Review and Summary of The Best Method of Preaching by Petrus van Mastricht

When Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706) wrote The Best Method of Preaching he was a well-respected theologian and seventeen years into his pastoral ministry. Believing that a good method of preaching is essential for the exposition and application of any text, van Mastricht aimed to take the best advice on preaching from “great men” (namely, William Perkins, William Ames, Oliver Bowles, Guiilelmus Saldenus, and “especially the celebrated Johannes Hoornbeeck”) and distill it into a manageable form. In this, van Mastricht purposely avoided, as he puts it, “custom (institutum) of those who compose dense volumes concerning the method of preaching, the perusal and even the reading of which demands as much time of theology students as a proper syntagma of theology.”

So although the title may suggest otherwise, The Best Method of Preaching is a modest book. It’s even a small book: only eighty-two pages, including the excellent historical in- troduction written by the translator, Todd Rester (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary). It is the kind of resource a mentoring pastor might give to his summer intern, and I write this review from that perspective.

The key to understanding van Mastricht’s method of preaching is the first sentence of the book: “And so, there are four things that must be observed in preaching: invention, arrangement, elaboration, and delivery.” For van Mastricht, these four things are the four steps a preacher must take in preparing and delivering a sermon. In his book, he guides the reader through these steps and models his method using Colossians 3:1.

Van Mastricht covers the first step, “invention,” in chapter 1. He instructs preachers to choose a thesis which will be argued from a biblical text. The choice of the text should be guided by the spiritual needs of the congregation and with sensitivity to the length of the text.

Chapter 1 finishes with a short discussion on the second step, “arrangement.” In this step, the preacher chooses and orders his material. He should do this with “the ruder sorts” of people in mind—every sermon must be understandable and memorizable even for them. And van Mastricht gives four rules to help achieve this goal. These rules apply to every structural element in the sermon.

The macro structure of the sermon is explained in the third step, “elaboration.” This step requires the preacher to fill in the details of each section of the sermon. Van Mastrict carefully explains the “ingredients” to include, the “rules” to follow, and the “affections,” if any, the preacher should seek to move.

The lion’s share of van Mastricht’s preaching advice is devoted to this third step. In all, he lists ten parts of a sermon. He notes, however, that every part is not equal nor always necessary. Van Mastricht cautions preachers to be selective and construct the sermon with sensitivity to the chosen text and the capacity of the hearers. Because of this, in my view, it is simpler to understand van Mastricht’s sermon structure as consisting of four parts instead of ten. They are introduction (chapter 2), summary and exposition (chapter 3), doctrinal argument (chapter 4), and applications or “uses” (chapters 4– 7). Strangely, he says nothing about the sermon’s conclusion.

While these four parts are required in this order for every sermon, preacher’s must be selective in the material they choose. For example, while the preacher must make applications of the doctrine that is preached he should not make every one of them. Van Mastricht offers several to choose from. There is the “informatory use” for conviction and instruction in the truth and sometimes refutation (“elenchtic use”) of a lie; the “consolatory use” for the consolation of the pious who are afflicted by evil; the “rebuking use” for those who practice evil; the “exploratory use” for encouraging self-examination; and the “hortatory use” for exciting zeal and giving instruction unto good works. Every one of these should be found in the preaching ministry of a pastor, but they should not all be found in every sermon. It would be too burdensome for the listeners.

The final step of van Mastricht’s preaching method is “delivery” (chapter 9). After writing the sermon the preacher is encouraged to edit, memorize, and then preach the sermon. In editing, van Mastricht says the preacher should to “purify” the sermon of anything complex, pompous, courtly, etc. In memorizing, van Mastricht gives no advice, which is a disappointment given that memorization is now a lost art. In preaching, he briefly states six rules on the use of expression and gestures.

Van Mastricht compiled this method to help preachers get from text to sermon in a way that is faithful to the Bible and sensitive to the needs of the hearers. He largely achieves that goal, but there is one significant point in which his method fails. To put it bluntly, the structure of the work is confusing. The explanation of his method I’ve given above is only the result of many careful readings. One cause for the confusion is the clumsy numbering. Consider, for example what the reader must sort out at the beginning of chapter 5.

  1. Preaching Comfort to Believers The ingredients, rules, and affections of the consolatory use XI. Seventh, the practical application follows, which respects . . .

Unless you catch that chapter 5 is fleshing out step three in his four-step process, or that it is introducing—without warning—chapters 6 and 7, you’ll be even more confused. Examples like this could be easily multiplied. If the book were longer I suspect it would be nearly unusable. But the book is short enough to benefit anyone who reads it, especially those who read more closely.

Another weakness I see is in van Mastricht’s advice about the structure of ther semon. Van Mastricht advises the plain style of preaching common among the Puritans. This is a reliable sermon structure and has been used with great benefit, but it is not perfect. For one, despite the warnings van Mastricht gives about being selective, he offers scant advice on how to do this. Thus this method can easily overwhelm a preachers with all the things one might profitably include. This makes sermon preparation difficult and it tends to produce sermons that more easily fall into abstraction, moralism, and being overly dense. Having not read any of van Mastricht’s sermons I can’t say that he fell into any of these traps, but these are critiques sometimes made of Puritan preaching. Of course, preachers can and have used this style profitably, but it usually requires a deeper knowledge of how sermons and sermon preparation works than what is offered.

So I hesitate to say that van Mastricht’s method is “best,” but it does have several strengths that make this book a helpful introduction to preaching. The brevity of the work is a strength. It allows one to learn an essentially reliable method of preaching relatively quickly. And van Mastricht’s comments on moving in an orderly way from text to sermon are excellent. The book shines the most, however, in van Mastricht’s advice on the content of the sermon, or “ingredients” as he calls it. The rules his gives and the specific affections that should be targeted are helpful to read and know. Preachers who study and memorize these will no doubt discover important applications of Scripture that they have missed, forgotten, or neglected in their preaching. There is much that makes this work valuable, but this alone makes van Mastricht’s method worthy of study.

Want to read another review of The Best Method of Preaching? Check out Ryan McGraw’s review at meetthepuritans.com.

Christopher Chelpka @christopherchelpka
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