The Reformation of the Pulpit

by Michael Jensen

For preaching of the gospel is one of God’s plough-works, and the preacher is one of God’s ploughmen. -Hugh Latimer

If there be discounting or slackening of Preaching, there is the danger of losing Christ. -John Donne

Though Bishop Hugh Latimer (1492-1555) once protested—“How then hath it happened that we have had so many hundred years so many unpreaching prelates, lording loiterers, and idle ministers?”there certainly was preaching in the English church before the Reformation. There was even something of a revival of the practice under the influence of humanist intellectuals like Erasmus of Rotterdam and master preachers like Bishop John Fisher. But the Reformation represented a theological shift that involved an entirely different way of thinking about the Word of God. Famously, of course, this led to the creation of the English Bible and a liturgy that directed that it be read aloud in church. In turn, this also meant that preaching and the preacher would come to have an entirely new—and central— significance for the English church of the Reformation.

As in so many other literary endeavours, the sixteenth century represented the high-water mark of sermon-making in the English church. However, it is fair to say that, in many places today, there is just such a “discounting or slackening” as John Donne warned against. In places, the sermon has shriveled to a perfunctory few minutes and has become, instead of a proclamation of the Word of God, a mere moral rumination or a piece of self-help or the ponderous giving of the preacher’s opinion—a kind of Sunday oral version of Saturday’s newspaper column. Sad to say, Anglican preaching has become in popular culture a standing object of derision—one thinks of comedian Alan Bennett’s famous lampoon, or of Rowan Atkinson in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But the Reformation insistence on the centrality of the vernacular Scripture and its exposition by qualified preachers remains vital to the health of churches in the contemporary world. We will find this theme no more ably expounded than by the great martyr-bishop Hugh Latimer.

Hugh Latimer’s evangelical preaching

Of the three leading English Reformers burned at the stake in Oxford under Queen Mary, it is easiest to imagine Hugh Latimer as the one least capable of compromise—the one who was most overtly evangelical in his preaching and who disdained the idea of reigning himself in when the political tide turned against him. Latimer was, with Thomas Bilney and Robert Barnes, part of the clandestine group of Reformers that gathered at the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge in the 1520s. By 1535 he had been elevated to the see of Worcester and there began preaching an uncompromising program of reform. He was not able to stay out of trouble, however, and found himself imprisoned at the Tower of London in 1539 for his opposition to Henry’s Six Articles. Once Edward VI had ascended to the throne in 1547, he became court preacher, and his evangelical views could find their full expression in his preaching to the court and to the parliament.

The preacher as God’s ploughman

The Sermon of the Plough of 1548, on a text from Romans 15:4 (“All things which are written, are written for our erudition and knowledge”), was delivered “in the shrouds” at St Paul’s, which was an apparently sheltered area in the square outside the cathedral. The customary sermons at St Paul’s Cross were shifted to the shrouds in unfriendly weather conditions – which must have prevailed on the January day on which this sermon was preached. It was apparently part of series of which this is the only extant sermon. In it, Latimer outlines his vision for the preaching ministry in the newly evangelical Church of England by means of the strikingly everyday image of the plough. As he says “I shall tell you who be the ploughers.”

The chief image that Latimer deploys in the sermon is of course that of “the plough.” As he says, “preaching the gospel is one of God’s plough works, and the preacher is one of God’s ploughmen.” He sources this agricultural metaphor in the parable of the sower—the seed being, in Jesus’ story, “the Word.” The congregation is God’s field, in which the ploughman/preacher is set to work—not (and Latimer makes a point of this) the monk in his cloister. It is the diligent preaching of the Word of God by the preacher in the congregation that he takes as his theme.

It is a vivid and earthy image—and deliberately so. Latimer feels compelled to draw attention to the possibility of this giving offence to some on account of its banality; but by the same token, is quite proud of its ordinariness. It is a metaphor drawn from the everyday world of his hearers, matching the directness and plainness of his language, and reflecting as well his theology of the Word of God—that it is in the words of ordinary language that God is pleased to speak.

