Chapter 4. The More Special Duties of the Pastoral Office
Section I.—The Theory and Practice of Preaching
IN proceeding now to consider the special duties of the pastoral office, we cannot hesitate to assign the first place to the work of preaching, the preparation and delivery of discourses on the great subjects of God’s revelation to men. This forms more peculiarly the vocation of the Christian pastor; other things, though important in their proper place, are still but subsidiary in comparison of it. As the purpose of God is to save men by the knowledge of the truth in Christ, so by what the apostle calls ‘the foolishness of preaching,’ that is, by the simple, faithful, earnest proclamation of the truth, the great end of the ministry must chiefly be carried out. It is only by their coming to know and believe the truth that men consciously enter into the kingdom of God; and every step they may afterwards take in the discharge of its obligations, or in the personal experience of its blessings, must be in connection with realizing views of the things which belong to the person and the work of Christ. Whatever, therefore, is fitted to aid in bringing men to the possession of such views, is on that account entitled to a minister’s attentive consideration; but he should ever regard the preaching of the gospel as the means more especially appointed by Christ, and in its own nature best adapted for bringing the truth effectually to bear upon the hearts of men, and maintaining its influence in Christian congregations. So that preaching, as justly stated by Vinet, (Past. Theology, p. 73.) ‘is essential to the pastorate, which apart from this cannot reach souls, and cannot present the truth in its most regular and general forms. This,’ he adds, ‘is the glory of our Reformation, that it has restored public preaching to the Church; it may even be said to the Catholic Church. Surely that was a noble movement by which the priesthood passed from a simple celebration of rites (which had become a species of magic) to science, to thought, to speech and aggressive action.’
1. Points of agreement in essential qualities between preaching and public speaking in general.—Preaching, as it is now understood, being only a particular kind of public discourse, necessarily has certain things common to it with oratory in general, but which must rather be presupposed here than formally considered. Not, however, as if they were of little importance; on the contrary, I quite concur in the statement of Mr. Rogers, (Essay on Sacred Eloquence.) that the eloquence of the pulpit ‘has never, I should rather say seldom, been assimilated so far as it might have been to that which has produced the greatest effect elsewhere, and which is shown to be of the right kind, both by the success which has attended it, and by the analysis of the qualities by which it has been distinguished.’ It will be well, therefore, for those who are bent on attaining to such excellence in this respect as they maybe capable of reaching, to make themselves acquainted with the great principles of public speaking as an art, as these have been unfolded by the masters of eloquence themselves, or by those who have made them the subject of special study.
Here the ancients still continue among our best guides, not merely from the admirable specimens of oratory they have left behind them, but also on account of the careful study they gave to the subject, and their clear enunciation of all the more important elements of success. There is scarcely, I believe, anything of moment, nothing certainly entitled to much consideration, which will not be found both lucidly stated and largely illustrated in the rhetorical treatises of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quinctilian. Such works, however, of modern date as Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric, Whately’s Rhetoric, also Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric, may be consulted with advantage. That I may not altogether omit what relates to this more general, though in itself most fundamental branch of the subject, I shall endeavour as briefly as possible to indicate a few leading points.
(1.) First of all it is to be borne in mind, that nature here, as in other things, constitutes the foundation. It does so in two respects, both as to the measure in which success in public speaking may be possible, and as to the particular method or style through which it may be attained. Whatever the labour and cultivation of art may do, it must have certain aptitudes or capacities of a natural kind to build upon. That the first parts belong to nature (primas partes esse natura) is freely allowed by Quinctilian, (Inst. xi.) even when he is urging most strenuously the necessity of laborious application. In personal appearance, in freedom, flexibility and compass of voice, in strength of reason, retentiveness of memory, warmth of feeling, quickness and vivacity of thought, one man naturally excels another; and the greater or less degree in which any individual may possess these respective qualities, cannot fail to bring along with it a corresponding advantage or defect in respect to the higher measures of success. ‘Some,’ says Cicero, (De Oratore, L. i. c. 25.) ‘possess them in so eminent a degree, they are so adorned with the gifts of nature, that they seem to have been not so properly born, as fashioned by the hand of God for consummate orators;’ while there are others in the precisely opposite condition, so hesitating in their speech, so harsh and grating in their voice, so lumbering in their mental action or uncouth in their bodily movements, that no amount of application could be conceived adequate to make them tolerable public speakers. But even where there is such combination of properties as may be said to constitute a natural aptness for the work sufficient as a foundation for oratorical culture, that nature must still determine the kind; and to set up before one’s view a model as to method of discourse, or manner of speech and address, which should oblige one to go against the grain, would only be to lose that which might have been attained, to desert nature where it could achieve something for an ideal excellence which lies hopelessly out of reach.
(2.) A second point to be borne in mind is the improveableness of nature in the powers which actually belong to it, if only there is applied to their cultivation persistent and well-directed effort. None speak more strongly on this point than those who have themselves risen to the highest degrees of excellence in the art of speaking, or have given finer examples of it to others. The traditions respecting Demosthenes, (Quinct. L. x. 3.) his partial failures at first only rousing him to more resolute endeavours, his laborious practice of elocution by the sea-shore, his frequent resort to the depths of a solitude where no voice but his own could be heard, and no passing objects could be seen to distract the eye of his mind, or interrupt the intensity of its application,—such things, as well as the character of his surviving speeches, tell of the earnest and long-continued study which bore him to the peerless elevation which he ultimately reached. Cicero, too, after he had gained some distinction as a pleader in the Forum, so far from being satisfied with this early success, or thinking that he had already approached the limits of perfection, put himself under the direction of professed rhetoricians, both at Rome and afterwards when sojourning at Athens and in Asia Minor, giving himself, as Quinctilian expresses it, to be in a manner formed and modelled anew. (L. 12:6.) And his own advices to others are in perfect accordance with the course he had himself pursued, as may be seen, for example, in the 2d Book of his Treatise on Oratory, where explicit directions are given upon the subject, and the result of judicious and persevering application is represented as almost incredible. Preachers must expect no exemption from this law of nature, though few may be able to bestow such pains and application in conforming to it as the persons just referred to. As public speakers they have powers to cultivate, faculties to improve and exercise, and that both in respect to the proper treatment of the subjects they have to handle, and the way and manner of presenting their ideas, so as best to convince the understandings and impress the hearts of their audience. However easy it may be with certain natural advantages on their side to reach a respectable mediocrity in these respects, perfection, or even an approach to perfection, in any one of the properties going to constitute the really effective public speaker, is necessarily reserved for the painstaking and the diligent. (It should be remembered also, that whatever help one may sometimes get from others, self-culture, self-application must chiefly be looked to. So it certainly was with Demosthenes, so with one of the greatest of American orators. ‘I owe my success in life,’ said Clay, ‘to one single fact, namely, that at the age of twenty-seven I commenced and continued for years the practice of daily reading and speaking upon the contents of some historical or scientific book. These offhand efforts were made sometimes in a corn-field, at others in the forest, and not unfrequently in some distant barn, with the horse and the ox for my auditors. It is to this early practice of the great art of all arts that I am indebted for the primary and leading impulses that stimulated me forward, and have shaped my entire subsequent history.’)
