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ESSAY ON SCRIPTURAL AND EXPOSITORY PREACHING.
Dec. 2, 1839. Instead of taking a text, which comprehends within itself the whole subject of which you would treat, it may often be useful to choose one, which has a reference to things preceding and following it, and to expound the context. -Secker.
Although it is desirable that the style of the pulpit be in some measure suited to the manners of the age, and varied according to the characters of individual preachers, yet there are certain qualities, of which it should never be devoid. Let it not, for example, cease to be “scriptural,” in respect of its tenor and spirit, and of the use of the quotations and authorities which the Bible supplies, and even of the textual divisions* which it so often and so conveniently admits.
In this manner, public religious discourses may be scriptural, without being formally "expositions." Sometimes, however, expository sermons will constitute a pleasing and beneficial change. I will represent what I mean by the term, and will endeavour to recommend the thing.
The reading of the Scriptures in social worship, may be considered under two points of view. One is, the “devotional” end of the practice; its direct connexion with our public prayers. Now this, being by far the more important, must never be lost sight of: this ought still to have its distinct place in our services, and should be as little mixed as possible with a paraphrase, comment or exposition; although the received translation, where it is notoriously and injuriously wrong, may be corrected by the minister, as he proceeds. In sermons the case is different : here we should regard the second, or the didactic, use of the reading of the Bible. Occasionally, the preacher may discourse on a number of verses, and faithfully illustrate them. He may take a virtually long text, which he treats of in a comparatively short address: in doing this, too, he may fix the
That in the sermons of former days, as is the case of some in the present age, these divisions were often needlessly multiplied, and tended to perplex, rather than assist, hearers and readers, is undoubted. Evidently, however, we cannot in fairness argue from this abuse. I should lament if the practice of textual divisions were laid aside. The works of many of our old divines present happy specimens of them. Even preachers in comparatively modern times have neither declined this sort of arrangement, nor been unsuccessful in employing it: I could produce a number of examples; but must satisfy myself with three, selected, purposely, from different schools. Secker is one of these examples (see particularly the twelfth sermon in his fifth volume). The late Mr. Belsham is another (Sermons (1826), No. x.). In the same view, as in yet more valuable qualities than even method, few writers of sermons excel Bishop Hurd (Vol. I., 3rd edit., Nos. Two and Eight; and espe. cially his discourse on “Paul before Felix”—a masterpiece of its class, and well meriting the study of all preachers).
attention of his hearers on some one appropriate doctrine, principle or duty, arising out of his choice of a paragraph, a section, or even chapter, and therefore proposed by him as his leading theme. This is what I now understand as expository preaching. *
That many parts of the sacred volume need to be explained; that we are permitted, and even required, to read the Bible, for the purpose of our being clearly acquainted with its contents; that it is the duty of the Christian preacher so to address men on the doctrines and precepts of Scripture, as that they may better understand it; these are truths, which it will have been sufficient to state, as not likely to be questioned by any into whose hands this paper comes.
Expository preaching is calculated for being highly useful to ministers and their audiences.
To ministers, because the habit of preparing and delivering expository sermons, would make it essential for them to persevere in the study of the Scriptures.
The education of a preacher is far from having been completed at college. It is well if he have already laid a basis, on which, in the event of his life being continued, he can erect a well-proportioned edifice. Some hours of every day he must set apart for the studies required by his profession: and it will be the duty and the interest of the congregation which he serves to encourage and aid him in executing this arrangement. He will attempt to make all his reading bear upon the one great end of his ministrations; he will chiefly value and pursue his studies, for the sake of their advancing his knowledge of the Scriptures. As a good teacher of language or science, though he be no discoverer or inventor, should at least be sufficiently conversant with his subject to qualify him for estimating the discoveries and inventions of others, and for judging how they are to be applied, so the public teacher of religion, even if he is not a first-rate critic and theologian, should, nevertheless, be capable of ascertaining whether current renderings and interpretations are correct. If he cannot do this, he is unequal to the office of inculcating and defending revealed truth.
A further recommendation of expository preaching is, that it supplies a boundless variety of subjects suited to the pulpit.
There are persons who complain that such topics have a narrow range; that the materials of public discourses soon exhaust themselves; and that both preachers and hearers are painfully conscious of this sameness. The existence of these complaints is one thing: the
* It is to be regretted that few discourses of this character have appeared in print. I take the fact to be that scriptural and expository sermons were far more common among our forefathers than they are among ourselves: nor does it now fall in my way to account for the contrast. My hearty wish is, that the volumes of the great preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, among whom Tillotson and Clarke, of St. James's, are so conspicuous, were more commonly and more assiduously read. They could scarcely be read by young ministers without considerable advantage. I'am not recommending the kind of imitation which occasions restraint and mannerism; but a thorough acquaintance with the thoughts, style, method and spirit of such eminent authors. At a period approaching to our own, Lardner, and, after him, the apostolic Lindsey, delivered expository discourses fraught with rich instruction, and admirably illustrative of both the evidences and the genius of Christianity.
justness of them is another. But the more pertinent inquiry remains, how may they be obviated? As far as concerns one of the parties, Í answer, by means of the preacher's assiduous study of the Scriptures. A beneficial copiousness of materials proper for his sermons, will not be found, unless he is in habits of reading and reflection; while even they who both read and reflect, will yet be in danger of repeating too frequently their favourite thoughts and reasonings, if they do not avail themselves of the vast stores of moral and religious knowledge contained in the Bible, and of the beautiful and striking illustrations in which it abounds.
Let us suppose that any one of the four Gospels, the shortest, for instance, is expounded in a series of sermons. How multiplied, how interesting, the themes of discourse which it affords ;-themes suggested immediately by the words and deeds, the life and ministry, of Jesus Christ, and therefore perfectly scriptural, and characteristically evangelical! As Christianity is handed down in an historic form, so, through every age, the contemplation of it in the Memoirs which I am referring to, must be eminently useful and attractive.
I may extend these remarks to the history of the Acts of the Apostles. This also supplies rich and only not exhaustless subjects for the pulpit. Perhaps there is no book of the New Testament which better admits of varied illustration, more strongly authenticates itself, and casts a fuller light on the state of the world during the period treated of by the writer.
In expository sermons a preacher can with particular care and advantage blend together what is doctrinal and what is practical. *
Some hearers would altogether exclude controversy from the pulpit; while others are so fond of it as to be averse from what they call moral disquisitions. It becomes the faithful minister to decide for himself what shall be the general character of his sermons, and to act firmly on his decision. We may with reason conclude that he will neither be silent respecting misapprehended and disputed truths, nor fail of enforcing Christian duties. He will avoid, however, vague and empty declamation, and, still more, any thing which even borders on personal censure, or cherishes a dictatorial and uncharitable temper. Now they who deliver expository discourses, and therefore maintain an intimate acquaintance with the sacred writings, will give a just attention to the objects at which addresses from the pulpit should uniformly aim-Truth, Righteousness and Love. Those men, being conversant with the original Scriptures in a genuine text, and not borrowing their theology from annotators and disputants, will carry into the pulpit the spirit of humble, assiduous inquirers. What they have diligently learned, they will fearlessly declare. They will teach and declare it in the way, and with the temper, in which it has been investigated by themselves. While they are honest, they will be charitable. Knowing with how much difficulty Truth is sought and acquired, they “will not wonder that many miss it;" and their
I am not ignorant that a preacher who is at the same time faithful and able will make his doctrinal discourses bear powerfully on points of duty. But the skill may be wanting, where the fidelity exists and is unquestioned; so that exposition is generally the safer and more convenient way of discoursing on Faith and Repent. ance and works meet for Repentance.
experience will have prepared them for allowing for what may be other men's prejudices and errors. Taking nothing upon trust, nothing upon only secondary evidence, they will not be confident in exact proportion to their ignorance, or pertinacious in the same degree in which they are superficial. Drawing the waters of life from the fountain-head, they will distribute them unmixed, as far as may be, with baser matter.
By means of expository preaching, desirable references may be made to events and conduct; and this without the allusions being personal or needlessly obtrusive.
There is such a thing as preaching to specific times and places; but here judgment must be combined with fidelity, and delicacy with ingenuousness. Expository discourses will enable ministers to effect this combination. Building their instructions more immediately on large portions of Scripture, they can suggest reproof, or advice, or comfort, in a manner that will neither repel the sinner nor aggravate the sorrows of the afflicted. In such instances they are not so much the preachers that speak, as the sacred pages which they expound. The suggestion, be it what it may, is natural; not formal and elaborate. Conscience may thus be reached, while no individual prejudices are offended: and the balm of peace may be poured into the wounded spirit, while the wound itself is not laid open to the public
I have already intimated that sermons should be adapted, in point of their nature and their form, to the social worship by which they are usually introduced and followed. To this worship let them always be considered as subordinate : with this, let them, at the same time strictly harmonize. If they be scriptural and expository, they will best accord with the other and far weightier parts of our public religious services. Possessing this character, they will fix on the minds of Christian worshipers those sentiments of devotion, love and purity, which the prayers of “ assembled men" have a tendency to raise and cherish. They will thus be instrumental towards fulfilling the dearest wishes of every faithful minister. Nor will he deem it a light advan. tage of such a method of preaching that it, of necessity, furnishes the subjects, and prescribes the style, which alone can be proper for the pulpit; that it excludes all themes which are not immediately religious, all language inconsistent with the simplicity and grandeur of the sacred books—in a word, that it is particularly calculated for taking off the preacher's thoughts from himself, and for reminding him habitually, Where he is and whom he serves.
In the benefits, whatever they are, of expository preaching, hearers, I presume, will largely share.
It is much to be wished that the members of Christian societies felt a deeper interest in the studies of their ministers, were brought into something like contact and sympathy with those studies, nor lost sight of the property which they possess in the revival and diffusion of scriptural learning. This kind of knowledge is at present in very abject state among our countrymen. To know the Scriptures, is not
"The heart knoweth its own bitterness.” There is a grief, which, if adverted to at all in public, must be touched with the utmost skill and gentleness; and it might be so touched in the course of an exposition of Ps. ciii.