Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Popular Preachers

Review of:
The New Park-street Pulpit (by Charles H. Spurgeon, 1856).

Not very long ago, the Archdeacon of Middlesex delivered a charge in which he admonished the clergy of the necessity of reaching in such a manner as to interest their congregations, and lamented the almost universal dulness by which modern preaching is infected. In all the controversy which that memorable charge excited, we do not remember any mention of the fact that London was then, as it is now, distinguished by the presence of one of the most popular preachers of modern times. Mr. Spurgeon is a minister of the Baptist denomination. He is, we believe, a very young man, and a person of such extraordinary popularity, that, moved by his sermons on Sunday evenings at Exeter Hall and elsewhere, his congregation have determined upon building him a chapel capable of containing, it is said, no less than 15,000 people. The gifts implied by the attainment of such extraordinary popularity entitle their possessor to notice, even upon literary grounds. When we compare the influences which they command with the deficiencies admitted by Archdeacon Sinclair's charge, they have a far deeper interest. Nothing can be further from our intention than to make these columns an arena for theological discussion, but subjects of this description have great social importance; and we propose, therefore, to examine Mr. Spurgeon's logic and rhetoric, as we should have examined them if they had been exercised on any other subject, without expressing any opinion as to the theological correctness of his opinions.

We do not wonder at Mr. Spurgeon's popularity. His sermons are obviously addressed to an audience not highly educated, and they have all the merits which are generally successful with such audiences. They are, to the highest degree, picturesque,vehement, and humorous. Indeed, if it were not for their deficiency in terseness, self-control, and purity of language, we should be inclined to compare them to Latimer's. What would be called the "practical" Sermons are one mass of pictures, roughly but often powerfully, drawn in a few violent sentences, intermixed with metaphors so strangely audacious that we almost hesitate to reprint them. What would be the effect upon an ordinary London congregation of hearing a description of the Day of Judgment (represented in the style of an English criminal trial) concluded by the words—“ No, No! Take the man away, Gabriel!" Think of encouraging a persecuted saint by the phrase, “Face it again, like a man-never say die!" Imagine the excuse of native corruption disposed of by supposing such an apology to be made in a court of law, and to be met with the answer, “You rascal, if your heart is bad, I will make the sentence heavier!" Fancy an exhortation “never to miss an opportunity of having a shot at the devil." The recurrence of phrases like these is so frequent, and they are so much mixed up with subjects of the greatest solemnly, that it is impossible to doubt that they are natural and unaffected. They are, moreover, interspersed with other passages which are something more than familiar, and display a certain grotesque humour which, as all who have much so acquaintance with the subject will admit, has a curious affinity for what are generally called evangelical opinions. Take, for example, the following description of "crabtree Christians:"—
‘How many have we in our Churches of crabtree Christians, who have mixed such a vast amount of gall in their constitutions that they can scarcely speak one good word to you . . . . and if anything is wrong either in the house, the church, or anywhere else, they conceive it to be their duty to set their faces like a flint, and defy everybody. They are like isolated icebergs; no one cares to go near them. They float about in the sea of forgetfulness, until at last they are melted and gone; and though, good souls, we shall be happy enough to meet them in heaven, we are precious glad to get rid of them from the earth. They were always so unamiable in disposition that we had rather live an eternity with them in heaven than five minutes with them on earth.’ (p. 159.)
Or the following wonderful reference to the Wesleyan Flysheets:--
‘Some, called Calvinists, are the most quarrelsome set breathing . . . . It may be a sign of life that they are so eager after truth; but I wish they would leave off their quarrelling, for it is a disgrace to our religion . . . .  Every one says to me, “Look there are your brethren.  I never saw such a set of cut-throats in my life.  I never saw a Church where they have the Gospel where they are not always falling out.” Well, that is nearly the truth, and I am ashamed to confess it . . . . What is the most litigious denomination now existing?  No one would have a difficulty in pointing to our excellent friends, the Wesleyans.’ (p. 364)
Or this hit at commentators:--
‘We take down pious Thomas Scott, and, as usual, he says nothing about it if it is a dark passage. Then we go to holy Matthew Henry, and if it is an easy Scripture he is sure to explain it.’
It would be a great injustice to Mr. Spurgeon's congregation to suppose that he offers them no higher attractions than these. His eloquence is as unquestionable as his sincerity. It is diffuse, violent, and unrestrained, and to be appreciated must be heard shouted out in some crowded chapel, or dreary brickfield, to a vast throng of excited hearers. There is a sermon called Heaven and Hell, preached in a field at Hackney to a congregation of about 12,000 persons, which seems to us one of the best specimens of this style. It has a strange resemblance to the courses which the first Methodists addressed to the Kingswood colliers; and, curiously enough, it concludes by an allusion to the approach of the evening, in terms almost identical with those which Whitfield employed on a similar occasion.