(3.) The dependence of successful public speaking on an appropriate style, is a third point requiring careful thought and application; style, I mean, not simply with regard to the choice of words or the structure of sentences (which may admit of many varieties), but as a fitting expression of the speaker’s own cast of mind, as exercised on the class of subjects of which he discourses, and with a view to the specific end he aims at in handling them. Diligence and care in this respect Cicero calls the most efficient and controlling factor in speaking aright (optimum effectorum ac magistrum dicendi), (De Oratore, i. 33.) though Cicero himself, it must be admitted, carried the matter to excess, and in aspiring after that fine modulation of words and wealth and harmony of diction in which he became so great a master, he often impaired the naturalness and strength of his language by the too artificial, elaborate, and prolix structure of his sentences. The line that is really the most fitting and appropriate for a particular speaker will always be found involved in some difficulty, calling for wise discrimination in the individual, with a certain delicacy of feeling and propriety of sentiment; nor in anything will a false taste more readily discover its mistake, or prove more certainly fatal to success. It is also beset with this peculiar difficulty, that while one’s style must to a large extent be formed on the model of written productions, there are qualities of style which may be perfectly proper, sometimes may add grace or dignity to the printed page, which would inevitably appear stiff or affected if transferred to the oral discourse. One thing requires especially to be kept in view by the public speaker, whatever may be the particular theme or the kind of audience with which for the time he has to do; he must cultivate lucidity and directness of speech; for it is not with him as with an author, whose readers may hang for a considerable time over his pages in order to catch the full drift of his meaning, or obtain an adequate appreciation of the felicitous manner in which it is unfolded. The public speaker must be understood as he goes along; every sentence, every word he utters should find its way to the understandings of his hearers as soon as it passes from his lips; in so far as it does not, it necessarily fails of its aim. But in respect to other qualities, such as regard to emphasis, comparative ease or tension, pathetic tenderness or rugged energy, elegance, terseness, epigrammatic point or careless simplicity, there is room for almost endless diversity; and which of these to adopt, and when, demands not only a discriminating judgment with respect to each particular part and species of discourse, but also a just estimate of one’s own powers in relation to the things required. Hence, all sensible critics recommend here much tentative and experimental action; a. cautious gauging of one’s personal powers and resources; a study of the most approved exemplars of thought and style, in their different kinds; and, above all, the habitual practice of composition, whether for public discourse or merely for private exercise and improvement. Scribendum ergo (says Quinctilian) quam diligentissime, et quam plurimum; (L. x. 3, 7.) and this all the more, as he also urges, if we have much to do in extempore speaking, since without regular habits of study and experience in written composition, it is sure to degenerate into what he calls inanem loquacitatem et verba in labris nascentia, frothy talk and lip oratory.
(4.) Then, fourthly, there is the intimate connection between the things spoken and the action or bearing of the speaker, a point which the commonest hearers as well as the greatest rhetorical authorities are competent to judge of, and alike regard as of highest moment; for the one class instinctively feel what the other intellectually discern. Thousands can judge of the propriety or impropriety, the defects or advantages of a speaker’s voice and motions, which together make up action, for the comparative handful who can intelligently judge of the merits or demerits of the discourse he delivers. People are affected, not simply, often not so much, by the thoughts presented to their minds, as by the manner in which they are presented, the tone, the gesture, the whole aspect and demeanour of him who is seeking to gain a hearing for them. So that, as is perfectly known, a second or even third rate discourse, if set forth by an appropriate and becoming action, will prevail more than the most exquisite composition, which is accompanied in the delivery by an unsuitable or defective manner. The judgment of Demosthenes on this point is well known; and Cicero speaks with scarcely less decision; for he represents action as having a sort of dominant power in speaking (unam in dicendo actionem dominari). (De Orat. i. 28.) And he justly notices that in that respect there is nothing so readily marked, nor so apt to take a firm hold of the memory, as that which occasions offence. It is what every one perceives; it seems to thrust itself on the observation of all, and cleaves to their remembrance whether they will or not. There is therefore a double reason for attending to the matter, since an appropriate and well-regulated action adds immensely to the force of what is spoken, while anything unbecoming, awkward, misplaced, or ineffective inevitably palls upon the taste of the hearers, and hangs like a clog upon one’s efforts to produce effect.
