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“ Perhaps," says he, it were to be wished that in banishing from the pulpit the bad taste which dishonoured it, this custom of preaching on a text had also been banished. In fact, to speak long on a quotation of a line or two, to labour in regulating one's whole discourse by that line, such a toil appears an amusement scarcely becoming the dignity of the ministry. The text proves a sort of device, or rather riddle, which the discourse unravels. The Greeks and the Romans never knew this usage. It was in the decline of letters that it began, and time hath consecrated it.” The author must here doubtless be understood to mean by Greeks and Romans, those nations whilst in a state of paganism, for that this practice was current among the Greek and the Latin fathers of the church appears manifestly from such of their works as are yet extant. And indeed to acquaint us gravely, and urge it as an argument, that the pagan priests never preach. ed upon a text, must appear extraordinary to one who attends to this small circumstance, that they never preached at all, that there was nothing in all their various modes of superstition, which was analogous to what is called preaching among christians. And even if there had been any thing among them that bore an analogy to preaching, their example could not have had the least authority with us in this particular, as it is notorious they had no acknowledged infallible or established standard of doctrine corresponding to our Bible, whence their texts could have been drawn. But if our author alludes in this, not to the customs of the heathen priests, but to those of the demagogues and pleaders, the cases are so exceedingly dissimilar, that hardly can any comparison with propriety be made be.
tween them, or any inference drawn, from the usage of the one to what is proper in the other. If indeed we make the proper allowances for the disparity in the cases, the example of the ancient orators will be found rather to favour, than to discountenance the practice; because though they had nothing which could in strict propriety be called a text, they had in effect a subject propounded, to which they were bound in speaking to confine themselves. Thus in judiciary or forensic harangues, the summons or indictment was to all intents a text, and in the deliberative orations pronounced in the senate house or in the assembly of the people, the overture or motion which gave rise to the debate answered precisely the same purpose. At least one of the designs above mentioned, which the text with us is calculated to answer, namely, a notification to the hearers, and a remembrancer as to the subject of discourse, was fully accomplished, and as to the other end, the difference in the nature of the thing superseded the use of it. The only species of discourses with them, in which there was nothing that bore the least analogy to this so universal usage among christian teachers, was the demonstrative, or their eulogiums on the dead. And here doubtless the notoriety of the occasion and purpose of their meeting, which was commonly at funeral solemnities, rendered any verbal intimation of the subject less necessary, than in the two others already taken notice of. It may indeed be urged in answer to what hath been said, that the preacher himself may intimate his subject in as explicit terms as he pleases before he begin. But to this I would reply, that a bare intimation is not enough in a matter of so great consequence, that the effect of the
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 prac. tice 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 exhort- . ing 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 arbi
trarily 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 discourses 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 scrip. tures, 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