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(The previous post in this series may be found here: https://memoirandremains.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/jonathan-edwards-the-preacher-part-1/)

One brutal fault of many preachers is the idea that “plain” and “clear” mean slobberingly dull. In the end, you have been coated words which have no form, no beauty. Perhaps you are fond of the dog that licked you, but you still want to wash your hand.

T. David Gordon’s wonderful book Why Johnny Can’t Preach begins with the sorry (and true) statement,

I’ve always feared to state publicly that, in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach even a mediocre sermon (11).

He goes on to quote a godly, experienced elder at a fine, orthodox congregation, speaking concerning the current pastor of his church:

David, of course he can’t preach; but I’ve served on pulpit committees off and on for thirty years, and nobody can preach. We look for men who are gifted in other areas, and who are orthodox, but we accept from the outset of the search that we are not likely to find a person who can preach (21).

Gordon does an apt job of diagnosing the cause of such dull-witted monologues which are called sermon (the preachers have more grown up on imagery rather than literature, “because television, in contrast to poetry is essentially trivial”; “What kinds of ministers does such a culture produce? Ministers who are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year-old in the 1940’s” (58-59)) and suggesting a cure (perhaps they could learn to read something beyond Go Dog Go). [1]

Trunball notes that Edwards’ work was precisely the opposite in source and effect:

Edwards had a disciplined mind and a ready pen. His force of intellect, his philosophical grasp of ideas, his knowledge of theology, and his acquaintance with the best English writers, enabled him to write vigorously. Whatever may be thought of the imprecatory sermons, they, together with the pastoral message, were productive of action. That is the primary test of good literature. It was not some emotional disturbance in religious meetings which gave rise to those upsurgings of moral life and commitment. The reading quality of the written word was pregnant with deeps of feeling, wells of truth undefiled, and a running stream of living faith.

The sermons as literature have rhythm and balance, well-defined propositions, and marked climaxes. Novel arrangements, word-pairs, impressiveness of phrase affect us. The logical unity of thought and argument with a definite structure give the sentences a place as good literature.

Like his Puritan predecessors Edwards sought to find the pleasant word: not to delight the mind alone, but to work upon the heart. That was the goal of his preaching.

Jonathan Edwards the Preacher, 75. Such a sermon does not come from nowhere. Trunball methodically points out that Edwards first statured himself in the Scripture – he read, studied, thought, and then thought again concerning the Scripture:

Bible reading and mediation is the foundation of spiritual development for the preacher. Edwards aimed to be an interpreter of the divine Word.  We are not surprised at his keen interest in Bible study. The fruits of those early years of study were reaped throughout his ministry. A man of one book, he made captive all branches of knowledge and thus effectively expounded the eternal to the times in which he lived (Trunball, 77).

Such intensive study gave the force and power of Edwards’ originality: “Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one” (William Greenbough Thayer Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, 37; the true origin lies in God; originality in human beings lies in exegeting that which God has first created, be it nature or Scripture). In addition to his study of Scripture, Edwards intently studied the best of English literature and philosophy and science.  His mind was brimming with words and beauty and ideas which he brought to bear upon the Scripture.

Such intensive education, study and thought must lie behind the sermon—even if it does not show expressly in the sermon.  The sermon must not be a parade of the preacher’s learning (which, as Gordon notes, is likely to be pathetic, anyway), but that doesn’t mean that such learning does not go into the preparation:

But that does not mean that pulpits will be marked by a lack of knowledge and education. The minister may, and in fact must, privately make use of the general arts and of philosophy aas well as employ a wide variety of reading while he is preparing a sermon. But in public exposition these should be hidden from the congregation, not ostentatiously paraded before them. As the Latin proverb says, Artis etiam celare artem –it is the point of art to conceal art.

William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 71. [2]

The sermon must contain truth, but it must be digestible, or no one will ever carry it to heart. Just because a sermon must concern truth, does not mean a sermon must neglect the presentation:

Other faults of style result from too exclusive attention to the fact that the sermon is concerned with truth… a sermon requires to be understood, to be interesting, to come to grips with life and its problems, to be moving.

On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, by John A. Broadus, new and revised edition, by Jesse Burton Weatherspoon, ThD, D.D., 1944, p. 239.

The vicious mediocrity of most pulpits (even the music of “killer bands” is dull; it is a bad parody of better bands; repetitive, derivative, uncreative, and registering in a single idiom) is waging an outright war against the Gospel.  When the Gospel cannot be heard, it cannot have effect. 

Yes, but say some of the dullards, Paul would not preach with eloquence! And they cite to 1 Corinthians 2:1,

2 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. (ESV).

I will end with the rejoinder of Dr. Martyn:

He tells the Corinthians that ‘his speech was contemptible.’ That simply meant that he did not affect the rhetorical manner of the Greek rhetoricians; it did not mean that he could not be eloquent. What it did mean was that his eloquence was always spontaneous and inevitable—never contrived, never produced, never done to order. It became inevitable because of the grandeur of the Truth and the conception that had opened itself before his mind. When eloquence is so produced, I say that it is one of the best handmaidens of true preaching. The history of preaching demonstrates this again and again abundantly.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching, 251.

William Perkins from the National Portrait Gallery:

NPG D23054; William Perkins by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), published by  Compton Holland, after  Unknown artist

 


[1] “Nine Ways to Become a Boring Writer”, Matt Anderson:

Read everything your peers write.  There is no better way to sound exactly like everyone else around you than by immersing yourself in their words.  Forget about the fact that you have  conversations with normal people every day, and convince yourself that to be a relevant writer you must be as familiar as possible with what they are writing about.

Spend all your free time consuming “pop culture.”  The logic works the same as the above:  forget about the fact that you’re already immersed in the culture around you, and that saying anything that might sound strange to it demands above all critical distance from it.  You need your words to be relevant, and liberally sprinkling pop culture references throughout will do the trick nicely while ensuring that your words will be forgotten as soon as the show/movie/song is.

– See more at: http://mereorthodoxy.com/ten-surefire-ways-to-become-a-more-boring-writer/#sthash.vBVNjOES.dpuf