THE NATURE AND CHOICE OF A TEXT.
The sermon is always founded upon a passage of Scripture, which is denominated a text. This term is derived from the Latin textum, which signifies woven. The text, therefore, etymologically denotes, either a portion of inspiration that is woven into the whole web of Holy Writ, and which, therefore, must be interpreted in its connection and relations, or else a portion of inspiration that is woven into the whole fabric of the sermon. We need not confine ourselves to either meaning exclusively, but may combine both significations. A text, then, is a passage of inspiration'which is woven, primarily, into the web of Holy Writ, and, secondarily, into the web of a discourse. By uniting both of the etymological meanings of the word, we are led to observe the two important facts, that the subject of a sermon is an organic part of Scripture, and therefore must not be torn away alive and bleeding, from the body of which it is a vital part; and, secondly, that the subject or text of a sermon should pervade the whole structure which it serves to originate and organize. If this definition of the text be kept in mind, and practically acted upon, it will prevent the sermonizer from treating it out of its connection with the context, and the geueral. tenor of revelation, and will lead him to regard it as the formative principle and power of his sermon, and to make it such. The text, then, will not be tortured tc teach a doctrine contrary to the general teachings of inspiration, and it will be something more than a motto for a series of observations drawn from a merely human source, the preacher's own mind.
The custom of founding religious discourse upop a text, has prevailed ever since there has been a body of inspiration, from which to take a text. Id the patriarchal age, religious teachers spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, without a passage from the Canon of inspiration, because the Canon was not yet formed. Noah was a "preacher of righteousness," and probably reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, much as Paul did before Felix, without any formal proposition derived from a body of Holy Writ. As early as the time of Ezra, however, we find the Sacred Canon, which dur ing the captivity had fallen into neglect, made the basis of religious instruction. Ezra, accompanied by the Levites, in a public congregation "read in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading."1 Our Saviour, as his custom was (conforming, undoubtedly, to the general Jewish custom), went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and "stood up for to read" the Old Testament. He selected the first, and part of the second verse of the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, for his text, and preached a sermon upon it, which fastened the eyes of every man in the synagogue upon him, in the very beginning, and which, notwithstanding its gracious words, finally developed their latent malignity, and filled them with wrath, so that they led him to the brow of the precipice on which their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.2 The apostles, also, frequently discoursed from passages of Scripture. Peter, soon after the return of the disciples from the Mount of Ascension, preached a discourse from Psalm cix. 8, the object of which was, to induce the Church to choose an apostle in the place of Judas.3 And again, on the day of Pentecost, this same apostle preached a discourse, founded upon Joel ii. 28-32, which, was instrumental in the conversion of three thousand souls.4 Sometimes, again, the discourse, instead of being more properly homiletic, was an abstract of sacred history. The discourse of Stephen, when arraigned before the high priest, was of this kind.5 The dense and mighty oration of Paul, on Mars Hill, if examined, will be found to be made up, iu no small degree, of statements and phrases that imply a thorough acquaintance with the Old Testament. They are all fused and amalgamated, it is true, with the thoughts that came fresh and ne\v from Paul's own inspiration, and yet they are part and particle of the earlier inspiration under the Jewish economy.
1 Nehemiah viii. 6-8. * Acts ii. 14-36.
* Luke iv. 16-29. 'Acts vii. 2-58.
• Acts i. 15, sq,
The homilies of the early Christian Church, in the post-apostolic age, were imitations of these discourses in the Jewish synagogue, and of these sermons of the apostles. They became more elaborate and rhetorical, in proportion as audiences became more cultivated; and, on the other hand, they became less excellent, both in matter and in form, in proportion as the Church became ignorant and superstitious. But, during all the changes which the sermon underwent, it continued to be founded upon a passage of Scripture, and to contain more or less of Scripture matter and phraseology. Melancthon does indeed mention, as one of the inconsistencies and errors of Popery, that the Ethics of Aristotle were read in church, and that texts were taken from his writings. Still, as a general thing, the ministry, whether scriptural or unscriptural in its character, has, in all ages since there has been a collected Sacred Canon, gone to it for the foundation of its public discourse. That, at this time, there is less likelihood than ever before of this custom becoming antiquated, is one of the strongest grounds for believing that Christianity is to prevail throughout the earth. We have now the best reason for thinking that to the end of time, wherever there shall be the sermon, there will be the Bible; and that wherever there shall be homiletic discourse, there will be a Scriptural basis for it.
