Thursday, October 15, 2015

Plain-Style Preaching – a Puritan Perspective, Part 2: Who Should Preach?

This article is the second in a series on the Puritan perspective on preaching. The first may be found here.

By Richard Holst

“Your conscience must judge of your willingness and the church of your ability.” — William Perkins, The Calling of The Ministry, 181)

The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, in its chapter on Preaching the Word, handles a number of related questions: who should preach, how sermons should be made and the way in which they should be preached. Its advice, though occasionally detailed, is mainly in principle, and it mirrors William Perkins’s The Art of Prophesying (1558-1602). The present survey is concerned with the question of who should preach, with reference to calling, training and sending.


Acts 13 records how the Holy Spirit directed the church of Syrian Antioch to separate Saul and Barnabas to the work “to which I have called them.” The brethren “having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them...sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went.” Paul wrote, “If anyone desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good thing” (2Tim 3:1), but he reminds us that naked desire is not enough. In Romans 10:15 he asks “how shall they preach unless they are sent?” underscoring the need to be recognised and commissioned by the church. Perhaps he was reflecting on his personal experience first at Damascus and later at Syrian Antioch. Thus his work as a missionary depended not only on his personal desire but also on the correlation of church and the Spirit — as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul down to Seleucia” (Acts 13:1ff). 

In the same spirit but perhaps in more detail, the Puritans had a method of quality control to ensure that “... the work of performed with all due care, wisdom, gravity, and solemnity.” The Directory itself presupposes “(according to the rules for ordination)” that “the minister of Christ is in some good measure gifted for so weighty a service.” The rules presupposed are found in The Form of Presbyterial Church Government adopted by the Scottish church in 1645 (but not by the English). 

The part headed “The Directory for the Ordination of Ministers,” states that “NO man ought to take upon him the office of a minister of the Word without a lawful calling” and sets out the way that call might validated:

He that is to be ordained, being either nominated by the people, or otherwise commended to the presbytery, for any place, must address himself to the presbytery, and bring with him a testimonial...of his diligence and proficiency in his studies; what degrees he hath taken in the university, and what hath been the time of his abode there...especially of his life and conversation (conduct)...Which being considered by the presbytery, they are to proceed to enquire touching the grace of God in him, and whether he be of such holiness of life as is requisite in a minister of the gospel; and to examine him touching his learning and sufficiency, and touching the evidences of his calling to the holy ministry; and, in particular, his fair and direct calling to that place.

Against this background the WLC Q.58 asks, “By whom is the Word of God to be preached?” and gives the answer, “only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.” The question for us is not so much about what kind of detail is specified, important as this might be, but about why a procedure was thought necessary at all.

The necessity arose because of the existence of absentee clergy and the appointment of inadequate stand-in lay readers. John Penry (Martin Marprelate) wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth criticising non-resident ministers as “odious in the sight of God and man” because they kept the people from “the ordinary means of salvation, which was the word preached.” According to Strype, “the want of clergymen” in the Elizabethan period created the “inconvenience” of ordaining “illiterate men to be [lay] readers which likewise many were offended at” (Annals, 1824, 265). The problem was later exacerbated by an increasing number of sectarians, who preached without ordination. (Van Dixhoorn, Assembly Minutes 1: 275; Lightfoot, p. 91). The Puritans therefore devised their method of “quality control” to ensure that those selected were “apt to teach, able to divide the word of God aright, and ... deliver sound and wholesome doctrine...” (Barrow: True Description Of The Visible Church).

William Perkins
Perkins (1558–1602) stated that in order to know that one has been sent “it is necessary not only to ask one's own conscience but also the church: your conscience must judge of your willingness and the church of your ability. Just as you may not trust other men to judge your inclination or affection, so you may not trust your own judgement to judge your worthiness or adequacy.” Certainty regarding this office, he said, comes when “the inward calling of conscience and the outward calling of the church concur.” In that event “God himself calls and bids us ‘Go, and speak’” (Calling, 181).

Not all lay preachers are doctrinally illiterate or poorly motivated, but today struggling congregations are in the habit of filling their pulpits with whoever is willing to preach, without considering that the preacher, far from being lawfully called and sent, may be self-appointed, unaccountable and unedifying. Puritan anxiety about the ministry is less apparent today among evangelical churches, though the occasional voice reminds us that “recognition... [is] often referred to as the outward call [and that] it would be unusual for anyone to continue preaching without it.” (Stuart Olyott, Preaching Pure & Simple, 22) Exigencies might indeed demand exceptions, but for the Puritans the exception never became the rule.