We can imagine the contempt with which Mr. Spurgeon would read the above. He would say that we criticize what is unimportant, and pass over the root of the matter--that his object is not to make speeches but to save souls, and that unless we say something on the fitness of his discourses for that object, we have said nothing. We should be sorry to treat such a complaint with disrespect. No doubt a preacher challenges something more than mere literary criticism. Yet the manner in which he performs his task depends not only on his theology, but in great measure on the strength and soundness of his understanding; and this may be very faulty, whatever may be the correctness of his theological views. A man may talk rashly, illogically, foolishly, about the cutest truths. This is the weak side of Mr. Spun eon's preaching. He is, by his own confession, “not much of an argumentative preacher," but we do not think he is by any means sufficiently aware of the vital importance of this defect. As a Particular Baptist of the strictest kind, the soul of his teaching is a certain logical system of the narrowest and most definite description. We have read a great many of Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, and in all of them we are struck by two glaring defects. The one is, that he never draws more consequences from a given doctrine than he wishes to draw; and the other, that he interprets the Bible by the aid of a system of his own, derived partly from the traditions current in his own denomination, and partly from certain metaphysical theories which appear to us more or less remotely traceable to President Edwards. This is not the place to discuss the truth of a view of Christianity which confines all its benefits to a part of the human race arbitrarily selected for that purpose, and consigns the remainder to eternal torture—according to some, in virtue of a decree ordaining, and according to others, in virtue of a “preterition” not preventing it. But we have a right to demand of those who do hold this view that they should avow it broadly, and justify it logically from the authority in which they profess to find it. Throughout his sermons, Mr. Spurgeon always shrinks from the harsher side of his doctrine, invents the most curious contrivances for neutralizing or avoiding it, and devises extraordinary fictions for the purpose of reconciling it with other parts of his views.

Dwelling, for example, on his belief that more souls will be ultimately saved than lost, he reconciles this with the opinion that only a small number of persons are at present in a state of salvation by the supposition that a vast number will be saved during the Millennium, by which means the balance will be redressed. No one will accuse Mr. Spurgeon of wishing to joke upon such a subject, but it is impossible to read this statement without perceiving that the man who can venture to maintain it is afraid of the consequences of his own logic. If the subject were not too awful, there would be something inconceivably grotesque in the thought of neutralizing the endless misery and utter destruction of hundreds of millions of human souls by the future salvation of thousands of millions. A man can never, one would suppose, have considered the matter seriously, who introduces the notion of set-off into questions of this kind. If I lose £100 today, I may be recompensed by the payment of £1000 to-morrow; but who will say that the horror of the fate which, according to Mr. Spurgeon, is prepared for almost every human being now alive, is in any degree diminished by the consideration that, in some other age or some other state, it will be otherwise? We do not mean to say that he always shrinks from pushing his doctrines to fri htful conse uenccs. He sometimes says things which we should be inclined to call atrociously malignant if they did not give the impression of being said in the heat of the moment, and more in order to produce an effect than for any other purpose. “We are free from punishment," he says; “if it is eternal, as we know it is . . . . it is nothing to us." And he has the fearful audacity to conclude the sentence with the exclamation—“Glorious liberty of the children of God!” a liberty, one would think, somewhat akin to hardheartedness. “It is nothing to us”--nothing to the only part of the human race for whom Christ died-- that all the rest are damned; and this is “Glorious Liberty.”

In another passage (p.340), speaking of certain ministers who fail to convert their congregations, he consoles them by the following reflection:--
“The end of the Gospel ministry . . . . is to glorify God, and God is glorified even in the damnation of sinners.  If I testify to them that the truth of God, and they reject his Gospel . . . . my ministry is not therefore void; for even in the punishment of those rebels he will be glorified . . . . While we seek souls, if God denies them unto us . . . . let us comfort ourselves with the thought . . . . that, though they may not be saved, God will glorify and honor us at last.’
We should like to see a sermon by Mr. Spurgeon, on the eagerness of James and John to call own fire from heaven on those who rejected their Master. A man who “comforts himself with the thought" that his Maker and himself are both glorified by the damnation of his congregation, knows not what spirit he is of; and yet, in the very next page, we find him wondering how any man can be a soldier, and saying, “To me it would be the very portal of hell if I could think I had been a destroyer of my fellow-creatures.”

