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The Puritan's Hermeneutic Approach to Preaching

       The hermeneutic task of a missionary preacher is to ask the question, “How do the biblical message of God’s grace address the needs of modern audience in a particular historical and sociological situation?”  A missionary preacher also asks the question, “how can a preacher communicate the profundity of the biblical message in a easy language the target audience can understand?”

        Puritanism was the movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth century England which sought further reformation and revival in the Church of England that the Elizabethan settlement allowed.  Puritanism was a genuine movement of renewal.  The movement came with renewal of worship and renewal of preaching.

        The Puritans wanted to convert the Church of England; they sought after the Church that is theologically orthodox, spiritually alert, and joyously sure of salvation.  In addition, they believed in integrating into their lives the Christian faith.  For them, there was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. They wanted godly society and acted for it— family worship and schools for the poor are some of the good examples.

        The movement was more than a geographical advance of the Christendom. While the movement saw missionary thrust into non-European regions, it is highly marked by the renewal and transformation it brought—in church, society as well as individual life—in a nominally Christian society.  Their goal of the mission was the conversion of the soul.  In this regard, a significance of the movements was their missionary thrust into the souls and minds of the people.[1]

        The movement saw the flowering of expository preaching.  The Puritans devotedly dig into the profound meaning of the gospel message in the well of the Bible.  Equally true was that the Puritans excelled in preaching in a practical way as their sermons reflect it.  By doing so, they made the Word of the Bible relevant to the people of their day.

        The Puritans believed in ‘plain, direct, experimental, saving preaching.’  Preaching was to be simple, earnest, and faithful (Lloyd-Jones 1987:284-285).  For the Puritans the end of preaching is to make manifest to the unlearned stranger the things of his own heart.  It is to obtain “an admirable plainness and an admirable powerfulness.”  That must be plain by which an unlearned man is enabled to perceive his own faults.  That must be powerful which moves the unregenerate conscience to exclaim, “Certainly God speaks in this man!” (Haller 1957:130).[2]

        The Puritan preachers asserted that only so much doctrine was important to be understood by men of least knowledge and capacity.  What is important for us is, then, not what the learned doctor’s doctrine was—not how they argued among themselves—but what it meant and did to the common public.  Thus, the Puritan preachers labored earnestly to make themselves understood by their audience (Haller 1957:131).

        The missionary proclamation of the English Puritanism teaches us, reminds us that human beings are totally lost apart from God and salvation is utterly impossible apart from God’s grace.  But every person has full potential to be the child of God if redeemed by God.  Once redeemed by God, we are also in partnership in God in redemption by being His heralds to announce His salvation, His Kingdom, and His rule (Kim 1997:66).

        Of the supreme value in the Puritan preaching is the unity of 'exposition' and ‘application’ they retained in their preaching.  As Packer remarks it: “Puritans preached the Bible systematically and thoroughly, with sustained application to personal life, preaching it as those who believed it, and who sought by their manner to make their matter credible and convincing, convicting and converting" (1994:280).

        The Puritan preacher regarded himself as the mouthpiece of God and the servant of His words.  He must speak ‘as the oracle of God.’  His task, therefore, was not information, fastening on to Scripture text meanings they do not bear, nor was it juxtaposition, using his text as a peg on which to hang some homily unrelated to it.  The preacher’s task was precisely, exposition, extracting from his texts what God had encased within them (Packer 1994:284).

        The Puritan method of  ‘opening’ a text was first to explain it in its context; next, to extract from the text one or more doctrinal observations embodying its substances, and then to amplify, illustrate, and conform form other Scriptures the truths thus derived; and finally, to draw out their practical implications for the hearers (284).

        Puritan preaching was piercing in its application.  The Puritan preachers trained their homiletical searchlights on specific states of spiritual need, and spoke to these in a precise and detailed way.  Puritan pastoral preachers would speak half or more of their preaching time developing applications.   Packer comments, “Strength of application was, from one standpoint, the most striking feature of Puritan preaching, and it is arguable that the theory of discriminating application is the most valuable legacy that Puritan preaching have left to those who would preach the Bible and its gospel effectively today” (1994:286-87).

        Moreover, the Puritans maintained the harmony of explication and application in plain speech.  The calculated effort to appeal to the popular audience affected the structure as well as the style of the sermon.  The preacher carried into the pulpit, as a rule, little more than the heads of the discourse he was to deliver.  This method of preaching, as prescribed by Perkins, required first that the preacher read the text out of Scripture and then explains or ‘open’ it in its context.  He should then proceed to collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense.  Finally he must apply the doctrines rightly collected, to the life and manners of men in a simple, plain speech.  These were called ‘the uses’ (Haller 1957:134).

       Just as the Puritan preachers had, we also have the question: "What are the essentials of the Kingdom of God proclamation that can be translated into the language that even most unlearned people can understand?"  And this is how we find that the Puritan preacher's harmony of explication and application in plain speech has implications for the preaching in our days.  Indeed , it is a clue for our missiological approach to the homiletic question, "How can a preacher be a person of deep understanding in Scripture, and still use easy language for audience?"   


[2] Refer to Perkins’ Works, III, 430.

  © This article is an excerpt from "The Missionary Proclamation of the English Puritanism,"a paper by Dae Ryeong Kim.