(This is a chapter from my master's thesis. If I had it to rework I would make some changes. Also this chapter relies heavily on some groundwork done by Glen Clary. Despite the shortcomings, I thought I would share this work, especially since this work laid the foundation for my doctrine of the Word and why I believe the Reformed Tradition has the correct emphasis on the primacy of the Word and preaching (Contra the Anglo-Catholic Anglicans or some High Church Lutherans)
THE PREACHED WORD IN CALVIN
The concept of the Word of God exercises a high prominence in John Calvin’s Theology. The sacraments have no efficacy, except by the Word of God.1 The church does not exist, except by the Word of God.2 Faith ordinarily is produced by the Word of God.3 All of creation comes to being by the efficacy of the Word.4 Calvin’s Ecclesiology, Sacramental theology and Soteriology depend on the concept of the Word of God, and so understanding the Biblical teaching of the Word of God is essential to understanding the Calvin’s summation of the Christian religion.
What is the Word?
Scholarly opinion holds “the primacy of the word of God was fundamental to the doctrine of the Reformation.”5 Yet, the contemporary understanding of the meaning of the concept in Scripture of “the Word of God” could cause the contemporary reader to misunderstand Calvin's robust doctrine of the Word. The Westminster Larger Catechism asks “What is the Word of God?” in Question three. The answer states the Word of God is, “The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.” To the student of the Westminster Catechism, the first and primary answer for “what is the Word of God?” would be the written Word in Scripture.
Calvin's theology of the Word includes, though not less than this Westminsterian affirmation of Scripture as Word of God, much more teaching on the doctrine of the Word. When Calvin defines the Word, he does not begin with the written form, but insists that “‘Word’ mean the everlasting Wisdom, residing with God, from which both all oracles and all prophecies go forth.”6 Such a definition as including “Wisdom” includes Christ as the ultimate Word. “The Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God and is God himself.”7 Yet, in identifying the Word with “oracles” Calvin also conceives of the message of the Word. The content of the message is Christ, and the oracles are the communication of God of Himself. When applying the term “Word” to something other than Christ, what is meant is a medium of communication of the Word of God.
Calvin includes with his doctrine of the Word identification of what may be called modes or mediums of communication of the Word of God. Calvin certainly agrees with later theology (including the Westminster Catechism) that the Word of God is communicated in Scripture.8 Yet written Scripture is not the only means by which God has communicated to man, which also includes oracles, visions, and the work and ministry of men.9 When observing Calvin's use of the term “Word,” we can clearly see it is more expansive than merely “Scripture.” Specifically to the appellation of Word of God being applied to preaching, Calvin writes that God sends “the Word” to Pharaoh which hardens his heart. By Word, Calvin is referring to the message Moses delivered orally. Calvin makes the same identification of Ezekiel’s spoken message to be delivered orally.10 Thus, for Calvin, not only are the Scriptures the Word of God, but so is preaching. Certainly, the nature of the two is different depending on the time in redemptive history,11 yet both the Scriptures are affirmed, as will be labeled “the written Word,” and preaching is affirmed, as will be labeled “the preached Word.”
