THE DIFFERENT SPECIES OF SERMONS.
In classifying sermons, it is well to follow the example of the scientific man, and employ as generic distinctions as possible. It is never desirable to distinguish a great many particulars, and elevate them into an undue prominence, by converting them into generals. That classification, therefore, which would regard the "applicatory " sermon, the " observational" sermon, and such like, as distinct classes, only contributes to the confusion and embarrassment of the inquirer. The three most generic species of sermons, are the topical, the textual, and the expository.
1. The Topical Sermon is one in which there is but a single leading idea. This idea sometimes finds a formal expression in a proposition, and sometimes it pervades the discourse as a whole, without being distinctly pre-announced. Topical sermons are occupied with one definite subject, which can be accurately and fully stated in a brief title. South preaches a discourse of this kind, from
Numbers, xxxii. 23: "Be sure your sin will find you out." The proposition of the sermon is this: "Concealment of sin is no security to the sinner." The leading idea of the discourse is, the concealment of sin; and the particular idea in the hearer, to which this idea in the sermon is referred, is the idea of happiness.1 The concealment of sin is affirmed to be incompatible with the soul's peace and enjoyment; and the positions by which the idea, or proposition, of the sermon is led back to this fundamental idea in the mental constitution of the hearer, are these: 1. The sinner's very confidence of secrecy is the cause of his detection. 2. There is sometimes a providential concurrence of unexpected events, Avhich leads to his detection. 3. One sin is sometimes the means of discovering another. 4. The sinner may unwittingly discover himself, through frenzy and distraction. 5. The sinner may be forced to discover himself, by his own conscience. 6. The sinner may be suddenly smitten by some notable judgment that discloses his guilt, or, 7. His guilt will follow him into another world, if he should chance to escape in this.
The topical sermon is more properly an oration than either of the other species. It is occupied with a.single definite theme that can be completely enunciated in a brief statement. All of its parts are subservient to the theoretical establishment of
1 Theremin: Rhetoric, pp. 72-75.
but one idea or proposition, in the mind of the hearer, and to the practical realization of it, in his conduct. In the case of the textual sermon, as we ! shall see when we come to examine it, there is less cei'tainty of unity in the subject, and, consequently, in the structure of the discourse. And the expository sermon partakes least of any of the characteristics of oratory and eloquence.
Inasmuch as the topical sermon approaches nearest to the unity, and symmetry, and convergence to a single point, of the oration proper, it is the model species for the preacher. By this is meant, that the sermon, ideally, shoi;kl contain one leading thought, rather than several. It should be the embodiment of a single proposition, rather than a collection of several propositions. It should announce but one single doctrine, in its isolation and independence, instead of exhibiting several doctrines, in their interconnection and mutual dependence. The sermon must preserve an oratorical character. It should never allow either the philosophical or the poetical element, to predominate over the rhetorical. The sermon should be eloquence, and not poetry or philosophy. It should be a discourse that exhibits singleness of aim, and a converging progress towards an outward practical end.
It is for this reason, therefore, that we lay down the position, that the topical sermon is the model species for the sermonizer. If he constructs a textual sermon, he ought to make it as topical as is possible.1 He must aim to pervade it with but one leading idea, to embody in it but one doctrine, and to make it teach but one lesson. In constructing an expository sermon, also, the preacher should make the same endeavor; and although he must in this instance be less successful, he may facilitate his aim, by selecting for exposition only such passages of Scripture as have but one general drift, and convey but one general sentiment.