As Latimer explains, the ploughman image is effective because the ploughman is in demand for his labor in all seasons of the year. The preacher of the Word has different tasks to attend to, if he is to be diligent: he has to plant the Word and then cultivate it in his hearers:

He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners to a right faith… and not a swerving faith; but to a faith that embraceth Christ, and trusteth to his merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteous, without respect of works…

In this we find the nexus between the Reformation doctrine of Scripture and the Reformation doctrine of justification. If a person is to be justified by faith, then the preaching of the Word of God is necessary, since “faith comes by hearing”; and this faith, by God’s grace in Christ, is what completes the justification of sinful human beings. That favorite Reformation phrase, “a lively faith,” is used: the faith that the preacher seeks to cultivate in his hears is the faith that enlivens by the power of the Spirit as it draws the believer to the risen Christ.

The preacher as meat

Secondly, the people of God need to be confirmed in that right faith: to be disciplined by the law and comforted by the gospel, to be exhorted and rebuked. Changing his image, Latimer speaks of the preaching as “meat,” namely, that which is in constant need for a solid diet. Therefore, the preacher ought to be diligent in all seasons.

The key role that preaching has in the soteriological system of the evangelical Reformers means that the preacher has a particular and extraordinary calling, and a responsibility to match. For too long, in Latimer’s view, England had been subject to “unpreaching prelates.” Furthermore, like an unploughed land, the land of England is spiritually unprepared for the seed, not yet “ripe to be ploughed.”

In particular, Latimer contrasts the “lording” of the clergy in pre-Reformation times with the new calling that they have, to preach. Plough work is not for those who would lord it over others: “lords will ill go to plough.” Instead, those whose duty it was to feed the people have given themselves to all kinds of recreations, even though without the provision of the preached Word of God the people will be lacking in spiritual sustenance (just as a ploughman’s dedication to his task is necessary for the people to be fed): “…For as the body wasteth and consumeth away for lack of bodily meat, so doth the soul pine away for the default of ghostly meat.” The priestly calling is to preach, and not to do some other thing, however noble, such as be “comptroller of the mint.” The importance of this, for Latimer, is underscored by the ignorance of the young nobleman of England who should rather be “so brought up in knowledge of God, and in learning, that they may be able to execute offices in the commonweal…”. For this to occur, those with a priestly calling and office need to attend to it without compromise, rather than busy themselves with matters of state. The priestly office, of which preaching is the chief task, requires the full attention of a person.

The most diligent preacher: the devil himself

The stakes are, for Latimer, extraordinarily high; for the most diligent bishop and prelate in England is unfortunately the devil himself. He is not inattentive to his task, or absent from his diocese: “Oh that our prelates would be as diligent to sow the corn of good doctrine, as Satan is to sow cockle and darnel!” The devil’s mission is “to evacuate the cross of Christ” by adding the Mass to it as an extra-sacrificial act. That is: the Reformation focus on the cross as the single center of a theology sola gratia is the gospel that needs diligent defense from its threatened dilution.

There’s an interesting chain of reasoning in play here. The preaching-priest needs to be busy in affirming the gospel of the cross of Christ alone as the sacrifice for human sins against the alternate theology of the Mass and the view of the priesthood that attends it. There is no other bloody sacrifice, and that sacrifice is perpetual: “he is as fresh hanging on the cross now, to them that believe and trust in him, as he was fifteen hundred years ago, when he was crucified.” The view that the Mass is a sacrifice, and that the priest is its sacrificer, is for Latimer, a piece of devilish idolatry. The channel of grace is not, then, the objects consumed in the Mass, nor is it the communion vessels or the other accoutrements; it is the Word of God, the gospel, preached by preachers and believed in by those who listen and receive it.

