On Puritan Preaching # 4 – Handling Objections to Doctrine

November 27, 2009

The Westminster Directory for Public Worship (WDPW) specifies several sources from which objections to sound doctrines may arise. “If any doubt, obvious from scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seem to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by reconciling the seeming differences, answering the reasons, and discovering and taking away the causes of prejudice and mistake.” Let’s look at each in turn.

(1) Doubts arising from Scripture: Roman Catholics, Arminians, Quakers and Socinians were the principle opponents targeted in the Westminster Standards. All were noted for quoting Scripture in support of their views. Dr. Carl Trueman has pointed out how orthodox writers had to relinquish various texts that had traditionally been used to prove the doctrine of the Trinity because of Socinian exegesis of those texts. So, too, Roman Catholics were more than happy to quote numerous Bible verses. The Enchiridion of John Eck (Luther’s dogged opponent) is little more than a topical list of Biblical texts that supported Rome’s distinctive doctrines. He has thousands of Scriptures listed. (See the translation by Ford L. Battles that was published by Baker in 1978). Showing the harmony of Scripture’s teaching would be the first and foremost kind of objection to a Puritan pastor.

(2) Doubts arising from reason: We are unaccustomed in our day to think of the Puritans as putting a lot of emphasis on reason. Yet it is much more prominent in their sermons & other writings than commonly recognized. “Good and necessary consequence” is one area where reason is used to develop Christian doctrine. But they were not shy about showing the logical consistency of Bible truth or, at a minimum, of showing that our deepest truths were not internally inconsistent. To show that a doctrine was inherently contradictory was to consign it to the scrap heap for our Puritan fathers. They understood that what is contradictory could not be true. They expected their hearers to be able to follow their rational defenses of orthodox truths.

(3) Doubts arising from the prejudice of the hearers: These great physicians of soul were well aware that oftentimes a person’s rejection of Biblical revelation was not due to a lack of compelling evidence, but to prejudice which can arise from any number of sources, such as hatred of the truth or loyalty to a former teacher or loyalty to one’s religious/political party or enmity arising from differing geographical settings, that determined a person’s belief. Here, more than in the previous two sources of doubt, the preacher had to know his people. They fully embraced the belief that, ordinarily, a preacher could not preach well, who did not know his people well. For instance, the learned in the universities often despised Puritan preaching because it came in a plain style. Puritan preachers would rebuke such attitudes, by pointing to the serious implications of the Word preached. We would do well to consider all three sources of doubt today if our purpose is to help our hearers whole-heartedly embrace the truth of God’s Word without doubting.

One last point on this topic, the WDPW also notes that not every objection is worthy of reply. “Otherwise it is not fit to detain the hearers with propounding or answering vain or wicked cavils, which, as they are endless, so the propounding and answering of them doth more hinder than promote edification.” Dealing with objections from the pulpit requires prudence else-wise a pulpit ministry could degrade itself into trivialities or negativity. The Puritans were essentially a happy people. They lived in the consciousness of the love of God. This marks their preaching. Caveat lector!

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