On Puritan Preaching # 3: The Psychology of Polemics in the Pulpit

November 25, 2009

I would like to briefly reflect upon the place of doctrinal controversy in Puritan preaching.  After giving the Scriptural and logical reasons for a truth, the preacher had the option of answering objections to the doctrine.  This might come as a surprise to us because we are frequently counseled to be positive and not to criticize others in our sermons.

But why enter into polemics at all?  Our answer is two-fold.  First the Puritans saw polemics in the preaching of the Bible.  That the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God contained polemical passages, proves that there is nothing inherently inappropriate or sinful in doing so.

Secondly, and even more importantly, they found a ‘psychology’ in the Bible, in which understanding the content of a truth and being persuaded of it are foundational to believing it.  For the Puritan all responses to God’s Word begin in the power of the mind (often conceived as a faculty) to understand words and concepts.  What is not understood cannot be believed, which is the basis for their critique of the ‘implicit faith’ advocated by Roman theologians.  In addition to understanding the truth, the mind also has the power to make judgments about it.  Is there explicit evidence for a doctrine?  Is there inferential evidence for it?  Is the evidence of such a character that I should find it persuasive?  Am I persuaded, or like Herod, “almost persuaded?”

Both of these things must take place before a person will experience the stirring of their affections towards any truth because, in regenerate persons, love of the truth follows knowing the truth.  For example, if I come to understand the meaning of Christ’s death and am persuaded it is God’s way of redemption, then my affections can begin to respond to our Lord’s atonement.  I will find myself increasingly filled with delight at the love that sent the Son of God to the shameful death of the cross.  I will find my heart broken because my sins nailed my Savior to the awful tree, etc.  Once my affections are stirred, then, and only then, am I willing to respond appropriately to the message of the Gospel.  I will trust God to save me by faith alone.  I will turn from my sins and resolve to obey all God’s commandments all the time.  (Of course, my understanding and affections being conflicted by indwelling sin, I find a war within; a war in which I lose many battles and suffer many wounds even in my victories.)

Given this ‘psychology’ they knew that to the degree a hearer had any lingering doubts arising from unanswered objections, to that degree he would be unable to respond to the truth from the heart or will to obey it.  Therefore, the preacher helped strengthen his hearers faith, by answering the common sorts of objections that they would likely encounter among their neighbors.

We are often concerned that polemics can arise from wrong motives such as pride in exhibiting one’s theological superiority over others, or in trying to isolate our people from anyone else’s influence.  Therefore, it is important to see that our Puritan fathers had a pastoral intention in their handling of objections.  Their motives for entering into polemics were for the protection and edification of their flock.  They sought to lead their flocks into unfettered joy in the Gospel by convincing the mind so that the heart could find delight and the will would be moved to Gospel obedience.  What does our preaching say about how we understanding the human psyche and how growth in grace is cultivated from the pulpit?  Caveat Lector!


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