Preaching as Word of God
The modern focus on the written Word to the neglect of the spoken or preached Word, has likewise led to a neglect of the preached Word in studying Calvin. Thomas Davis remarked that, “When we speak of Calvin’s preaching, we approach one of the two final frontiers…in studies of Calvin; the other is exegesis.”12 Any exploration of Calvin's preaching and his doctrine of preaching must deal with Calvin's conception of the Word both in Scripture and preached. Though contemporary evaluations of Calvin’s view of preaching acknowledge it as “the Word” in Calvin understating the doctrine. For instance, T.H.L. Parker asserts, “According to Calvin...preaching so to say 'borrows' its status of 'Word of God' from Scripture.”13 This description becomes the often quoted maxim for the relation of Calvin’s idea of the preached Word in regards to the written word, as both Glen Clarey and J. Mark Beach quote Parker.14 This wording of “status,” gives the wrong impression of Calvin’s estimation of status of the preaching the Word as a medium. According to Calvin, the apostles operated under a different set of rules in their preaching than do their successors and so the apostles are “scribes of the Holy Spirit.” The preaching of the apostles begins as Word of God and lends its status to Scripture. Then, their successors must follow the apostles’ preaching and teaching as recorded in Scripture.15
Therefore, Calvin's evaluation of preaching, then, does not begin with it borrowing its status from Scripture. After quickly identifying the creed as the message of the church in book four, Calvin identifies the first Word through which this message of the church is conveyed to the congregation. This Word is the preached Word. Calvin uses Scripture to identify the message of God first coming by auditory means to the people. The teaching God wishes to convey to His people is “by the mouth of the priest.”16 In discussing the message of God, Calvin does not begin with his own time and how his time came to have the content of the message. In his own time and ours, certainly preaching borrows its content, though not its status, from Scripture. Rather, when dealing the relationship, Calvin starts in history where the message of God begins in a form that is heard rather than read, and only after it is heard is it recorded in written form. Historically speaking, for Calvin, especially in those instances where the message begins as the oral word of the prophet, Scripture borrows its content as Word of God from the preached Word. Although in the case of the priest speaking he is likely expounding the Law in written form and the priest's spoken Word would then borrow its content from the written Word. Primacy is not always given to the written Word, but to God's message as He personally encounters His people in a particular time. Authority is derived from God in the mediums of written and spoken message, without one being primary in status, until the written Word gains priority in infallible content at the close of the canon.17 Therefore, in addressing the concept of the preached Word in Calvin, we are speaking merely of an extension of the doctrine of the written Word.
Characteristics of Preached Word
The concept of the Word of God dominates and then serves as the foundation for a great deal of the content in book four of the Institutes which expound the concept of the means of grace. There, the means of grace are also called, “the external means or aids by which God invites us into the Society of Christ and holds us therein.” The church forms the context of these means, as the deposit of the gospel.18 The creed of the Church serves as a summary of the message the church has received, and so also within in the Nicene Creed, Calvin understands the exhortation to be to “believe the church.”19 Calvin here concerns himself with the Word of God as it is before the people through the church. Though Christ as Word is not present immediately before the people, the Word is present in Scripture and preaching.
We can thus conclude that for Calvin the preached Word functions as a means of grace. It does so not merely by borrowing its status from the Scriptures, but from its divinely sanctioned role in the history of redemption. Though God may not currently directly give oral instructions directly to his messengers, He does give such content through the written Word. This does not diminish the place of preaching in the delivery of the gospel to God’s people.20
We may explore in Calvin’s doctrine of the Preached Word as means of grace three main attributes. Calvin articulates the preached word as a peculiar medium, rather than one possible option for dispensing Scripture’s content. Calvin also maintains what Hugh Oliphant Old calls “a Kerygmatic real presence” of Christ in the preached Word.21 Finally, Calvin declares that preaching gains its power of efficacy from the working of the Spirit, Who has bound Himself to this instrumental means.
The Peculiar Ordained Medium
Calvin viewed the medium of preaching as a divinely sanctioned medium. Again, the written Word is not lending itself to a lesser medium in preaching. God establishes preaching as a chosen medium of the message of the church.
This conception of preaching as a God-ordained medium displays itself in Calvin’s discussion of the “power of the keys.” When Jesus declares the church has the power of the keys, this refers to the privilege of proclaiming the gospel as “it is dispensed to us through the ministers and pastors of the church, either by the preaching of the gospel or by the administration of the sacraments.”22 The concept of “word and sacrament” for Calvin refers to the preached Word, Baptism and the Supper. The validation of a true church by these marks is not merely whether they have the Scriptures, but whether “the preaching of His word [is] kept pure.”23
