This twin focus upon God’s Word and the agent of that Word, namely Christ, was the essence of Puritan preaching. Every nuance and detail of their sermons was a mere reflection and out-working of those twin principles. Christ and His Word were the most basic facts of Puritan preaching—indeed they were the grammar of Puritan preaching.
Preaching was the heartbeat of the Puritan movement. It would be no exaggeration to say that without Puritan preaching there would have been no Puritans. To quote Irvonwy Morgan, “Puritanism in the last resort must be assessed in terms of the pulpit.” And though much has changed since the 17th century, Reformed Christians today are indebted to the Puritans for their contribution to preaching.
But what exactly is Puritan preaching? How may it be properly distinguished from other forms of preaching? Why has its influence been so palatably felt by succeeding generations?
These questions can be answered in different ways, but I’d like to take an atypical approach. Most readers will be familiar with the trivium, or three-fold classical approach to learning. As a means of conveying information to the student, the classical method employed three distinct, yet progressive stages: (1) grammar; (2) dialectic; and (3) rhetoric. According to this classical model, the initial phase of learning any subject necessarily involved learning the basic facts about the particular subject (i.e. grammar). Next came the dialectic phase, which required the student to master the principles or inter-relatedness among those basic facts, thus arriving at a “whole” picture of the individual, basic parts. Lastly, in the rhetoric phase the student was expected to be able to express, either vocally or literarily, the totality of what he had learned in the first two phases.
If this seems foreign, a modern example might help. Consider how a mother might teach her four-year old son how to read. Most would agree that she should begin by having the child learn the foundational facts about our language. This will involve memorizing the alphabet and its corresponding sounds. Over time the child will eventually learn the identification and usage of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. In short, the child will learn the grammar of our language.
But grammar alone is not sufficient for knowing how to read and write. The child must eventually learn the proper relationships between nouns and verbs, between sentences and paragraphs, between words and books. In short, the child will learn the dialectics of language.
But what good is knowledge of language if one is ill-equipped to convey such knowledge to others? Not much. Therefore the child must learn how to express what he has learned. He must learn how to write and speak for himself. In short, the child must eventually learn the art of rhetoric.