this exalted view really tally with the actual preaching in our day? Is there even one minister who after the service dares to say: ‘All that I said this morning was the Word of God’? And what about the experience of the hearers? Do they really feel that God Himself has spoken to them?
I fully understand these critical questions, but I also believe that they do not really affect or nullify what Bullinger wanted to convey in his confession.
There are several things we should keep in mind. Firstly, the critical questions usually focus on the ‘sermon’ as an entity all by itself. They actually say: ‘Here we have a sermon of Rev. So and So, either in written form or on a tape. Is this sermon really identical with the Word of God?’ But in this way we are on quite a different wavelength from that of the Posterior. Bullinger does not say: the ‘sermon’ is God’s Word, but the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word. That means that only when the message of God’s Word in Holy Scripture is conveyed to us in the preaching event, may we believe that God Himself speaks to us. Then we are dealing with the Dei loquentis persona [the person of the speaking God], as Calvin puts it.
Secondly, what Bullinger says is part of a confession of faith. He does not present a scientific definition, based on the examination of a great number of actual sermons, but he makes his statement within the context of a confession of faith that begins with the words: ‘We believe and confess….’ Bullinger’s statement about preaching as the Word of God is preceded by Jesus’ words to his disciples: ‘He who hears you hears Me and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me’ (Matt. 10:20). In other words, what is said about preaching is said within the context of the living Lord. Rudolf Bohren rightly remarks that the statement of the confession does not lie behind us, as a simple ‘datum’, but lies before us as a ‘dandum’: it must be given to us. We are always on the way to the ‘est’.8Rudolf Bohren, Predigtlehre, 1971, 50.
Thirdly, the statement in Bullinger’s confession that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word is directly related to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Bullinger quotes various texts that speak of the Spirit’s work (Jer. 31:34; 1 Cor. 3:7; John 6:44). The instruction of the true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit. This inward illumination, however, does not make external preaching superfluous. The two go together, as Acts 16:14 clearly shows: Paul preaches the Word outwardly to Lydia, while the Lord opens her heart.
The same had already been said in the First Helvetic Confession (1536), drawn up by Bullinger and four other Reformed theologians. In Article 15 we read: ‘We believe that the Church’s ministers are God’s co-workers. Yet with the understanding that in all things we ascribe all efficacy and power to God the Lord alone, and only the imparting to the minister. For it is certain that this power and efficacy never should or can be attributed to a creature, but God dispenses it to those He chooses according to his free will.’ This means no less than that preaching can be discussed properly only within the framework of the work of the Spirit. As the American theologian John Knox has said: ‘True preaching from start to finish is the work of the Spirit.’9John Knox, The Integrity of Preaching, 1957, 89.
2. A Pneumatological Context
The foregoing means that we have to approach preaching within a pneumatological context. This fully ties in with the fact that the church is mentioned in the third major part of the Apostles’ Creed. There we read: ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.’ The church as confessed here is not some ethereal reality, but the concrete church as it becomes visible in this world. This concrete church is called ‘the communion of the saints. The Latin formulation reads: sanctorum communionem. The term ‘sanctorum’ allows two interpretations: sancti (the holy people) and sancta (the holy things). Most interpreters believe that both interpretations should be kept side by side. In other words, what the creed confesses about the church also includes the spiritual reality of what is happening in the worship of the church. Although the preaching of the Word is not specifically mentioned in the Creed, it is evident that as a significant part of this spiritual reality it is included.
This close relationship of preaching and the work of the Spirit also agrees with the fact that the Holy Spirit has his own essential part in the event of revelation. We can describe this event in the following manner: all revelation is from God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The source of revelation is God Himself. The content of revelation is Jesus Christ. But all revelation always occurs in the Spirit, in the sphere of action of the Spirit. He not only illuminates the person to whom the revelation comes, so that this person receives this revelation as God’s truth about himself (often called the subjective side of revelation), but the objective, material side of revelation also takes place in and through the operation of the Spirit. All self-revelation of God always occurs in the Spirit’s field of influence.
This applies-in the terminology of Barth-to all three forms of the Word of God. As to the Word incarnate we read that he was conceived by the Spirit (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35), that after his baptism by John the Spirit descended upon Him (Mark 1:10), that He was led by the Spirit into the desert and was tempted there by the devil (Luke 4:1), that He rejoiced in the Spirit (Luke 10:21), that He brought the sacrifice of his life through the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14) and was raised from the dead ‘in power according to the Spirit of holiness’ (Rom. 1:4).
