Charles M. Wingard
God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643–1653, by Chad Van Dixhoorn. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017, xxi + 215 pages, $40.00.
The mere convening of the Westminster Assembly in 1643 is a wonder. Since the days of Edward VI, reform efforts in the church of England had stalled or been reversed under his Protestant successors, Elizabeth, James, and Charles I. The eruption of the English Civil War, with its political and military tumult, made the convening even more unlikely.
But convene it did, and over the next decade, the fruits of its labors were prodigious. General histories and expositions of the assembly’s Confession of Faith and Catechisms are many. What distinguishes God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643–1653 is its concentration upon the value that the Westminster Assembly placed upon preaching and its efforts to reform England’s preachers and preaching. With skill, Chad Van Dixhoorn, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, professor of church history, and the director of the Craig Center for the Study of the Westminster Standards at Westminster Theological Seminary, guides readers through the assembly’s debates, theological examinations, journals, minutes, and formal documents.
The author arranges his work in three sections.
Section 1 places the assembly’s work in its historical context. Attention is given to previous attempts at and opposition to pulpit reformation, and the views of preaching held by those pursuing reform as well as earlier reformers.
Section 2 recounts and assesses the actual work of the assembly as it examined and certified ordinands and ministers, and as it formulated processes to safeguard the English pulpit.
Section 3 probes the diversity of opinions among the Westminster divines on a wide range of topics. These include ministerial training and ordination; the value of reading sermons and note taking; the difference between private exhortation and public preaching; the relationship between law and gospel; the connection between exegesis and preaching; whether to preach from manuscripts, notes, or extemporaneously; and what it means to preach Christ.
The assembly’s high esteem of preaching is indissolubly linked to its high view of Scripture as the Word of God proclaimed “for the gathering and perfecting of believers” (5). Preachers can approach their work confident that, “for purposes of persuasion, the most effective weapon in the Spirit’s arsenal is the Word of God preached” (9). Van Dixhoorn maintains that among the Westminster divines, it was a given that people “are not only saved by Christ, they are saved by Christ through the means of preaching Christ” (126).
A high view of preaching demands that the church take a hard look at the character and skills of those seeking admission to the ministerial office. To that end, as many as 5,000 ordinands and ministers were examined between 1643 and 1653 (xv–xvi, 42, 101). Aware that the time would come when examining every ordinand would become impossible, the assembly drafted The Directory for Ordination, to be used by presbyteries (75, 77, Appendix 2).
The need for pulpit reform was acute. The assembly’s first petition requested Parliament to launch proceedings to remove “scandalous ministers.” Also troubling were ministers who couldn’t preach but were only able to read the homilies of others (17–19). Reformation of the pulpit demanded reformation of the preacher (10).
The assembly was determined that only ordained and educated Bible expositors should fill English pulpits. But pulpit reformers faced strong headwinds; skeptical attitudes were not uncommon. The well-educated frequently deemed a trained ministry unnecessary; the uneducated failed to value the rigors of ministerial preparation and examination (35).
Making the situation worse was the disturbing “disconnection of preaching from ordination” in the episcopal system (49). Ministerial positions were sought as a source of income but without the responsibilities of ministering Word and sacrament, a situation the assembly found intolerable. During examinations, one of the questions it put to ministers demanded their commitment to preach and observe the sacraments (53–54). Ministers must preach.
Examinations played a central role in approving men for ministry. They were the instrument by which ordinands and ministers were judged to be spiritually, educationally, and morally fit.
The examination process will sound familiar to contemporary Presbyterians. Included in it were character testimonials, a trial sermon, and approval of the candidate by the assembly (50–51).
The criteria of testimonials are noteworthy. The candidate must supply testimonials from men who were known to the assembly. At times, an additional stipulation required that the endorser live in proximity to the candidate. Van Dixhoorn observes: “If a man was unacquainted with a godly minister known to the assembly who could testify to his good character, he was not running with the right crowd” (51–52).
Examinations were comprehensive, and included questions about his doctrine, knowledge of the biblical languages and Latin (the language in which theological texts were written and debated), range of theological reading, motivations for ministry, and practical theology. The Directory for Worship added examinations in biblical knowledge and church history (83–84).
With regard to practical theology, the candidate was expected to demonstrate that he knew how to visit the sick, catechize, and appeal to consciences. For whatever reason, the statement of views on visitation of the sick and catechizing were not required in The Directory for Worship (55, 83).
Trial sermons by ordinands were optional at the assembly, a requirement at presbyteries (84).
In a break with tradition, no candidate could become a congregation’s minister without the flock’s “consent and approbation.” Prior to his ordination, a candidate was required to spend time with his prospective congregation so as to make “trial of his gifts for their edification” and to familiarize the congregation with his manner of life. So momentous was the calling of a new pastor that congregations were admonished to fast and pray (85–86, 188). The diligent support of the new minister in his preaching must be ongoing. In its subdirectory for the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, heads of households are exhorted to review sermons in their homes (92–93).
In another change from previous ecclesial practice—and one with far-reaching consequences—ordination services were moved from cathedrals to local congregations. The solemnity of the action was impressed upon both candidate and congregation (86, 188).
Beyond question, rigorous examinations placed a heavy burden on the candidate, and it was the responsibility of the examining committees to keep the process from becoming oppressive. Examiners must treat him with “all mildness and gravity” (53). Later, The Directory for Ordination counseled examining bodies that the candidate must “be dealt with in a Brotherly way.” “Familial language is used,” Van Dixhoorn notes, “to remind ministers that this potential peer and colleague is not to be treated as a student before his teachers but as a brother before his brethren” (82–83, 187).
The work of the assembly was not without its flaws. One given special attention is its failure to provide “any system of remedial education for deficient pastors.” Seventy years earlier, Puritans sought to reform the Anglican pulpit by training existing pastors who were insufficiently prepared for their work; the assembly sought their removal. “The closest the assembly ever came to offering supplementary helps to ministers was in its directory, and as their forefathers recognized, if preaching were to be improved, something more personal and practical than a directory would be needed” (100–101, 175–77). This is a good reminder to modern pastors whose first response to someone with a problem is to hand him a book.
With admirable succinctness, Van Dixhoorn introduces the Westminster Assembly’s characters, debates, and documents on the critical area of preaching and preachers. Reformation of the pulpit then and now is not primarily an individual pursuit. Instead, it is the coordinated work of the church through its various courts. Those longing for reformation of today’s pulpit will do well to read this book with care.
Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and associate professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.