(5.) Yet, with all the attention that should thus be paid to the cultivation of native talent, of style, of action, and the pains that should be taken on every hand to avoid obvious blemishes and defects, there is still another point that may be said to overtop the whole, and the more difficult to be reached in practice, that to be attained in any competent degree it is necessary that all the rest should be cast into comparative forgetfulness; it is the surrender of the heart to the subject in hand, the power of letting oneself out into it. The soul of eloquence may be said to lie here; and without some measure of it, though there may be ever so finely constructed sentences, close and correct reasoning, graceful elocution, there cannot be the quickening impulse and persuasive speech which rivet the attention of the audience, and stir their hearts. For this the speaker must, above all, be possessed by the things which he comes to discourse of, impressed with a sense of their reality and importance. Pectus est enim (L. x. 7.) (to quote again Quinctilian) quod disertos facit, et vis mentis; and hence, he justly adds, even among unlearned persons, if only they are stirred by some powerful affection, words are not wanting. The mind then, instead of turning its eye inward on itself, or fixing on a single point, pours itself forth on many things in succession, as when one glances along a straight path everything is embraced that is in and around it; not the further end merely, but the things also that lie between us and it. So that whatever any one may possess by nature, or may have acquired by learning and art, to fit him for the work of popular discourse, he must, if he has risen to any degree of perfection in it, have acquired the power of losing sight of these when actually engaged in its discharge; the energies of his mind must be wholly concentrated upon his theme. Here, as in other accomplishments, ‘the skill of the artist and the perfection of his art are never proved till both are forgotten. The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself; the art is imperfect which is invisible; the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement. In the reading of a great poem, in the hearing of a noble oration, it is the subject of the writer and not his skill, his passion not his power, on which our minds are fixed. We see as he sees, but we see not him. We become part of him, feel with him, judge, behold with him; but we think of him as little as of ourselves. The harp of the minstrel is untruly touched if his own glory is all that it records. The power of the masters is shown by their self-annihilation.’ (Ruskin, Modern Painters, i. p. 22.)
Such are some of the more vital and important considerations which require to be attended to in connection with the art of public speaking generally; which, therefore, can no more be neglected with impunity by the preachers of the gospel, than by any others who seek to influence their fellow-men by their capacity of speech in public. No talent or even genius in the speaker, and no peculiarity in the subject he handles, can compensate for such neglect, or render palpable defects in regard to the qualifications mentioned otherwise than an occasion of comparative failure. It would not be easy, perhaps, to find in a brief compass a description which might seem more thoroughly aimed at exemplifying this than the account transmitted to us, mainly by Isaak Walton and Fuller, of the justly-renowned Richard Hooker. The delineation presents him to our view as a man ‘of mean stature, and stooping, of humble or low voice, his face full of heat pimples, gesture none at all, standing stock-still, his eyes always fixed on one place to prevent his imagination from wandering, insomuch that he seemed to study as he spoke.’ Add to which, what is said by Fuller: ‘his style was long and pithy, driving on a whole flock of several clauses before he came to the close of a sentence; so, when the copiousness of his style met not with proportionable capacity in his auditors, it was unjustly censured for perplexed, tedious, and obscure.’ In short, so defective was he in all the more noticeable qualifications of an orator, that one might almost suppose the trial to have been formally made in Hooker, how the most profound intellect, the most varied learning, the most fertile and lofty imagination, conjoined with a winning simplicity of manners and a spirit of sincere fervent piety might all be possessed, and yet leave the possessor at the remotest distance from the position of an attractive and powerful speaker. It was impossible, indeed, that such a man could fail to produce at times deep impressions in spite of all disadvantages, and be listened to generally by a certain number with respectful and loving affection. Even with the commonest audience, there were passages so finely conceived and expressed, that they could scarcely fail to fall upon the ear like the sound of sacred melody, such as the following: (Sermon on the Certainty and Perpetuity of Faith.) ‘The light would never be so acceptable were it not for the usual intercourse of darkness. Too much honey doth turn to gall, and too much joy even spiritually would turn us to wantons. Happier a great deal is that man’s case, whose soul by inward desolation is humbled, than he whose heart is through abundance of spiritual delight lifted up and exalted above measure.
Better it is sometimes to go down into the pit with him who, beholding darkness, and bewailing the loss of inward joy and consolation, crieth from the lowest hell, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” than continually to walk arm in arm with angels, to sit, as it were, in Abraham’s bosom, and to have no thought, no cogitation but “I thank my God it is not with me as with other men.”’ But whatever effect occasional passages of this kind might have had, they could not tell enough upon the general aggregate to render Hooker, with all his gifts and excellences, I shall not say a popular, but even what may be called an ordinarily attractive and effective preacher.
It is time, however, to quit this more general part of the subject, on which it was not my intention to do more than indicate a few leading principles, or points demanding careful consideration. We must now turn to those things which have a more direct and special reference to that kind of public speaking with which we are here more immediately concerned: the preparation and delivery of discourses on things pertaining to the kingdom of God and the salvation of men.
II. The fitting subjects of discourse for the pulpit, and the solution of appropriate texts.—It has been the all but universal practice in the Christian Church, since she possessed in any measure of completeness the canon of Sacred Scripture, to take some portion of its contents as the ground of the discourses which are addressed to congregations when they meet for purposes of worship. And the practice is in itself highly commendable, and carries with it obvious advantages. It is, first of all, an important as well as a becoming testimony to the supreme authority of Scripture as the revelation of God; and as such, the Church’s sole warrant and guide in regard to all that concerns spiritual and divine things. It virtually proclaims to all whom we address, ‘To the law and to the testimony;’ here is the certain ground and warrant of whatever as Christians we believe, and do, and hope for. Then, this practice of preaching from a text serves in a very natural and fitting manner to bring people acquainted with the matter of Scripture, and to give them both a more intelligent and more comprehensive knowledge of the things which it presents to their faith and obedience. Finally, it tends to impart a distinctive character both of sacredness and unity to what is spoken, whereby the preacher himself is benefited in having a channel, as it were, provided by the hand of God for the orderly presentation of his thoughts on particular themes; and the hearer also has his recollections aided by a passage in the written word which he can keep before him, or fall back upon as he may need.