Preaching is a peculiar medium for God’s Word, distinct from reading Scripture. Scripture is printed on the page and read by the eye. For Calvin, it is important that the Word of God be spoken by the mouth and heard by the ear. In hearing the message of the preacher, one does not merely hear teaching on the Word of God, the hearer hears the Word of God. Calvin explores this concept especially in his interaction with the books of the Old Testament prophets. On Isaiah 55:11, which states that God’s Word does not return void, Calvin explains, “The word goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise “goeth out of the mouth” of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven, but employs men as his instruments, that by their agency he may make known his will.”24 When the Word is preached rightly, the hearer hears the voice of God in the mouths of humans. Again, in John 10:4, where the sheep hear Christ’s voice, Calvin insists, “God should be heard speaking by them [ministers].”25 For this reason, Parker’s earlier stated position that for Calvin preaching borrows its status as Word of God from Scripture is insufficient.26 The status of the medium is ordained by God. The content of that message is derived from and regulated by Scripture. Yet especially in a worship context, Calvin prefers that Christ’s voice is heard, rather than Christ’s words merely being read. Scripture then has priority in authority, but preaching has priority in delivery.27
The Kerygmatic Presence
Secondly, Calvin expounds a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in preaching. Old calls this the “kerygmatic real presence” to distinguish it from the spiritual, or pneumatic, presence in Calvin's doctrine of the Eucharist.28 In the preaching of the Word, Calvin declares that “God himself appears in our midst.”29
Calvin’s conception of God’s presence in the Temple supports the kerygmatic presence. “The Temple is called God’s resting place.”30 God does not merely have a preference of location, for God does not dwell in temples made by men, but rather “By his Word, God alone sanctifies temples to himself for lawful use.”31 The “place of God’s name” is the place where God’s name is heard. “The Lord nowhere recognizes any temple as his save where his Word is heard.”32 Preaching brings God’s presence among his people. As explored above, God’s voice is heard through the consecrated mouths of men, manifesting a measure of God’s presence by men hearing God’s Word.33
The implications of Christ’s real presence in preaching consist in union and communion with Christ. Glen Clary clarifies Calvin’s position as stating “The gospel is not merely an invitation to fellowship with Christ; it is a vehicle by which Christ is communicated to us”34 Calvin usually connects the concept of communion with God to the works of the Holy Spirit, and also does so here. The Word is a means of communion with Christ because God joins “his Spirit with it.”35 Calvin so understands the phrase from Galatians 3:2 “received the Spirit…by the hearing of faith,” with faith “here put, by a figure of speech, for the gospel.”36
Since it is by the mouth of the preacher Christ speaks, so preaching is the means by which Christ reigns over His Church. Calvin connects the concept of the kingdom of God with the preaching of the Word especially in the Commissioning passages. In Acts 1:8, Calvin does not interpret Christ to be ignoring the disciple’s question to whether Christ was bringing the kingdom at that time. Instead, Christ is answering by what means the kingdom was advanced. Christ’s “kingdom consisteth in the preaching of the gospel…Christ did then reign when as he subdueth unto himself (all the whole) world by the preaching of the gospel.”37 In Matthew 28:18, Calvin uses kingdom language in stating that Jesus “by constraining men to obey him in the preaching of the gospel, he established his throne on the earth.”38 Calvin gave no other medium or sacrament the high status of preaching by calling it the earthly throne of Christ. Ronald S. Wallace summarizes Calvin’s view of Old Testament prophecies about the “rule of the Messiah amongst the nations” as being fulfilled in the preached Word.39
The Spirit and the Preached Word
The preached Word, in being endowed by God as a divinely sanctioned medium, as an instrument of God’s presence, and as the instrument of God’s rule, carries with it a power to accomplish God’s purposes. The degree to which these three attributes truly describe the preached Word corresponds to the effecting power of preaching. When Romans 10:17 states “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” Calvin connects “word of Christ” with preaching as confirming “the efficacy of preaching.”40 In such a way, we may understand Calvin to hold preaching as a means of grace.
Preaching, in a certain sense, may effect the faith that it demands.41 Not that the bare Word effects, for “faith is the proper and entire work of the Holy Spirit.”42 The Spirit and the Word accomplish God’s purposes together. These two must not be separated, for “as soon as the Spirit is separated from the word of Christ, the door is open to all kinds of delusions and impostures” like Romanism and Islam.43 The Spirit does not normally work apart from the Word, and the Word always carries the Spirit. If the Spirit chooses to grant faith, then preaching is the means of bestowing and effecting regeneration and sanctification.44
The effect of the Word, however, may also be negative. The Word may be the means either of binding or of loosening,45 of softening or hardening,46 or of effecting salvation for the elect or condemnation on the wicked, depending on how the Spirit effects the recipient.47 In addition to being a means of grace, we might also call preaching a means of condemnation or judgment.
