O God, stamp eternity on my eyeballs…
An open letter to all preachers
December 31, 2009Posted by on
Abstract from an Address before the Nettleton Rhetorical Society in the Theological Seminary at East Windsor, by the Rev. George Shephard, Professor of Sacred Rhetoric in the Theological Seminary in Bangor, circa 1850-51.
(An open letter to all who claim to be Pastors or will stand before a group of people, of any size and address them in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; a call to reclaim true preaching.)
It seems to be generally admitted, that the pulpit has not the power it once had. And it is evidently the duty of ministers and the churches to inquire into the causes of this falling off in the efficiency of the pulpit, and to endeavor seasonably to check and arrest the evil.
The cause of this falling off cannot lie in this, that Christian truth has grown decrepid and passed into its dotage. No; Christian truth is in its freshness. Its vigor now is all that it was. If there is a seeming oldness arising from repetition, yet it will again become spirit and life.
The adversary is putting in requisition all the power of his vast genius, contriving new schemes and systems, multiplying his lying gospels, and drawing multitudes of gaping disciples to every monstrous thing he chooses to start. The preacher now stands in a contested position. He speaks to minds preoccupied; to ears all the time assailed with counter voices. Again: There is a growing incompetency to receive and digest the solid meat of veritable argument. There is here, indeed, some degeneracy in the times. There is not so much patient, productive thought, as once, –an evil fostered by the kind of reading now in vogue, a great proportion of which is light and trashy, under the influence of which the mind pines away, and becomes incompetent to think. Hence many are ready to cry, Give us something brilliant, beautiful, entertaining.
There are tendencies in the pulpit which account, in part at least, for the diminished effectiveness so generally admitted. Both in deep piety and in sound practical talent, which are vastly important qualities in the preacher, there seems to be a falling off, –owing, in part, to the present mode of training ministers in public seminaries, which tends to foster too much confidence in the intellect, and a disposition to aim at distinction in scholarship, while simple godliness is too much neglected. It does not by any means follow that seminaries are to be undervalued; but we should watchfully guard against this tendency.
Another unfavorable circumstance is an abatement in the fulness and strength of doctrine. Doctrine, clearly stated and thoroughly discussed, is indispensable to the authority and cogency of preaching. It is the leading element of power. There cannot be too much vigilance and earnestness in preserving the element of clear, definite, and solid Christian doctrine.
All attempted improvements of doctrine come into the series of enfeebling tendencies. Truth must not be marred. In stating the truth, we must use the very instrument furnished in the Bible. The truth must be presented in God’s own type.
Another enfeebling device is to mix the truth with something else. The object of this is to make the truth more palatable. The intellect insists upon showing itself in some curious feats. There must be a display. There is an effort to make literary sermons, intellectual sermons, great sermons. There is a tendency of this sort in the evangelical pulpit of the present day. The hearers feel it. The most pious and discerning mourn over it.
Some preachers give out a mutilated, diluted gospel, rather than the gospel in its purity and strength. This artificial cast, so injurious to pulpit efficiency, is developed by certain peculiarities of style and language. There is something ambitious, something away from the ordinary track, something splendid and high-wrought. In this, there is a sad missing of the great object of preaching, namely, to meet men’s souls with God’s truth.
A quality of preaching which is very important in our times, and which would do much to retrieve the good influence of the pulpit, and preserve it wholesome and effective, is the grace of humility in the preacher, –a disposition to put himself out of sight, and to lay off the laurels of genius, originality, and ornamental literature. The chief potency of preaching, lies not in curious novelties, but in the vivid utterance of the truth.
The Bible in sermons, will prove an element of great power. Ministers should be more men of one book, and that the Bible. This biblical element of sermons brings God before the hearers. It was this which gave the early New England pulpit such power. And where, out of the Bible, shall we find such potent theology, and such admirable models for the preaching of it, as among the old theological giants of New England, whose writings have those peculiar qualities which ought to characterize gospel sermons. They are everywhere full of God; so instinct with living doctrine (instinct with life), facts, and descriptions, that the attention cannot escape, nor the conscience or heart slumber. And for the finish and clenching of the whole, there comes down the weight of God’s mighty sanctions, giving to all the force of positiveness and authority. This downright, authoritative quality we are in danger of dropping quite too far, not preaching, in this respect, as those mightier men did. We shall retrieve our proper standing only as we come back again; and those venerable men will bring us back, if we have swerved, –will bring us back where they stood, in the position which God assigns us, ready for positive and wholesome utterances, and, being admitted to speak in the name of God, to do it with authority, and not as the scribes.
Woods, Leonard, D.D., Theology of the Puritans, (Boston: Woodbridge, Moore & Co.), 44-45, as found in http://books.google.com/
Parentheses are my own comments.