A certain choice, however, is necessary in regard to the subjects of discourse. One is, not to set out with the idea that any passage, or portion of a passage, in Scripture, simply because it is an integral part of what is collectively the word of God, may on that account be fixed upon as the proper foundation of a discourse to an assemblage of Christian people. The whole of Scripture, when rightly interpreted and viewed in connection with its leading purport and design, is certainly profitable for religious instruction and pious uses; but not always profitable to such ends in the way of public discourse. Its aim in some portions may be best accomplished by private meditation, while others require to be looked at complexly as parts of a general whole, and do not so readily admit of being isolated, and made the ground or occasion of a somewhat lengthened discourse. Containing, as the Bible does, historical records of the human family during many successive generations, touching incidentally on an immense variety of circumstances and objects, current events and settled institutions, in its didactic parts referring to numberless productions of nature and works of art, as well as to the things which most deeply concern the present and eternal interests of mankind,—it were quite easy to find in the Bible texts from which discourses could be delivered perfectly textual in their character, and yet in their tenor entirely alien to the great interests of Christianity. The Rationalists of Germany, and the Unitarians of our own country and America, when turning the pulpit, as they have so often done, into an arena of philosophical, or simply moral and political discussion, never needed to be at any loss for texts to start with, and on which to hang their ideas. Volumes of sermons have issued from the press, each with their appropriate text, which as to subject and matter might have suited the taste of an audience in ancient Rome or Alexandria. And it is probable that there was no want of texts, or occasional Scriptural quotations, in those continental discourses mentioned by Dr. Ammon, one series of which treated of subjects connected with rural economy and fallow-grounds; another, of the cultivation of the silkworm; while a third unfolded the duties of Christians on the approach of a contagious disease among cattle. The pastors of evangelical congregations are in little danger of falling into such senseless extravagances; their very position is a safeguard against it. But they may still be liable to go to some extent astray, unless they are careful to keep steadily in view the great end of preaching, which, like that of the Bible itself, is the glory of God in the salvation of men. Where this is rightly understood and appreciated, the preacher will feel that he has something else to do than to search for texts and subjects which are out of accord with the spirit of the gospel.
At the same time, a certain latitude should undoubtedly be allowed in this respect to the Christian pastor. He may not be always preaching directly on the great theme, and in his range of subjects may imitate in a measure the variety and fulness by which Scripture itself is distinguished. Nothing may be altogether excluded from the pulpit which has an influential bearing on the Christian life, or admits of being handled in a Christian spirit. But much of which this can be said may still be unsuited to form the leading topic of a sermon. The pulpit has not been erected, as justly remarked by Vinet, (Homiletics, p. 51.) ‘in order that everything may be there treated in a Christian manner; it has a special object, which is to introduce the Christian idea into life. I should say, then,’ he adds, ‘that everything which does not conduce directly to edification; everything which an ordinary hearer cannot of himself convert into the bread of life, or at least which the preacher does not acknowledge to be such, should not be made a subject of his preaching.’ Or, if a licence may at times be taken to go somewhat beyond this precise line, it should be distinctly announced as a kind of exceptional effort, called forth by the circumstances of the moment, and of such a nature as to carry, in a manner, its own justification along with it.
It is quite possible for a minister when going to preach on a subject in itself appropriate to connect it with an unsuitable text; and here, perhaps, it is that preachers in evangelical communities are most in danger of being betrayed into an impropriety in the choice of their pulpit themes. There are several ways in which this may be done. It sometimes, perhaps, takes the form of choosing a text which, as the ground of a discourse on matters of grave moment, has an indelicate, but more commonly an odd and fantastic appearance, creating a sort of ludicrous bond of association in the minds of the hearers between the preacher’s theme and the formal warrant or occasion found for it in Scripture. And anything of such a nature is as much out of place in connection with the text as with the discourse preached from it. ‘Of all preaching,’ says Baxter in his own emphatic style,—‘of all preaching in the world that speaks not stark lies, I hate that preaching which tendeth to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with ticklish levity, and affect them as stage-players used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God.’ What else could be the effect on a general audience when hearing texts like the following announced as the subject of discourse: ‘The old shoes, and clouted upon their feet;’ ‘The nine and twenty knives;’ ‘The unturned cake;’ or ‘The axe, alas! Master, it was borrowed’? Such texts, or fragments of texts, have not unfrequently been preached from; some of them are associated with the name of the eccentric Rowland Hill; along with several others of a like kind, they are found in a series of sermons which appeared in this country not many years ago, with the designation, ‘Sermons on unusual texts.’ It is to be hoped such texts will ever remain unusual, and that if our ministers are going to address their congregations on the subject of violence and war, they will be able to connect it with a more suitable form of words than Ezra’s nine and twenty knives, and will light upon something more becoming than the old and clouted shoes of the Gibeonites, from which to expose the various workings of hypocrisy and deceit, and man’s vain attempts to mend himself. The object of choosing such texts is too palpable to escape the notice of even the humblest audience. They will readily perceive the tendency it exhibits to attract notoriety, and acquire a name for what is smart and peculiar. But precisely as this object is gained, the grand aim of preaching is lost, and the preacher himself sinks to the level of the man who indulges in a perverted ingenuity and a vicious taste.
Another and less offensive, though still decidedly objectionable form of the same inappropriateness consists in selecting texts, which only in a figurative, obscure, perhaps even fanciful manner, can be made to express the ideas which are to be deduced from them. Supposing the subject of discourse were to be the important theme of Christ’s righteousness, as imputed or savingly applied to believers, it would scarcely be wise to connect its illustration and enforcement with such a text as Isa_45:8, ‘Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness,’ a text, if I mistake not, chosen for that purpose by the excellent Mr. Romaine, yet not fitly chosen, since it is at best too general a declaration for so specific a doctrine; while a plentiful variety of passages might be found in the later Scriptures which unfold it in a much more distinct and categorical form. In like manner, if the subject were to be the connection between faith and works, it would surely be travelling out of the proper way for a fitting text to repair, as has sometimes been done, to Exo_39:26, ‘A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate;’ the bell, as the symbol of an articulate call, being taken to represent the preaching of the gospel which demands faith from those who hear, and the pomegranate following in close connection, pointing, as is conceived, to the fruit of holiness, which ever springs from the belief of the truth. How many hearers would be disposed to accredit the doctrine, were this a fair sample of the texts that establish it? How many, after every possible explanation has been made of this particular text, would feel quite satisfied that the doctrine is really expressed there? And if so, how unwise is it to bring into the very foundations of the subject an element of uncertainty, and start as it were with a note of interrogation, an involuntary doubt in the minds of our audience! If a text were chosen which exhibits the doctrine under a typical or figurative aspect, it should still be one that admits of a clear and easily perceived application to the subject of discourse. For whatever the subject itself may be, and whatever the specific character of the text on which it is grounded, the latter should always possess two properties in relation to the former; it should be such as to present a solid, in contradistinction from a fanciful or questionable, basis of discourse, and it should be in its own nature ample enough to bear all that in doctrine or duty is raised on it.
