Should We Preach like the Puritans? No
March 10, 2017
The Puritans set high standards for preaching. They believed they should preach the Bible from their own experience of it and apply what they preached to the particular needs of their hearers. But as much as we admire the Puritans, we should not slavishly imitate them, but critically examine their approach to preaching. My topic for the next two posts is “Should We Preach like the Puritans?” In this first post I will answer “no.” In the second I will answer "yes.”
The Puritans followed an educational method called "Ramism" after French philosopher Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) who attempted to modify Aristotelian philosophy by orienting it toward practical godliness instead of intellectual speculation. In many ways, the Ramist approach helped Puritans to analyze a topic theologically and practically. However, Ramism also introduced a methodological complexity to preaching that few modern hearers can receive well. Let me offer some specifics.
1. Do Not Structure Sermons by Theology but Exegesis
The typical Puritan sermon began with an exegetical introduction that derived a specific doctrinal proposition. This was broken down into its parts and expounded. Finally, various applications were made. John Flavel’s (1628-1691) sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:30 is an example (Works 2:15–33). He began by speaking of the excellence of Christ and arguing that we must have his benefits applied to us. He then examined the four benefits: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. This led to his main doctrine: “The Lord Jesus, with all his precious benefits, becomes ours, by God’s special and effectual application,” which in turn led to several doctrinal propositions and seven practical inferences. In print, the exegesis fills only three pages; the doctrines and applications occupy fifteen.
As much as we can learn from Flavel, I do not believe that this is the best way to preach today. I am not against topical or doctrinal preaching; in my Dutch Reformed tradition, we regularly preach based on the Heidelberg Catechism. However, the standard Puritan method places systematic theology in the foreground and the particular words of Scripture in the background. We would do better to reverse this and devote the whole sermon to expounding and applying the message of a particular text.
2. Do Not Multiply Points but Strive for Simplicity
The Ramist method analyzed a topic by dividing it into categories, and those categories into sub-categories with each level becoming more specific. The aim was to avoid abstract generalities and to discuss a topic with a level of detail and concreteness that facilitated practical application. For example, Peter Vinke's (d. 1702) sermon on original sin (Puritan Sermons, 1659–1689, 5:115-134). His text was Romans 6:6, which he handled in a single page. After the intro, he propounded two main doctrinal headings and one practical. Point 1 has two sub-points; the first sub-point contains four sub-sub-points; the fourth of these sub-sub points contains two sub-sub-sub-points. You get the point! The outline contains sixty-four points organized in six descending levels.
Don’t try this at your church! The Puritan method system of education prepared people to listen in this way; ours does not. In all fairness, we should also remember that Puritan sermons as they appears in print may not reflect exactly how they were preached as authors would later revise them for publication. Nevertheless, the Puritan style of preaching involved a complexity of structure that most modern hearers cannot sustain well in their minds.
3. Do Not Overwhelm with Applications but Focus
The Puritans called applications “uses.” They developed multiple uses for different spiritual conditions of people as well as different kinds of applying Scripture. Their preaching was so rich in application that it functioned as a kind of biblical counseling from the pulpit. However, the effect of such elaborate schemes of application was to blunt the effect of the whole sermon. For example, consider a sermon by Thomas Manton (1620–1677) on Isaiah 53:5 (Works, 3:272-295). He had three main doctrines. The first had two uses, the first of which was consolation for the suffering, subdivided into people suffering at the hands of their families and friends, or from general rejection, legal injustice, and public contempt. The second doctrine had another two uses: confutation of theological errors of the Socinians and Papists and exhortation for people to look upon Christ’s suffering for sins with faith, love, and repentance from sin. The third doctrine was divided in two, each with two applications. From a single verse he made eight distinct applications.
If we visualize his uses, the effect is somewhat like shooting with a shotgun loaded with scatter shot. You may hit many targets, but you will not take any of them down. It is wiser to structure a sermon as a high-powered rifle with a scope. Make application with each main point of your sermon, but align the applications so that they all have one unified thrust, which is the main thrust of the text.
4. Do Not Preach Too Many Sermons on One Topic or Verse but Keep Moving
The Puritans’ thorough approach often resulted in extended sermon series, which you can see in their books, many of which consist of published sermons. Robert Traill (1642–1716) preached sixteen sermons on only one verse: John 17:24 (Works, 2:1-298). Thomas Hooker’s (1586–1647) sermons on Acts 2:37 and the breaking of the heart over sin prior to conversion fill seven hundred pages in the original edition (reprinted as "The Application of Redemption"). Hooker spent so much time on the series on contrition over sin that it could have made the love and forgiveness of Christ seem distant to his hearers. This method makes for excellent reading but will not work well as a series of messages today.
5. Do Not Preach with Too Many Cross-References but Only a Few
It is amazing to see the Puritans’ grasp of the whole Bible, especially knowing that they lived long before the days of Bible software and internet search engines. They drew proof texts from all over the Old and New Testaments. For example, Owen preached two sermons on Romans 1:16 (Works, 9:217–37), citing fifty texts; Flavel’s sermon on John 3:16 cites thirty-three texts (Works, 1:62–72).
The great strength of this is that it roots systematic theology in the whole Bible. This wide-ranging knowledge of God’s Word that men like these had at the tip of their tongues should humble us. However, the main text had a tendency to be obscured. We should use cross-references to confirm the doctrines we derive from the main text, but it is best to focus on an exposition of one text, and cite only one or two cross-references for each point. If you are going to preach Romans 1:16 or John 3:16, then allow that text to control your sermon and press its major thrust of application upon your listeners with all your might.
In critiquing Puritan preaching, we do not dishonor the Puritans as faithful servants of God, but only acknowledge that they were mere men, fallen and fallible, and men of a particular time and place. Even as we disagree with their methods, let us admire their zeal and effectiveness under the blessing of God’s Spirit.