As to the written Word we read that all Scripture is theopneustos (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture is the fruit of the operation of the Spirit upon the chosen witnesses and therefore it is full of the power of the Spirit (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21 – the OT prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit and therefore spoke from God).
As to the preached Word we first of all refer to Acts 2, where we read that the Spirit Himself started the preaching activities of the Christian Church. He endowed Peter with his power, resulting in the conversion of some 3000 people. Accordingly, Paul calls his apostolic work ‘the ministry of a new covenant… written in the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). His preaching of the Gospel is not just a matter of human words, but it happens ‘in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’ (1 Thess. 1:5).
3. ‘Per verbum’ and ‘cum verbo’
In Reformation theology there was always unanimity as to the fact that there is a relationship between preaching and the Holy Spirit. All theologians of the Reformation period agreed that the preaching of the Word of God as it comes to us in Scripture can be effective only by the power of the Spirit. But how are Word and Spirit related?
Herman Bavinck says that the word going out from God’s mouth is ‘always a power that accomplishes the thing for which God sent it.’10H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, IV, 438. He applies this also to the Word preached by the ministers. That, too, ‘is a Word of God which comes to man from God, is spoken by the Spirit and is always effective.’11Op. cit., 439.
He therefore agrees with the Lutherans when they say that everywhere and always the Word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit. But then he encounters a real problem: both Scripture and experience teach us that the Word of God does not always have the same effect. And so he raises the question: When is the Word of God so efficax (efficacious) that it leads to faith and conversion? His own answer is that this is due to the subjective operation of the Spirit which has to accompany the objective Word.12Op. cit., 440.
This operation is not simply enclosed in the Word, but it is ‘an additional, a subjective operation of the Holy Spirit’. It is an operation cum verbo (with the Word), an operation that has to accompany the coming of the Word.
At this juncture Bavinck opposes the Lutheran view, which is usually indicated by the term per verbum (by the Word). In the beginning there was hardly any difference on this score between Lutheran and Reformed theology. But gradually the emphases shifted. Due to their opposition to the adherents of the Radical Reformation, who stressed the possibility of a revealing operation of the Spirit sine verbo (without the Word), Lutheran theologians started to link Word and Spirit in such a way and to such an extent that the Spirit was seen as enclosed (inclusum) in the Word. Already in Luther’s own writings we sometimes ‘gain the impression of an almost magical conception of the inherent power of the word: if the word is allowed rightly to become current, then the blessed result shall not fail to appear.’13Yngve Brillioth, A Brief History of Preaching, E.T. 1965, 118.
In subsequent Lutheran theology this line of thought was continued and even intensified. Naturally, this raised the question: If this is true, how does one explain unbe- lief? Why does the Word, in which the Spirit is enclosed, produce the effect of faith in some cases and not in other cases? The solution was found in the free will of man, which has the power to oppose the working of the Spirit-by- the-Word (per verbum).
Reformed theologians disagreed with this view. According to them it was also contrary to what was said explicitly in art. 5 of the Confession of Augsburg: Through the Gospel and the sacraments, ‘as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases [ubi et quando visum est Deo],14This expression played a decisive part in Barth’s actualistic conception of God’s self-revelation, as it comes to us in the written and preached Word. in those who hear the Gospel.’ The Reformed theologians saw two dangers in the Lutheran conception: 1. the danger of synergism – the human will has to cooperate with the Spirit in order to make the Spirit’s operation effective; 2. the idea of a kind of ‘automatism’, an almost magical view of the inherent power of the Word. Calvin already opposed such conceptions. In his comments on Ezekiel 2:2 he wrote: ‘The work of the Spirit, then, is joined with the word of God. But a distinction is made that we may know that the external word is of no avail by itself, unless animated by the power of the Spirit…. All power of action, then, resides in the Spirit himself…. We hold therefore that when God speaks he adds the efficacy of his Spirit, since his word without it would be fruitless; and yet the Word is effectual, because the instrument ought to be united with the author of the action.’ In his ‘Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments’15This treatise is included in Calvin: Theological Treatises, translated and edited by J.K.S. Reid, Vol. XXII of The Library of Christian Classics, 1954,170-178. he distinguishes two ministers: ‘The eternal minister administers the vocal word (verbum vocale)…. But the internal minister, who is the Holy Spirit, freely works internally, while by his secret virtue he effects in the hearts of whomsoever he will their union with Christ through one faith’ (Article V; cf. also Article VI).