The importance of this maxim, may be best seen, by considering, the fact, that sermons are more defective in respect to unity of structure, and a constant progress towards a single end, than in any other respect. But these are strictly oratorical qualities, and can be secured only by attending to the nature and laws of eloquence,—to the rhetorical, as distinguished from the philosophical presentation of truth. Too many sermons contain matter enough for two or.three orations, and consequently are not themselves orations. This is true of the elder English serinonizers, in whom the matter is generally superior to the form. Take the following plan of a sermon of South (in oratorical respects, the best of the earlier English preachers) on Jer. ri. 15: "Were they ashamed when they had coinmitted abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the Lord." It is a topical discourse. The theme or proposition is: "Shamelessness in sin is the certain forerunner of destruction." The sermon contains sixteen pages, of which only four and a half are filled with matter that, upon strictly rhetorical principles, goes to establish the proposition. The first three-quarters of the sermon are occupied with an analysis of the nature of "shamelessness in sin." The discourse is shaped too disproportionately by the category of truth,—a category that is subordinate, and should not be allowed so much influence in the structure and moulding of an oration.l The consequence is, that this sermon possesses less of that oratorical fire and force so generally characteristic of South. It is not throughout pervaded by its own fundamental proposition. It does not gather momentum as it proceeds. There is no greater energy of style and diction at the end, than at the beginning. It is clear, it is instructive, it has many and great excellencies; but it lacks the excellence of being a true oration,—a rounded and symmetrical discourse, pervaded by one idea, breathing but one spirit, rushing forward with a uniformly accelerating motion, and ending with an overpowering impression and influence upon the will. This discourse would be more truly topical, and thus more truly oratorical, if the proportions had been just the reverse of what they now are; if but one-fourth of it had been moulded by the metaphysical category of truth, and the remaining three-fourths by the practical idea of happiness; if the discussion of the nature of shamelessness in sin had filled four pages, and the effects, or reasons why it brings down destruction or unhappiness upon the sinner, had filled the remaining twelve.
1Tliis is not to be attained, by and movement of the discourse
making the plan a mixture of top- should be .Jistingnished, so fur as
ical and textual,—by stating a possible, by unity, simplicity, and
proposition, and following with a progressiveness,—that is, by ora
purely textual division. The plan torical or topical qualities, should be textual, but the style
1 Tukremin: Khetoric, Book I. Chap. X.
2. The Textual Sermon is one in which the passage of Scripture is broken up, and either its leading words, or its leading clauses, become the heads of the discourse. For example, Rom. xiv. 12: "So then every one of us shall give an account of himself to God," might be the foundation of a discourse upon human accountability. The divisiens are formed by emphasizing the leading words, and thereby converting them into the divisions of the sermon, as follows: 1. An account. is to be rendered. 2. This account-is to be rendered to God. 3. Every one is to render this account,—mankind generally. 4. Every one of us is to render this account,—mec as individuals. 5. Every one of us is to render an account of himself.
It is not necessary that the words of the text should be employed, as in the example given above. The substance of the separate clauses may be made the divisions, and the sermon still be textual Barrow has a sermon founded on Eph. v. 20: "Giving thanks always, for all things, unto God." The plan is as follows: 1. The duty itself,—giving thanks. 2. The object to whom thanks are to be directed,—to God. 3. The time of performing the duty,—always. 4. The matter and extent of the duty,—for all things.
What are sometimes termed "observational" sermons, are also textual. The following taken from a plan of a sermon by Beddome, upon Acts is. 4: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" will illustrate this. The observations upon this text are suggested, either by the text as a whole, or by some of its parts. 1. It is the general character of unconverted men to be of a persecuting spirit. This observation is suggested by the text as a whole. 2. Christ has his' eye upon persecutors. This observation is also suggested by the text as a whole. 3. The injury done to Christ's people, Christ considers as done to himself. This observation is suggested by a part of the text,—by an emphasized word in it, "why persecutest thou me?" 4. The calls of Christ are particular. This observation is suggested by a part of the text,—" Saul, Saul?
There are two things requisite to the production of a good textual sermon, viz.: a significant text, and a talent to discover its significance. The text must contain distinct and emphatic conceptions, to serve as the parts of the division. In the text given above, Rom. xiv. 12, "So then every one of us shall give an account of himself to God," there are these distinct and emphatic ideas: An account; a judge; humanity generally; the individual in particular; personal confession. These fertile conceptions aie full of matter, and the skill of the sermonizer is seen in the thoroughness, and brevity, with which he exhausts them and their contents. Upon the number, variety, and richness of such distinct and emphatic ideas in a passage, depends its fitness for textual discourse.
