Chapter I: The Text — Selection.
§1. Meaning of the Term.
§ 2. Rules for the Selection of a Text.
§ 3. Advantages of Having a Text.
THE word text is derived from the Latin texere, to weave; which figuratively came to signify to put together, to construct, and hence to compose, to express thought in continuous speech or writing. The noun textus thus denotes the product of weaving, the web, the fabric, and so in literary usage the fabric of one's thinking, continuous composition, written or, in later times, printed. The practice arose of reading the continuous narrative or discussion of some author and adding comments, chiefly explanatory; or of taking the author's own writing and making notes at the sides or bottom of the page. Thus the author's own work came to be called the text, that is, the continuous, connected composition as distinguished from the fragmentary notes and comments of the editor or speaker. This use of the word still survives, as when we speak of the text of ancient authors or others, meaning their own original composition; and text-criticism is the science of determining what was their exact language. So in school usage a textbook is so called because it is the work of the author studied, to whose continuous discussion the teacher adds notes or comments in questioning or explaining in the class. Now, early preaching was of the nature of familiar running commentary on the connected train of thought, or text, of Scripture, which was so named to distinguish it from the preacher's comment or exposition. As the practice grew of lengthening the comments into an orderly discourse, and of shortening the passage of Scripture expounded, the word text has come to mean the portion of Scripture chosen as the suggestion or foundation for a sermon.
The history of the word, like that of homiletics, points back to the fact, which is also well known otherwise, that preaching was originally expository. The early Christian preachers commonly spoke upon passages of considerable length, and occupied themselves largely with exposition. Frequently, however, as was natural, they would find a brief passage so fruitful as to confine themselves to it Usage tended more and more toward the preference of short texts. In England in the seventeenth century, it was not uncommon to make many sermons on some brief passage. Thus John Howe has fourteen sermons on a part of Rom. viii. 24, " We are saved by hope; " seventeen on I John iv. 20; and eighteen on John iii. 6. The object was to make a complete discussion of some great topic, and to bind all the discourses into a whole by connecting all with the same text But this practice conflicted with the natural love of variety. It is usually much better to make a series appear such by the manifest relation of the subjects, and to choose for each discourse a separate text, which presents the particular subject or view there discussed. This is at present the common practice, it being a somewhat rare thing now to preach more than one sermon on the same brief text. There is also a tendency at present to return to the more frequent use of long texts.
Taking a text is an old and well established custom from which there seems to be no good reason for departing ; especially as the change would be sure to prove distasteful or even painful to many worthy and devout hearers of preaching. Moreover, the custom is founded in excellent reason, and has marked advantages.
It is manifest that to take a text gives a tone of sacredness to the discourse. But more than this is true. The primary idea is that the discourse is a development of the text, an explanation, illustration, application of its teachings. Our business is to teach God's word. And although we may often discuss subjects, and aspects of subjects, which are not presented in precisely that form by any passage of Scripture, yet the fundamental conception should be habitually retained, that we are about to set forth what the text contains. When circumstances determine the subject to be treated, and we have to look for a text, one can almost always be found which will have some real, though it be a general relation to the subject. If there be rare cases in which it is otherwise, it will then be better to have no text than one with which the subject has only a fanciful or forced connection.
There are several advantages in regularly taking a text. (1) It constantly recalls the fact just mentioned, that our undertaking is not to guide the people by our own wisdom, but to impart to them the teachings of God in his Word. This fact enables us to speak with confidence, and leads the people to recognize the authority of what we say. (2) If the text is well chosen, it awakens interest at the outset. (3) It often aids the hearer in remembering the train of thought, having this effect wherever the sermon is really evolved from the text. (4) It affords opportunity of explaining and impressing some passage of Scripture. (5) It tends to prevent our wandering utterly away from Scriptural topics and views. (6) Greater variety will be gained than if the mind were left altogether to the suggestion of circumstances, for then it will often fall back into its old ruts; and this variety is attained just in proportion as one restricts himself to the specific thought of each particular text.
