By Chad Van Dixhorn
BANNER OF TRUTH online
In its reform of the pulpit ministry of England, assembly members agreed on the rough outlines of a sketch of preachers and preaching. This final study summarizes seven points of a mainstream puritan vision for the pulpit as articulated by the Westminster assembly and its members.
God’s ambassadors: ordained preachers
The first mark of the puritan pulpit is that it be occupied by a man, ordained to the gospel ministry, by Christ’s church. George Gillespie (1613-1648) had ordination in view when he recalled a summative question asked by the Apostle Paul: ‘how shall they preach, except they be sent’? From this he inferred that preachers are given a special call and a special office. Not every sheep is a shepherd. Not every citizen is an ambassador.
Gillespie was responding to contemporaries who thought there was no ‘sacred calling, or solemn setting apart of men to the ministrie’, a view which he found unworkable and unbiblical. He pictures the chaos if everyone was a preacher and he returns to the Apostle Paul’s word: some are set apart; only they are ‘sent’. That is the core of the doctrine of ordination.
Ministers needed to be ordained and they also needed to be trained. John Lightfoot (1602-1675) argued that study was needful for anyone to be a preacher since it was necessary even for the Apostles. They engaged in ‘hearing, study, conference, and meditation’, and they were with Christ himself for a full year before being sent out to preach.
Some ‘decry learning and study’. But Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) notes that Timothy was commanded to study. Goodwin argues that extempore preaching only, without study, is actually contrary to Scripture. He also comments (perceptively) that those who argue against study still rely much on what they have heard and discussed. No one comes into the pulpit with a blank slate.
But that did not mean that this learning should always be displayed in the pulpit. In a lengthy exchange at the Westminster Assembly some men argued against citing authors or using foreign phrases in the pulpit. John Arrowsmith (1602-1659) was one who disagreed. Displays of learning are permissible and he could not resist citing Augustine (in Latin) to show that this is not a new opinion in the church.
Preachers needed to be ordained and trained, but they also needed to be ‘godly’, a word which sums up so much of what is said about elders in 1 Timothy and Titus. In fact, the Westminster Assembly was given the responsibility of seeing scandalous ministers removed from pulpits and godly, educated ministers put into them.
Initially, Parliament required the Assembly to examine candidates for their learning and godliness. In the spring of 1646, parliament changed its mind about godliness and required the Assembly to examine preachers for their learning only.
The Assembly picked up on the change in wording immediately and resolved not to pass any ministers until the problem was resolved. After some days’ deliberation they sent Dr. Peter Smith (1586-1653) alone to a committee of Parliament to press the Assembly’s case. The Assembly had chosen its man wisely, for it won its case and resumed questioning preachers about their doctrine and their life. The Word of God leaves no room to compromise on godliness.
The Word of God
The fourth plank of a puritan pulpit ministry is frequently found in exhortations to hearers of sermons, and not simply to preachers. Ministers needed to be ordained, learned and godly because (quoting Gillespie again) hearers were to ‘receave the word from the mouths of ministers, as Gods word’. According to William Gouge (1575-1653), this is the message of Hebrews 13, which reads, ‘Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God’. It might ‘properly the sound of a mans voice, yet that which true Ministers of God in exercising their ministeriall Function preach, is the Word of God’.
Jeremiah Burroughs (bap. 1601?, d. 1646) made the point with a line from Isaiah 66 — ‘and that trembleth at My Word’ — to cultivate a little reverence among his hearers. A God-fearing man or woman, he says, does not come ‘to hear the Word in an ordinary way, merely to spend so much time, or to hear what a man could say’. Rather, the Word, ‘either read or preached’, is attended to ‘with all reverence’. Such a one examines the preaching, but ‘dares not cavil against it’.
Burroughs holds up Moab’s King Eglon as an example to be followed by the saints, not, of course, in his ‘heathenish’ ways, nor in his untimely and disgusting death, but as one who rose to receive Ehud as an ambassador with ‘a message from God’. Burroughs then pushes the knife in a little deeper, asking his hearers if their ‘hearts . . . swell against’ preaching, asking them what they really think about preaching, and pointing out the irony of those who think they have escaped the world but still show the worst pride in rebelling against the Word of God.
