William Ames, by Willem van der Vliet (1633)

William Ames, by Willem van der Vliet (1633)

In seminary classes on homiletics, aspiring pastors receive all kinds of advice on how to effectively communicate to their audience. Start with an unforgettable story. Sprinkle your sermon with humor. Offer plentiful encouragement and inspiration. Deliver a line that listeners won’t be able to shake out of their heads.

These and other homiletical tactics no doubt reflect the context in which we live. Preachers are told that contextualizing not only their message but also the form of their sermon is essential to changing the lives of hearers. In some cases, preachers no doubt use such tools and principles effectively. Yet sometimes such contextualizing can veer so far away from Scripture that it morphs into mere pep talks or social commentary. And other times the sermon retains a respect for the Bible but unintentionally distracts with verbal embellishment.

Because we are contextual beings—and thus are steeped in the thinking of our age—we benefit from hearing how those from other times have discussed the topic of preaching. The Puritans elevated the preaching of God’s Word to such a high degree that it bears listening to their concerns. To attend to a seventeenth-century Puritan, of course, is to eavesdrop on another context with its own unique issues. And just because someone who died a few centuries ago recommended a particular approach doesn’t automatically make it right—whether for that time or ours. With such caveats in place, we can perhaps gain something from a theologian whose text The Marrow of Theology (1629, 3rd Latin ed.) was heavily influential on divinity students in the century that followed.

William Ames (1576–1633) wrote his Marrow so that it would both educate and edify. He sought not simply to instruct but also to inspire. He aimed for both head and heart—a spiritually vibrant, theologically informed approach to Christianity. And with that focus, he offered several thoughts on preaching to guide pastors in caring for their flocks through the proclamation of the Bible.

In Ames’s view, the purpose of ministry is “to preserve, propagate, and renew the church through regular means” (1.35.9).[1] This description makes it more akin to a steady diet than an annual feast. The minister’s role is to serve both “people in the name of God” and “God in the name of people” (1.35.10). And “of utmost importance” in doing so is “the preaching of the word” (1.35.11). What exactly did that entail? The preacher’s duty is “to set forth the will of God out of the word for the edification of the hearers” (1.35.12)—a sort of meeting place for creatures and Creator through the preached Word.

This task required faithful study of Scripture, which Ames elevated in the pastor’s ministry. In order to communicate the will of God rightly, the preacher himself needs to be “mighty in the Scriptures,” not relying solely on commentaries. In fact, “no one is fit for the ministry who is not greatly concerned with the Holy Scripture” (1.35.16).

Not only does the preacher need to state what is in the text clearly, he also needs to apply those things “to the consciences of the hearers as their condition seems to require” (1.35.17). The preacher must clearly understand the people, such that he can preach to “each individual,” regardless of “status” or “age” (1.35.14). He must select those themes that “the circumstances of place, time, and person suggest as most necessary” (1.35.31). Preachers must know the context and concerns of their people well.

In Ames’s view, the fruit of sermons can be entirely “lost” when preachers talk only about the meaning of the text and “draw nothing out of the text itself” (1.35.18, 20). Also, mixing in stories known only to the learned or dropping Greek and Hebrew words that the hearers do not understand only muddies the message, and pastors must be careful that “human flourishes” do not distract people from “the simplicity of the gospel” (1.35.55–56). In contrast, hearers see the power of the Holy Spirit more clearly “in the naked simplicity of words than in elegance and luster” (1.35.65).

Such simplicity was meant ultimately “for the stirring up or strengthening of the spirit of devotion” (1.35.31). Here Ames showed his emphasis on heart religion. He called pastors to work at preaching sermons that were affective, moving the internal affections, which would in turn lead a person to make God-honoring choices.

In this way, Ames foreshadowed Jonathan Edwards’s emphasis on religious affections—and in fact, Edwards himself imbibed Ames in his theological studies. As Ames says it most clearly, “To apply a doctrine to its use is to sharpen and make specially relevant some general truth with such effect that it may pierce the minds of those present with the stirring up of godly affections” (1.35.45).

For Ames, presentation mattered. Appropriate gestures, a good-paced voice (neither “drowsy” nor “hasty and swift,” 1.35.62–63), clear pronunciation—these all contribute to the edification of the hearers. But preachers are not performers. They ultimately need to embrace the message themselves before giving it to others. A model preacher is one “who has first persuaded himself and thoroughly settled in his own conscience those things to which he would persuade others, and in whom, finally, there is zeal, charity, mildness, freedom, and humility mixed with solemn authority” (1.35.60).

Ames summarized the aim of preaching as follows: “Nothing is to be allowed which does not contribute to the spiritual edification of the people, and nothing omitted by which we may surely reach that end” (1.35.67).

This is perhaps easier said than done. Even so, such thoughts have at least some relevance for today, when it is tempting—as it always has been—to omit uncomfortable teachings from Scripture or to include unnecessary stories or commentary in sermons. Ames challenges preachers to aim for heart change and to do so by faithfully proclaiming the will of God from the Word of God for the people of God.

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[1] Throughout this article, I am quoting from the 1997 Baker edition, translated and edited by John D. Eusden.

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