In the Evangelical Church (so called) of Prussia, I may notice there exists a temptation which is almost unknown elsewhere, to hang sermons on texts with which they have a very slender connection. The temptation arises from the practice of having prescribed by public authority for every Sabbath and religious festival of the year a series of Bible lessons, from which the preacher is required to select the subject of discourse. Hence there must either be a considerable sameness in the pulpit ministrations, or some ingenuity must be exerted to deduce a variety of themes from a limited number of texts; preachers must turn over the passages submitted to them in every conceivable way, and extract from them not only what they more directly teach, but also what they incidentally suggest, or by some influential process can be made to imply. The sermons of Rheinhard are striking specimens of this sort of ingenuity. The miracle of Christ, for example, in feeding the four thousand with a few loaves and fishes (Mar_8:1-9) furnishes a text for discoursing on the duty of relying on oneself more than on others. The narrative of the paralytic borne on a couch, and let down in faith to the chamber where our Lord was teaching (Mat_9:1-8), is made the occasion for exhibiting the kind of behaviour which ought to be maintained by Christians, on account of the confidence that is ready to be reposed in them by those around them. The word of our Lord to Peter in Luk_5:10, ‘From henceforth thou shalt catch men,’ gives rise to a lengthened exposition of the principle, that the faithful discharge of the duties connected with each one’s particular calling forms a natural and fitting qualification for the exercise of higher functions.
One cannot but feel that, in connecting such topics with the texts mentioned, there is what carries an artificial and forced appearance, the endeavour by a tortuous line of thought to get at what should have been found accessible by a direct approach. In a course of regular exposition through a book of Scripture, it might be proper to introduce a few brief remarks on the points thus incidentally raised in them; but it is another thing when the incidental in the text becomes the one and all in the discourse. This cannot but be felt to be unnatural; it wants simplicity and directness. At the same time, it may be perfectly legitimate and proper to single out from a text some particular idea, which forms a subordinate rather than the principal part of its meaning; and on this, occasionally at least, to raise a discourse which may be designed to serve some special purpose, or to meet some peculiar phase of thought prevalent at the time. Rheinhard also furnishes a very suitable example of this description in a sermon on Mat_9:24, where, when Jesus affirmed of the daughter of Jairus that she was not dead but asleep, it is observed of the people present that they laughed Him to scorn; and of Himself that, notwithstanding, He proceeded to raise her up again. On this Rheinhard takes occasion to discourse, not of the miracle, or of the attributes of character it manifested on the part of Christ, but of the truth that Christians will often find themselves called to do what shall appear foolish or ridiculous to the multitude; that their principles may be, and often cannot but be, regarded as absurd, their faith in God illusory, their zeal for the divine glory extravagant, their magnanimity indiscreet. And so he urges on them the duty of looking above the superficial multitude, of even suspecting their own piety if it does not prove the occasion of a certain measure of opposition or wonder among worldly men, and of being cautious lest they should be led to join in casting ridicule or reproach on those who are only going farther than their neighbours in doing God service. A discourse of Dr. Chalmers on Act_19:27 maybe pointed to as another and not less happy example of the same description. From the outcry of Demetrius and his workmen, that their craft was in danger by the spread of the gospel in Ephesus, he undertakes to show how perfectly compatible the growth and prevalence of Christianity is with the commercial prosperity of a people; since, while it may operate to the discouragement or suppression of some forms of handicraft and modes of gain, it is sure to open the way to others, and these of a more healthful and satisfactory kind than those it has supplanted. Special applications of passages of Scripture after this fashion, if confined to particular occasions, or employed only at distant intervals, may not only be free from any just exception, but productive of important benefits, serving as they do to exhibit the pregnancy of God’s word and the manifold wisdom of the revelation it contains, in its adaptation even to the affairs of this life and the ever-varying evolutions of the world’s history. But the practice should not be very often resorted to; and as a general rule, the principle should be maintained, that the prominent ideas of the text should also form the chief burden of the discourse that is professedly based on it.
A still further form of misapplied taste or judgment in the choice of texts has sometimes been exhibited, by turning them into a cover for the display of wit, or for conveying sarcastically, perhaps also sincerely, a rebuke to certain persons in the congregation. In the hands of some, this impropriety assumes the form only of an unbecoming levity, or ludicrous employment of Scripture, which has already been adverted to, and which, even when most cleverly done, is still to be condemned, because unsuited to the dignity and sacredness of the pulpit. It is still more objectionable when, under the phraseology or connection of the text, a hit is made at individuals; for the levity in such a case is aggravated by the indulgence of a personal pique, the gratification of a testy humour, in a manner that must always carry an ungenerous aspect, taking advantage of one’s position to shoot an arrow at those who have no power to defend themselves. Such liberties are scarcely known in this northern part of the land; but the greater tendency to the humorous which is characteristic of England, a tendency which sometimes appears even on the tombstones disporting itself with the dead, has also been wont to give rather strange exhibitions of itself, after the fashion adverted to, from the pulpit. I remember being told, when residing in an English parish, that the minister had some time before been presented at an episcopal visitation of the district as negligent of some parts of parochial duty by a respectable solicitor, and that on the following Sabbath he had chosen for his text, ‘And a certain lawyer stood up, tempting him.’ In a story very commonly reported of Dr. Paley (in the little volume, for example, by Mr. Christmas, on Preachers and Preaching), there is certainly what must be regarded as a much better specimen of humour in this line. On the occasion of Pitt, when still a comparatively young man, but already in the proud position of Premier, revisiting Cambridge, where he had studied, and receiving marked attention there from many old associates, who were known to be eagerly looking to him for preferments, Paley, it is said, gave forth for his text the passage in St. John’s Gospel, ‘There is a lad here which hath five barley loaves and two small fishes; but what are they among so many?’ (The story is not quite correct. Paley did not actually preach before Pitt. He was not even at Cambridge when Pitt visited it; but he remarked to some one, that if he had been the preacher on the occasion, such would have been his text. See Life by Wayland, Paley’s Works.) But the best in such a case is bad; the preacher of Christ’s salvation necessarily stoops from his proper elevation, when in the very discharge of his office he makes himself known as a humorist. And to display this character in the selection of his text, is virtually to release his audience from concern about higher things, and let the thought of amusement prevail over a regard to edification.
