The Grammar of Puritan Preaching

Preaching was the heartbeat of the Puritan movement. It would be no exaggeration to say that without Puritan preaching there would have been no Puritans. To quote Irvonwy Morgan, "Puritanism in the last resort must be assessed in terms of the pulpit."[1] And though much has changed since the 17th century, Reformed Christians today are indebted to the Puritans for their contribution to preaching. 

But what exactly is Puritan preaching? How may it be properly distinguished from other forms of preaching? Why has its influence been so palatably felt by succeeding generations?

These questions can be answered in different ways, but I'd like to take an atypical approach. Most readers will be familiar with the trivium, or three-fold classical approach to learning. As a means of conveying information to the student, the classical method employed three distinct, yet progressive stages: (1) grammar; (2) dialectic; and (3) rhetoric. According to this classical model, the initial phase of learning any subject necessarily involved learning the basic facts about the particular subject (i.e. grammar). Next came the dialectic phase, which required the student to master the principles or inter-relatedness among those basic facts, thus arriving at a "whole" picture of the individual, basic parts. Lastly, in the rhetoric phase the student was expected to be able to express, either vocally or literarily, the totality of what he had learned in the first two phases. 

If this seems foreign, a modern example might help. Consider how a mother might teach her four-year old son how to read. Most would agree that she should begin by having the child learn the foundational facts about our language. This will involve memorizing the alphabet and its corresponding sounds. Over time the child will eventually learn the identification and usage of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. In short, the child will learn the grammar of our language.

But grammar alone is not sufficient for knowing how to read and write. The child must eventually learn the proper relationships between nouns and verbs, between sentences and paragraphs, between words and books. In short, the child will learn the dialectics of language.

But what good is knowledge of language if one is ill-equipped to convey such knowledge to others? Not much. Therefore the child must learn how to express what he has learned. He must learn how to write and speak for himself. In short, the child must eventually learn the art of rhetoric.

In this post and those that follow, the classical pattern of the trivium will help us understand the basic components of Puritan preaching (grammar), how those components related (dialectic), and how they were to be artfully expressed (rhetoric).[2] Ultimately, it is the author's goal that this brief synopsis of Puritan preaching will be useful to the reader (and by extension the church) by engendering better preachers and better listeners of a most lovely gospel.

 God's Word as Grammar

"Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you." — Thomas Watson

Just as essential as phonics is for teaching a child how to read, so too the Bible was the sine qua non of Puritan preaching. The Puritans were not just Theo-centric, they were Word-centric. The full-orbed implications of the Reformation maxim sola scriptura were writ large upon the face of Puritan preaching. The lives of the Puritans were uniformly shaped by the revealed will of the Triune God contained in sixty-six books which they believed were divinely preserved for the good of God's people. Accordingly, the Puritans "loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. They viewed Scripture as God speaking to them as their Father, giving them the truth they could trust for all eternity."[3]

The main concern of Puritan preaching was to transmit God's infallible word to His people. Puritan preaching was marked by an unadulterated concern to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life.[4] For the Puritans, all theological language was ultimately God's language (provided it is true). To that end, how could a preacher possibly endeavor to employ God's Word from the pulpit without making a strident and vigorous effort to understand it not just generally, but particularly? The Puritans aimed simultaneously for telescopic knowledge of the Scriptures as well as for microscopic knowledge; their sermons exhibit appreciation for the texture of both systematic and biblical theology. Indeed, this is hardly surprising because "Puritan preachers received the Bible as a coherent unit rather than a random collection of unconnected fragments."[5]

The Puritan conviction about the centrality of the Bible in preaching was reinforced by the practice of largely or exclusively limiting the details of the sermon to biblical material.[6] Puritan preaching was expository in nature, meaning that the entire sermon was to be inextricably tied to the text. The mere establishment of a connection between the sermon and the text was not sufficient for Puritan preachers. Quite the contrary, for, according to the Puritans, "The sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon in the text... Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible."[7]

Christ as Grammar

"Exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ. Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be: Christ is all. Let others develop the pulpit fads that come and go. Let us specialize in preaching our Lord Jesus Christ." — Cotton Mather

To be Word-centered is to be necessarily Christ-centered. The Puritans understood this architectonic principle and their preaching reflected it. According to Beeke, Puritan preaching "focuses on God's written Word, the Bible, and His living Word, Jesus Christ."[8] In accordance with scriptural data such as Luke 24:44-45[9] and John 5:39[10] the Puritans read their Bibles through rose-colored lenses tinted by the blood of a crucified savior and risen Lord. It was their goal in every text to solidify that the "great theme and controlling contour of experiential preaching is Jesus Christ, for he is the supreme focus, prism, and goal of God's revelation."[11] Hence William Perkins, the great Puritan homiletician, writes that the heart of all preaching is "to preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ."[12]

This twin focus upon God's Word and the agent of that Word, namely Christ, was the essence of Puritan preaching. Every nuance and detail of their sermons was a mere reflection and out-working of those twin principles. Christ and His Word were the most basic facts of Puritan preaching—indeed they were the grammar of Puritan preaching. 

Joe Steele is Senior Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, AL. He is husband to Elizabeth and father of four.

Related Links

"Preaching the Person and Work of Christ" by Ben Franks

"Puritan Preachers: William Perkins" by Joel Beeke

"Always Preach Christ?" by Ryan McGraw

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon


[1] Quoted in Joseph A. Pipa's, "William Perkins and the Development of Puritan Preaching," (Doctoral Thesis Submitted to Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 216-217.

[2] Obviously, the analogy between Puritan preaching and the trivium model of education is not presumed to be watertight. It is only hoped that such an angle of approach might give rise to fresh insight into the timeless nature of Puritan preaching. After all, the trivium existed long before the Puritans.

[3] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), xix.

[4] Beeke and Pederson, xvii.

[5] David H. Jussely, The Puritan use of the Lectio Continua in Sermon Invention (1640-1700) (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 2007) 130.

[6] Leland Ryken, Wordly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) 99.

[7] Millar Maclure, The Paul's Cross Sermons, 1534-1642 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958), p. 165.

[8] Joel Beeke, Living for God's Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), p. 257.

[9] Jesus said, "These are the words which I spoke unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me."

[10] Jesus himself said, "Search the scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me."

[11] Beeke, Living for God's Glory, p. 258.

[12] Ibid, p. 258. 

Note: This post was originally published in August 2010.