Book Review: God’s Ambassadors, by Chad Van Dixhoorn
Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643–1653. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017. 240 pages.
Where should pastors turn for help with church revitalization? Most modern revitalization manuals focus on subjects like leadership, contextualization, finances, or community outreach.
But what might previous generations teach us about church revitalization?
Nearly four hundred years ago a group of committed pastors gathered to consider how best to revitalize the churches in their nation. In these churches, the pastors did not preach expositionally; the line between the church and the world was non-existent; greed, economic gain, and lust for political power ruled the church; and the allure of false religion threatened division. This situation describes the congregations of the Church of England in the seventeenth century. In God’s Ambassadors, Chad Van Dixhoorn chronicles how the members of the Westminster Assembly sought to address corruption within the church—particularly through the church’s preaching ministry.
WESTMINSTER’S THEOLOGY OF REVITALIZATION
God’s Ambassadors is an engaging work of history peppered with pastoral reflections. Van Dixhoorn divides his book into three parts. Part one focuses on the Westminster Assembly in the context of the larger puritan movement and its effort to reform the church through preaching. As Van Dixhoorn notes, during this time, many ministers in the Church of England “could not preach” (17). It’s no surprise then that the assembly sought to correct this error by advocating for rigorous pulpit theology.
Part two examines “the assembly’s own attempts to purge and to purify the pulpit” (39). They did not care simply to reform bad clergy, but rather to ordain new ministers. This section also details the careful process the assembly proposed to evaluate ministry candidates. This included a rigorous examination of “testimonies,” “conversation,” doctrine, education, practical theology, previous ministry experience, and preaching ability. In short, the assembly took great pains to ensure that only godly and able men assume the preaching office.
In the final section, Van Dixhoorn examines statements from the assembly members on the supremacy and centrality of preaching. He concludes that the assembly viewed the preached Word as the means of grace by which God would powerfully convert sinners to Jesus Christ by faith alone. Jesus, as Edward Reynolds says, is “the matter of our preaching.” (145). Christ is the sum and substance of Scripture and, therefore, the sum and substance of preaching. The Westminster Assembly was rightly convinced that only this sort of preaching would reform the Church of England. The same commitment to preaching will reform our churches as well.
FOUR LESSONS FOR PASTORS
Pastors and ministry leaders would particularly benefit from at least four lessons in Van Dixhoorn’s book.
A High View of the Ministry
In a day of self-appointed guru pastors, this book presents a tested and measured approach for examining ministerial qualifications: we should assess a man’s entire life, not just his credentials. The assembly refused to separate a preacher’s giftedness from his godliness. Hence, the assembly would review a man’s education, morals or “testimonials,” and of course his preaching ability. As a congregationalist, I don’t believe an assembly above the local church should play an exclusive role in assessing ordination candidates. At the same time, the example of the puritans’ careful and patient assessment of potential pastors is instructive, challenging, and encouraging.
A High View of Preaching
As previously mentioned, the Westminster Assembly firmly believed that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The assembly’s high view of preaching came from the fundamental belief that Scripture was the Word of God and, as such, it is the means God uses to conform his church to the image of Christ. Van Dixhoorn shows that the assembly members truly believed that the health and holiness of the Church depended on the regular preaching of the Word. In our day, pastors are encouraged to emphasize communication style, relatability, rhetorical flourish, or even their “tweetability.” God’s Ambassador’s presents a far better and more biblical approach: Preach the Word.
The main burden of the Westminster Assembly with regard to the ordination of ministers was ensuring that all ordination candidates would “Preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ” (28). This maxim from William Perkins’ was central to the puritan understanding of preaching. As Van Dixhoorn makes clear, the assembly members were unfailingly committed to three tenants of Christ-centered preaching: the gospel should be preached from every passage; Christ is the point of the sermon; and the Spirit empowers ministers to preach the gospel.
Get to Know the Puritans
If you’re unfamiliar with the Westminster Assembly and its members, this book is a superb introduction to the men who profoundly impacted English Protestantism in the seventeenth century and beyond. While many readers may already be familiar with men such as Thomas Goodwin and Jeremiah Burroughs, this book will also introduce you to the writings of lesser-known puritans such as Anthony Burgess, Edward Reynolds, and George Gillespie. Van Dixhoorn’s book will introduce you to a host of seventeenth-century pastors and theologians worth reading.
RECOVER THE CENTRALITY OF PREACHING
In conclusion, church revitalization is not something that should be undertaken lightly, but it certainly should be undertaken with the intent to reform the pulpit. God’s Ambassadors provides us a look at faithful ministers who sought to revitalize the church in their own day through a vibrant pulpit ministry focused on the proclamation of Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).