In the choice of a text, however, something more is needed than to consider how far it may itself be fitted to serve as the foundation of a public discourse; its suitableness also to the preacher’s powers and present or prevailing tone of mind requires to be taken into account. That a striking or impressive sermon has been preached by one person from a particular text, is no reason why another, though perhaps of not inferior abilities as a man or character as a Christian, should expect to do the same. The theme, or the form in which the theme has been presented, while suited to the one, may somehow prove unsuitable to the other; it may call for the exercise of sensibilities and gifts, a reach of thought or a kind of experience, which are far from being equally shared by both. This is a point which each individual must ascertain for himself. But let it be kept distinctly in mind, that there is a certain measure of adaptation needed in the text to the preacher, as well as in the text to the theme and the audience. Some can succeed well enough with a general or comprehensive text, having power to give it, by means of suggestive thought and varied illustration, the requisite individuality. But more commonly the preacher will require a text which has itself some kind of individuality, presenting specific points in the history of God’s manifestations, or in the experience and character of His people, for consideration. Preachers of considerable mark have confessed that they could never find themselves properly at home, excepting with texts of this description. And when respect is had to the very great diversity which exists in men’s natural as well as acquired characteristics, the greater preponderance of intellect in one, of feeling in another; here the logical, there the imaginative, and there again the emotional powers in greatest vigour; in some only the simpler phases known of Christian experience, in others the sounding of all its depths and heights;—it is manifest that there must be subjects and passages in the word of God which, in order to a properly successful and effective treatment, will require minds of a particular kind of calibre and religious susceptibility. A well-educated and experienced teacher of divine truth may have a general fitness for all topics, and yet only for some a special and peculiar adaptation.
Whatever the particular subject may be on which the pastor is going to discourse on the approaching Sabbath, and whatever the text to be chosen for the purpose, there is one rule which he should, as far as possible, regularly observe; he should have it sought out and fixed on in good time, not left over to the latter part of the week. The advantage of such a method is, that the mind is not only relieved from the flutter of uncertainty and doubt when the moment of actual preparation arrives; but has already so far become prepared that it has had leisure to examine the text itself, so as to get thoroughly conversant with its import and connection, and have the subject embraced in it turned over in various aspects and directions. The truth has thus had time to steep, as it were, in the mind, and enter in succum et sanguinem; so that when one comes to apply formally to the consideration of the subject, instead of hastily snatching at the first thoughts that present themselves, there is already obtained a general acquaintance with the main theme, and more or less of the specific matter suitable for its illustration called up. With the view also of facilitating this preliminary sort of preparation, the practice is not unworthy of notice, which has been followed with advantage by some, of noting in a memorandum-book such texts as have, in the course of one’s reading or meditation, suggested themselves for themes of future discourse, indicating at the same time the lines of thought which it seemed advisable to pursue in connection with them. Topics and ideas occurring in this incidental way are often helpful in striking the proper key-note for more careful and prolonged consideration.
The suggestions now offered concerning the choice of subjects of discourse, it will be understood, have respect merely to the ordinary course of pastoral ministrations. There are peculiar and exceptional cases, sometimes perhaps furnished by the pastor himself, when he feels prompted to deliver his views publicly on subjects important in themselves, yet somewhat away from the beaten track of pastoral duty, as Dr. Chalmers in respect to his astronomical discourses; sometimes, again, by the state of the congregation, when, to save it from prevailing error, or recover it from deep spiritual lethargy, a mode of preaching to some extent peculiar may be required, as in Mr. Cecil’s congregation at St. John’s, or Mr. Robert Hall’s at Cambridge. Mr. Dale of Birmingham also, in a volume of Week-Day Discourses, has given a very good example of the treatment of a class of subjects far from unimportant, but which call for illustrations and details that might seem somewhat out of place in the regular ministrations of the pulpit. But for cases of such a nature no general instructions can be given; each must be carefully weighed and considered by itself.
III. The matter in pulpit discourses, with reference especially to fulness and variety.—In discourses intended for stated congregations, it is undoubtedly of importance that there should be not only appropriate matter, but that also in considerable fulness and variety. Usually this ought to be the case, though not by any means uniformly; for there may be occasions and subjects, in respect to which it is the part of wisdom to concentrate one’s thoughts on merely one or two ideas, for the purpose of giving them a greater prominence or a deeper impression. This may sometimes be proper in addressing audiences which we have reason to believe are in a very ignorant or lethargic state of mind, when the one object, in a manner, is to rouse to spiritual thought and obtain a lodgment in men’s minds for some grand principle of truth or duty. It may also be proper, in dealing with congregations which are partial and one-sided in their views on some point of Christian belief or morals, when again the great object of the preacher naturally is to drive them from their false position, and have the light of conviction let in upon them where precisely it is needed. It cannot be disputed that some of Dr. Chalmers’ most powerful and effective discourses were of this description. They embody nothing more than one leading idea; but this is usually so diversified in the manner of statement, so varied in the illustration, presented in so many fresh and vivid colours, that the attention of the audience was never allowed to flag, and the impression produced in behalf of the engrossing theme was like that of successive and ever-deepening strokes of some mighty weapon. Such a style of preaching, however, requires intense energy and concentration in the preacher to be practised with success. Very rarely, indeed, would it be safe for persons possessed of only average powers to attempt it when preaching to congregations which are composed of different classes and conditions of people. Even when done with success as regards the quality of the discourse, few congregations would feel quite satisfied with it as a rule, because wanting in the variety which is requisite for the health and nourishment of their spiritual life. Preachers should bear in mind that, as congregations generally consist of persons differing not a little in their intellectual and spiritual states, as well as in their external circumstances and relations, there is needed somewhat of a corresponding variety in the thoughts and considerations which are presented to them at their regular meetings for worship. Nor should it be forgotten that, with the larger portion of those addressed, the discourses they hear on the Lord’s Day constitute by much the greater part of the spiritual instruction they are to receive, in all probability the only instruction they are to get from a living voice during the entire week. So that they will almost certainly feel like persons stinted in their proper nourishment, unless matter for reflection, at once solid in kind and considerably diversified in its manner of administration, be imparted to them on the Sabbath.
