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Obscurity in Preaching? Unusual Advice from Richard Baxter

By admin | March 13, 2009

In 2002, a series of essays entitled The Rise of the Laity in Evangelical Protestantism ed. Deryck Lovegrove (London: Routledge, 2002) was published. The lead article, was written by Carl Trueman and called “Reformers, Puritans and Evangelicals: The Lay Connection.” In his essay, Trueman makes an interesting point:

If Protestant scholasticism represented the natural outcome of pedagogical developments and certain Reformation concerns, it nevertheless constituted at a self-conscious level the activity of an intellectual elite. Of more immediately positive significance for the lay orientation of post-Reformation Protestantism was the continued emphasis upon preaching. As noted earlier, the Reformation concern for preaching arose directly from the view that salvation, accessible to all, was grasped by faith in the word of God as found in scripture, scriptural preaching and the sacraments duly administered in the context of the word. The focus of Protestant theological education remained that of the preaching ministry even within the scholastic training of the seventeenth century. Preaching like scholastic theology had a dual function. On the one hand, it communicated the word of God to the congregation and acted as the immediate means of their salvation and growth as Christians. On the other, it was also a means of educating the congregation concerning sound doctrine, good exegesis and becoming Christian conduct. It thus reflected the dual aspect of the Reformation noted above: the liberation of the individual by placing the responsibility for salvation firmly in the believer’s own hands and the delimitation of this new-found freedom by the establishment of norms of Christian belief and conduct. Hence, puritan works place great emphasis upon the high calling of the preaching ministry. It is not something to which all should aspire but a vocation reserved for those who possess a profound experience of God’s grace, a great burden for the lost and, of crucial importance, the theological competence not to make major mistakes in the pulpit or give the impression that preaching is a task for the untrained person. (P. 28-29)

In a fascinating endnote, Trueman points the reader to a passge in Richard Baxter’s autobiography, stating “This is why Richard Baxter advised all preachers to say at least one thing in every sermon which no member of the congregation understood, in order to preserve the distinction between the ministry and the laity” (p. 35). I have taken the time to find this passage in Baxter, and transcribe it here. It is very interesting.

Baxter:

Another advantage which I found to my success was, by ordering my doctrine to them in a suitableness to the main end, and yet so as might suit their dispositions and diseases. The thing which I daily opened to them, and with greatest importunity laboured to imprint upon their minds, was the great fundamental principles of Christianity contained in the baptismal covenant, even a right knowledge, and belief of, and subjection and love to, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and Love to all men, and concord with the church and one another: I did so daily inculcate the knowledge of God our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, and love to and obedience to God, and unity with the church catholick, and love to men, and hope of life eternal, that these were the matter of their daily cogitations and discourses, and indeed their religion. And yet I did usually put in something in my sermon which was above their own discovery, and which they had not known before; and this I did, that they might be kept humble, and still perceive their ignorance, and be willing to keep in a learning state. (For when preachers tell their people of no more than they know, and do not shew that they excel them in knowledge, and easily over-top them in abilities, the people will be tempted to turn preachers themselves, and think that they have learnt all that the ministers can teach them, and are as wise as they; and they will be apt to contemn their teachers, and wrangle with all their doctrines, and set their wits against them, and hear them as censurers, and not as disciples, to their own undoing, and to the disturbance of the church; and they will easily draw disciples after them: The bare authority of the clergy will not serve the turn, without over-topping ministerial abilities). Reliquiae Baxterianae I.1.93 (Spelling unchanged)

Topics: Church, Evangelism, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Puritanism, Puritans | Comments Off

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