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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Preach like a Puritan

What is “expository” preaching? Admittedly, the word carries different meanings for different believers. For some, preaching “verse by verse” through the Scriptures means carefully reading through a specific text of the Bible and extracting its most basic message. For others, it includes the practice of lectio continua, or preaching each verse, chapter, and book consecutively through the entire Bible. For instance, after his exile in Strasbourg, John Calvin famously returned to Geneva and began preaching the very next verse in Psalms where he had left off three years earlier! (Letter to William Farel) The history of Protestantism is the history of the defense of Scripture. However, not all Protestants have rightly divided Scripture in the same way.

Today, many evangelical preachers believe that a faithful exposition of the text must encompass every single relevant truth pertaining to a particular passage. But Martin Luther didn’t see it that way. According to the German Reformer, the preacher must be careful lest he becomes like a servant girl who, on the way to the marketplace, stops and converses with all the acquaintances she meets. “Preachers who wander too far from their subject are doing the same thing,” Luther insisted. “They intend to say everything at once but this is impossible.” Good preaching has a precise aim. The English and American Puritans were careful not simply to present Scripture, but to deliver it in such a way that it captured their listeners. However, to the surprise of many, Puritans weren’t necessarily “expositional” in the way that many evangelicals would define the multivalent term today.

Faithfulness to Scripture.

As the spiritual descendants of the first generation of Reformers, the Puritans also extolled God’s Word and its proclamation. According to Elizabethan Puritan Richard Sibbes, preaching the Bible is the greatest gift to the church. “It is a gift of all gifts,” Sibbes wrote. “God esteems it so, Christ esteems it so, and so should we esteem it.” (The Fountain Opened) The Word was central to the Puritan life. For Richard Baxter, “We must not try the Scriptures by our most spiritual apprehensions, but our apprehensions by the Scriptures.” The Bible was the standard and lens for everything, including our deepest thoughts. Even the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was tightly wed to the doctrine of the Word; preaching was intimately pneumatological. For John Flavel, “The same Spirit also works in us that Faith by which we are enabled to believe those Scripture Propositions to be divine infallible truths.” Puritans were people of Word and Spirit.

Dedication to Doctrine

The Puritan penchant for simplicity and austerity wasn’t relegated to their liturgy or the church building itself. It was also manifested in the rigid, rational form of the sermon. Puritans believed that the “plain” style was most “profitable” for the soul, in order that it might fully penetrate the mind and heart. Contrary to the eloquent orations of the Anglican bishops, Puritan sermons were lectures designed to inculcate Gospel principles. First, the Puritan sermon normally began with the reading of the text. The Puritan “opened” it as quickly as possible, expounding the context and setting of the passage. This included explanation of grammar and the rhetoric of the passage. Next, the Puritan preacher proclaimed in a straightforward way the “doctrine” contained in the text and labored to logically unpack this doctrine. “A doctrine must first be rightly found out, and then afterward handled,” said William Ames. In his famous preaching textbook, The Art of Prophecying, William Perkins taught this highly methodical form, and the benefit of topics and sub-topics. Ultimately, rewording texts into doctrinal statements was one of the gems of Puritan preaching, designed to make a highly developed argument for the reasonableness of Gospel truths.

Heat with Light

Thanks to bogus accounts of, for instance, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), many evangelicals today falsely believe that Puritan sermons were incredibly dull and mind-numbing. Nothing could be further from reality. The best Puritan preacher believed that sinners must have their heads filled and their hearts touched. Every fire has heat and light. According to Connecticut River Puritan Thomas Hooker, the preacher is “to work upon the will and the affections and by savory, powerful and affectionate application of the truth delivered, to chase it into the heart, to woo and win the soul to the love and liking, the approbation and practice of the doctrine which is according to godliness.” (A Survey of the Summe of Church Discipline) If more Christians chose to read Edwards' magisterial Religious Affections instead of basing his entire reputation on one austere sermon delivered to a neighbor congregation, Edwards' legacy as “the theologian of the Great Commandment” would be far more widely accepted. (Joseph Haroutunian, 1944) For the delivery of the logos, the preacher must also have pathos. As the scientists of conversion, Puritan preachers were deeply experiential.

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