1882: Adaptation


Brethren Op The Graduating Class :— It is something to have finished your course in this Seminary. It argues industry, persistence, capacity. We congratulate you. But it is something more, at the end of life to say, "I have finished my course," and to look back upon the battle fought and the victory won. What is the relation between the work of the Seminary and the work of life? It is the relation between science and art, between principles and practice. Here you have learned the theory of religion,— there you are to carry out the theory, and to apply it. It is vain to say that the preacher can get along without theology. He needs a knowledge of theology more than the lawyer needs knowledge of law, or the physician needs knowledge of medicine. For theology is nothing more than the connected exhibition of the facts of God's word. An infidel lecturer has recently said that the Aurora Borealis is beautiful, but that it is a poor light to grow corn by. God's truth, however, is not a shifting Aurora, but a steady sunlight, and no corn can be grown without sunshine. You have been getting possession of this truth, or rather, it has been getting possession of you. The great doctrines of man's guilt and ruin, and of God's free grace in Christ, have assumed new meaning and dignity as you have studied them. They have moulded your characters. You have seen their power in others. Now you go to test this truth in a larger field, and in a more independent way. Your success will depend, in great part, upon your skill in turning the abstract into the concrete, and in applying it to living minds and hearts. My parting counsel to you is that you study adaptation.

A minister of the last generation was once asked by a youthful preacher how he should overcome his excessive timidity in presence of his congregation. The older advised his younger brother to think of his audience as a lot of cabbages planted in rows before him. It is a good illustration of the impersonal quality attributed to the preaching of that day. God was conceived to be the only speaker — the only agent. Ministers and people alike were but so many cabbages. We protest against this ignoring of the intellects and wills of men,—it leaves to God no moral realm in which to work. We urge on the contrary, as essential to the preacher's success, the recognition of varieties among his auditors, and his duty to feed each one with food convenient for him. Milk for babes, meat for the full-grown, — to each his portion in due season. He that winneth souls is wise, and his wisdom largely consists in bringing out of his store things new or old, according to the special needs of his hearers. There is a sense, of course, in which Christ is the one and only need of the soul. But in him is an infinite fullness, all the treasures of wisdom. He is to be presented in all his offices, in all his relations, as the friend of the poor, the comforter of the sorrowing, the children's teacher, the refuge of the doubting, the forgiver of sin, the guide through life, the hope of heaven. All human institutions are to be brought under Christ's control. His gospel touches life everywhere, and is to be applied to its regulation and uplifting. As in public worship, by a process of synthesis, the minister is to gather together all the wants and woes of his congregation, and present them before God in prayer, so in his preaching, by a reverse process of analysis, he should bring the truth of God to bear by turns upon every relation of life, yes, even upon the spiritual condition of each individual soul. He is a physician of souls, and if he be a true one, he will recognize the fact that no two cases under his care are just alike, that no one treatment will do for all the maladies which sin brings in its train, that each patient presents a new and peculiar opportunity for the exercise of his healing art.

Allowing, then, the need of adaptation in preaching, how shall we secure it? It seems to me that much can be learned from a study of Christ's own methods. Never in all the world was there such illustration of the "word in season," as in Christ's teaching. To him every conjuncture of circumstances was an opportunity, and no opportunity was ever lost. As you listen to his words, you perceive that he made every occasion great. A most intense and vivid personality seems to discern, as by a divine insight, the distinct and solitary personality of each soul with which it deals, and so, knowing what is in man, Christ speaks to that soul words that as precisely meet his need, as if there were none other in the universe to whom they could apply. So in general, the word of God searches us out, and says, "Thou art the man." We must study its directness, its particularity, its exactness of adaptation to each varying shade of human character and condition.

But we should also, by a process of spiritual diagnosis, acquaint ourselves with the mental traits and religious difficulties of our hearers,— for we cannot lay claim to any intuitive or divine knowledge. We must study human nature, not in a general way, but by close observation and prolonged thought of the dispositions, habits, failings, troubles, temptations, of those to whom we minister. We should encourage them to make known their wants and their aspirations. We should talk over with them beforehand the subjects we propose to preach upon for their benefit, so that every sermon shall have a living interest to us, and at least to some one soul among our hearers. Casuistry and the confessional have had their dark and hideous side. The Christian preacher may have the good of both, by discussing the principles upon which any given case of conscience is to be decided, and by having an open ear and an open heart to the acknowledgments and resolves of those who long for some earthly confidant and adviser. All this implies much and constant pastoral work, and shows how impossible it is to separate the faithful preacher from the faithful pastor. He cannot preach to the heart, or from the heart, without having first got into the heart. He must know his people, in order to adapt God's truth to their special needs. And he can know his people, only by prayerfully studying the special cases that come before him in his work as pastor.

A single word with regard to the results of this effort to secure adaptation. However imperfectly it may succeed, it will certainly give a reality and effectiveness to preaching which would be impossible without it. The sermon of a year ago will not do now,—it must be made over, pitched to a new key, furnished with new points of connection, illustrated from the events of to-day, sent home to some new hearts by words that revive its memories or suggest its needs. Dronings and abstractions will cease from the pnlpit, when every preacher has in his heart and puts into his sermon the spirit of the text, "To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." There will be a manliness of utterance, a sympathy, an earnestness of appeal, when the preacher talks no longer to men in the mass, but feels in his very soul that he is addressing live and palpitating human hearts, aye, sometimes even performing upon them a work of spiritual vivisection, though the surgery may be kind and with intent to heal. True adaptation in preaching will save us from sensationalism on the one hand — the essence of which is the exhibition of the preacher, — for the preacher will be lost in the thought of others and of the truth which will help and save them. On the other hand, it will save us from preaching over our people's heads — addressing some superhuman or inhuman ideal of human nature, while the particular cases before us are ignored or forgotten. The philosophy that pays no attention to facts may be very brilliant and lofty, but it is very cold and useless,— it is also very narrow. Breadth in preaching is only to be cultivated by letting it reflect the endless variety of the phases of truth and life, as we find them in the great heart of man, and in the heart of Him in whose image we are made.

We honor Christ and his living word, then, when we seek to show their adaptations to the special wants of men. System is good, but it is good for nothing when it becomes an idol, when it is preached for itself alone. I urge you to be doctrinal preachers, but doctrinal only in the most practical sense,— men who make doctrine a power to move the will to obedience to Christ. I do not know a more glorious vocation than that of preaching such a gospel in such a way, of sounding all the heights and depths of human experience, of applying the truth of God to all varieties of men so as to heal all sorts of blight and ruin in the soul, to summon forth all sorts of beauties of character, and to elicit all sorts of praises for Him who has made and redeemed mankind. May God go with you as you go upon this mission, my brethren. May he give you much of his Spirit. May he enable you to adapt your proclamation of the old and unchanging truth to the conditions and needs of individual men, so that a multitude shall be led to Christ through your ministry, and so that your work shall be an integral part of that collective ministration of the church by which to principalities and powers in heavenly places shall be make known the manifold wisdom of God,