Again, the text, in case it does not contain a number of such conceptions, must contain a number of distinct positions, or affirmations, to serve as parts of the division. There may be no single conceptions in a text, suitable to constitute the plan of a sermon, •while, there are several statements in it, direct or implied. Take,for example,Ps. xc. 10: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten: and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow: for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." The single conceptions in this text are not weighty enough to constitute heads in a discourse, but the affirmations, the positions, and the statements implied in it, are. This text, treated in this way, would furnish the following divisions of a textual sermon: 1. Human life, however lengthened out, must come to an end. 2. Human life, at longest, is very short. 3 That which is added to the ordinary duration of human life is, after all, but little to be desired.
The second requisite, in order to the production 'of a good textual sermon, is a talent to detect these emphatic conceptions, or these direct or indirect positions, in a passage of Scripture. A preacher destitute of this talent will pass by many texts that, really, are full of the materials of textual sermonizing. He has no eye to discover the rich veins that lie concealed just under the dull and uninteresting surface. If a text is so plain that he needs only to cull out the leading words,—if the formation of the plan is merely a verbalizing process,— he can, perhaps, succeed in constructing a textual discourse that will probably be common-place, because its structure is so very evident and easy. But the number of such texts is small, and the range of such a sermonizer must be narrow. A tact is needed in the preacher, to discover the hidden skeleton. This tact will be acquired gradually and surely, by every one who carefully cultivates himself in all homiletic respects. Like all nice discernment, it comes imperceptibly in the course of training and discipline, and, therefore, no single and particular rule for its acquisition can be laid down. It must be acquired, however, or the fundamental talent for textual sermonizing will be wanting. Moreover, this tact should be judicious. It is possible to find more meaning in a text, than it really contains. The Rabbinic notion that mountains of sunse are con. tained in every letter of the inspired volume, may be adopted to such an extent, at least, as to lead the preacher into a fauciful method that is destructive of all impressive and effective discourse. This talentr for detecting the significance of Scripture, must be confined to the gist of it,—to the evident and complete substance of it.
3. The Expository Sermon, as its name indicates, is an explanatory discourse. The purpose of it is, to unfold the meaning of a connected paragraph or section of Scripture, in a more detailed manner, than is consistent with the structure of either the topical or the textual sermon. Some writers upon Homiletics would deny it a place among sermons, and contend that it cannot legitimately contain enough of the oratorical structure, and character, to justify its being employed for purposes of persuasion. They affirm that the expository discourse is purely and entirely didactic, and can no more be classified with the connected, and symmetrical productions of oratory and eloquence, than the commentary or the paraphrase can be.
*But while it is undoubtedly true, that the expository sermon is the farthest removed from the oration, both in its structure and in its movement, it is not necessary that it should be as totally unoratorical as commentary, or paraphrase. An expository discourse should have a logical structure, and be pervaded by a leading sentiment, as really as a topical sermon. And, certainly, it ought to be free from the dilution of a mere paraphrase. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, and thus be more than a piece of commentary. In short, we lay down the same rule in relation to the expository sermon, that we did in relation to the textual, viz.: that it be assimilated to the topical model, as closely as the nature of the species permits. But in order to this assimilation, it is necessary to select for exposition, a passage or paragraph of Scripture, that is somewhat complete in itself. The distinction between expository preaching and commentary, originates in the selection, in the former instance, of a rounded and self-included portion of inspiration, as the foundation of discourse, while in the latter instance, the mind is allowed to run on indefinitely, to the conclusion of the Gospel or the Epistle. • The excellence of an expository sermon, consequently, depends primarily upon the choice of such a portion of Scripture, as will not lead the preacher on and on, without allowing him to arrive at a proper termination. Unless a passage is taken, that finally comes round in a full circle, containing one leading sentiment, and teaching one grand lesson,—like a parable of our Lord,—the expository sermon must either be commentary or paraphrase. And if it be either of these, it cannot be classed among sermons, because the utmost it can accomplish is information. Persuasion, the proper function and distinguishing characteristic
of eloquence, forms no part of its effects upon an audience.