The work of preaching is often considered with reference to a specific standard of eloquence, according to which it is either appreciated or condemned; and when so considered, the stirring of the emotions and the influencing of the moral judgments and feelings, with the view of raising them to the right spiritual tone, readily come to be contemplated as well-nigh the one object to be aimed at. But this is never more than a part of the proper aim and function of preaching. It has to do as much with instruction as with persuasion; and the enlightenment of the understanding holds even a more prominent, as it does also a prior, place in its formal design, than the excitation of the feelings or the immediate exercise of the will. But, rightly viewed, the one aspect of the matter might as well be included as the other; for the didactic or instructive element is not less essential than the suasive in the notion of true eloquence. The noblest specimens of eloquence that have come down to us from ancient times, or that have appeared in modern, are equally remarkable for the measure of light they were fitted to impart in a brief compass to the audiences addressed, as by their adaptation to rouse and interest their feelings. If you take of the former class the oration of Demosthenes for the crown, or of the latter Hall’s sermon on modern infidelity, or his discourse on the death of the Princess Charlotte, you will not readily find productions treating of like subjects which in the same compass contain a larger amount of solid thought, and presented in a form better fitted to give the minds of the hearers a just and intelligent apprehension of the leading points proper to the occasion. Still, when in ordinary language one speaks of eloquence or oratory, one naturally thinks of what is chiefly addressed to the feelings, what aims at rousing an apathetic indifference or overcoming a reluctant will by fervid argumentation or powerful appeals. In the popular understanding it has come to be associated with a certain degree of impassioned pleading, with the view of impressing and moving the heart. This, undoubtedly, has its place in the pulpit. Yet there is much also that belongs to a somewhat different category. For amid the general knowledge which may be said to prevail in connection with divine things, there is still always room for plain instruction, such as is fitted to lay open the meaning of Scripture, to explain and illustrate the all-important matters contained in it, and to exhibit the nature and extent of men’s obligations in regard to them. Hence the reason for a good deal of variety in pulpit ministrations, since they have so much ground to travel over, so many phases both of truth and duty to make familiar to men’s minds. Especially is it important for preachers in Scotland to aim at such variety; for they have audiences to address which are constitutionally of a thoughtful and intelligent character, and which never can remain long satisfied with any kind of preaching which does not furnish considerable supplies of food for their intellectual and moral natures. Something of a less solid, though possibly of a more showy and sentimental kind, may be relished for a season; but, like a surface stream, it is sure to discover its own shallowness, and will soon be forsaken for what is really fitted to enlighten and edify. Even in connection with the same ministry there are probably not many congregations in Scotland that will not be able to distinguish between discourses which are deficient, as compared with those which are replete, in the respect under consideration, or that will fail to appreciate what has been maturely considered, if only delivered in a manner suited to their capacities and fitted to engage their attention.
There is here also, however, a certain middle course which is the best; for it is possible to err by excess as well as by defect. And if, in preparing to address a congregation on any passage of Scripture, one should set out with the intention of saying everything of any moment that could be advanced on the subject, the discourse might no doubt contain a rich collection of material, but it would almost certainly fail of its proper effect with a general audience; they would feel fatigued and oppressed by it. Some of our older sermon writers fell into this mistake; Barrow may be named as a notable example. On some of the subjects discussed in his sermons it is scarcely possible to suggest any relevant consideration which had not already presented itself to his own fertile mind. But then a sort of repletion is created. The mind feels dissatisfied that nothing is left for itself to supply; and a sense of weariness is experienced even in reading so much upon the one theme, which would be greatly increased if listening to it as a spoken discourse. Barrow’s age, however, was one of patience and leisure, and fondness for detail; ours, on the contrary, is one of business and despatch; and people might at least bear with and even admire then what they would not tolerate now. It is indispensable for the great ends in view that there be selection; and in the discrimination necessary to select what is most fitting and appropriate, lies a main part of the skill of an interesting and effective preacher. He has to leave as much unsaid as what he actually says; and by the judicious choice and excellent arrangement of his matter, still more than by its quantity, he has to make his impression. The ancient apothegm ascribed to Hesiod has here a quite legitimate application, ‘The half is more than the whole,’ more, that is, with reference to the proper aim and purpose of the speaker. By what he chooses out of the whole materials before him he will be able to convey, in the time allotted him, a far clearer idea of the leading features of his subject, and impress it more vividly upon the minds of his audience, than if he attempted to fill up the picture by crowding into it every point of inferior moment that might suggest itself to his mind.
There is, however, a possibility of another kind, a danger of allowing the variety and fulness of which we have been speaking to overshadow in a measure what should ever be the grand theme of pulpit ministrations, a danger which the very intelligence and generally diffused Christianity of the age tends to increase. The fundamental truths of the gospel are familiar to the bulk of his audience, as well as to the preacher himself; and the cardinal doctrines of the Bible having a recognised place in their creed, it seems no longer needful to enter into any elaborate explanations concerning them, or even to give them, perhaps, a very frequent and prominent place in his subjects of discourse. The consequence comes to be, that the greater is to some extent sacrificed to the less; not formally displaced, indeed, yet practically allowed to lose the position of peerless value and importance to which it is entitled. The preacher endeavours to meet the desire of his hearers for instruction of a diversified kind; he strives to give interest to his pulpit ministrations by introducing a multiplicity of topics, which by their number, if not by their freshness or importance, may serve to keep alive attention. And thus the pulpit is apt to be turned into an instrument of general religious culture and moral improvement, instead of being employed as the chosen means for awakening souls to a concern for salvation, and bringing them under the powers of the world to come.