When conceiving of the benefits of the means, Calvin has specific metaphysical benefits in mind. Since preaching stands beside the Eucharist and Baptism, as fellow means of grace, preaching is often described as bestowing the same benefits. For Calvin, the Eucharist hosts a communion that causes the soul of the believer to “rise heavenward.”48 So too, does the preaching of the Word not only bestow benefits, but proceeds “to bear us up as if in chariots to his heavenly glory.”49 The need for this arises from Calvin’s insistence on the reality of a real union with Christ from which springs all the benefits of redemption.50 Thus, benefits are not merely delivered, but union between the believer and Christ is experienced in the means of grace.51 Even when speaking of the nature of the union experienced through other means such as the Supper or baptism, that benefit “requires the Word…there is need of preaching.”52 The currency of transfer, as figured in the means, is nothing other than the life of Christ, by way of experiencing union with Christ.53
As we have seen, the concept of the “Word” to Calvin includes much more than the doctrine of the inspiration of the written text of Scripture. Calvin’s theology, especially of God’s use of means may be said develop as working out of the implication of the presupposition that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.”54 Calvin’s position can briefly be put as, “God as the author of preaching, joining his Spirit with it, promises benefits from it.”55 Preaching as a divinely ordained medium works as an instrument of God’s presence, and as the instrument of God’s rule in carrying out God’s purposes.
1 John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmanns, 1986), 1278. (4.14.3)
2 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1046 (4.2.4).
3 John Calvin. Commentary on Romans. Trans. John Owen. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 401
4 John Calvin. Commentary on the First Book of Moses called Genesis. Trans. John King. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 75.
5 Jaroslav Pelikan. The Christian Tradition. Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 187
6 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 129 (1.13.7).
7 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 130 (1.13.7).
8 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 71-73 (1.6.2).
9 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 71 (1.6.2).
10 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 980 (3.24.13).
11 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1157 (4.8.9).
12 Thomas J. Davis, This is My Body: the Presence of Christ in Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 94.
13 T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 23.
14 Mark Beach, “The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 : 100 / Glen J. Clarey. John Calvin: Servant of the Word of God. (Unpublished paper 2009), 15
15 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1017 (4.1.5).
16 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1157 (4.8.9).
17 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1157 (4.8.9).
18 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1011-1012 (4.1.1).
19 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1012-1013 (4.1.2).
20 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1011-1012 (4.1.1).
21 Hughes Oliphant Old. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Volume 4: The Age of the Reformation. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 133.
22 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1036 (4.1.22).
23 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1024 (4.1.10).
24 John Calvin. Commentary on a the Book of the Prophet Isaiah Volume 4. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 172.
25 John Calvin. Commentary on the Gospel According to John Volume 2. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 396.
26 T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 23.
27 One may conjecture if the lower rate of literacy and availability of printed books influenced this preference for the medium of delivery of preaching. Yet, the contrast remains that where contemporary pastors may push congregants to reading the Word in the Scriptures, Calvin placed an equal emphasis on hearing the Word.
28 Hughes Oliphant Old. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Volume 4: The Age of the Reformation. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 133.
29 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1017 (4.1.5).
30 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1017 (4.1.5).
31 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1019 (4.1.5).
32 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1043 (4.2.3).
33 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1018 (4.1.5).
34 Glen J. Clarey. John Calvin: Servant of the Word of God. (Unpublished paper 2009), 20.
35 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1020 (4.1.6).
36 John Calvin. Commentary on a the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 81.
37 John Calvin. Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles Volume 1. Trans. Henry Beveridge. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 47.
38 John Calvin. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke Volume 3. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 382.
39 Ronald S. Wallace. Calvin’s Doctrine of Word & Sacrament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 87.
40 John Calvin. Commentary on Romans. Trans. John Owen. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 401
41 “preaching…by it faith is produced.” John Calvin. Commentary on Romans. Trans. John Owen. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 401
42 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1284 (4.14.8).
43 John Calvin. Commentary on the Gospel According to John Volume 2. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 145.
44 See Mark Beach, “The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 : 110
45 John Calvin. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke Volume 2. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 293.
46 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 980 (3.24.13).
47 John Calvin. Commentary on a the Book of the Prophet Isaiah Volume 4. Trans. William Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 172.
48 John Calvin. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. Vol 1. Trans. John Pringle. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 378
49 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1020 (4.1.5)
50 “The only way in which [Christ] communicates his blessings to us is by making himself ours.” [Calvin Treatises on the Sacraments 89]
51 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 570 (3.2.24).
52 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1416-7 (4.17.39).
53 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 540 (3.1.3).
54 Romans 1:16 ESV
55 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1020 (4.1.5)