Reformed theologians generally followed Calvin here. They preferred to speak of cum verbo (with the Word). They read this in such texts as Acts 16:14, where Paul preaches the Gospel to Lydia and the other women present, and the Spirit opens Lydia’s heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. But the Reformed view is not without its own problems and dangers either. The major danger might well lie in the idea that at times God’s Word is empty and therefore without any effect. Such a conclusion, however, would be contrary to what God Himself has said through the mouth of Isaiah: ‘My word shall not return empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it’ (Isa. 55:11).
We encounter questions here which we shall never be able to solve completely. In his discussion of the per verbum and the cum verbo G.C. Berkouwer remarks that ‘the nature of the preached Word, in relation to the power of the Spirit, precludes any final ‘systematization’.’ He adds that this is not a matter of an unfortunate ‘gap’ in our knowledge, but here we become ‘aware of the limits within which we may neither minimize our calling nor ignore the dynamic of the Spirit.’16Op. cit., 217.[
It cannot be denied that there are elements of truth in both conceptions. The Lutheran conception is right when it points to the power that is hidden in the Word itself. Its appeal to synergism in order to solve the problem of unbelief cannot be accepted. Synergism is here, as everywhere else, a dead end. Reformed theology is right when it points out that the Word is effective only by the Spirit. This does not mean, however, that we can solve the mystery of unbelief by emptying the Word of its contents and by devaluating it to a word that is empty in itself. Here the Lutherans are right. We may say that both parties are looking at the same problem, but from a different perspective. And for that reason they are not really contradictory, but rather complementary.
Because of this it does not surprise me that at times the Reformed confessions use the terminology of the per verbum, while the Lutheran confessions also use the cum verbo. When the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘Where does faith come from?’, the answer is: ‘The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel (per praedicationem evangelii)’ (Lord’s Day 25). And Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says that true faith is produced in man ‘by the hearing of God’s Word and by the working of the Holy Spirit’ (per auditum Verbi Dei et Spiritus S. operationem). In the latter statement the per and the cum are joined in one formulation. Calvin even says that the power of the Holy Spirit in some way (quodammodo) is enclosed (inclusam) in the preaching.17J. Calvinus, Opera quae super sunt omnia, 1863-1900, Vol. 6, 254 (Adversum Phigium). The quodammodo is an indication of the tension in such a statement. It is not a simple relativizing of the inclusam, but rather points to the limits of our thinking here. At the same time it also urges us to proceed to those very limits!
The Lutheran confessions, on the other hand, at times and without any inhibition use the terminology of the cum verbo. While the ‘per’ is used in the Confession of Augsburg, the Formula of Concord uses the ‘cum’ as well: ‘We believe that the Holy Spirit will be present and efficacious and will work with the word that is preached, heard and diligently considered.’18Cf. G.C. Berkouwer, Sin, E.T. 1971, 214, Note 59. H. Berkhof summarizes the matter nicely in these words: ‘The Word is the instrument of the Spirit. But the Spirit is not the prisoner of the Word, nor does the Word work automatically. The Word brings the Spirit to the heart, and the Spirit brings the Word within the heart.’19Hendrikus Berkhof, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 1964, 38.
4. Our Own Preaching
Does all this hold true of our own sermons too? Does it really hold true of all that bungling and fumbling that we call ‘preaching’ ? The answer is a clear ‘Yes’. Not because our sermons are not that bad after all (this would imply a new form of synergism!), but because they refer to the Word, i.e. Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, by means of the exposition and actualization of the written Word, which itself is a witness to Jesus Christ. When our preaching really witnesses to Christ, we may believe that our preaching, too, is a form of the Word of God.
Even then, however, we must not think that our preaching is automatically the Word of God. It is a mistake to think that a sermon that faithfully reproduces the message of Scripture is the Word of God for that very reason. Orthodoxy as such is no guarantee that something will happen during the sermon. And that is what really matters! However indispensable faithful adherence to the message of prophets and apostles may be, it is only through the operation of the Spirit that our preaching will be the means of regeneration and conversion, of justification and sanctification.