Even when a suitable passage has been selected, the sermonizer will need to employ his strongest logical talent, and his best rhetoiical ability, to ini. part sufficient of the Oratorical form and spirit, to the expository sermon. He will need to watch his mind, and his plan, with great care, lest the discourse overflow its banks, and spread out in all directions, losing the current and the deep strong volume of eloquence. This species of sermonizing is very liable to be a dilution of divine truth, instead of an exposition. Perhaps, among modern preachers, Chalmers exhibits the best example of the expository sermon. The oratorical structure and spirit of his mind enabled him to create a current, in almost every species of discourse which he undertook, and, through his Lectures on Romans, we find a strong unifying stream of eloquence constantly setting in, with an increasing and surging force, from the beginning to the end. The expository preaching of this distinguished sacred orator, is well worth studying in the respect of which we are speaking.
Having thus briefly sketched the characteristics of the three species of sermons, the question naturally arises: To what extent is each to be employed by the preacher?
The first general answer to this question is, that all the species should be employed, by every sermonizer without exception. No matter what' the turn or temper of his mind may be, he should build upon each and every one of these patterns. If he is highly oratorical in his bent and spirit, let him by no means neglect the expository sermon. If his mental temperament is phlegmatic, and hia mental processes naturally «ool and unimpassioned, let him by no means neglect the topical sermon. It is too generally the case, that the preacher follows his tendency, and preaches uniformly one kind of sermons. A more severe dealing with his own powers, and a wiser regard for the wants of his audience, would lead to more variety in sermonizing. At times, the mind of the congregation needs the more stirring and impressive influence of a topical discourse, to urge it up to action. At others, it requires the instruction and indoctrination of the less rhetorical, and more didactic expositions of Scripture.
And this leads to the further remark, as a definite reply to the question above raised, that the preacher should employ all three of the species, in the order in which they have been discussed. Speaking generally, it is safe to say that the plurality of sermons should be topical, pervaded by a single idea or containing a single proposition, and converging by a constant progress to a single point. For this is the model species, as we have seen. The textual, and the expository sermon, must be aa closely assimilated to this species, as is possible, by being founded upon a single portion of Scripture,,
that is complete in itself, and by teaching one general lesson. Moreover, textual and expository sermons will not be likely to possess this oratorical structure, and to breathe this eloquent spirit, unless the preacher is in the habit of constructing proper orations; unless he understands the essential distinction between eloquence and philosophy, and makes his audience feel the difference between the sacred essay and the sacred oration. „ Next in order, follows the textual sermon; and this species is next in value, for the purposes of persuasion. Easy and natural in its structure,— its parts being either the repetition of Scripture phraseology, or else suggestions from it,—the textual sermon should be frequently employed by the preacher.
And, lastly, the expository sermon should be occasionally employed. There is somewhat less call for this variety, than there was, before the establishment of Sabbath-Schools and Bible-Classes. Were it not that these have taken the exposition of Scripture into their own charge, one very considerable part of the modern preacher's duty, as it was of the Christian Fathers and the Reformers, would be to expound the Bible. Under the present arrangements of the Christian Church, however, the ministry is relieved from this duty to a considerable extent. But it is riot wholly relieved from it. It is the duty of the preacher, occasionally, to lay out his best strength, in the production of an elaborate expository sermon, which shall not only do the ordinary work of a sermon, which shall not only instruct, awaken, and move, but which shall also serve as a sort of guide and model, for the teacher of the Sabbath-School and the Bible-Class. Such sermonizing becomes an aid to the instructor, in getting at the substance of revelation, and in bringing it out before the minds of the young. Probably the preacher can take no course, so well adapted to elevate the standard of Sabbath-School and Bible-Class instruction in his congregation, as, occasionally, to deliver a well-constructed and carefully elaborated expository discourse.
By employing, in this manner, all three of the species, in their relative and proper proportions, the preacher will accomplish more for his people, and for his own mind, than by confining himself to one species only. As the years of his ministry roll on, he will bring the whole Bible into contact with the hearts and consciences of his audience. Divine Revelation, in this way, will become all that it is capable of becoming for the mind of man, because all its elements will be wrought into the mass of society. The preacher himself will perform all his functions, and not a portion only. He will instruct and awaken, he will indoctrinate and enkindle, he will inform and move, he will rebuke, reprove, and exhort. In short, he will in this way minister to the greatest variety of wants, and build up the greatest variety and breadth of Christian character, in the Church.