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Theology Thursday: Spirit-Empowered Preaching

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Posted by John Percival, 11 Aug 2016

There is not a preacher anywhere who would not want Spirit-empowered preaching. But what does it look like? Is it to do with the emotional impact on the hearers? Is it about the manner of the preacher? What role does the gospel have in such preaching? Nathan Tarr, author of "A Pervasive and Self-Effacing Spirit: John Cotton’s Chief Contribution to Puritan Spirituality," in the most recent edition of Churchman, takes us back to the Puritans to develop an answer.

During his ministry, John Cotton came to see that his academic style was actually hindering the communication of God’s word. He therefore turned to the man who had been a huge spiritual influence in his conversion: Richard Sibbes. Sibbes held that a much more ordinary style of address was best for preaching: “When the love of God in Christ and the benefits by Christ are laid open in preaching of the Gospel to us, God gives His Holy Spirit.” Tarr shows what a difference that made:

“Thus, while it meant humiliating himself and scandalising the fellows, Cotton resolved to preach in the manner he was now convinced matched the matter of his subject.  If what his audience required was a work of the Spirit, he would preach in a way that honoured and invited the Spirit’s work. He now conceived of his preaching task ‘under the solemn conviction that he was an instrument of the Holy Spirit.’  As such, his role was first to experience faith, and then to articulate that experience in words ‘dug out of the Scriptures,’ words that invited others into his experience by exposing them to the Spirit’s power.”

The next step in the argument is to highlight the intimate link between the Scriptures and the Spirit:

“This book, which brings men on to believe, is the sword of the Spirit. Therefore, the process by which we come to be saved must be ‘the scope [i.e. responsibility or realm of agency] of the Spirit of God in Scripture.’ But neither does Cotton stop here at the Spirit working through the biblical text. He highlights the preaching of this word as releasing the Spirit’s power. These Scriptures ‘have ever yielded matter to the ministers of the gospel, to preach and expound to the people, that by preaching they might bring on men to salvation.’”

The key in interpretation then is to let the Spirit exegete Scripture, in other words, to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture through intra-canonical links. Tarr argues: “Viewing Scripture as a divinely unified composite drove Puritan hermeneutics to privilege the text. The univocal nature of Scripture meant that the meaning of any single part was discerned in concert with the whole. Thus the hermeneutical focus came to rest on inter-textual exegesis.” This was not however a purely intellectual exercise; it was spiritual too, for “only the Spirit can ‘tell you what use you are to make of such a Scripture.’”

This was also not a return to mystical ‘exegesis,’ but rather a recognition that the Spirit must work to lead people to the plain, inspired (Spirit-intended) meaning of Scripture. So Tarr concludes:

“Cotton’s adoption of the plain style was rooted in a doctrine of Scripture that acknowledged the need for God to give his Spirit to the hearers. His manner of preaching was thus consciously shaped by what he came to believe about the way in which the Spirit worked through the word. That is, because of the Spirit’s involvement in unifying, illuminating, and intending the sense of Scripture, a preaching style that allowed Scripture to speak most plainly, would be the form most powerfully attended by the work of the Spirit.”

If that has whet your appetite, why not take out a subscription to Churchman to get the full article and many more articles and reviews delivered to your door.

Tarr, Nathan. “A Pervasive and Self-Effacing Spirit: John Cotton’s Chief Contribution to Puritan Spirituality.” Churchman 130/2 (2016):163–178.

John Percival is a member of St Matthew's Cambridge

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