Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Calvin on Preaching

Every so often I like to read a book on preaching. It stops one getting stale. It reminds one of the greatness, indeed the impossibility, of the task. A good book on preaching will point one in the direction of some help to improve, and remind one of the immense resources available to the faithful preacher, both in terms of the Scriptures they preach and of the God who is the source, subject and sustainer of preaching.

Recently I re-read T.H.L. Parker's book on the preaching of Calvin, 'The Oracles of God'. There is something of neo-orthodox mysticism in Parker's writing, but it cannot hide the grandeur of Calvin's views on and practice of preaching. Some brief extracts:

On the nature of preaching: unlike Luther, Calvin insisted that without the attendant operation of the Holy Spirit, preaching is ineffective. He also taught however that insofar as it is the exposition and interpretation of the Bible, which is as much the Word of God as if men 'heard the very words pronounced by God himself', preaching is itself (derivatively or by association) the Word of God. Preaching must be from the Bible; it is only in the Bible that God speaks clearly and savingly to man. Biblical preaching is truly God speaking to the congregation.

Preaching is, secondly, the Word of God also because the preacher is sent and commissioned by God. He treads a fine line between Luther who said that whenever he got up to speak it was not his word but his pen was 'the tongue of a ready writer' and the opposite extreme of the Spirit being a fitful and unreliable presence. The fact that the pastor has been chosen by God to preach means that God will give him His Word to speak. He may be assured that God will as it pleases him give his Holy Spirit to make the preacher's words his Word. But the preacher cannot take for granted the presence of the Spirit.

Preaching is thirdly, revelation. It is by God's Word that God is known. Preaching is the Word of God when God speaks through the human words revealing himself through them and using them as the vehicle of grace.'In preaching, God shows himself, as much as is expedient for us' (Sermon on Ephesians). 'And what is the mouth of God? It is a declaration that he makes to us of his will when he speaks to us by his ministers' (Sermon on Deuteronomy). 'For St Paul does not want a man to make a parade of himself so that everyone applauds him and says "Oh what fine speaking..." No, not at all! He preaches so that God may speak to us by the mouth of man' (Sermon on 1 Timothy).

On the preacher's need for preparation and humility: 'When the preacher has done all that he can, there remains to him only to cry in helplessness, "Come, Holy Ghost!"'. What he has received, he must faithfully pass on. His life must ratify his doctrine. He must remember above all that he is sent 'to procure the salvation of souls'.

On the congregation: an absolute unconditional obedience is demanded of those who hear the Word of God preached. No-one has the right to disregard the preached Word merely because of the humbleness of the preacher, provided he is called of God.

As to form and style in preaching: gifts of eloquence are useful but everything must be subordinate to the great purpose of the preacher: to be understood by his congregation. All is aimed at proclaiming Christ to the people.

One final word on the nature of the Christian life: 'But assurance of salvation does not rest upon any earthly or human basis but only on the grace which God has shown us in Jesus Christ...When God's children reach the end of their endurance, so that they know not which way to turn, and there is no escape, yet they must not cease to hope that God will show himself to be their Father and Saviour, and that he will never fail them, as long as they trust in the promise that there shall be hope for hereafter for the oppressed; and they must not cease to look to the life that is prepared for them, though they see death before their eyes'.

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