Mr. Isaac Taylor, in one of his most thoughtful productions, Saturday Evening, a considerable time ago adverted to the tendency of things in the direction now indicated. He stated that, in the case of many an evangelical minister, ‘the prime truth of the Scriptures scarcely occupies more than the proportion of one to ten in the gross amount of his public labours. The glory of Christ as the Saviour of men, which should be always as the sun in the heavens, shines only with an astral lustre; or as one light among others. It is a natural, though not very obvious consequence of the intellectual progress which the religious community has made.’ In regard also to what is called intellectual preaching, he says that it can hardly be made to consist with a bold, simple, and cordial proclamation of the message of mercy. Its fruit, he thinks, will commonly be an obtuse indifference in regard to the most affecting objects of the Christian faith. And he adds, ‘The tendency at the present moment of the better informed portions of the religious body towards intelligent frigidity is a grave matter, and one especially which should lead to a reconsideration of our several systems of clerical initiation. The cause of so fatal a practical error should be made known, if the fact be so, that numbers of those who come forth upon the Church as candidates of the Christian ministry are fraught with all qualifications and all acquirements, rather than fervour and simplicity of spirit in proclaiming the glad tidings of life.’
The state of things here described, it will readily be understood, had respect to England rather than to Scotland, and to England mainly as represented by the Established Church. It has prevailed to a considerable extent there for many generations, and is largely owing to that almost exclusive regard which in the more highly educated classes, and especially in those who pass through the universities to the Church, is paid to the cultivation of science and classical learning, or to the general refinement of the taste and manners, while special preparation and fitness for official duty are comparatively neglected. It cannot, however, be doubted that, since the remarks just quoted were penned, the tendencies complained of have undergone abatement. In most things, not an insipid frigidity, but life, warmth, activity, have become the order of the day. Even as regards ministerial agency, it has seldom, perhaps, exhibited more of lively and energetic working in England than at the present time; however much room there may still be in many quarters for improvement, and particularly in regard to the free and earnest proclamation of the gospel. In our corner of the land the change, so far as change can be marked, has manifestly been in the right direction; in the revival of a more earnest Christianity, and a demand for that kind of preaching which gives its proper prominence to the person and the work of Christ. Still, there are causes in operation which constitute an element of danger. The desire already noticed, the necessity, in a sense, of diversifying the ministrations of the pulpit, is perhaps the chief one; but this again is increased by the growing literary character of the age, and the tendency thence arising to assimilate preparations for the pulpit too closely in form and style to those of the press; so that what they gain in elaboration, in correctness, in vigour of thought or variety of illustration, they are apt, in the same proportion, to lose in Scriptural simplicity and spiritual power. The grand safeguard here, as in so many other things connected with the ministry of the gospel, lies in the personal faith and devotedness of the pastor. If matters are but right there, they cannot be far wrong in what may be called the very heart and blood of his ministerial life. And as in the gospel itself everything is found linked on one side or another to the mediation of Christ, so in his public ministrations he will never want opportunities, whatever may be the particular theme or passage handled, to point the attention of his audience to the central object, and press on their regard what is uppermost in his own, namely, the surpassing love and beauty and preciousness of the Crucified One, and the alone sufficiency of His great salvation. The occasions, indeed, will be very few, if they occur at all; they will be exceptions to the general tenor of his ministerial labours, in which the people are allowed to depart from the house of God without having had presented to them the essentials of saving doctrine. The Apostle to the Gentiles, in this respect pre-eminently the model of a Christian teacher, amid manifold diversities of subject and object, things present and things to come, never lost sight of his calling to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, and made the crucified Redeemer the Alpha and the Omega of his testimony to men.
IV. The principles to be observed in pulpit discourses as to order and arrangement.—Next to the substance of pulpit discourses, or the matter contained in them, comes the consideration of its order and arrangement. No absolute and unvarying rule can, of course, be laid down here; for different subjects necessarily call for different modes of treatment as to form or method; and sometimes what might be best adapted to the mental capacities or acquired habitudes of one person, would prove quite unsuitable to another. At the same time, as there must be an order, so one may say in general, it should be natural and, as far as possible, textual, which will be found to contribute very materially to the securing of freshness and variety. For it is one of the characteristics of Scripture, that it exhibits great diversity, not merely in respect to the topics contained in it, but also to the very form and manner in which they are presented. And if the text is made the foundation, as well for the particular aspect and relations of the subjects handled as for the leading ideas involved in them, it will be comparatively easy to avoid falling into the same track; diversities of many kinds will, as a matter of course, come into play. It will be quite otherwise if texts are taken merely as mottoes to head a discourse on some topic connected with Christian faith or practice; for as often as the same subject returns for consideration, being dissociated from any individual traits or special circumstances, it will naturally present itself in much the same aspect that it did before, and be discoursed of much after the same manner. Nor does the result come to be materially different when texts are split, as it were, into fragments, and each part taken as the ground of a separate discourse. For, though this seems in one sense to be making much of the text, in reality it is making little; since the text, by such a process, necessarily loses its proper individuality, and the several clauses or words of which it is composed are turned into so many mottoes or hints, whereon to raise a discussion on some point of Christian doctrine, or if of a practical nature, on some particular course of duty. The Puritan divines were fond of this method. A single text very commonly became in their hands the introduction to a whole body of divinity, or gave occasion to an entire series of discourses on some branch of Christian life or experience. Baxter’s Saint’s Rest is a specimen, certainly one of the best specimens, of this kind of sermon writing; and so also are the more important of Howe’s works, his Blessedness of the Righteous, Delighting in God, Living Temple, etc. They all started from an appropriate text, and by successive discourses from this they grew into considerable treatises. Howe was possessed of a singularly rich and elevated cast of mind; so that he could infuse a measure of freshness and variety into a system that was essentially monotonous, and throw out new thoughts and illustrations even when travelling anew the same paths which had been trodden before. Yet with such a system even he could not avoid frequently repeating himself, as any one may see who will be at the trouble of comparing some of the treatises with each other. He will find not the same subjects merely recurring, but the same line of thought pursued regarding them, sometimes also the same figures and images used in illustration of them. To a congrega