The following reasons may be assigned, for selecting a passage of Scripture as the foundation of the sermon: 1. First, the selection puts honor upon Revelation. It is a tacit and very impressive acknowledgment, that the Scriptures are the great source of religious knowledge. Every sermon that is preached, throughout Christendom, in its very beginning, and also through its whole structure, points significantly to the Divine Revelation, and in this way its paramount authority over all other literature is affirmed. No sermonizer could now take his text from a human production, even though it should contain the very substance, and breathe the very spirit of the Bible, without shocking the taste, and the religious sensibilities of his audience. This fact shows, that the practice of which we are speaking fosters reverence for the Word of God, and that it is consequently a good one. 2. Secondly, the practice of selecting a text results in the extended exposition of the Scriptures, to the general mind. Sermonizing, while, it is truly oratorical, in this way becomes truly expository. The sermon is a regularly constructed discourse, and yet, when it is founded upon a text, and is pervaded by it, it contains more or less of commentary. In tins way, the general mind is made acquainted with the contents of Revelation. 3. Thirdly, the sermon, when based upon a text, is more likely to possess unity, and a methodical structure. If the preacher should give no one general direction to his mind, by a passage of inspiration, the sermon would degenerate into a series of remarks, that would have little use, or apparent connection with each other. Like the observations of a person when called upon, without any premeditation, to speak in a public meeting, the sermon, though religious in its matter, would be more or less rambling in its manner. Without a text, the preacher would be likely to say what came uppermost, provided only it had some reference to religion. And the ill effects of this course would not stop here. The sermon would become more and more ramMing, and less and less religious in its character, until, owing to this neglect of the Scriptures, it would eventually become dissevered from them, and the sacred oration would thus become secular. 4. Fourthly, the selection of a text aids the memory of the hearer. It furnishes him with a brief statement, which contains the whole substance of the sermon, and is a clue to lead him through its several parts. We all know that the hearer betakes.himself to the text, first of all, when called upon to give an account of a discourse. If he remembers the text, he is generally able to mention the proposition, and more or lesa of the trains of thought. 5. Fifthly, the text imparts authority to the preacher's words. The sermon, when it is really founded upon a passage of inspiration, and is truly pervaded by it, possesses a sort of semi-inspiration itself. It is more than a merely human and secular product. The Holy Spirit acknowledges It as such, by employing it for purposes of conviction and conversion. A merely and wholly human production, properly secular eloquence, is not one of those things which the Holy Ghost " takes and shows unto the soul." A truly scriptural discourse, provided we do not strain the phraseology too far, has much of the authority of Scripture itself.
The following are some of the rules, that should guide in the choice of a text: 1. First, a passage of Scripture should be selected, towards which the mind at the time spontaneously moves. Choose a text that attracts and strikes the mind. The best sermons are written upon such passages, because the preacher enters into them with vigor and heartiness. Yet, such texts are not always to be found. They do not present themselves at the very moment they are wanted. Hence, the sermonizer must aid nature by art, must cultivate spontaneity by prudence and forethought. He should keep a book of texts, in which he habitually and carefully writes down every text that strikes him, together ^oitJl all of the skeleton that presents itself to him at the time. Let him by no means omit this last particular. In this way, the spontaneous movements of his mind will be on record. The fresh and genial texts that occur, together with the original and genial plans which they suggest, will all be within reach. A sermonizer who thus aids nature by art, will never be at a loss for subjects. He will be embarrassed more by his riches than his poverty.
2. Secondly, a text should be complete in itself. By this, it is not meant that it should be short. No rule can be given for the length of a text. The most that is required is, that the passage of Scripture, selected as the foundation of the sacred oration, should, like the oration itself, be single, full, and unsuperfluous in its character. It should be single, containing only one general theme. It should be full, not a meagre and partial statement of this theme. It should be unsuperfluous, not redundant in matter that would lead the sermonizer into trains of discussion, and reflection, foreign to the one definite end of an oration. Texts must vary in length, from the necessity of the case. As a general rule, however, they should be as brief as is compatible with completeness. Short texts are more easily remembered. They are more likely to result in concise, and effective sermons,—in sermons that are free from prolixity, and that converge constantly to a single end. Sennonizers like Latimer and South, who are distinguished for a rapid, driving method, affect short pithy texts, like the following: "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord." "He that walketh surely, walketh uprightly." "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." "So that they are without excuse." "Be sure your sin will find you out." Again, preachers like Alison and Blair, who are distinguished not so much for vigor and effectiveness, as for a clean, neat, and elegant method, select brief texts, like these: "Thou art the same; and thy years shall not fail." "In your patience, possess ye your souls." "Can ye not discern the sis^ns of the times?" "Thou hast made summer
and winter." "What I would, that I do not." "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." It will be found to be true generally, that in proportion as a preacher's mind is vivid and energetic, and the public mind is awake and active, texts become brief, and sermons become direct and convergent.
The texts of the sermons preached by the German and English Reformers are short and pregnant. Besides being easily remembered, a short text allows of emphatic repetition. Some sermons become very effective, by the reiteration of the inspired declaration,.at the conclusion of each head. In this instance, the text becomes a clincher. The affirmations of the preacher are nailed, to use a phrase of Burns, with Scripture.1
1 " Even ministers, they ha'e been kenned, In holy rapture,
h. rousing whid at times to vend,
And nail't wi' Scripture."
3. Thirdly, a text should be chosen, from which the proposition of the sermon is derived plainly, and naturally. Sometimes, a preacher desires to present a certain subject, which he has revolved in his mind, and upon which his trains of thought are full and consecutive, and merely prefaces his sermon with a passage of Scripture which has only a remote connection with his theme. In this case, the relation of the sermon to the text is that of adjustment, rather than that of development. Having made selection of a passage from which his proposition, and trains of thought, do not naturally flow, he is compelled to torture the text into an apparent unity with the discourse. Rather than take this course, it would be better to make the text a mere motto, or title, and not pretend to an unfolding of a Scripture passage. But there is no need of this. The Bible is rich in texts for all legitimate sermons, for all propositions and trains of thought that properly arise within the province of sacred, as distinguished from secular eloquence. Let the preacher take pains, and find the very passage he needs, and not content himself with one that has only an apparent connection with his subject. But when the passage selected is a true text,—that is, a portion of Scripture out of which the proposition, trains of thought, and whole substance of the discourse, are woven,—let the preacher see to it, that he derives from it nothing that is not in it. His business is not to involve into the text. something that is extrinsic, but to evolve out of it, something that is intrinsic. Heuce, a text should be of such a character, as evidently to furnish one plain and significant proposition, and to allow of a straight-forward, easy, and real development of it.
4. Fourthly, oddity and eccentricity should be avoided, in selecting a text. There is more need of this rule, now, than formerly. The public mind is more ludicrous in its associations, and more fastidious in its taste, than two centuries ago. In the older serinonizers, applications of Scripture are very frequent, that involuntarily provoke a smile in a modern reader, but which in their day were listened to with the utmost gravity, by sober-minded men and women. The doctrine of a double sense, together with a* strong allegorizing tendency, in both preacher and hearer, contributed to this use of Scripture, which seems to us fanciful, and oftentimes ludicrous.
Illustrations of this trait are without number. Dr. Eachard, whose volume gives a very lively picture of the condition of the English clergy at the close of the seventeenth, and the beginning of the eighteenth century, furnishes some curious examples of this eccentric spirit, both in the choice of texts, and in drawing out doctrine from it. He tells us of a preacher, who selected Acts xvi. 30: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved," and preached upon the divine right of Episcopacy. "For Paul and Silas are called 'Sirs,' and 'Sirs' being in the Greek xvpioi, and this, in strict translation, meaning 'Lords,' it is perfectly plain, that at that time Episcopacy was not only the acknowledged government, "but that bishops were peers of the realm, and so ought to sit in the House of Lords." Another preacher, in the time of Charles II, he says, selected for his text, the words: "Seek first the kingdom of God," and drew from them the proposition, that kingly government is most in accordance with the will of God. "For it is not said, seek the parliament of God, the army of God, or the committee of safety of God; but it is, seek the kingdom of God." Another preacher took Matthew i. 2: "Abraham begat Isaac," and argued against pluralists, and nouresidency, in the ministry: "For had Abraham not resided with Sarah his wife, he 'could not have begot Isaac." Another sermonizer selected Isaiah xli. 14, 15: "Fear not, thou worm Jacob, . thou shalt thresh mountains," and drew the inference, that the worm Jacob was a threshing worm. In the same vein, another preacher takes for his text Isaiah Iviii. 5: "Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul \ Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush?" and deduces the proposition, that "repentance for an hour, or a day, is not worth a bulrush." Still another preacher selected his text from Psalm xciv. 19: "In the multitude of my thoughts within me, thy comforts delight my soul," and preached upon election and reprobation, deducingthe proposition, "that amongst the multitude of thoughts, there was a great thought of election and reprobation."1 Similar examples of eccentricity, in the choice and treatment of a text_ have been handed down from other sources. An aged New England minister, during the colonial period, once preached before a very unpopular deputy governor, from Job xx. 6, 7: "Though his Excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds, yet he shall perish forever like Ms own dung." Another preached to the newly married couples of his congregation, upon a part of Psalm Ixxii. 7: "And abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth." Dean Swift is reported to have preached the annual sermon to the Associated Tailors of Dublin, upon the text: "A remnant shall be saved.'' Among his printed sermons, there is one upon Acts xx. 9: "And there sat in the window a certain young man named Eutychus, having fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down Math sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead," which thus begins: "I have chosen these words, with design, if possible, to disturb some part in this audience of half an hour's sleep, for the convenience and exercise whereof, this place, at this season of the day, is very much celebrated."2
Such instances as these, however, are very different from that quaint humor, of preachers like Hugh Latimei, and Matthew Henry, which is so mingled with devout and holy sentiment, as to lose all triviality, and to make only a serious impression. The following from the commentary of Henry, while it raises a smile, only deepens the sense of the truth conveyed. Remarking upon the requirement of the Mosaic law, that the green ears of corn, offered as a meat offering, must be dried by the fire, so that the corn might be beaten out, Henry observes, that "if those who are young do God's work as well as they can, they shall be accepted, though they cannot do it as well as those that are aged, and experienced. God makes the best of green ears of corn, and so must we."1
1 Eachard: Works, p. 06, 'Swift: "Works, Vol. XIV. et al. Sermon 10.
By far the most culpable contortion of passages of Scripture, out of their natural meaning and connection, is found in the history of those theological schools, whose pulpits, having rejected the doctrines of sin and grace, were forced to find substitutes for these, in semi-religious, or wholly secular themes. During the prevalence of Rationalism in Germany, "sermons were preached, everywhere, upon such subjects as the care of health, the necessity of Indus try, the advantages of scientific tillage, the necessity of gaining a competence, the duties of servants, the ill-effects of law-suits, and the folly of superstitious opinions. It is said, that Christmas was taken advantage of, to-connect the sad story of the child
1 Hbnrt: Com. on Leviticus iii. 14.
born in a manger, with the most approved methods of feeding cattle; and the appearance of Jesus walking in the garden, at the break of day on the 'Easter morning, with the benefit of rising early, and taking a walk before breakfast. Not a word was heard regarding atonement and faith, sin and the judgment, salvation, grace, and Christ's kingdom. A selfish love of pleasure, and a selfish theory of life, put a selfish system of morals in the place of a lofty religion. The old-fashioned system of religious service had to be modified, and adjusted t« this new style of preaching, which was as clear as water, and as thin as water too."1 This description, by a very candid writer, of a state of things In Germany, in the last century, will apply to some phenomena of the present day, both in England and America. The pressure of the evangelical spirit, which is dominant in these countries, restrains the extreme workings of this tendency, in the pulpit; and yet it is plainly seen in what is called the "sensational" discourse, which is commonly founded upon a text torn entirely out of its exegetical nexus, and filled with matter drawn from the four Avinds, rather than from the Christian Revelation.
A disputed text should not be selected, as the basis of a discourse. This rule applies more particularly to doctrinal preaching, yet it has its value for sermonizing generally. The preacher should choose the very plainest, most significant and pointed passages of Scripture, as the support of his doctrinal discourses. He is then relieved from the necessity of first proving, that the doctrine in ques- * fcion is taught in the passage, and can devote his whole time, and strength, to its exposition and establishment. The less there is of polemics in sacred oratory, the better. The more there is of direct inculcation, without any regard to opposing theories and statements, the more efficient, energetic, and oratorical, will be the sermon. The controversial tone is jiufavorable to the bold, positive, unembarrassed tone of Sacred Eloquence. Disputed texts should, therefore, be left to the philologist and the theologian. When these have settled their true meaning, so far as it can be settled, such texts may be employed to corroborate, and to illustrate, but not to build upon from the foundation.
