« PrécédentContinuer »
In regard to the unity of the subject, I shall only observe, that here it admits rather a clearer definition or description, than perhaps in any of the others. A controversial sermon is then strictly one, when there is only one thesis, as I may call it, that is, one proposition, whether affirmative or negative, the truth of which it is the scope of the whole discourse to evince. Suppose a preacher should (in order to guard his people against some apparent danger of seduction; for, without some special reason of this sort, controversy is not eligible in the pulpit,) judge it necessary to maintain the lawfulness of infant-baptism; that which would constitute his performance one, is that the aim of the whole, and of every part, should unite in supporting this position, that it is agreeable to the gospel dispensation, that infants should be baptized. The thing might be illustrated by a thousand other examples, but it is really so plain in itself, that I could not consider it, as any other, than losing time to produce morc instances.
In regard to the text, the same qualities are required here as in the former species, namely appositeness, simplicity and perspicuity. In regard to the first of these, the appositeness, let it be remarked here by the way, that it is not possible to find, on every subject, a text that has this quality in an equal degree. On some articles, the declarations of scripture are more explicit and direct; on others, not less certain even from scripture, the evidences at least in regard to the mode of expression are more implicit and indirect. I may observe also that we are not to understand this quality of apposite so strictly, as to suppose, that by the text we should discover whether the intended sermon is to be
explanatory or controversial. This is hardly ever to be expected. The text John iv. 24, “God is a spirit,” is simple, perspicuous and apposite, either for an explanatory discourse on the nature of the Divine spirituality, or for a controversial discourse, whose aim is to evince the spirituality of God. Nay in a course of preaching on points, which may be controverted, this method, especially by a pastor in his own parish, is sometimes not improperly adopted. His division of the subject accordingly, when he first enters on it, may be this, first to explain the doctrine of his text whatever it be, secondly to evince the truth of that doctrine. As however the tenour of these two different parts, from the nature of the composition fitted to each, is very different, it is commonly better to disjoin them, so far as to make separate discourses of them, though from the same passage of sacred writ, the explanation being the subject of the first, and the proof of the subject of that which immediately succeeds the other. But when the explanatory part may with sufficient distinctness be despatched in a few sentences, I should admit that both parts may conveniently enough, and without violating the unity of design, be comprised in the same discourse. Something extremely similar we find to have taken place sometimes in the judiciary pleadings of the ancients, which I observed to have an analogy, in point of form, to controversial sermons. When the law was either obscure or complex, a separate explanation of the statute was made to precede the arguments either for, or against the accused. And we can easily perceive the expediency of this method for throwing light upon the proof, and assisting the hearers in discerning the justness of the reasoning. A
similar manner we find recommended by the example of some of the best preachers, both in French and in English.
In the controversial sermon after the oxordium, and brief explanation of the text and context where necessary; the point of doctrine to be either supported or refuted, ought to be as distinctly, perspicuously and briefly as possible proposed, and then the method ought to be laid down, in which
intend to manage the argument. This method on different questions will be very different. When a controverted point is simple in its nature, and when there is only one opposing sentiment, which the preacher has to refute, the most common, and indeed the most natural method he can take will be, first to refute the arguments of the adversary, and secondly to support his own doctrine by proper proofs. On the first, his acquaintance with the adversary's plea must serve for a directory as to the method wherein he should proceed. Only let it be observed in genera', that where one means honestly to defend truth and to detect error, he will ever find his account in employing the most plain and unequivocal expressions, and in exposing the ambiguities and indefinite terms, in which, it often happens, that the sophistry of the adverse party lies concealed. some of our theological disputes, and even some of those which have created the greatest ferments and most lasting animosities among christians, are merely verbal. These, as much as possible, ought to be avoided. Others, in which there is a real difference in opinion, as well as in expression, in the different sides, have nevertheless given rise to a deal of logoma. chy in the manner wherein they have been managed.
In most questions, what is of real weight in the way of argument on the opposite sides might be reduced to a very small compass. It will well become the assertor of truth, whose cause has the greater advantage, the stronger the light be, into which he brings it, to endeavour by clearing off the rubbish of mere cavils, ambiguous and indefinite words and phrases, to convey plain and determinate ideas to the hearers, and thus as much as possible to simplify the question. Then let him discuss severally, what is thought to be of most moment on the adverse side, avoiding to tire his hearers with too curious a minuteness of investigation, or to perplex himself with a needless multiplicity of topics. Another error in disputation, which is by far too common, is when one will admit nothing in the plea or arguments of an adversary to be of the smallest weight. That they have no weight may be the case sometimes, but it is not always so. And this extreme will ever, with the more judicious, savour either of blind zeal in the preacher, or of a total want of candour, which will rather create a prejudice against the speaker, in the minds of those who are intelligent and sensible, that he does not justice to the other side, than incline them to give a favourable reception to his arguments. It gives, besides, an appearance to the debate which savours much more of proceeding from a mind ambitious of the glory of victory, than concerned for the interests of truth. I have heard a disputant of this stamp, in defiance of etymology and use, maintain that the word rendered in the New Testament baptize, means more properly to sprinkle than to plunge, and, in defiance of all antiquity, that the former method was the earliest and, for many centuries, the
most general practice in baptizing. One, who argues in this manner, never fails, with persons of knowledge, to betray the cause he would defend ; and though with respect to the vulgar, bold assertions generally succeed, as well as arguments, sometimes better ; yet a candid mind will disdain to take the help of a falsehood, even in support of the truth.
After discussing the adversary's plea, it will be proper in the second place to enter on the proofs. If the point under examination is knowable by the light of nature, as if it regard the being and perfections of God, or the great obligations of morality, one topic of argument may not improperly be taken from the discoveries of natural reason, and on some points, like that of a future state of retribution, even the universal consent of mankind, and the earliest traditions, that have as yet been traced in any country, may not implausibly be pleaded. Sometimes ecclesiastical history will furnish a head of argument. This happens especially when the question relates to any usages or ceremonies that have obtained, or to the manner of celebrating any of the positive institutions. But the principal foundation of argument for the preacher will always be the sacred scripture. This is true whatever be the controverted doctrine, since in order to entitle it to a diseussion from the pulpit, it ought to be a doctrine in which the faith or morals of a christian are concerned. If the tenet maintained be purely a point of revelation, the scripture is in a manner the preacher's only ground, on which his reasonings can be built. From this also different topics of argument may be raised, either from different passages, or from the different lights in which