« PrécédentContinuer »
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 than one. First, the passage may 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 perspicu. ous, 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 inconve. nient 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
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, ascrib. ing 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 ambiguous, they do not distinctly answer the purpose 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 per. tinent. 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 purposely 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 sacri. fice 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, un- . less 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 perti. nent 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