Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

The Priority of Preaching in the Seventeenth Century

In his book In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter’s Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004), Paul Chang-Ha Lim notes something of an ecumenical consensus in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the centrality of the preaching of the Word, linking Hermmingsen (!), John Donne, and others.

As J.S. Coolidge has shown, during the late sixteenth- and the seventeenth-century there was a “Pauline renaissance in England,” in which the Pauline injunction to “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” was painstakingly adhered to by many preachers. Conviction of the necessity of preaching in further reforming and restoring the biblical model of Christianity was widely shared, irrespective of confessional differences. A well-known Danish Lutheran theologian, Niels Hemmingsen, emphasized that without preaching, no saving doctrine could be imparted to the masses. Similarly Richard Bernard, in his popular The Faithful Shepherd, urged ministers to know both the text of Scripture and the context of the congregation they are addressing in order to “diuide Gods Word aright vnto their Auditories; to preach mercy to whom mercy belongeth, and to denounce judgement freely against the rest.” John Donne also echoed the Protestant emphasis on the primacy of preaching in the overall scheme of ministry: ‘There is no salvation but by faith, nor faith, but by hearing, nor hearing but by preaching; and they that thinke meanliest of the Keyes of the Church, and speak faintliest of the Absolution of the Church, will yet allow, That those Keyes lock, and unlock in preaching.’ John Wilkins, who would subsequently become a Latitudinarian bishop during the Restoration period, wrote in 1646 underscoring the priority of preaching as a means of reforming the church. (24-5)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.