Seven Marks of a Puritan Pulpit Ministry

July 02, 2018

by Chad Van Dixhoorn

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 ministry,” 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.

The Word of God leaves no room to compromise on godliness.

Trained Preachers

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.

Godly Preachers

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.

Those who argue against study still rely much on what they have heard and discussed.

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 “receive the word from the mouths of ministers, as God’s 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 be “properly the sound of a man’s voice, yet that which true ministers of God in exercising their ministerial 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.

. . . continue reading at Reformation 21.

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by Elizabeth Groves