Monday, August 17, 2015

Plain-Style Preaching – a Puritan Perspective

This article is the first in a series on the Puritan perspective on preaching. It is a brief contextual sketch in which to set a consideration of what the Directory says about preachers and preaching.

By Richard Holst

1. The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God

Among the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly is the DIRECTORY FOR THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD. On June 12, 1643, the English Parliament commissioned the Westminster Assembly to settle “the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and ... the clearing of the doctrine of the said church from all false calumnies and aspersions.” The Assembly’s initial task was to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, but with the breakdown of order and the signing the Solemn League & Covenant by the Scottish and English parliaments, the original task was abandoned in favour of a more root-and-branch reformation of national reformation.

The first step towards this was the Directory for the Public Worship of God, which appeared in December 1644. Publication occurred in January 1645 followed by endorsement by the English and Scottish parliaments in February and March respectively. The aim or “meaning” of the Directory ... “[was] that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayer s, and other parts of publick worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God; and the ministers may be [thereby] directed, in their administrations, to keep like soundness in doctrine and prayer, and may, if need be, have some help and furniture.” The Directory was an attempt to create uniformity of faith and practice throughout the British Isles and to provide “help and furniture” in the conduct of public worship.

The aim was to expound the general heads of the parts or elements of worship and, at the same time, remove any ground of excuse for ministers to “become ... slothful and negligent in stirring up the gifts of Christ in them.” The intention was to “furnish [their] heart and tongue with further or other materials of prayer and exhortation, as shall be needful upon all occasions,” but not in the form of set prayers, which tended to encourage “an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ doth please to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office.” Stanford Reid argues that “the principle of freedom has been followed consistently” and that “there is not one prayer set down in full” (The Westminster Assembly's Directory of Worship, Bible Christianity 1938, 3). In reality the Directory is unclear about whether its directives are suggestions or prescriptions and words like “necessary,” “requisite,” “expedient,” “convenient” and “sufficient” appear throughout. (Van Dixhoorn, in Pastors, Preachers and Ambassadors). However, the amount of detail there is shows that public worship was a matter of the greatest importance to the Assembly.

Many evangelicals, especially in Western Europe have an anti-liturgical bias and therefore would wonder about the necessity of a directory, just as they wonder about the necessity of a confession of faith. On this point Carl Trueman attributes this bias to an “innate mysticism and pragmatism that instinctively rejects external authority in favour of 'what is true for me.” (Creedal Imperative, 38-43) Creeds, confessions and directories certainly are human compositions, conditioned by the circumstances in which they were composed and lacking the direct authority of Scripture. Indeed, in the eyes of some, the thought that the Westminster standards were written at the behest of the political authority might only add doubt to their validity. On the other hand, it is simplistic to assume that human compositions are unbiblical. The authors of the Directory tell us that they did their work “according to the rules of Christian prudence [ensuring that everything was] agreeable to the general rules of the word of God.” The crucial point is that the elements of worship identified are of “divine institution.” The Directory suggests no new element of worship but simply identifies and expounds those found in Scripture, while helping us to understand with John 4:24 that God seeks a certain kind of worship from a certain kind of worshipper.

We cannot say that there is necessity for a directory, since we have the Word of God. But it is a help, which is what the authors intended it to be. In an age of creativity, innovation, forgetfulness and individualism, it is helpful to have the elements identified and brought together in an ordered fashion so that worship does not descend into a free-for-all. It by no means removes an appropriate freedom. For example, the Puritans differed from one another on the use of set or free prayer.  Baxter approved of set prayers but felt free to extemporise. Owen felt that men should not prescribe anything. Regarding the order and beauty of worship, he wrote, “God himself is the proper judge” (Works IX, 76ff). Yet even by saying this, Owen upheld in essence the regulative principle of worship.

By producing a directory, the men of Westminster did not overlook what the Bible says about worship as a thing of the heart. Nor were they being inconsistent by removing the Book of Common Prayer and appearing to put something similar in its place. Their complaint against the Prayer Book was that it was too prescriptive and that it marginalised preaching in favour of ceremonies. They also understood that in the matter of what is acceptable to God, God is the proper judge; and that in the matter of what worship is, the principle of reciprocity applies. God speaks to His people in the greeting, call to worship, reading and preaching of Scripture, sacrament and benediction. His people respond in the elements of praise, prayer, the offering and the “conscionable hearing” of the Word.

The dynamic of worship is not only God-centred but God-directed, and when it is both, there is a meeting of heaven and earth. This is the “order and beauty of worship” that God walks and talks with his people and permits them to talk to him but as in every family, in a proper way, with proper respect and an acceptable protocol, which under the power of the Spirit allows the miracle to happen and the earthly place to become the house of God and gate of heaven — all through the mediation of Christ by whom we have access to the Father.

The preceding was first published in The Presbyterian Network, Summer edition, 2015.