Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Puritan Perspective on What to Preach

By Richard Holst

The Westminster Assembly, according to Chad Van Dixhoorn, “in a rare display of initiative determined that preaching was important enough” and bad preaching common enough that some directives were necessary.[i]

It could be a comment about almost any period of church history because even in times of significant blessing, the triumph of packaging over content has been a fact to exercise anyone serious about the purpose and nature of preaching. Among the Calvinistic Methodists of Wales, around the time of the 1859 revival, principal David Charles was compelled to write, "We come to the house of worship to listen to the preacher, but do not expect succour from the message. We look for his excellent, ornamental, masterly treatment, and seek to derive entertainment for the mind … rather than feast upon the sincere milk of the word …. When the emphasis is laid on the externals of the ministry, such as voice and gifts rather than on substantial things, then the ministry loses its authority and purpose, and the whole thing takes on the nature of religious play-acting."[ii] As one who understood the  triumph of style over substance, he could have been commenting on the Laudian preachers of the seventeenth century or the celebrity preachers of the twenty-first. When the earthen vessel pays undue attention to itself and demands that others do the same, their treasure turns to dross and Christ's flock suffers deprivation.

The answer to the question "what shall I preach?" depends on how we understand the purpose of preaching and while we might debate about the choice of content, we cannot doubt the essential answer. Preaching, according to Paul is for the feeding of the flock of God, which he purchased with his own blood. He therefore charged Timothy "before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead ..." to "preach the word, be ready in season and out of season, convince, rebuke [and] exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching" (2 Tim 4:1-2). 

The pastor's brief is simple and comprehensive because, as the Puritans believed, preachers are ambassadors of Christ. They held that preacher's the sole duty is to open the word and apply it to their hearers. William Gouge saw preaching as the making clear the mystery of salvation by a minister who understands it and who standing in God's place, makes it known to others (2 Corinthians 5:20). William Perkins said that the content of preaching is "the word of God alone ... in its perfection and inner consistency" [iii], while John Owen asserted that "the first and principle duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word."[iv] Their essential answer to the question about what preachers should preach, was consistent and unvarying and fully agreed with that given by Paul to Timothy. 

The question about what to preach is not one for the classroom since it comes to us out of the dynamic of the preacher's relationship to his congregation. It is an existential and practical question because it relates to time, place, circumstance and experience. It is, in fact, a question about the cure of souls and the supply of "food that is convenient"[v] to the flock of Christ. Deciding what to preach, whether random texts, topics or extended passages has everything to do with congregational needs and pastoral exigencies. The preacher, on the basis of his knowledge of the people, might choose a topic, a verse, an extended passage or an entire book but his choice will always come from the dynamic of his communion with God, his familiarity with scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and his knowledge of the grass-roots situation.

The Assembly showed a general preference for text-preaching and where possible, longer rather than shorter ones, but not all agreed. In the debate about whether preachers should expound a text or argument (doctrinal statement), some took the view that preaching from an argument was unacceptable precisely because "it gives liberty to preach without a text." Van Dixhoorn suggests two possible reasons for this. The first is that there was a reaction to the requirement made by King Charles I, that preachers must devote one sermon to an exposition of the Church’s catechism instead of an exposition of Scripture. The second is that there might have been dissatisfaction with a tendency among the Independents to expound one biblical text and from that preach a series of sermons on its doctrine(s).[vi]  Lightfoot thought the committee's approach was over prescriptive and that context was in any case not necessarily "king." For him the New Testament's use of the Old showed that it is possible to go beyond the "principal intent" of the author, and he balked at the pressure to preach from longer texts arguing that a sermon text could consist of a single word like "Amen."[vii] 

Overall, the debate was not about the importance of preaching, on which they agreed, but about the need/desirability of prescription. The Scots favored more, the English Presbyterians supported it but in a more muted way and a few wanted none of it. The result was a compromise that nevertheless tended towards prescription but with some allowance of "liberty to preach without a text" on "some special occasion emergent." [viii]

The Directory states that,"ordinarily, the subject of [the] sermon is to be some text" and "if the text be long, (as in histories or parables it sometimes must be) let him [the preacher] give a brief sum of it; if short, a paraphrase thereof, if need be: in both, looking diligently to the scope of the text, and pointing at the chief heads and grounds of doctrine which he is to raise from it." Reference to the "scope" of the text, even in shorter passages, underlines the importance of context, cohesion and boundaries of the text. Sermons should not be tangential but focus on what is "principally intended in the place."

The difference between what a resident preacher might attempt and an itinerant is pertinent. A resident pastor has a close knowledge of congregational needs and of "special occasion(s) emergent" that might demand topical preaching. The itinerant does not and this impacts on his choice of sermon content and manner of its delivery. The itinerant cannot work through a biblical book, a longer text or a series of topics because he is always on the move and must produce sermons of more general reference, self-contained and capable of travelling well from one place to another. The application also will be more general so as to avoid unwarranted assumptions and offensive remarks. The manner of delivery will suited to one who is a guest rather than a resident. Nevertheless, as regards choice of subject matter, sermon construction and general delivery, the same requirements apply: careful study accompanied by prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit together with a love for Christ and his church and, as ever, total commitment to sola scriptura.