"Objections to the use of texts have commonly arisen from one of two or three causes. The grievous laxity in the interpretation of texts which has so widely prevailed, leads some men to regard the employment of them as wrong or useless. This is the old story — the abuse of a thing causing men to question the propriety of its use. Again, persons who have little or no true reverence for Scripture, or appreciation of its riches, speak of the text as a restriction upon freedom of thought and flow of eloquence. Thus Voltaire: " It were to be wished that Bourdaloue in banishing from the pulpit the bad taste which disgraced it, had also banished the custom of preaching on a text. Indeed, to speak long on a quotation of a line or two, to exhaust one's self in subjecting a whole discourse to the control of this line, seems a trifling labor, little worthy of the dignity of the ministry. The text becomes a sort of raotto, or rather enigma, which the discourse develops." It seems plain that this sneer arose partly from the torturing interpretation so often witnessed, and chiefly from the critic's want of reverence for the Bible, and ignorance of the preacher's true relation to the Bible. And perhaps, as a third ground of objection to texts, some able and devout preachers, disliking expository and even textual preaching, and wishing that every sermon should be a philosophical discussion or an elaborate discourse upon a definite topic, incline to regard the custom of always taking a text as an inconvenient restriction. Such appears to have been the feeling of Vinet.
It is sometimes not unsuitable to have two texts, or even more. Thus with Heb. ix. 22, "And without shedding of blood is no remission," there might be united I John i. 7, " The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." Or with Isa. vi. 3, " The whole earth is full of his glory," may be taken Psa. lxxii. 19," And let the whole earth be filled with his glory;" to angelic eyes it is so — the human mind can only pray that it may be so. (Comp. Hab. ii.14) Spurgeon has a sermon on the words, " I have sinned," as occurring seven times in the Bible, and gives interesting views of the different circumstances and states of mind in which they were uttered.
The proper selection of a text is a matter of great importance. A felicitous choice will animate the preacher throughout the preparation and the delivery of his sermon, and will help him to gain at once the attention of his hearers. There are few points as to which preachers differ more widely in talent and skill than the selection of texts, and few in which diligent and systematic effort will be more richly rewarded. The minister, or student for the ministry, should keep a blank book for lists of texts. In reading the Scriptures and books of theology, in reading collections of sermons, biographies, and newspaper notices, in casual reflection and in the preparation of other sermons, passages will be constantly occurring upon which it strikes one that he could make a sermon. Let these be at once written down in the list Let the preacher constrain himself to do so, until it becomes a habit. And he should by all means put down at the same time, however briefly, the proposed outline of the discourse, or any specially valuable view or illustration of it, which he is not sure will return to his mind whenever the text is looked at Otherwise he will afterward find many passages in the list that it will seem strange he should ever have noted, because the association will have been broken, the point of view will have disappeared. At some times the mind is in a highly creative mood, and plans of sermons or suggestive texts or topics will rapidly succeed one another, as the preacher reads, reflects, or visits from house to house. These fruitful germs should be carefully husbanded, and the lines of development indicated. And often when one is cold and lifeless, and could at the moment produce nothing, some good thought which was struck out in a happier mood will fall into his mind like a spark, and presently set it all on fire. Many an admirable text, and many a golden thought, given to men in their better moments, are lost forever, when a brief record, or even some little effort to associate them in mind with other things, might have made them a permanent possession.
To aid in the selection of texts, there are offered the following rules.
(I) The text should not be obscure. It ought, as a rule, to exhibit its meaning readily. Otherwise, the people will either be repelled by what they see no sense in, or will be apt to feel a merely idle curiosity to know what in the world the preacher will make of that Still, there are important exceptions here. If the preacher is satisfied that he can explain an obscure passage, and can show that it teaches valuable truth, he may take it. If the passage is one about which many are known to feel interested, and he is really able to make its meaning clear, and bring out useful lessons, it may be very wise to employ it. But observe the stress that is laid on the practicability of making the passage instructive and useful. To explain merely for the sake of explaining, is a task for which the preacher scarcely has time. It is his business to teach the people lessons of real utility, either as regards doctrine or practice.
