The Puritan Era
Where Oh Where has the Precisionist Gone?
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Ephesians 4:14 – “…we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine…”
1 Timothy 4:6 – “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed.”
1 Timothy 4:13 – “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”
1 Timothy 4:16 – “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”
Elizabethan Puritanism was a watershed time in religious history. The Reformation had birthed a soundness of doctrine that had been unparalleled since the time of the early Fathers, such as Augustine and Irenaeus, and certain men throughout history at scattered times and places, like John Wickliffe or John Hus. Queen Elizabeth desired a restricted clergy (a prelacy) and a non-thinking religious laity who simply followed her lead as the inaugurator of the Church England. An educated laity would spell trouble for her reign and cause a number of political problems. She could not have the people thinking for themselves, but simply wanted them following her dictates through the Church of England. Protestant Clergy, who were undoubtedly educated and skilled in the Scriptures in the powerhouse schools of Oxford and Cambridge, turned to becoming second and third generation reformers toward this Mother Church of England, and desired its purification. Thus, though the name “Puritan” was an insulting term used of those beginning with men like Cartwright and Hooper, it was finally accepted as the slang term for Protestant Calvinistic clergy who desired the purification of the church before God.
These labeled clergy did, at first, find this term derogatory, and desired its termination. However, after time, it began to be used as a positive description of those members of a 16th and 17th century Protestant group in England opposing as unscriptural the ceremonial worship and the prelacy of the Church of England. A Puritan was regarded as one who practiced or preached a more rigorous or professedly purer moral code than that which prevailed in the day. They were followers of the Bible and the Reformation, especially of the articles of religion penned under the Calvinistic system of the Institutes, as well as the favorable outcome of the party of Predestinarians during the Synod of Dordt that condemned Arminianism. They were also overwhelmingly Presbyterian in their form of government and ridiculed every form of prelacy that was current in its day. Though the adjective “Puritan” became commonly used, especially by those in opposition to the Reformation party, it was simply a derivation of a more commonly used term by Bishop Laud and his minions as these Protestant clergy began to write vehemently as Doctrinal Puritans. “Puritan” is a word that is really an afterthought to the instrumental means whereby these clergy opposed the state. Before they were known as “Puritans” formally, they were labeled with a term that has long been forgotten – the Precisionist.
The “Precisionist” is a very important term indeed. Its etymology derives from a Middle English word which first stems from the Middle French precis, and from Latin praecisus, (the past participle of praecidere means “to cut off” which in turn is a derivation from prae + caedere “to cut”). In its final form, it means “exactly or sharply defined or stated”. It retains the idea of being “minutely exact,” and pertains to one who strictly conforms to a pattern, standard, or convention. Precisionists, then, are men marked by a thorough consideration or minute measurement of small factual details. Puritans are Precisionists. It is because they are Precisionists that Puritans were, in fact, Puritans. Without being a Precisionist, one could never be a true Puritan. Some of the greater “histories” written about the Puritans use the label doctrinal Puritans for the term “Precisionists”. However, the phrase “doctrinal puritans” is less descriptive than scholars would like, and it would be more helpful to use the term “precisionist.”
A digression must be employed to prove a point that holds the substance of the rest of this short article. When a professional sportsman engages in his sport, he must be precise in order to overcome and win whatever game he is attempting. The professional basketball player must precisely shoot the ball with the proper height and distance, without any interference, into the small-rimmed basket in which the ball must travel in order to score points. The baseball player must swing his bat at precisely the right time and height in order to connect with the baseball and hit a home run. The right wing must shoot the small black puck at precisely the right angle and speed to obtain a goal where the goalie is most weak or unsuspecting. The football team must precisely run the pattern of play in order to score the touchdown. The golfer must strike the golf-ball with such a precision to roll it into a hole that is not much larger than it from many yards away over various terrains. In every sport precision is needed if that sport is played well, at the very least. In some sporting events, like the Olympics, only the most precise are allowed to compete after they qualify. Precision, exactness, is mandatory to compete in such games. What of the pulpit of Jesus Christ? How precise should the preacher or teacher be?
If sports require the utmost precision in order for any given athlete to compete well, and it is a man-made game, how much more precision should there be in handling aright the Word of God? Those men throughout the history of the church that God has given as gifts to His church have been given a solemn duty to be precise in translating and teaching God’s Word to God’s chosen people. God will not bless sloppy work. God will not use sloppy work to spark revival. God will not condone sloppy pastoral study and preaching. God desires preachers and teachers to be doctrinally precise in everything they teach and in everything they preach. The specific words they use, the phrases, the sentences, all of them should echo precision. When the preacher steps down out of the pulpit there should be a sense that they leave behind a mark upon the minds of their people. It is much different than a parishioner saying, “That was a good sermon.” It’s much more than that. The preacher should have impressed upon them the Word of God and so handled it accurately and precisely that as they said of Baxter, “He screwed truth into my mind.” This should be the case every time the preacher preaches. The congregation should believe that “Heaven was opened to me and I saw the glories of Christ,” upon each sermon. This is not idealism, but plain speaking about the necessity of the pastor’s and teacher’s precision as they handle the word of God. When one reads a puritan book, they say how “rich and powerful” it is page after page. Oftentimes people can only read a page or two to “soak it in.” But wait – it is the compilation of old sermons that they preached! The book “Gospel Worship” by Jeremiah Burroughs is like this. So is “The Works of Christopher Love.” So is “The Sermons of Thomas Watson.” Why then is this not the case with every sermon your preacher preaches? What is wrong?
The Puritan was known as a doctrinal precisionist. Their sermons are dense, and thick and rich with the vibrancy of a thoughtful and skilled mediation on the Scriptures. This is the reason why puritan publishers today sell relatively little books to Christendom as a whole. The people in today’s church cannot deal with the material that the precisionist presents. So, as a result, pastors today may quote a puritan from time to time, but their own preaching is never modeled after puritan preaching because the people could never handle it; or that is at least what most pastors think. This writer disagrees. Those sermons were preached to common people of the day. Many of those people were educated to certain degrees, but they still preached to the common people. The butcher, baker, candlestick maker, the ploughboy, and the beggar on the street heard them preach vibrant thoughtful sermons. This is not a problem with the people; it is a problem with today’s pastor and teacher. Because today’s pastor or teacher is not a precisionist in their own studies and sermon preparation, their mastery of the material they are presenting is usually “shallow” and “popular.” “Shallow” is easy to define. It has no depth. It’s a sermon built upon a text without much detail or exposition overall. But “popular” means that you combine a shallow study with illustrative “superficial” exposition of Scripture. That is the “just enough” amount that will get by in a given sermon or teaching. Preaching may last an hour, but its an hour of “nothing much.” It would be better to have 15 minutes of “something” than an hour of “nothing much.”
For example, if a teacher is going to spend 45 minutes teaching a Sunday School class, then they should spend 45 hours studying their material and mastering it. For every hour they study the material, they preach and teach a minute. That is what seminaries used to teach their students before popular preaching became popular. “That is extreme,” you say. Yes, it is extreme (extremely needful). And remember, people said the same thing of the Precisionists – the Puritans. As a matter of fact, it was regular and normal for people in the 17th century to listen to three-hour sermons. Today, people can watch a three-hour movie, and handle a 20-minute sermon with no problem. No, forty-five hours to teach 45 minutes is not extreme. Can one spend too much time digging into the word? The sinful mind, though redeemed by Christ, is still fallen and needs to be as precise as it can when it teaches the Word. That is why James is very clear, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)” James is not kidding. He wrote this while being carried along by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not kidding. Teachers will be judged for their precision and their substance of their teaching. Not many should assume the position. Too many do.
Imagine if you, if you are a preacher or teacher, were to put together a sermon series on Job. You wanted your particular congregation to hear the substance of that book. God wanted you to preach through it. You wanted to exhaust it as much as you were able. You wanted it to be edifying, practical and Christ centered. Most preachers would spend 1 sermon a chapter and about 42 weeks on the book. That would be only a few weeks short of a whole year. Let us say your text this week was Job 19:26, “And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God.” A popular text, no doubt. How long would your sermon be? An hour? An hour and a half? Would this be enough text for you to preach an hour and a half? If you had to stand up right now, with little or no preparation at all, would you be able to preach an hour and a half on this text alone? What if the text were Job 13:27, “You put my feet in the stocks, And watch closely all my paths. You set a limit for the soles of my feet.” Is this more difficult? How precise would you be with a sermon on Job 13:27 even after 45 hours of study? Would you even bother preaching on the text at all? Maybe you would say, “I need 45 hours to find out what in the world I would come up with for a sermon on such a text!” Joseph Caryl, preached 12 volumes on Job, over the course of 40 years. Does this surprise you? Yes, he was a precisionist. Precisionists tear a text apart and do everything they can to exhaust it. After they have attempted to exhaust it, they are reminded that it is the infinite Word and so they go at it all the more to gain insights and understanding of things that they may have missed. They desire to be as precise as is humanly possible – and remember that such a mark is always more than the mark you set on your own preparation. Whatever you have set for preparation, it’s never enough.
If one is to be a good Precisionist, they will have been trained in a manner that provides them with the necessary tools to study well. Pastors that are not trained well, either by a godly pastor or by a seminary that teaches ministers, will be poor pulpiteers and poor scholars. Calvin said that he was a good scholar to be a good pastor. One gives way to the other. Many times, especially in modern days, preachers leave being “scholarly” to scholars. Rather, the preacher should be a good scholar first so he can be a great pastor second. Pastors are the physicians of the soul. Without knowing how to deal with a text renders the pastor incapable of fulfilling his job as an ambassador of Christ. Many books have been written that demonstrate the need of proper study habits and the proper training. It is not the intention of this article to reassert that area. Instead, it desires to highlight the manner of the precisionist.
To outline a doctrinal precisionist is not to tread back in time to Puritan England. Instead, Puritan England simply springboards the modern preacher back to his senses in that in every age men are to handle the Word of correctly (which means “to lead straight”). So there must first be a desire to be correct in one’s teaching and sermon preparation in order to lead the people of God on the righteous path of godliness. Preachers and teachers should desire to have a complete lesson or sermon in their hands, with all the necessary study that goes along with such in order to rightly instruct the Word of God to the people of God, every time they step into the pulpit and into the classroom. If this is not your aim, then get out of the pulpit and into the pew. Give up your Sunday School class to someone who desires the people of God to learn from the deep wells of His richness and glory. Stop feeding them milk. People are not as stupid as you suppose, or as you are. They need meat to grow; otherwise, they will spiritually die. You will suffer for it before the judgment seat of Christ, and they will suffer for it throughout their Christian life. If the desire is not there, then how will you suppose God will bless your teaching and preaching? Why? Because you have a big congregation or a large classroom? Do not be so naïve. Satan is as capable as any other to fill your church with warm bodies and so deceive you into thinking you are being blessed.
Second, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will sharply define their findings. “Sharply” means leaving no room for “wondering what the preacher meant.” The preacher is so clear that no one could possibly have been confused. That does not mean something sharply defined is defined in a few words (though it can mean that). It means that when the point is finished, the hearers could define it as well as you did. It is poignant. No other words are necessary. The best words were used. Any diminution to the idea would have been a mistake. Any more would have made it too full. “Sharply” defined ideas are the hallmark of a good communicator.
Thirdly, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will desire to define their findings exactly. Sharply is not the same as exact. Sharply is the amount of words used, and exact is the kind of words used. Exact words are precise words. They are the best words to use that define the point and idea. Precisionist always struggle and wrestle over the best words to use. They wrestle like Jacob did with the angel until God blesses them with the right words to use and to say.
Fourthly, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will desire to be “minutely” exact. One does not simply use exact words because they can be used, but they use the exact words because they are the best words and the best way of explaining something. Attention to detail here is the point. It is not that the precisionist is interested just in the definition, and the exact words to use, but the exact words that will dispense the exact meaning behind those words down to the last minute point. It may be that the speaker will not use all the minutia he comes up with in his sermon, but to master a text or idea it may be important, and is important, to exhaust the idea on paper and in the study. The precisionist does not want any stone left unturned. To the best of his ability he desires to be exact in all the minutia he covers, and every point he makes. He wants no wasted words and no rabbit trials. He wants no surprises. His exactness and flow of thought will keep the hearers entranced by his precision and attention to every phrase and detail of the sermon.
Fifthly, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will strictly conform to a pattern, standard, or convention continually. Precisionists continually want their sermons and teaching to be exact and precise. They will not take a break from being exact and precise. They want to become more exact and precise as they grow in Christ. And they want their hearers to be good doctrinally sound Christians. So, the pattern of their study will remain consistent. Once they begin to cut corners, and spend half the time they regularly do on a sermon or teaching, it will show. The people will notice, and the preacher himself will notice. Christ will notice as well.
Sixthly, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will be marked by a thorough consideration or minute measurement of “small” factual details. Details are important. Every detail in the communication of a sermon text is important. God’s word is important. It is important in every detail. The preacher or teacher must remember that every detail should be true and factual. Precisionists take considerable time in doing extra study that the congregation never sees in order to master the text on every detail that they can. The precisionist should be able to field any question from anyone during a given lecture in a class on the subject at hand with a precise, exact definition and explanation in the least amount of words necessary to define the answer. Precisionists take even the smallest of details to heart. God’s Word is worth making those minute details count.
Seventhly, if one is to be a good Precisionist they will apply their teaching or sermon to the people in a manner that causes them to understand it simply. Precision does not mean confusion or density to the extent that it is over the head of the hearer. Precision means exactness to the message because of the exhaustiveness of the one who studied the material. If one cannot communicate the message to the hearer in such a way that they understand it simply, no matter how hard the content may be, then all his precision will be for nothing, and it really means they have not mastered the content of the text. If the Precisionist did master the content, then they would always know the best way to communicate it to the hearer so they understand. Precisionists can be precise without being intelligible to the hearers. Thus, the teacher and pastor must be able to know the level of their congregation and the best way to communicate the truth so that they teach them something, and that they are understood while teaching. That does not mean superficiality is the best medicine for children. If that were the case no one would ever learn anything.
When one is a good debater, he has studied the issues so much that no matter what side he takes on a given subject he would be able to win the argument; and he could do it “on the fly.” The true Precisionist thinks this way about every text that he teaches or preaches. That is why the Puritans were such astounding doctrinal scholars and exemplary practical preachers. That is why 500 years later, they are known as precisionists. In 200 years, when you and all others preachers today are pushing up daisies, will historians of the future deem you a precisionist of this period? Or will they be using illustrations of what not to do by appealing to your ministry?
Where oh where has the Precisionist gone?
They’ve left us all here to writhe,
to wallow and stir in our pews for so long
and finally spiritually die.