1 Ha.qbnbaoh • German Rationalism, p. 105.
By this, it is not meant that the preacher has no concern with such passages of inspiration. The preacher is, or should be, a philologist and a theologian, and in his study should examine such passages, and form a judgment in respect to them. But let him not do this work in the pulpit. The pulpit is the place for the delivery of eloquence, and not of philology, or philosophy, or technical theology. The rhetorical presentation of thought is the mode which the preacher is to employ, and nothing more interferes with this, than the minute examinations of criticism, and the slow and cautious processes of pure science.
This maxim is also valuable, not only in reference to strictly doctrinal preaching, but to all preaching. The text is, or should be, the key-note to the whole sermon. The more bold, the more undoubted and undisputed, its tone, the better. A text of this character is like a premonitory blast of a trumpet. It challenges attention, and gets it. It startles and impresses, by its direct and authoritative announcement of a great and solemn proposition. Nothing remains then, but for the preacher to go out upon it, with his whole weight; to unfold and apply its evident undoubted meaning, with all the moral confidence, and all the serious earnestness, of which he is capable.
The inference to be drawn from these reasons for the selection of a passage of Scripture, as the foundation of a sermon, and these rules for making the selection, is, that the greatest possible labor, and care, should be expended upon the choice of a text. As, in secular oratory, the selection of a subject is either vital, or fatal, to the whole performance; so, in sacred oratory, the success of the preacher depends entirely upon the fitness of his choice of a text. The text is his subject. It is the germ of his whole discourse. Provided, therefore, he has found an apt and excellent one, he has found his sermon substantially.
All labor therefore, that is expended upon a
text, is wisely and economically expended. Every jot and tittle of painstaking, in fixing upon paper a congenial passage of Scripture, and in setting up I all of the skeleton that presents itself at the time , 'every jot and tittle of painstaking, in examining the passage in the original Hebrew, or Greek, and in studying, in theae same languages, the context, and the parallel passages ;T every particle of care, in first obtaining an excellent text, and then getting at, and getting out, its real meaning and scope, goes to render the actual construction and composition of the sermon, more easy and .successful. Labor at this point, saves labor at all aftei points.
The preacher ought to make careful, and extensive, preparation in respect to pulpit themes. His common-place book of texts should be a large volume, in the outset, and if he is faithful to himself, and his calling, he will find the volumes increasing. Instead of buying the volumes of skeletons that are so frequently offered at the present day, the preacher nmst make them for himself. It was formerly the custom, in an age that was more theological than the present, for every preacher to draw up a "body of divinity," for himself,—the summing up, and result, of his studies and reflections. Every preacher knew what his theological system was, and could state it, and defend it. And, although, at fir^t sight, we might suppose that this custom would lead to f^reat diversities of opinion among the clergy, it is yet a fact, that there never was more substantial and sincere unity of belief, than among the Protestant clergy of England and the Continent, during those highly theological centuries, the sixteenth and seventeenth. There was no invention, of new theories, but the old and established theory, the one orthodox faith of the Christian Church, was made to pass through each individual mind, and so come forth with all the freshness and freedom of a new creation. "He who has been born," says Richter, "has been a first man, and has had the old and common world lying about him, as new and as fresh, as it lay before the eyes of Adam himself." So, too, he who, in the providence and by the grace of God, has become a theologian and a preacher, has no other world of thought and of feeling, to move in, than that old world of Divine Revelation, in which the glorious company of the apostles, and the goodly fellowship of the prophets and preachers, thought and felt; but if he will open his eyes, and realize where he stands, and by what he is surrounded, he will see it, as his predecessors saw it, in all the freshness of its real nature, and in all the magnificence of its actual infinitude. Whether or not, the preacher imitates this example of an earlier day, in regard to theologizing, he ought to, in regard to sermonizing. Let him not rely, at all, upon the texts arid skeletons of other preachers, but let him cultivate this field by himself, and for himself, as if it had never been tilled before. Let him pursue this business of selecting, examining, decomposing, and recombiniug textual materials, with all the isolation and independence of the first preachers, and of all the great original orators of the Christian Church.
1 The rigid observance of this times, it is to be feared, even the one practice will prevent the Greek) from becoming a "lost Hebrew language, (and some- art," to the preacher.