On Puritan Preaching #1

November 19, 2009

I thought I’d say a few things about the Puritan method of expository preaching so that I can focus more on content than form in the forthcoming Manton posts.  Please note that when I speak of a ‘text” or ‘a verse,’ in what follows, I do not intend merely one verse only.  A text is however many verses the Preacher decides he needs to address. It could be one verse or it could be many, as the Westminster Directory of Public Worship (WDPW) says, in its chapter ‘On Preaching,’ “If the text be long, (as in histories or parables it sometimes must be,) let him give a brief sum of it; if short, a paraphrase thereof, if need be: in both, looking diligently to the scope of the text, and pointing at the chief heads and grounds of doctrine which he is to raise from it.”

Puritan preaching was designed to do several things, (1) put a text in its context; (2) analyze the verse logically or rhetorically; (3) establish one or more truths (doctrines) that are taught in the text; (4) discuss one or more of those truths; (5) answer objections to that truth if necessary and (6) apply the truth(s) to the conscience of those who hear it.

(1)  It is a great mistake to think that Puritans were shameless ‘proof-texters.’ By that I mean preachers who rip a verse out of context and twist it to their own purposes without regard to the purpose of the Biblical and Divine author.  This is what the Puritans would call, “doing violence to the text.” Their goal was to expound the mind of God as revealed in the text.  Well-trained in logic and rhetoric they were fully aware of the importance of context.  The WDPW states, “Let the introduction to his text be brief and perspicuous, drawn from the text itself, or context, or some parallel place, or general sentence of scripture.”

(2)  This analysis is always brief.  It identifies the logical connection between the various parts of the verse.  It addresses the question, “Why did the author say this?  Why did he use this particular word?  Why did he say this at this point?” If one wants to understand a text, one must seek to get into the author’s head.  He does this by trying think along with the Biblical author.  By seeing what he is doing, the expositor tries to discern his purpose.

In analyzing his text, the preacher is giving his people a ‘bird’s eye view’ of what is contained in it.  Part of his intention is to assist the people to be able to remember what the key parts of the text are after the sermon has ended. Note the teaching of the WDPW, “In analyzing and dividing his text, he is to regard more the order of matter than of words; and neither to burden the memory of the hearers in the beginning with too many members of division, nor to trouble their minds with obscure terms of art.”

Next up is the importance and practice of identifying key truths, or doctrines, in any text.  Until then, Caveat Lector!


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