The Minister’s Task
As Edwards conceived it, at the heart of the minister’s task was preaching, the ministry of the Word. If the minister was a servant who washed others’ feet, he did so by preaching: “this is done by the preaching of the word, which is their main business.” In the same way that “priests of old were appointed to blow the silver trumpets, so ministers of the gospel are appointed [to preach the word].” God intended for preaching to accomplish a number of ends: whether serving as “the means God has provided for bringing poor sinners to Christ and salvation by him” or offering correction to false notions of Christianity. Whatever the purpose, Edwards held it as axiomatic that “ministers are set on purpose to explain the word of God, and therefore their people ought to hear them when they offer to explain it to them.”
The substance of the minister’s preaching was God’s Word and not the dictates of human reason. As Edwards put it in 1750, ministers “are to make the word of God their only rule: their business as ministers of Christ is to preach the word of God, and to that end to give themselves to reading and studying the scriptures.” Ministers have been sent on a divine errand; “God has not left it to their discretion what their errand shall be. They are to preach the preaching that he bids them. He has put into their hands a Book containing a summary of doctrine and bids them go and preach that Word.” God’s Word was to be interpreted not through the grid of natural reason, but “the revelation is to be the rule of its own interpretation.”
In fact, the Bible contained “a summary of doctrines already discovered and dictated” to ministers; they were bound “to preach the dictates of God’s infinitely superior understanding, humbly submitting your reason as a learner and disciple to that” Word. And yet, the minister must give to each listener the portion or application of God’s Word that met his or her need. Like a conscientious husbandman, “a faithful minister is careful to give every one his portion of meat and to accommodate his instructions and exhortations to all sorts of persons in all circumstances.”
The minister’s manner of preaching was to be fervent. Edwards believed that ministers “should imitate [Christ] in the manner of his preaching; who taught not as the scribes, but with authority, boldly, zealously, fervently; insisting chiefly on the most important things in religion, being much in warning men of the danger of damnation, setting forth the greatness of the future misery of the ungodly; insisting not only on the outward, but also the inward and spiritual duties of religion.”
This fervent approach to preaching was calculated to stir the affections: “I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion,” Edwards noted, “has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary a much great tendency to beget true apprehensions of them than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of ’em.” Such a manner of delivery “has so much the greater tendency to beget true ideas or apprehensions in the minds of the hearers, of the subject spoken of, and so to enlighten the understanding: and that for this reason, that such a way or manner of speaking of these things does in fact more truly represent them, than a more cold and indifferent way of speaking of them.” Divine and glorious truths that should move the soul should move the preacher’s manner of presentation.