(2) One must be careful as to employing texts "marked by grandeur of expression. They seem to promise a great effort". And if great expectations are excited at the outset, it is of course very difficult to meet them. Yet no one would say as a rule that such texts must be avoided. Many of the noblest and most impressive passages of Scripture rise into a natural grandeur of expression, and there would be serious loss in habitually avoiding these. Sometimes we may find a simpler text that presents the same subject, and the grander passage can be introduced somewhere in the course of the sermon. But when such a passage is made the text, we may prevent any undesirable effect by announcing it with unaffected modesty, and by the general tone of the introduction; perhaps even saying—not as an apology but a quiet remark — something to the effect that of course none of us can rise to the height of this great passage, and yet it may do us good to meditate upon its teachings. We must carefully avoid whatever course would savor of display, but must not fastidiously shrink from treating any passage which we may hope to make useful.
(3) It is scarcely ever proper to choose a text that will seem odd. When humor is employed in preaching it ought to be an incidental thing, and manifestly unstudied. It is so natural for some men to indulge in quaint, and even in very odd sayings, they so promptly and easily fall back into their prevailing seriousness, that the humorous remarks are unobjectionable, and sometimes, through the well-known relation between humor and pathos, they heighten the effect. But an effort to be amusing, anything odd that appears to have been calculated, is felt to be incompatible with a genuine seriousness and solemnity. Now the text has of course been deliberately chosen, and an odd text must therefore have a bad effect. Yet there are sayings of Scripture that seem quaint, which an earnest man may employ to good purpose. For example, William Jay has a good sermon upon Hos. vii. 8, " Ephraim is a cake not turned."
(4) Do not avoid a text because it is familiar. What has made some texts familiar to all, but the fact that they are so manifestly good texts? It is a very mistaken desire for novelty which leads a man to shrink from such rich and fruitful passages as " God so loved the world," etc.; " This is a faithful saying," etc., which Luther used to call "little Bibles," as if including in their narrow compass the whole Bible. He who will turn away from the tradition of the pulpit as to the meaning and application of such passages, and make personal and earnest study of them, will often find much that is new to him and his hearers, as the skilful gold-hunter in California will sometimes follow in the very track of many searchers, and gain there his richest harvest. Besides, what we need is not absolute novelty, but simply freshness. If we can manage, by prayerful reflection, to obtain such views and provide such illustrations of a familiar text as will give it a fresh interest to ourselves and the hearers, then all the riches of the passage are made available for good. Alexander calls attention to the fact that of the great sculptors and painters many took the same themes; and so with the Greek tragedians. He remarks : " Some, anxious to avoid hackneyed topics, omit the greatest; just as if we should describe Switzerland and omit the Alps." In point of fact, the great preachers, all the best preachers, do preach much upon the great texts and the great subjects. How is a feebler man ever to develop his own strength, unless he grapples with great themes? One may show skill, and add somewhat to the harvest, by cultivating out-of-the-way corners and unpromising ledges of rock; but the bulk of the crop, by which the family are fed, must come from the broad, open field.
(5) Do not habitually neglect any portion of Scripture. Some neglect the Old Testament, thus losing all its rich unfolding of God's character and the methods of his Providence, all its unnumbered illustrations of human life and duty, and its many types and predictions of the coming Savior. Others preach on the Old Testament almost exclusively. These are either men who take no delight in the " doctrines of grace," in the spirituality of the gospel; or men devoted to fanciful allegorizing, who do not enjoy the straightforward teaching of Christ and his apostles, so much as their own wild "spiritualizing" of everything in the Old Testament history, prophecies, and proverbs.
