Advice for Preachers

January 03, 2019

by Chad Van Dixhoorn

If a hundred preachers could agree on advice to be given to other ministers, it would probably be worth weighing their wisdom on the subject. This is just what the Westminster Assembly offered in a “sub-directory” on preaching within the body’s larger Directory for Worship. It is there that the gathering explained that one who expects to preach needs to be a scholar, a worshipper, an orator, an apologist, a pastor, and a servant.

A Scholar

Even before he enters a pulpit, the preacher is called to be a scholar. Referring readers back to the Directory for Ordination, the Assembly explained that “accordinge to the Rules of Ordination” a minister must “in some good measure” be “guifted for soe weighty a service.” He is to have “skill in the originall languages & in such arts & Sciences as are hand maides to Divinity.” He is to have “knowledg in the whole body of Theology, but most of all in the holy Scriptures.” He is to be able to understand and to summarize scripture, to analyze and divide texts, to ensure that the truths he expounds are “contained in or grounded on that text” he preaches, and to “cheefly insist upon those doctrines which are principally intended” in the passage he addresses. Nonetheless, he is to be the kind of scholar whose teaching is “expressed in plaine termes” because he is a scholar whose work is for the benefit of others and not just for himself or his peers.

Even before he enters a pulpit, the preacher is called to be a scholar.

A Worshipper

In the paragraphs most clearly emphasizing a preacher’s scholarly abilities, the Assembly also stressed that he is a worshipper. In fact, immediately after stressing that a preacher is to be a student of truth and an expert in the Bible, the directory states that the preacher must have “his senses & hart exercised in them above the common sort of beleevers.” He is to trust in “the illumination of God’s Spirit & other guiftes of edification.” In “reading & studying of the Word,” and in seeking God “by prayer, & an humble hart,” the preacher is always to be “resolving to admitt & receive any truth not yet attained, when ever God shall make it knowne unto him.” Assembly members considered preparation for preaching as an act of piety, a sanctifying experience of personal worship. And thus “he is to make use of” and “improve” on “his private preparations, before he deliver in publique” what he has studied. That is to say, he is to be “persuaded in his owne heart that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ” and “earnestly both in private & in Publique recomending his labours to the blessing of God, & wachfully looking to himselfe & the flocke wherof the Lord hath made him overseer.”

An Orator

Preachers are not mere professionals, paid to study topics and prepare sermons. Nonetheless, they are to be orators, men able to construct and deliver addresses that are well-ordered and persuasive. The assembly expected sermons to have introductions, well-ordered arguments, and illustrations that engender “spiritual delight.” The directory directs him to exhort and dehort; to explicate and to insist. The liability of the label “orator” is that it could suggest that preaching is but a type of rhetoric. This the assembly would reject. The subdirectory insists that preachers communicate in a manner “that the meanest may understand, delivering the truth not in the entiseing words of mans wisdome, but in demonstration of the spirit & of power, lesse the crosse of Christ should be made of none effect.” The preacher’s “gesture[s], voice & expressions” were to be appropriate to his ministry. The preacher must abstain “alsoe from an unprofitable use of unknowne tongues, strange phrayses & cadences of sounds & words, sparingly citing sentences of Ecclesiasticall or other humane writers, ancient or modearne, be they never so elegant.” It was not elegance that the assembly was after.

Preachers are not mere professionals, paid to study topics and prepare sermons.

While they knew preaching would be “a worke of great difficulty . . . requireing much prudence, zeale, & meditation,” what the assembly really wanted were men who could preach in such a way that “auditors may feele the word of God to be quicke & powerfull,” to discover the “discerner of the thoughts & intents of the heart.” And “if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his hart made manifest, & give glory to God.”

An Apologist

The directory also insists that a preacher is to be aware of and respond to error, that there is an apologetic dimension to his work. There is no assumption on the part of the directory that people who come to worship will believe whatever the preachers says. That is why the sermon is to employ “places of scripture, confirming the doctrine,” and why these places “are rather to be plaine & pertinent then many.” The preacher is to offer “Arguments or Reasons” that are “solid, &, as much as may be, convincing.” What is more, “If any doubt, obvious from scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seeme to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by reconciling the seeming differences, answering the reasons, & discovering & taking away the causes of prejudice & mistake.” Of course there are preachers who have made it their hobby to refute heresy, and so the assembly also added, sensibly, that “it is not fitt to detaine the hearers with propounding or answering vaine or wicked cavilles, which as they are endlesse, soe the propounding & answering of them doth more hinder than promote edification.” Or to put it another way, “In Confutation of false doctrines, he is neither to rayse an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily. But if the people be in dang[e]r of an error he is to confute it soundly, & endeavour to satisfy their Judgments & consciences against all objections.”

. . . continue reading at Reformation 21.

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