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 Elemental Religion[1]

O Lord, thou hast  searched me and know me – Psalm CXXXIX.1

I once heard a well-known man, speaking of difficulties in the Bible, express himself between jest and earnest in this fashion: “The Gospels are a story, and a story may conceivably be untrue; the epistles are arguments, and arguments may conceivably be unsound; but the Psalms are the immediate reflection of personal experiences, and we can take them as they stand without asking any questions.” Certainly that is true of the 139th Psalm, which even in the Psalter has an eminence of its own, and brings us into contact with elemental religion, with the soul’s direct and overwhelming experience of God. None of us could have written it, but there is none of us in whom there is not an echo of its sublime and solemn utterance; and that echo is the spirit of God, bearing witness by and with His word in our hearts.

The Psalm has four strophes, each of six verses; and in each of the four an essential aspect or element in the soul’s experience of God absorbs the mind of the writer. It will repay us if in following his thought his experience in any degree becomes ours.

Introduction structure: The sermon begins with a story, “I once heard a man ….” This is a common and generally effective way to begin a sermon. First, people like stories: it is the basic way in which we understand and believe information.[2] Second, it can create a basis upon which to understand the information which follows. Third, it has the practical effect of getting attention and easing the auditor into a place to listen.

Here, the introduction sets out a basic element of the sermon which will follow: The Psalms set forth a subjective experience of truth, rather than present an argument about the truth. He states the essential premise of the sermon. The 139th Psalm “brings us into contact with elemental religion, with the soul’s direct and overwhelming experience of God.”

Theological/doctrinal points: 1) “None of us could have written it, but there is none of us in whom there is not an echo of its sublime and solemn utterance”: First, this contains an assumed doctrine of inspiration: “None of us could have written it”. Second, the inspiration of the Bible contains an immanence of God and a profound connection to what it is to be a human being, “but there is none of us in whom there is not an echo of its sublime and solemn utterance” (cf. Rom. 2:15).[3] This second point is further drawn out in the next line, “that echo is the spirit of God, bearing witness by and with His word in our hearts.”

Giving an outline:  This is a basic point: tell the auditor where you are going.  While this is not always necessary, it is generally good form to let the hearers have an understand where you are going with the sermon.  It helps them understand the relationship between points and also helps them have a feel for the length which remain.

There are times where such an introduction is not necessary: When teaching or preaching, you may wish to bring the congregation along with you as you think through a topic, discovering the relationship and application as you all go along. This is a more difficult exercise.

However, when giving a standard sermon, the failure to give an outline at the beginning and to give help with the outline as you proceed will make the sermon seem long, unorganized and confused.

Giving a goal: Here is a question to ask whenever teaching or preaching: What are you trying to do? What effect to you hope to have upon the auditors?  Denney makes plain what he hopes to do:

in each of the four an essential aspect or element in the soul’s experience of God absorbs the mind of the writer. It will repay us if in following his thought his experience in any degree becomes ours.

This is a critical part of all biblical study and meditation: the shape of our soul is to be conformed to the biblical witness.


[1] “Elemental Religion,” in The Way Everlasting: Sermons by James Denney, D.d. (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 1.

[2] As a lawyer, I learned by experience that judges and juries do not believe isolated facts: they believe stories. The facts are believed to the extent they confirm the story.  Moving people outside of a believed story on the ground that the facts which comprise the story are untrue takes enormous effort. Perhaps the reason this movement is so difficult derives from the psychological effect: One must admit to being wrong and there is the loss of faith to change a story – even if the story is minor, there is still a loss

[3] Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

― Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Read more quotes from Søren Kierkegaard