That Strong and Forcible Word

In the wake of my reflections on Obamacare, ministerial authority, and Christian liberty, I have been involved in several conversations about the authority of preaching—does the minister speak the words of God from the pulpit, or the words of man about the Word of God?  This, it turns out (like almost every issue I find myself wrestling with, it seems), was one of the many matters debated between Hooker and the Elizabethan Puritans.  So highly did they exalt the Word preached, implying that the Word only became living and active in the mouth of the preacher thought Hooker, that they risked derogating from the authority of the written Scriptures and attributing divine authority to human instruments, much like the Roman Catholics.  Perhaps a fully-formed discussion of this topic will follow in due course—for now, a remarkably pithy statement on this matter from William Covell’s Just and Temperate Defence of the five books of ecclesiastical policy written by M. Richard Hooker:

Doctrines derived, exhortations deducted, interpretations agreeable are not the verie word of God, but that onely which is in the originall text, or truly translated, and yet we call those sermons, though improperly, the word of God. . . . The word that proceedeth from God (who is himself very truth and life) should be . . . lively and mighty in operation, sharper than any two edged sword. Now to make our sermons that strong and forcible word is to impart the most peculiar glory of the word of God unto that which is not his word. For touching our sermons, that which giveth them their very being is the will of man and therefore they oftentimes accordingly tast too much of that over corrupt fountaine from which they come. For even the best of our sermons (and in sermons there is an infinite difference) howsoever they oftentimes have a singular blessing and that the scripture, the pure word of God, is the text and ground of the speech, yet the rest of the discourse, which is sometimes two or three houres long (a time too long for most preachers to speake pertinently), is but the paraphrasticall inlarging of the same text, together with those fit exhortations and applications, which the learning of the preacher is able to furnish himselfe withal and his discretion shall thinke fit for that auditory to which he speaketh. And, therefore . . . to make even the best sermons equall to the scripture must be in apparant reason a great wrong to that which is immediately God’s own word, whereunto, though the best preach agreeably, yet the sermons of none, since the apostles’ time, are or ought to be esteemed of equal authority with the holy scripture.”

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