Let us not neglect either of these great divisions of God's own Word. And so as to particular books. In the course of a good many years a preacher ought to have taken some texts from every portion of Scripture, though he will of course choose most frequently from those books to which attention is directed by his peculiar mental constitution and tastes, or by their comparative richness in evangelical and practical matter.
(6) Do not take spurious passages. Those which are certainly spurious may be avoided by the use of the Revised (Canterbury) Version of the New Testament. The Revisers were very conservative as to the text, and any passage omitted in that Version may be safely assumed to be spurious. In regard to doubtful passages help may be had, in addition to the Revised Version, from Westcott and Hort's Greek Testament and from the Revision published by the American Baptist Publication Society. Following are some examples of texts to be avoided. A favorite text with many is Acts ix. 6, " Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? " This is unquestionably spurious, and these words should never be quoted as Scripture; yet essentially the same thought is expressed in Acts xxii. 10, " What shall I do, Lord?" as uttered on the occasion of Paul's conversion. The famous passage in 1 John v. 7," There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one," is also spurious beyond question. The passage in Acts viii. 37, " And Philip said: If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God," has the evidence so overwhelmingly against its genuineness that it ought not to be used as a text. Very doubtful are the passages, John vii. 53—viii. 11, concerning the woman taken in adultery, and Mark xvi. 9-20.
(7) The sayings of uninspired men, recorded in Scripture, ought not to be used as texts, unless we know from other teachings of Scripture that they are true, or unless we propose to find instruction in the fact that those men made the statements given. Many such sayings found in the Bible are in themselves utterly untrue, inspiration being responsible only for the fact that they were actually spoken. No one would think of treating as true the vaunting speech of Rabshakeh (2 Kings, chap. xviii.). The question of the scribes (Mark ii. 7), " Who can forgive sins but God only? " we know to be a just question, and as such we might make it a text. In John vii. 46, " Never man spake like this man," we likewise recognize a truth, and at the same time find significance in the fact that the officers sent to apprehend Jesus were thus impressed. The well-known words of Gamaliel (Acts v. 38, 39) are very instructive as his saying under the circumstances, but the principle laid down is not true without qualification. In the book of Job, many of the things said by the three friends are quite erroneous, and a few of Job's own utterances are tinged with error, as is shown in the latter part of the book. These ought not to be treated as unqualified truth, while as a part of the discussion they are highly interesting and instructive. So with some particular sayings in Ecclesiastes, which are not the present affirmations of the inspired writer, but only a record of things which he had said in some former wrong mood, and which the argument of the whole book serves to correct. Yet texts from both these books are sometimes preached upon, which, regarded in themselves, present erroneous and morbid views of life. Let all sayings which, though a part of the inspired record, are yet only the utterances of uninspired men, be scrutinized in the light of their connection and of Scripture in general, before they are used as texts.
(8) In the course of pastoral labor, several considerations should be borne in mind when selecting texts. One is, the present condition of the congregation. Mr.Beecher insisted very strongly, and none too strongly, on the importance of this, and said: " You will very soon come, in your parish life, to the habit of thinking more about your people, and what you shall do for them than about your sermons and what you shall talk about. That is a good sign." A second consideration is, the character of the texts recently discussed. We have to guard against monotony in the subjects chosen, as well as in the mode of treating them, and to seek after such a relation between the successive sermons as will cause them to help each other's effect. It is sometimes well to look forward and mark out a series of sermons in advance; but it is always well to glance backward, at each new step, and keep in suitable relation to what has preceded. For this purpose, as well as on other accounts, a preacher should from the outset keep a list of sermons preached, including date, place, and text. A third and very important consideration is, to select that in which we can at the time take interest, as otherwise we shall not deeply interest others. These three considerations will sometimes more or less conflict; we must endeavor to maintain the balance among them as judiciously as possible.
—A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons