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which is a very pleasant fruit? I am not fond of conceits in any serious matter ; they have something so trivial and playful in them ; but if they are any where specially unsuitable, it is in the pulpit. I remember to have seen announced in the news-papers the text of an anniversary sermon, the nature of the occasion I do not know. The text was (Jud. iv. 20) “ Thou shalt say no.” Here nothing can be clearer than the expression or verse, as indeed the whole passage is to which it belongs; yet nothing can be darker, than the text, as it is impossible to say with truth that it suggests any subject of discourse whatever. I will add further, that though the text, when interpreted agreeably to the meaning of the writer, may be said to suggest the subject (which cannot be said of any of those above quoted) yet when it is so figuratively expressed, as that the import of it is not sufficiently obvious to the bulk of a congregation, some more explicit proposition ought to be preferred. This observation is not to be understood as extending to those figures which are so current in scripture, and now so generally understood by christians of all denominations, that they cannot be said to hurt the plainness of the passage in the least. Of this kind are the putting of a part of religion, as the love of God, or the fear of God, for the whole, ascribing passions and bodily members to the Deity, personifying wisdom and the like, or those ordinary metaphors whereby a religious life is represented by a race, a journey, or a fight. These cannot be said to give the least obstruction in reading, to those who are but a very little acquainted with their Bible. In like manner in the choice of a text, I should think it
proper to avoid passages in which there is an apparent ambiguity. For though the context should sufficiently determine the sense, yet if the words taken separately are ambi. , guous, they do not distinctly answer the purpose of a , notification of the speaker's aim. So much shall serve for the first article, perspicuity.
The next point to be attended to is that they be pertinent. It were better not to have a text, than one that would mislead the hearers as to the subject of discourse, and such would be the case, if the text pointed one way and the sermon another. And here I cannot help observing the fantastical choice, that hath been made by some English preachers, who have purpose. ly chosen such passages as seemingly contradict what they propose as the scope of their sermon. Two very eminent men in that church, Doctor Clarke and Bishop Hoadly, in their controversial or argumentative discourses frequently adopt this method. The latter, for example, to a sermon whose chief design is to show the absurdity of the opinion that all hope of pardon is cut off in the gospel from christians, who have been wilful sinners, hath chosen for his text Heb. X. 26, 27. “If we sin wilfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin : but a certain fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries." And to another which he hath titled, the Mistake of relying on Faith considered, he hath prefixed in the same way, Eph. ii. 8, “By grace are ye saved through faith.” I do not here enter into the consideration of the justness of his doctrine, but the preposterousness of his choice. I know his reason was, thus to take an occasion of explaining a passage, that · had been much employed on the opposite side of the
controversy, in such a way as to show that though it might apparently, it did not really (when properly understood) contradict his design. But this plea, unless when such explication is made the sole end of the discourse, in which case it falls under that species of lecture called exposition, whereof we have given some account already, otherwise, I say this plea doth by no means vindicate a choice subversive of all the purposes which a text is intended to answer. It is the less vindicable as it is perfectly unnecessary. The explication of a passage apparently opposing the doctrine maintained in the discourse, it would be much more pertinent to introduce and obviate in answering the objections and arguments of the antagonists. There appears in both these authors, and in others misled by their example, a want of taste in this particular, however great their talents in other respects may have been.
The third quality in a proper text is that it be full, that is, that it be expressive not of a part, but of the whole scope of the discourse ; otherwise it imperfectly answers both the ends above mentioned : and we may say with justice, that part of the sermon is entirely without a text.
The fourth and last quality is that it be simple, nowise redundant, or expressive of more than the single scope of the sermon.
An instance of a text which in the purport of it is properly complex is that above quoted, Eph. ii. 8.
By grace ye are saved through faith.” The first part “ by grace ye are saved,” is a full and perfect text for the discussion of one point of doctrine, which is to show in what respect the source of our salvation is divine grace. The other part, “ye are saved through faith,” is equally perfect for the explication of another point, which is to show, in what respect the instrument of our salvation is faith. Let it be observed here to prevent mistakes, that a sentence may be grammatically complex, which is nevertheless simple in regard to the sentiment conveyed by it, and therefore sufficiently proper for a text. Such a one is that in Prov. iii. 17. “Wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” And even that last quoted from the Hebrews, though consisting of two long verses, is perfectly simple in regard to the sense.
I shall make two other observations on the subject of texts, and so conclude this article. One is, that as a great part of holy writ is historical, wherein things are simply related as spoken, without any mark of approbation or blame from the sacred historian; we ought when we can be otherwise well supplied, to avoid such places, since passages taken thence, though recorded in scripture, have not the stamp of revelation, and therefore are not fitted for answering the second purpose of a text above mentioned. I acknowledge however, that when the sentiment in itself is manifestly agreeable to the dictates of natural or the general tenour of revealed religion, it would be an excess of scrupulousness to reject it. Should every thing (for example) said by Job's three friends be avoided, because we have the best authority to affirm, that in some things they did not speak right? or should even all that Job himself said be set aside, because he acknowledged that he had uttered what he understood not, things too wonderful for him which he knew not? In all such dubious cases, great regard is to be had to the character of the speaker, the occasion, the import and
the design of the speech. On all these accounts, it was a most absurd choice which one made of a text for a sermon on the future glory of the saints in heaven. This sublime doctrine he chose to treat from these words of the serpent to our first mother Eve, Gen. iii. 5. “ Ye shall be as gods knowing good and evil.” For though the words taken abstractly might be apposite enough, we know that as they stand in scripture, they have no relation to the heavenly happiness; but what renders them still more exceptionable, as a text, is, they are the words of the father of lies, and in the sense in which he used them, contain a lie, and were employed but too successfully for the purpose of seduction. The only other observation I mean to make is, as scripture does not consist of a number of aphorisms, it will sometimes be difficult, if not impossible, to find texts for some very suitable subjects, conformable to all the rules above laid down. It must be owned, that in such cases, it is far better to deviate from these rules, than to avoid discussing an edifying and pertinent subject. All that can be said in that case is, that if the rules be reasonable, the deviation ought to be as little as possible. Nor let any one think this point a matter of little or no moment.
As a good choice may contribute previously to rouse attention, and even to put the hearers in a proper frame for the subject to be discoursed on, as well as to keep their minds in the time of preaching from wandering from the subject ; so on the contrary, an improper choice will often serve to dissipate the thoughts, and put the mind in a frame nowisé suitable. I can say for myself that I have been witness to instances of both effects. I have