Grace mediated through the preached Word

In sum, we can observe two features of the Reformation description of preaching surfacing in this example of the preacher’s art. The first is that for Latimer the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is the basis for the new emphasis placed on preaching. Grace is mediated, but not through the sacraments nor through the church as an institution. It is mediated to the believer by God himself speaking in his Word. The only way to receive this Word is by means of the ears, by faith. “Faith comes from hearing.” Thus, the Word must be preached if it is to be heard. That is to say: the material and the formal principles at work in preaching are closely bound to one another—the place of preaching is a factor of what is to be preached. Sermons were needed for the edification of God’s people, but they were more urgently needed for the purpose of leading people to salvation.

Second, the ministry’s chief responsibility is the preaching of the Word and not something else. Since the preached Word is the divinely chosen means for the conversion and growth of his people, then the servant of God must preach! Preaching is, however, a task that takes hard work, courage and persistence. This new function for the ministers of the church is noteworthy because it was at one level contrary to one of the tenets of the evangelical Reformation—the priesthood of all believers. Why was there a need for a teaching office, if in fact the Holy Spirit could walk directly into the lives of those who read the Word for themselves? Did they not hold the Scripture to be clear, or “perspicacious”? Yet Cranmer and the later English Reformers took the lead from their continental colleagues in emphasizing the need for an educated and trained preaching ministry. As Calvin wrote in the Institutes:

We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.

Even though the Scriptures were the instrument of God by means of the Spirit for the softening of people’s hearts, it was still the case that they had to know and understand. The cognitive aspect of faith, though not faith in itself, is not bypassed by lively, justifying faith. On the contrary, having the scriptures in the vernacular indicated that there was a new emphasis on understanding, and thus an educated—and diligent!—teaching ministry was to be an essential component of the evangelical Church of England.

The Bible must not be silent in churches today

How then, can today’s churches ensure that they are true to their Reformation roots? How can they—and this is more important in fact—be true to their identity as creatures of the gospel Word? There is no more pressing question for a church in this or any era. But we should not think that the answer is especially complicated, and it is this: the Bible must not be silent in the churches. It must be allowed to have its say. To that end, churches should not neglect the careful, clear and comprehensive reading of the Scriptures in corporate worship; and nor should they neglect preaching. Indeed, an excellent ministry from the pulpit should adorn every church – for the preaching of the Word is God’s instrument for the salvation of human beings and the edification of the church.

For this reason, a quality theological education should be a high priority for churches everywhere, for the sake of the people of God. It is a matter of great sorrow that, in countries that can in fact afford to put ministerial candidates through an excellent process of training, church authorities are increasingly accepting for ordination people who have only studied at a very part-time level for a short period of time. It does not take a prophet to see that that policy will starve the churches of God of the food they need. Those churches around the world—I am thinking particularly of China and in Africa—that are experiencing the blessing of extraordinary spiritual and numerical growth will need support if they are to equip pastors for all those new believers. Such a theological education would equip pastors in their chief business—which is not management or counseling or community service, good though all these things are—but in the knowledge of God in Scripture. They need a theological education deeply rooted in both testaments of the Bible so that they can do their job—to preach Christ and him crucified.

In every nation, pastors and congregations need to regain confidence in the power of God to work even through the trembling and lisping words of their preacher. By such words, God transforms lives. By such words are dictators challenged and outcasts called home. As John Stott once wrote:

Through this written Word he continues to speak with a living voice powerfully. And the Church needs to listen attentively to his Word, since its health and maturity depend upon it. So pastors must expound it; it is to this they have been called. Whenever they do so with integrity, the voice of God is heard, and the Church is convicted and humbled, restored and reinvigorated, and transformed into an instrument for his use and glory.

Michael has been rector of St Mark’s since 2013. Before that, he taught theology at Sydney’s Moore College. He is the author of a number of books including Is Forgiveness Really Free? and My God, My God – Is it possible to believe anymore? He is a contributor to Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today’s Global Communion. He is married to Catherine and has four children, a cocker spaniel and a domestic medium hair cat.