Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Puritan Christianity (4) Puritan Preaching

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
In his book, Godly Preachers, Irvonwy Morgan says that the essential thing in understanding the Puritans is that they were preachers before they were anything else. Also, they were preachers with a particular emphasis that could be distinguished from other preachers by those who heard them. ÒWoe is me if I preach not the GospelÓ was the main motivation that drove them to the pulpit.

Popularity of Puritan Preachers
Not only were Puritan preachers deeply conscious of their duty to proclaim the Word of God, but many who came to hear them preach loved their sermons and could not get enough of them. There is an interesting story which illustrates just how far this appreciation for Puritan preaching could go.

A certain Rev. Laurence Chaderton was preaching in his native Lancashire, a predominately Catholic district where good preaching was scarce. After Chaderton had been preaching for two full hours, he felt it was time to quit for fear that his listeners might grow weary. But when he indicated that the sermon was about to end, the audience would not hear of it. "For God's sake, sir, they cried out, go on, go on." At this the Reverend Chaderton, happy to comply with their request, kept on preaching for some time.

The incident is noteworthy, not because it was rare during the Puritan era, but because it was common. It was mainly through the pulpit that Puritanism put its stamp on English society in the seventeenth century, especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. What the Puritans were unable to accomplish legally by petitioning the government, they achieved to a large degree by means of their sermons.

Reasons for their Popularity
One reason why Puritan sermons were so popular and made such an impact was that the preachers themselves were men of integrity who practised what they preached. The two adjectives most often used in describing Puritan ministers were "godlyÓ and Òlearned." Their godliness stood out in sharp contrast to the character of the average Anglican clergyman.

Many of the latter held their positions by patronage and were clearly in it for the money. They often lived scandalous lives and were sadly lacking in spiritual qualifications for the office. In such a context it is easy to see why Puritans emphasized the need for "godly pastors." William Perkins, one of the greatest of the early Puritans, said "he must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men."

The Puritan preachers were also learned. In this respect they were, generally speaking, also superior to their Anglican colleagues. With all their learning they were able to preach in such a way that the uneducated could follow them and benefit from their preaching. What was said of Jesus, namely that the common people heard him gladly, could also be said of most Puritan ministers. Many of them drew great crowds Sunday after Sunday.

But it was not just the common, uneducated people who flocked to hear Puritan ministers. Many professional and business people were also drawn to Puritan preaching. Richard Sibbes was popular among students at Grey's Inn, one of the most prestigious law schools in England. He and his colleagues also attracted many theological students from Oxford and Cambridge, so that one could say that the Puritan pulpit greatly influenced the soul of the English nation by gaining the ear of society's future leaders.

Another reason why Puritan preaching was so popular was that it clearly bore the stamp of seriousness. Puritan preachers spoke with solemnity and with unction. As one listener put it, "there is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell." Richard Baxter, one of the most popular Puritan preachers, put it this way:

It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation,
and deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the
living God, in the name of our Redeemer. It is not an easy matter
to speak so plain, that the ignorant may understand us; and so
serious that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so convincingly,
that contradicting cavillers may be silenced.

Someone who sat under John Cotton's preaching gave this testimony: ÒMr. Cotton preaches with such authority, demonstration, and life, that, methinks, when he preaches out of any Prophet or Apostle I hear not him; I hear that very Prophet and Apostle; yea, I hear the Lord Jesus Christ speaking in my heart.Ó

Emphasis on the Intellect
Anglican ministers, generally speaking, had a reputation not only for being very worldly but also very ignorant. The same, of course, was true of their congregations.

In light of this sad situation, the Puritans pressed for a better educated ministry and insisted on improving the level of theological training at the universities. They were convinced that man's intellect is the channel through which God speaks to people and convicts them of the truth of His Word. As one of them, Benjamin Whichcote, put it: ÒI have always found that such preaching of others has most commanded my heart which has most illumined my head." According to William Ames, "the receiving of the Word consists of two parts: attention of the mind and intention of the will."

Puritan preachers prepared their sermons carefully. "Painful preaching" was the ideal and by it Puritans meant painstaking, meticulous, carefully prepared sermons. Most ministers preached from notes, but some wrote their sermons out entirely. Thomas Goodwin declared, "Whereas some men are for preaching only extempore, and without study, Paul bids Timothy meditate and study, and give his mind wholly to these things."

Expository Preaching
Puritans generally favoured expository sermons that "opened" the meaning of a specific Bible passage. William Ames showed his strong dislike for topical preaching this way: "Ministers impose upon their hearers and altogether forget themselves when they propound a certain text in the beginning as the start of the sermon and then speak many things about or simply by occasion of the text, but for the most part draw nothing out of the text itself." The Puritans were very concerned about the application of the sermon, but not at the expense of clearly explaining the meaning of the text. As William Ames put it: "First the things contained in the text must be stated... In setting forth the truth in the text the minister should first explain it and then indicate the good which follows from it."

Organization of the Sermon
The typical Puritan sermon had three parts. As William Perkins states in his famous manual for preachers called The Art of Prophesying, the preacher, after he has read the text out of the canonical scriptures should:

1. give the sense and understanding of it being read, by the scriptures itself;

2. collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense;

3. apply, if he has the gift, the doctrines rightly collected to the life and manners of men in a simple and plain speech.

