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whole discourse in a great measure depends upon the attention given to it. Nothing can serve better to fix their attention than this solemn manner of ushering in the discourse, by reading a passage of sacred writ, in which every person, at least in protestant congregations, may satisfy himself by recurring to the passage mentioned in his own Bible ; at the same time nothing can serve better as a monitor of the speaker's view, if the text hath been judiciously chosen, and the sermon be apposite, since the people, if they please, may have it constantly in their eye. I acknowledge at the same time that the use of a text, as either a device or an enigma, is justly reprehensible, and that the conceited choice that hath been made of passages of holy writ for this purpose, and the strange manner wherein such passages have been treated in the sermon, as when the words and phrases are more properly discoursed on than the sentiment, have given ample scope for this censure. Only it ought to be remembered, that the censure strikes solely against the abuse of this method of notifying, and not against the use of it.
It may not be amiss here to inquire a little by the way into the origin of this practice. That there is no trace of it in the ordinary discourses of our Lord and his apostles is freely owned. They spoke by immediate inspiration. They gave, by the miracles they wrought, the most authentic evidences of the authority, with which they were endowed. It did not suit the dignity of their mission, or of the spirit by which they spoke, to have recourse to any passage as giving a further sanction to their words, or as setting bounds to what they should declare. Besides, they claimed to be the heralds of a new revelation from heaven, which
though founded on the old, superadded a great deal to it. After their time, the doctrine, they taught, having been committed to writing in the histories of our Lord and his apostles, and in the epistles occasionally written by some of the latter, the teachers who succeeded them did not pretend to any new revelation, but to deliver faithfully that, and only that, which they had received from their inspired predecessors. It became accordingly an important part of their public ministry and service, to read certain portions from the writings now styled canonical, as being the great rule of faith and practice left them by these founders of the christian church. The usage they are said to have borrowed from the Jews, who since their return from the Babylonish captivity duly read in their synagogues every sabbath portions of the law and of the prophets. But indeed the reason of the thing so strongly indicates the propriety of the practice, that there is no need of recurring to Jewish example for its origin. When there was any difficulty in the passage of scripture read, this gave a natural occasion to the minister, who was the teacher of the congregation in matters of religion, to endeavour to remove it; and even where there was no difficulty, the words would often furnish a handle for seasonable exhortations and admonitions. Occasions of exhorting the people in this way were sometimes taken from the weekly lessons in the law or in the prophets in the Jewish synagogues, as appears occasionally both from our Lord's history and that of the apostles. (See for this Luke iv. 16, &c. Acts xiii. 14, &c.) Accordingly it appears that the earliest discourses from the pulpit were very much of the nature of our expositions and lectures, and that the subject was not at first arbitrarily chosen by the speaker, but such as came in course of reading the scriptures. It will easily be conceived how in process of time the pastors did not always think it necessary to confine themselves to the portion of reading appointed for the day, especially, as there could not fail to arise occasions of addressing the people either for warning, consolation or admonition in any particular emergency, to which other passages of sacred writ would be more directly adapted. It may also be supposed, that sometimes in their discour. ses they would be so much engrossed by one principal point they then wished to inculcate, as would make them narrow the size of their compositions, and limit themselves in using no more from the sacred page, than was entirely apposite to their subject. A deference however to antiquity, a veneration for the scriptures, an avowal that the writings of the prophets and apostles were the only source of all their doctrine, and a desire of supplying the people with what might serve as a remembrancer of the subject of discourse, would conspire to preserve a custom, which, though not absolutely necessary, must be allowed at least to be both decent and convenient. So much for the origin and history of this usage in christian congregations. A usage which in my opinion ought to be the more sacredly preserved, as it may be justly considered as an ancient and universal though implicit testimony, that no doctrine whatever deserves to be considered as a principle of christianity, which hath not its foundation in holy writ. After this short digression, I shall now inquire what things they are, which particularly demand our attention in the choice of a text. And on this topic I shall speak the more largely, as what is to
be offered on it will not regard the explanatory discourses only, but all the different sorts of sermons above defined
And first, doubtless the passage chosen for this purpose ought to be plain and perspicuous. Without this quality of perspicuity, neither of the ends of introducing in this manner the subject can be answered by it. If obscure, and hardly at first hearing intelligible, it cannot be called a notification of the subject; as little can it give the sanction of holy writ to a subject which it doth not notify. One may err against this rule in more ways
in itself be obscure, and such as no person on a single reading, not to say the illiterate, can be supposed to divine the sense of. Such is a passage from Isaiah (xxi. 11, 12) on which I once heard a sermon. “ He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, the morning cometh and also the night : if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come.”
Who could pretend to say from such a text what the subject of discourse were ? But there are some people of that strange turn of mind, that obscurity itself is as strong a recommendation to them, as perspicuity would be to others. Not that they are influenced in this by the sentiment of the poet,
Non fumum ex fulgore, sed ex fumo dare lucem ; for commonly there is to the full as little light in the performance, as is discernible to an ordinary understanding in the text, the only circumstance perhaps in which the choice can be said to be apposite. The real motive of such almost invariably is, to excite in the ignorant multitude an admiration of their profound
learning and most amazing penetration, who can discover wonders, where other people can perceive nothing at all. Nor do they in this particular lose their aim. But this is one of the many little arts of attracting the veneration of the populace, which is totally unworthy, I say not of the christian pastor, but of every ingenuous mind.
But further, a passage of scripture considered in itself, and its connection, may be perfectly perspicuous, and yet, as a text, may be extremely dark, because nothing that can be called a subject of discourse is suggested by it. Thus these words, “A bell and a pomegranate, and a bell and a pomegranate,” (Exod. xxxix. 26) are sufficiently intelligible in scripture, as expressing certain ornaments, with which alternately the border of the pontifical ephod was to be decorated, but there is not one of a thousand who would conjecture what the design of the preacher were, who should read these words to his congregation for a text. I have heard of a declaimer, one of those (and there are several such) that will rather take the most inconvenient road in the world, than keep the beaten path, who chose the words above quoted, as the ground of a discourse on this topic, that faith and holiness in the christian life do ever accompany each other. It would not be easy to conceive a more extravagant flight. But where, you say, is the connection in the subject ? It requires but a small share of fancy, to make out a figurative connection any where. Faith cometh by hearing. And could one desire a better reason for making the bell, which is sonorous, an emblem of faith? Holiness is fruitful in good works. How can it then be better represented than by a pomegranate