Underlying this discussion of irreverence and pride is the assumption, obvious for Burroughs, that the faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Because preaching is the Word of God, irreverence and pride are scandalous.
The Outward and Ordinary Means of Grace: Preaching
If the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, then what is its place in the Christian life and worship? Unsurprisingly, the divines answer that preaching is the ordinary means of grace for Christians, which is my fifth point. Anthony Burgess (d. 1664) states that the faithful ministry of the Word is ‘the sure and ordinary way for conversion of men from their evil waies’.
He states this more strongly in his exposition of 1 Cor. 3: ‘The Ministry is the only ordinary way that God hath appointed, either for the beginnings or encrease of grace’. After all, ‘Faith is said to come by hearing’, and his own text informs the Corinthians that Paul and Apollos were the ‘ministers by whom ye believed’.
In 1649, William Greenhill (1597/8-1671) dedicated a preface to a portion of his Ezekiel commentary to a defence of preaching’s primacy, for ‘where the Word of God is not expounded, preached, and applied’ the people ‘perish’.
But is this always the case? What if people are not benefiting from the sermons? Alexander Henderson (c. 1583-1646) once admitted in a sermon, ‘I know many of you who has said, when ye came out from the preaching . . . that your souls has been nothing bettered by it’. People were perhaps a little more candid in those days! One question that many puritans would ask when the problem arose was put to the preachers: were they preaching Christ?
When he read about Ezekiel’s practice of proclaiming all that the Lord had shown him, Greenhill had little difficulty seeing an imperative for ministers: they are to preach only and preach all that they learn at Christ’s school.
Echoing similar sentiments, Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600-1658) states that it is ‘but labour lost to set up anything but Christ’. Ministers are ‘to bee much in preaching Christ’. Again, ‘your labours in preaching, will come to little, perhaps to nothing, if it not be Christ, or some thing in reference to Christ, on which you so laboriously insist in preaching’.
Goodwin submits that preachers would ‘add more beauty to their own feet’ if they would preach more of the gospel and less of ‘truths of less moment’. These sentiments are so common in the writings of the divines that I count Christ-centered preaching as the sixth of the seven marks of a puritan pulpit ministry.
As Arrowsmith writes, True ministers ‘set up Christ in their ministry; they are content themselves to stand in the crowd, and to lift up Christ upon their shoulders; content, not to be seen themselves, so Christ be exalted’.
‘The Spirit’s working’
The last, but not least distinguishing mark of a puritan pulpit ministry is a reliance on the Holy Spirit. In arguing for preaching puritans were always ready to admit that preaching did not appear to be a sensible means of advancing the gospel. Even in the seventeenth century, preaching was ‘very despicable and contemptible to human reason’.
But the so-called ‘problem’ with preaching is itself the answer. God deliberately chose a humble means that would amplify his own greatness and the Holy Spirit’s work. Burgess harks back to the picture of 1 Corinthians 3 where Paul reminds his readers that the preacher may sow and water, but God gives the increase. As in the administration of the sacraments, preaching is not automatically effective. The word, whether visible or audible, needs to be received by Spirit-given faith. And so, although preachers are described as co-workers with God, Burgess reminds us that a minister may be faithful but have no success since ‘successe is Gods work, not the Ministers duty’.
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661) says much the same, and it applies to far more than preaching. He reminds us that the benefit of all that we do rests in ‘the Spirit’s working’. And so as we sometimes reflect on our sins and failings as preachers, let us remember the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God through Jesus Christ – not simply for the good of our hearers, but also for ourselves.
This article is an extract and adaptation from Chad Van Dixhoorn’s forthcoming book, GOD’S AMBASSADORS: The Westminster Assembly and the reform of the English pulpit, 1643-1653; Reformation Heritage Books. Footnotes, references, and fuller discussions of this subject are found there.