Richard Baxter held that “churches rise and fall as the ministry doth rise and fall” and that the quality of the ministry was as much a matter of training as of gift. Certainly not all training is helpful and in some circumstances it can be downright unhelpful: as one sage commented “the church is closing by degrees,” which was true at a time when most ministerial candidates were trained in liberal institutions. But it was different in the seventeenth century, when under Puritan influence, church and academy were in better, if not perfect, shape and free from the rationalising effects of the Enlightenment. Puritans were committed to the study of Hebrew, Greek and Latin (which was the teaching medium), Theology, Church History and related disciplines. They never saw it as inimical to being taught by the Spirit, nor did they think that because preaching is a gift, it cannot be instructed. Such was their understanding of the nature of Scripture and the way the Holy Spirit works that they placed “the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear [and] the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word” at the heart of public worship (WCF 21.V). In short, they believed that since preaching is “one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel” (DPW), a proper training was essential for true worship and the care of the flock.    

Christ's College - Cambridge University
Locally, an experienced minister would train up a young preacher by giving him opportunity to preach, subjecting him to helpful criticism and exposing him to the varied aspects of church life – akin to ministerial internships or apprenticeships. Candidates could also benefit from “prophesyings,” ministerial gatherings at which sermons were preached, comments made, interpretations considered and matters of ministry discussed.  As for the academy, Christ's College – Cambridge, was a center of Puritanism; and Emmanuel and Sidney Sussex colleges (1584 & 1596) were founded by Puritans expressly for the training of preachers. Many who passed through them were first-class biblical scholars and outstanding pastors.

Perkins was one such. A foremost advocate of training, his influence pervades the Directory's advice on preachers and preaching. His training manuals have been called “a new 'spiritual' model for preaching … that could be traced back to the examples of the great biblical prophets” (Sinclair Ferguson, Prophesying, Intro, viii). Although pre-dating the critical period of biblical studies, they are analytical, powerfully relevant, and full of sanctified common sense. In some parts of the Presbyterian Church, they are still prescribed reading for ministerial candidates.

Perkins saw preaching as instrumental for “gathering the church...bringing together the elect” and “driving away the wolves from the folds of the Lord.” The only content of preaching is the Word of God “in its perfection and inner consistency” and, in the nature of the case, “the only field in which the preacher is to labour” (Prophesying, 9). The principal interpreter of Scripture is its Author, the Holy Spirit, but the preacher must master three subordinate means of interpretation: the comparison or analogy of Scripture, the comparison or analogy of doctrine, and the circumstance of the text (context).

His ministry at Great St. Andrews, Cambridge, was extraordinarily blessed so that, thirteen years after his death, Thomas Goodwin reported that the town of Cambridge remained full of “the discourse of the power of Mr. Perkins, his ministry still fresh in men's memories” (Packer, Puritan Portraits, 131). His commitment was such that he wrote on the title page of all his manuscripts, “Thou art a Minister of the Word: Mind thy business” (Portraits, 134). 


The last stage of entry to the ministry is ordination, which consists of a final evaluation by the presbytery, followed by a representative act of appointment. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government vests authority for ordination in a presbytery consisting of “preaching presbyters orderly associated” (ruling elders excluded!). There is acknowledgement of “extraordinary occasion(s)” “for a way of ordination” different from the one recommended in the Form of Government, which they fully intended to address at a later stage. The Independents would not cede the right of ordination to the wider body, but nevertheless they considered it important, even if they identified it with the vote of the congregation. They were one with their Presbyterian brethren in emphasizing the need of proper training and formal recognition.

The “head” versus “heart” dichotomy formed no part of their thinking. Learning was as well done at the throne of grace as in the academy. A minister preparing to preach
“ought still to seek by prayer, and an humble heart, resolving to admit and receive any truth not yet attained, whenever God shall make it known unto him. All which he is to make use of, and improve, in his private preparations, before he deliver in public what he has provided.”

The Independent and Separatist pastor Henry Barrow (b. 1593) might have differed from others in his view of the church but was at one with them in his view of the ministry. In A True Description of the Visible Church, he writes:

Their doctor or teacher must be a man apt to teach, able to divide the word of God aright, and to deliver sound and wholesome doctrine.... [H]e must be mighty in the Scriptures, able to convince the gain-sayers, and carefully to deliver his doctrine pure, sound and plain, not with curiosity or affectation, but so that it may edify the most simple.... [T]o feed the sheep of Christ in green and wholesome pastures of his word...he must guide and keep those sheep by that heavenly and pastoral staff of the word...discerning their diseases, and thereby curing them...that the church may increase with the increasing of God, and grow up into him which is the head, Jesus Christ.