In other words, Puritan preachers would first interact with the surface meaning of the text; next, they would deduce doctrinal or moral principles from the text, and they ended by showing how those principles relate to daily Christian living. To modern ears parts one and two would probably be rather tedious and boring. Especially the second part, in which the preacher would outline the doctrines he found in the text in hair-splitting ways. Not only would he often find more than one doctrine in the text, but he felt constrained to buttress each doctrine with "the examples and testimonies of Scripture and by the force of reason grounded upon the same." The purpose of such "proof" and "reason" was to ensure that the doctrine adduced from a specific text had the whole weight of Scripture behind it.

Practical Application of Doctrine
Tedious as the first two parts of a Puritan sermon must have been at times, not only to modern ears, but also, I suspect, to many of the original hearers, the third segment, the application, was more interesting and it was usually for that part Puritan worshippers were waiting with anticipation. It was here where the preacher showed his greatest skill as he explored the "uses" of the doctrine he had first explained and documented from Scripture.

Puritan preachers for the most part were practical people. They realized that doctrine, no matter how sound, remains lifeless unless a person can "build bridges" from biblical truth to everyday living. Everything in the sermon was aimed at producing this result, namely that the listener might be moved to the proper spiritual and moral behaviour. James Durham, another famous preacher of the Puritan school put it this way:

Application is the life of preaching; and there is no less study,
skill, wisdom, authority and plainness necessary in the applying
of a point to the conscience of hearers, and in the pressing of
it home, than is required in the opening of some profound truth;
and therefore ministers should study the one as well as the
other... Hence preaching is called persuading, testifying,
beseeching, entreating, or requesting, exhorting, etc.

According to the Puritans, application was primarily a matter of appealing to the hearer's conscience. Therefore, as far as they were concerned, a sermon was not Biblical if it did not include a close application. William Ames states it this way: "They sin who stick to the naked finding and explanation of the truth, neglecting the use and practice in which religion and blessedness consist. Such preachers edify the conscience little or not at all." What Puritan preachers were aiming at with their carefully studied applications was to produce changes in their hearers by awakening their conscience. They were looking for basically two results: the conversion of the unsaved and the sanctification of believers.

Neither were they content to identify just two classes of hearers, believers and unbelievers. While they would agree, of course, that these are the two basic categories of which mankind is made up, they also recognized that within those two class there are further distinctions to be made. Thus they identified and addressed at least four categories of unbelievers: 1) those who are ignorant and unteachable; 2) those who are teachable but still ignorant; 3) those who have knowledge but are not yet humbled; 4) the "almost" Christian who show signs of being humbled but has not come to saving faith; 5) those who profess to be believers but who are "Gospel hypocrites.Ó The Puritan preachers also distinguished between four categories of Christians: 1) the weak Christian (babes in Christ); 2) the strong or assured Christian (fathers in Christ); 3) the concerned or seeking Christian; and 4) the fallen or backsliding Christian.

Today most preachers and their congregations object to this kind of discriminating preaching, but IÕm afraid they generally do so without carefully examining the Scriptural evidence which Puritan pastors adduced for drawing these distinctions. Modern preaching, if it makes distinctions at all, tends to be vague and generally fails to address the real needs of both sinners and saints in their varied situations and circumstances.

Affective Preaching
Puritan sermons not only addressed the intellect and the conscience of the hearers, but they also presented a strong appeal to the heart and will. The Puritan sermon was affective, i.e., it sought to affect the listener. It was said of Richard Mather that he aimed "to shoot his arrows not over people's heads, but into their hearts and consciences." Richard Baxter wrote, "If our words be not sharpened, and pierce not as nails, they will hardly be felt by stony hearts."

This imagery of attack and physical contact with the hearers in church captures very well the Puritan ideal of affective preaching. For the Puritans, however, this power to affect the heart of the listener does not reside in the preacher, as if he can manipulate his audience so as to produce results. Rather, they believed it was the Holy Spirit's work. The preaching of God's holy Word, said Richard Sibbes, is Òthe ministry of the Spirit.Ó

This kind of preaching demanded much from preacher and hearers alike. For Puritan congregations, listening to sermons was far from a spectator sport or entertainment. Rather, it was an active exercise that required one's full attention and often involved taking notes of the sermon for meditation afterwards. As Edmund Calamy put it: ÒSermons are like food on the table: you must eat it and not only eat it, but concoct it and digest it. One sermon well digested, well meditated upon, is better than twenty sermons without meditation." In addition to note-taking and meditation, many Puritans would also review and discuss the sermon at home in the family.

In closing, let me quote a few Puritans preachers as they give their evaluation of what they believed preaching should be.

John Bunyan: "I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel... Indeed, I have been as one sent unto them from the dead. I went myself in chains to preach to them in chains; and carried that fire in my own conscience that I persuaded them to be aware of."

Baxter: "I preached, as never sure to preach again, And as a dying man to dying men."

William Ames: "Preaching ought not to be dead, but alive and effective so that an unbeliever coming into the congregation of believers should be affected and, as it were, transfixed by the very hearing of the word so that he might give glory to God."

Richard Sibbes: "Indeed, preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ."

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