There is a remarkable statement in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In 2:14-16 he writes: ‘Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’ These rather difficult words clearly indicate that the saving effect of preaching is not self-evident, nor is it an automatism. Even though Paul always preaches the same Gospel, the effect can be quite different: a fragrance from life to life or a fragrance from death to death.
But how can this be? What does Paul mean? Does the Gospel have such a double effect objectively or subjectively? Most commentators prefer the latter interpretation. The Gospel itself is not something arbitrary, which God may use either as a weapon for killing a person or as a vivifying force. The Gospel is not like a coin one may throw in the air and which then may fall on either its head or its tail. The Gospel is always ‘good news’, a message of salvation for those who hear it. But not all hearers react to it in the same way. Some experience it as a sweet fragrance, others as a bad odour. To some it is folly or a stumbling block, to others it is the wisdom of God and a power unto salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18, 23ff.). The word of God is always effective. It ‘cannot be neutral. If it does not save, it destroys’ (Hodge). In his comments on these verses Calvin says: ‘We must always distinguish between the proper office of the Gospel, and the accidental one (so to speak) which must be imputed to the depravity of mankind, to which it is owing that life to them is turned into death.’ How serious Paul is appears from verse 16 where he states that the Gospel always produces an effect. In the one person it starts a process that leads inevitably and irresistibly to death; in the other person it starts a process that leads irresistibly to life.20Cf. F.J. Pop, De tweede brief van Paulus aan de Corinthiërs, 1953, 67/8.
It is therefore no wonder that Paul continues with the exclamation: ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ A little later he answers his own question, when he describes his own ministerial activity as ‘the dispensation of the Spirit’ (hè diakonia tou pneumatos) and adds that he cannot do it on his own strength, but only because God has called, authorized and qualified him and his co- workers ‘to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6).
5. Preaching and experience
The preaching of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit are not two separate channels that communicate the salvation of Christ each in its own way. In his contribution to the Festschrift for Dick Lucas John Woodhouse speaks of ‘the contemporary failure to understand the intimate relationship between the Word and the Spirit of God’.21John Woodhouse, ‘The preacher and the living Word’, in When God’s voice is heard, 1995,43-62. The present quotation is from p. 44. He has in mind the modern controversy among ‘evangelicals’ and ‘charismatics’. Each side puts the emphasis on an important theological reality which it believes the other is neglecting. Evangelicals emphasize the Word of God, while charismatics emphasize the Spirit. Evangelicals stress the objective truth of the Word, while charismatics emphasize the experience worked by the Spirit. A common response to this controversy and the concomitant confusion is to call for a ‘balance’.
Woodhouse does not believe that such a call will solve the problem. For the problem is not that the one side has too much of the one reality and not enough of the other reality, while in the other case it is the other way round, but the real problem is the failure to understand the relationship between the two. Woodhouse is of the opinion that too often evangelicals are inclined to stress the work of the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture and in the inner witness of the Spirit to the authority of the Scriptures.22Op.cit., p.46. Charismatics, on the other hand, are too often inclined to stress the experiences believers receive from the Spirit, even apart from the Scriptures. ‘Inner convictions are said to be the work of the Spirit-especially if we cannot explain them in any other way. Strange phenomena, particularly heightened emotional, paranormal, or even orgiastic experiences are attributed to the Spirit, simply because they are strange’.23Op.cit., p.58.
Woodhouse’s own solution is not to minimize the value of experience. He points to Paul’s words: ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (Rom. 6:16). Here we see clearly that subjective experience is important to the Christian life and that it is an essential aspect of our personal faith. The question therefore is not whether the Spirit is testifying to me, but how He is doing it. ‘The answer is, surely, by the gospel, by the Word of God’.24Op. cit., p.59
There are not two experiences, the one of the Word of God telling me that I am a child of God, and the other the direct testimony of the Spirit testifying with my spirit that I am a child of God. ‘No, God’s Word comes with the power of God’s Spirit. God breathes his Word to me. Receiving the breath of God and the words of God are not distinguishable experiences here.’ And this does not apply only to the written Word of God, but also to the preached Word. In both cases the experience worked by the Spirit always refers us back to the Word of God that was spoken in Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said to his disciples: ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you ״ (John 16:13-15).