When Mr. Spurgeon has a case of any kind to make out, words go for nothing with him. Either he invents some classification by which he can avoid a consequence he dislikes, or he uses a word in a. sense purely arbitrary, and argues from it as if he meant by it what everybody else means. For example, it is part of his theory that "the saints" are never punished, but only chastised; so that, if a converted and an unconverted man were both to be sent to prison for stealing, or to be hanged for murder, it would be a chastisement in the one case, and a punishment in the other. His views of the “righteousness" of the saints and the “justice” of God are instances of the same peculiarity of his mind. He chooses, for his own purposes, to give those names to things utterly unlike what are usually denoted by the terms. Perhaps, however, his interpretation of Scripture is the most extraordinary instance of his reckless determination to make everything support his own views. He believes that “each letter" of it “was penned with an Almighty finger--each sentence dictated by the Holy Spirit." He construes the Bible upon the constant tacit hypothesis that it was written by one who held the whole of that narrow metaphysical creed which he professes himself; and he takes such liberties with it that we sometimes wonder whether he can believe that it was written even by an honest man. Thus he says that, in Malachi iii. 6, “Therefore, ye sons of Jacob, ye are not consumed;" “sons of Jacob" means “God's elect;" and this he states by the way, as if it were a fact which he happened to know, and which it might be as well to mention. If he would take the trouble to read the two preceding verses, he would see that his interpretation is ludicrously impossible. In the same sermon he argues the words addressed to Hezekiah, “Thou shalt die and not live," mean, “according to all human probability, your disease is incurable, and you must die." This marvellous assertion is made by the very same man who maintains that the words “ shall be damned" prove the eternity of future punishments, “because, when a million ages have rolled away, on shall still turn up your eye and still read ‘ SHALL be damned.’ " With principles of interpretation like these, a man may prove anything out of anything, and would be just as we qualified to preach from Robinson Crusoe as from the Bible. Indeed the stress which he lays upon the words “will” and “shall" suggests a considerable doubt whether he is aware that it would not be very easy to translate the difference between them into Greek, and reminds us of a well-known Cambridge Dissenting minister, who reproved the University for its carnal learning with the remarkable sentiment, “Greek! I should like to know what St. Paul knew of Greek--he wrote plain English!”

We could fill man columns with examples of the irreverent rashness with which Mr. Spurgeon converts the Scriptures into a kind of book of puzzles, of which he alone has the key —of his constant assumption that it consists of a set of detached sentences, intended partly as mottoes for sermons, partly as weapons of offence against antagonists—and of his habit of substituting perfectly intelligible absurdities for ineffable mysteries. But we have neither space nor inclination for the task. Truth, modesty, and logic, are indispensable in all persons who address themselves to the human heart by the medium of human words. They are just as much powers ordained by God as any of the gifts or experiences to which Mr. Surgeon would confine the title of "spiritual." He is evidently a man of very remarkable ability, and we have no reason to doubt that he is a sincere Christian; but he would do well to devote to study and reflection some part of the time which he at present occupies in preaching “ten sermons a-week.” His creed may be right or it may be wrong; but if it is right, it is one which ought to be announced with the gravity, solemnity, and composure which befit such an awful truth. When a judge has to pass sentence of death, he does not go shouting it about the streets; and when a man reaches a doctrine which is equivalent to sentence of eternal death upon the great majority of (at an rate) the present generation of men, he cannot state too clearly or too calmly what he does and what he does not mean, and what are the grounds of his opinion. Mr. Surgeon is welcome, if he likes, to set us down as Greeks, to whom the Gospel is foolishness; but we can assure him that our objection is not to the rigour of his doctrine, but to its laxity—to its false pretensions to logic, to system, to Scriptural authority —in two words, to its immaturity and rashness.

Mr. Spurgeon's extreme popularity suggests questions of greater interest than any which concern him personally. We should strongly recommend the clergy to read the Park-street Pulpit if they wish to know what is the kind of preaching which a large class of people like to hear. The most remarkable lesson which we should gather from it is the popularity of what may be called doctrinal preaching. Mr. Spurgeon's creed is not one which most people would consider attractive, but, such as it is, it is almost obtrusively put forward on every possible occasion; and as he handles the positive in preference to the negative side of his peculiar views, we can quite understand the influence which he exerts. We believe the fact to be that there is nothing which people like so much to hear from the pulpit as clear positive theology, exemplified in relation to the common affairs of life. In our days so many trumpets give forth an uncertain sound that vigorously blown blasts, of a most any instrument, are pretty sure to find many listeners. We see in Mr. Spurgeon's success one proof amongst a thousand of the necessity of a real theological education for the clergy. There is at present no such thing to be had in England. With magnificently endowed professorships, and with two Universities imbued—some may think rather too deeplv—with ecclesiastical influences of all kinds, men are continually admitted to the cure of souls with less knowledge of their profession than is exacted of a chemist, and incomparably less than is required of an apothecary. Hence have arisen a set of shallow popular systems of theology, which are substituted as tests of orthodoxy, not only for belief in the Bible, but for belief in the Articles or the Creeds, and which are caught up and circulated by fluent, half-educated persons, by the agency of tracts an lectures, to such an extent that they have produced a sort of social tyranny which is fast becoming unbearable. The timidity with which all such subjects are approached, the intolerance with which every man who writes or preaches with sincerity and learning is put aside, and the vehemence with which belief is demanded in doctrines which are not only totally incredible, but are no part of the Christian faith, are producing amongst the higher classes of society an extent of scepticism, or at any rate of disgust, with reference to religious doctrine, the effects of which may be incalculably pernicious. It is a most significant and a most unwelcome fact, that whilst the clergy of the Church of England are, if we are to believe the confession of one of the most distinguished of their number, losing the power of interesting their congregations, crowds flock to hear a man who, though pious and able, seems quite unable to understand the commonest principles either of logic or of interpretation.

Saturday Review, March 22, 1856

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