Ambassadors for Christ

On the basis of 2 Cor 5:20, the Puritans thought of the preacher as Christ's ambassador  as though God were pleading through him. Paul himself served the Lord "with all humility, many tears and trials ..." and "kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it ... [and] taught ... publicly and from house to house" ensuring that he declared "the whole counsel of God."[ix] As Van Dixhoorn points out, "the divines took note of the you-us dichotomy in the text and assumed that God’s ambassadors were given a unique and important role."[x] William Gouge, reflecting on 2 Cor. 5:20 wrote, "Preaching is a clear revelation of the mystery of salvation by a lawful minister" by which he meant one set apart by God ‘according to the rule of God’s word, to be a minister of the gospel, [who] doth himself understand the mysteries thereof, and is enabled to make them known to others." The preacher is in the business of imparting revealed truth. His remit, for the course of his ministry, is to preach the full scope of God's word in a manner and mode consistent with it. As one who is not a free agent he stands "in God's room," under Christ's authority, as His servant for the church's sake and the church's servant for his sake. Though vested with the highest authority, he is unimportant in himself and must decrease in order that Christ might increase.

The implications for sermon content and delivery are plain. The preacher's task according to John Owen is that of "pastoral teaching" and "he that doth not so feed is no pastor."[xi]  Neither the preachers rhetoric nor his person should obscure the meaning of the text for he must feed the sheep and call the unconverted to faith in Christ through 'the word of God alone ... in its perfection and inner consistency'.

Unlike many, the Puritans felt no need to be "interesting" or parade their communication skills[xii] because as those engaged in the cure of souls, they understood that a good bedside manner does not make a good doctor. To this end, while they employed the breadth of scriptural doctrine, their preaching was very much to the point of what they understood the text to be saying. Accordingly preacher "is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers ... in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God." Such preaching is antithetical to conceptions that call people to connect with the preacher rather than Christ.

The Puritans argued for plain or plain-style preaching, that is preaching purged of human impediments, yet not trite and simplistic. Richard Greenham commenting on the preaching of Perkins said that "to preach simply is not to preach rudely, nor unlearnedly, nor confusedly, but to preach plainly and perspicuously that the simplest man may understand what is taught, as if he did hear his name." Perkins thought the essence of sound preaching consisted of the explication of the text, the gathering profitable points of doctrine from its natural sense and followed by its application to the listeners "in straightforward, plain speech." Cotton Mather said of John Eliot that had a “way of preaching [that] was very plain; so that the very lambs might wade into his discourses on those texts and themes, wherein elephants might swim.”[xiii]

It is not surprising that the committee working on the Directory For Public Worship was, on the whole, opposed to the 'clutter' in sermons. Florid sermons with foreign language quotations and scholarly citations were not encouraged. The florid style of men like Jeremy Taylor, Lancelot Andrews and John Donne had attracted Thomas Goodwin until he learnt a better way and abandoned it: "I left [it] all, and ... never was so much as tempted to put in [sermons] any of my own withered flowers that I had gathered, and valued more than diamonds, nor have they offered themselves to my memory to the bringing them into a sermon to this day, but I have preached what I thought was truly edifying, either for conversion, or bringing them up to eternal life."[xiv] It was preaching without addition, subtraction, adjustment or embellishment solely designed "to confront people as clearly and inescapably as possible with the closeness of God — the God who searches us, and exposes us to ourselves; who both judges and loves, both condemns and justifies through his Son, Jesus Christ; who claims and commands us, while promising protection, preservation, and final reward; and he who may not on any account be ignored." [xv]

According to the Apostle Paul, "sound" teaching is healthful teaching and when it is delivered in the power of the Spirit we have reason to expect its conscionable hearing, especially when the preacher himself has been addressed by his message. Baxter wrote ''I shall never forget the relish of my soul when God first warmed my heart ... and when I was newly entered into a seriousness in religion ... I feel in myself a despising of ... wittiness as proud foolery .... As a stage-player, or morris dancer differs from a soldier or a king, so do those [witty] preachers from the true and faithful minister of Christ: and as they deal more like players than preachers in the pulpit, so usually their hearers do rather come to play with a sermon, than to attend a message from the God of heaven about the life and death of their souls.[xvi]

[i] Preachers, Pastors, and Ambassadors: Puritan Wisdom for Today's Church
[ii] Eifion Evans, 'When He is Come', 1959, 28-9, Bryntirion Press
[iii] Art of Prophesying, 9, Banner of Truth Trust
[iv] Wks XVI, 5, 74
[v] Prov 30:8
[vi] A Puritan Theology of Preaching, in Preachers, Pastors and Ambassadors, St Antolin Lecture, Vol 2, 2000-2010
[vii] Wks 13, 278
[viii] Directory: Preaching
[ix] Acts 20:20ff
[x] Pastors, citing Gillespie, Miscellany Questions pp 54-55
[xi] Wks XVI, 5, 74
[xii] Which is not to say that communication is not important.
[xiii] Eulogy
[xiv] From Brown, Puritan Preaching, 331
[xv] Packer, Puritan Portraits, 27
[xvi] Treatise of Conversion in Packer, Portraits, 28