Friday, April 29, 2011

A Good Book on Preaching

The serious minister looks out for certain types of books. At the Banner conference, during the panel discussion, one of the speakers said, "read every book on the atonement that comes your way," or words to that effect. The same can be said, in my opinion, for books on preaching. It seems that the subject is inexhaustible!

In the latter part of the 19th century there was a proliferation of lectures established by denominations and by individuals to aid the denominations to which they belonged. One that I have mentioned before is the Free Church of Scotland Cunningham Lecture. This foundation gave us such classics as Buchanan on Justification, Smeaton on the Holy Spirit, and Laidlaw's Bible Doctrine of Man. The equivalent in the United Presbyterian Church, the Kerr lectures, gave us James Orr's The Christian View of God and the World, one of the first books on a Christian worldview published in English. The Congregational Union Lectures gave us R.W. Dale's classic work on the Atonement. Other trusts were more restricted in their themes - the Lyman Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School have given many a classic work, including one by R.W. Dale.

Which brings me to the volumes illustrated above. The Hartley Lecture was founded in 1897 by Sir William Hartley (of Hartley's Jam fame). This was delivered at the Primitive Methodist conference - although what was delivered at the conference was in fact a synopsis of a substantial volume, as can be seen above! What are shown are all the lectures from 1909 to 1932. They vary in quality, and in theology.

One of the best is the lecture for 1912, The Message and the Man, by W. Dodd Jackson. The subject of the book is preaching, and without a doubt this is a book that preachers ought to read.

The Primitive Methodist Church, like all the Methodist bodies, was founded on preaching, and Jackson is concerned that the Church shall go on existing as a preaching Church. Preaching, he reminds us, should be worship - and is, if it is really preaching. And although this is a book, the style is a preaching style. I rarely read 250-page books at a single sitting, but this is one of the one I have read all at once. Jackson sprinkles his prose with anecdotes and with apposite quotations from hymns. There is always a suitable illustration given. He was clarly in earnest about the subject, and that comes out in every line. It is a preacher's book in every way, and preachers ought to read it! It is a book that makes the reader excited about preaching and makes him take it very seriously.

Jackson begins with a section on 'The Man'. In six chapters he lays out what a preacher ought to be. He starts with what he calls his designation, his fitness for the work. The preacher has to be the right man for the job. Disturbed by the increasing professionalisation and respectability of the office - and the resulting entry into it of men who really had no business being there - Jackson calls for men who are audible, studious, and possessed of what he calls a preaching mind, a mind that can communicate truth to others. The man must be an earnest Christian, and have a real calling to the work. In the second chapter he calls for the minister to realise the importance of his work as "the very messenger of Jesus Christ to men," with a message from God to deliver. In chapter 3 he pleads "The need for certainty", the pulpit is not the place for the man who doubts the truth of the Gospel! In chapter four Jackson pleads for "Individuality", what Spurgeon called "eccentricity", that the preacher must be himself, and not try to be somebody else. In chapter 5 he calls for the preacher to have 'understanding', "this is only another way of saying that he must know what he is talking about." Finally, in Chapter 6, like a true 'Prim', he calls for passion in the pulpit. The true minister must not only know what he is talking about, he must be excited about it! He begins with the illustration of Whitefield's last days, which reminds me - there are few books for preachers as good as Dallimore's Whitefield.

Part 2 sets out 5 fundamental notes of preaching. The first is the note of accusation - the preacher speaks to sinful men, and must proclaim the judgement of God against sin, the great "Thou art the man!" The second note is that of pity - he preaches against their sins because he loves them, and wopuld have them to turn from their wickedness and live, and presents to them the Lamb of Calvary as their only hope. Third is the note of idealism - he does not just deal with things as they are, but lays out the way things out to be. He points towards heaven and holiness. The fourth note is that of edification, he seeks to build up the saints and to build the Church of God. The last note is the note of cheer. He says to men, "be of good cheer", not because he is a foolish optimist, but because he brings the Gospel, the good news of God's love, to them.

The final part of the book in on the form and deliverance of the sermon. It should be attractive, first of all, delivered in such a way as befits its contents. Secondly, it should be clear, the listener should be able to understand it. Finallythere is the need for the sermon to be an appeal, not just a lecture. It is truth set forth for a purpose, to turn sinners to repentance, to encourage saints in holiness, to reclaim the backslider. The sermon has an aim, and the whole discourse must be directed to that aim.

In the course of the book Jackson pleads for more expository and doctrinal preaching. He calls for sanctified learning, and illustrates his argument as he clothes a book with a great deal of learning behind it in attractive paragraphs that abound with illustrations and aphorisms.

Obviously, having been published in 1912, this book is out of print. But if you can find a copy, get it and read it. It will do you good. And if you're not a preacher, give one to your pastor if you can.

Monday, April 25, 2011


One of the most frustrating mistakes I have heard in sermons is that of equivocation over the use of a word. The two worst of these are "dream" and 'vision". Words mean things in context, and what they mean in the Bible is generally not what many modern preachers think they mean.

There are two uses of the word "Dream", and these must be kept separate. The first is what we see when we sleep (like my dreaming that the Royal Wedding was being held in Bethel!). This is what the word usually means in the Bible, although of course the dreams recorded in the Bible are mostly given by God as revelations. The second meaning, and the one usually meant by modern preachers, is the meaning used by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, "I have a dream." It means an idea of the sort of future you want. The word 'vision' is closely related. In the Bible it means a visual revelation given by God - the Book of Revelation is an extended vision account. But in modern language it more often means foresight, looking to the future, and having a plan for that future.

Now, there is nothing wrong with using 'vision' this way, or 'dream', but the problem comes when preachers take the Biblical use of the words and assume that in fact the Biblical use is the other use, which I have called the "Modern use" for want of another way of putting it. The Biblical passages are simply not addressing that - and that's the problem!

There are two reasons for equivocating in the use of words in preaching, and by far the most common is the desire to say something whether the Bible addresses it or not! But ministers are called to show themselves approved, "Rightly handling the Word of God." This is decidedly not rightly handling, and may I suggest that the preacher who really thinks that Joseph's dream has any connection at all with his own 'dream' of changing the world needs to leave the pulpit and take a course in homiletics before he comes back.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Learning from those we Disagree with

One of the sure signs of someone who is either a new Christian, a cage-stage new Calvinist, or just insufferably arrogant, is the sure and certain knowledge that he or she cannot learn from anyone who disagrees with them. Of course, usually that is on a specific topic - Calvinism (pro- or anti-), Eschatology (whatever position I don't hold), Church Government, Baptism, music, Gifts of the Spirit, the list goes on and on. A typical example would be the Calvinist who says, "John Wesley? He didn't have a clue! I can't learn anything from him!" Or the man who says, "John Stott holds to Conditional Immortality! Heretic! I can't learn anything from him!" I groan wearily, open a volume of Cardinal Newman or B.F. Westcott, and settle down to read something worthwhile. Which is to say, I read books by people I disagree with, and you should too.

One should always do that. Why? Because, contrary to popular belief, people we disagree with can have some pretty good ideas. And some of them write well. It's practically a cliche to say that Newman's English style is brilliant, but that's because it's true. And if Stott is wrong on eschatology (which he is), that doesn't mean he hasn't written some very good commentaries. Open Theist Gregory Boyd has co-written an excellent work dealing with the claims that the Gospels are legendary in nature. The fact that James Denney yielded too much to the higher criticism, and that he was of an Arminian bent, does not lessen the value of his book The Death of Christ. J.I. Packer's involvement in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together disaster does not automatically rob all his writings of value. The fact that R.W. Dale taught Conditional Immortality does not mean that his books are evil and should be burned (sorry).

To take a closer look at this, we can divide books by people we disagree with into two categories, books we actually agree with, and books we don't.

For the first category, it is a fact that many men who we disagree with in one area are extremely helpful in another. Most writers have written in more than one area (though that is less common today than it was in the past). While they may have written some dreadful stuff on one subject, they may have written helpfully on another, Boyd's co-authorship of The Jesus Legend would be a great example. I am amillennial, but I find many of John MacArthur's books helpful - he's not writing on escatology all the time! A.W. Tozer was an Arminian with a mystic bent, but his perception of the way American Evangelicalism was going in his day is excellent. John Wesley wrote a brilliant treatise on Original Sin against John Taylor of Norwich. To reject all the good someone has written because of the bad stuff they have also written is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face!

As for the second category, books you disagree with, reading these is optional, though mature believers will be helped by reading things they disagree with. It is a challenge. Read the best of the Arminians, and ask, why is this person wrong? (the answer is poor hermeneutics and an inherited tradition, by the way). And you will find that heretics can be very nice people at times. Sometimes they're nicer than the orthodox. Sometimes they're not, William Robertson Smith and William Hale White come across as quite insufferable! But Basil Martin, Leslie Weatherhead and W.E. Orchard are nice people.

This procedure helps you to think for yourself. The danger of only reading people you agree with (or worse, only people your pastor agrees with) is that, as you never get out of your comfort zone, you create a sort of mental cocoon around yourself, and the thinking processes harden. But when you read Newman, you have to ask why you disagree with him. You enter into a critical dialogue, a debate, with the author, and you have to think. And the great thing with a book is that you can actually put it down and do the thinking!

And finally, read biographies of people you disagree with. That can be most challenging of all at times, seeing those who did what was right while they thought what was wrong. Or did what was wrong when they thought what was right! And why was it people embraced false ideas? The answer is always more complex than "He was a secret Jesuit" or "He was just evil." Now, the answer is always "he was wrong," but the great question is, why was he wrong? And that is what the biography will help you with - even if the real answer isn't the one the biographer gives. Oh, and autobiographies are often more fun where this is concerned - and the more indiscreet and chatty the autobiography, the better. Basil Martin's An Impossible Parson is a good example. Newman's Apologia is more formal (but then Newman is always formal), but just as good in its own way. Most people, however, will prefer Martin's humour. And finally, the young minister should read ministerial autobiographies in order to give thanks that the quality of food in theological colleges has improved in the last century!

Oh, and this does apply to Fundamentalists as well, though I have generally found that liberals write better autobiographies. Now, I have a biography of Robert Newton Flew to read...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Facebook Theology

The internet is a wonderful thing. It's also quite dangerous in many ways. First of all, it is a wonderful source of unverified information. Second, it provides a platform for a great many people who have nothing useful to say and don't know how to say it.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, all can be very useful. I'm a pastor in a small Church in an inner-city location in the United Kingdom (in a place where the weather is absolutely wonderful right now!), and yet I have access to everyone else who has an internet connection. What could be more democratising? What could be more dangerous? Because writing on a computer screen has a rather peculiar property - it's impersonal. And other people I only contact through this medium are to a certain extent depersonalised too. That means that one can say on Facebook and Twitter things one would never say in person. It also gives a voice to people who would never have had a voice before (I say this as someone who has actually had stuff published in print magazines, the first piece with comments from the editor that most of the unsolicited material he gets is unsuitable for publication on multiple levels, including spelling, punctuation and grammar).

Now, this can be a good thing. It can also be a terrible disaster, as people who don't know the first thing about Reformed Theology, the Puritans, John Wesley, R.W. Dale, Westcott and Hort, and the King James Bible, demonstrate this at great length. It's funny sometimes, but it's also terribly frustrating.

Without the wonder of the Interwebs, we would never have known that the word 'Church' was derived from the name of the Greek sorceress 'Circe'. Of course, it's not, and the hilarious thing is that the video that claims this starts off by saying how unlikely it is that an Anglo-Saxon word should be derived from a Greek one, only to end up with one of the funniest false etymologies known to man - derived from a Greek Word! But you can find attacks on John Calvin, John Wesley, John Bunyan and John Wycliffe that use the same sort of tactics. All with a sublime disregard for reality.

Is there an answer? Probably not, the history of the Church includes a long history of scurrilous polemics, after all. And it does mean that false claims can be quickly dismantled. Anyone remember the Lost Tomb of Jesus business? Within about a week, the whole thing had been shown to be all smoke and mirrors, and the film, to my knowledge, never aired on any of the main UK channels.

But your statements about Reformed theology, or any theological topic, posted on Facebook, or tweeted, will accomplish nothing unless they are true, respectful, and Christian in tone. Calling John Wesley or John Calvin sour-faced haters may reflect on what a portrait looks like, but contributes nothing helpful. To anything.

But keep the videos with fakse etymologies coming. They're funny.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How NOT to Revive the Churches

It is denied by no-one that the Churches in the United Kingdom are not what they once were. How are we to reach the masses? One common approach is to try to preach on practical subjects that will, it is thought, attract non-Christians. After all, doesn't everyone want to learn how to manage their time and money better, how to be a better parent or spouse, how to get ahead in life? Even granted that people do (and I'm not convinced by the argument), is this really what the Church is about? Don't we have a Divine commission? And if not, why bother in the first place? It seems to me that there are breat number of organisations that do life-coaching far better than I ever could, and life-coaching requires a one-on-one approach, it cannot be done to large numbers (I have actually received life coaching, so I know of what I speak). Motivational messages may help self-confidence, but again, aren't there conferences that do that sort of thing better than any Church can. No, the Church has a divine commission. God has spoken and given us a command to preach the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. Abraham Taylor wrote in the 18th century that in too many pulpits, "The satisfaction of Christ was made nothing of, under pretence that He died to set us an example of patience, meekness and charity" (Quoted in Dale, English Congregationalism P. 555). Instead of preaching, "the great doctrines of the Gospel, and acquainting those who heard the word, on what foot, and by what aid, they must act in doing duty, a great deal of pains were taken to amuse them with mere moral babble, under the plausible name of practical preaching... as this way of preaching grew in use, Christ was very much left out, and some seemed to take pleasure, in being able to spin out an empty harangue, the length of an hour, without mentioning His name." It didn't work, and even if such an approach brings people in the doors, I have to ask a most unfashionable question - what's the point? What is the point in assembling a great crowd of people in a Church building on Sunday to hear a talk about how to manage your time and money? If Christ is not proclaimed, then frankly the talk or address had no business being given in a Church. The mission of the Church is to proclaim Christ. Not a 'Social Gospel' that is all social and no Gospel. We have a Saviour to proclaim. God pity us if we forget that and start talking about other things, until the poor people have to say, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."