The sources of Sacred Eloquence, it is evident, must lie deeper than those of secular oratory. That address from the Christian pulpit, which, in its ultimate results, has given origin to all that is best in human civilisation and hopeful in human destiny, must have sprung out of an intuition totally different from that which is the secret of secular and civil oratory. It is conceded by all, that eloquence is the product of ideas; and therefore, in endeavouring to determine what is the real and solid foundation of pulpit oratory, we must, in the outset, indicate the range of ideas and the class of truths from which it derives both its subject-matter and its inspiration. These we shall find in divine revelation, as distinguished from human literature. The Scriptures of the Christian Church, and not the writings of the great masters of secular letters, are the fons et origo of sacred eloquence. It will therefore be the aim of this introductory chapter, in a treatise upon Homiletics, to consider the influence, in oratorical respects, upon the preacher, of the thorough exegesis and mastery of the Word of God. And in order to perform this task with most success and convincing power, it will be necessary to make some preliminary observations upon the nature of the written revelation itself, and particularly upon the relation in which the human mind stands to it.
The opening of one of the most sagacious and suggestive of modern treatises in philosophy reads as follows: 'Man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to matter or to mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.' In this dictum of Lord Bacon, which he lays down as the corner-stone of his philosophical system, reflecting and speculating man is represented to be an interpreter. The function of the philosopher is not to originate truth, but to explain it He is to stand up before a universe of matter and a universe of mind, and his office is to interrogate them, and hear what they say: he is not to attempt an exertion of his own power upon them in order to reconstruct them, and thereby put a meaning into them. He is not to distort them, by injecting into them his own prejudices and preconceptions; but, simply going up to them with reverence and with freedom, he is to take them just as they are, and to question them just as they stand, until he gets their answer. The spirit of a philosopher, then, according to this sagacious Englishman, is no other than the spirit of an interpreter; if we might employ his own proud phrase, 'Francis Verulam thought' that the great aim and office of philosophy is hermeneutical. The result of all speculative inquiry into the world of matter and of mind, according to this wise and substantial thinker, should be an exegesis, an explanation. Under the impulse and guidance of this theory, modern science, more particularly in the sphere of material nature, has made progress. That wise and prudent interrogation of nature. which has been so characteristic of the last two centuries, has yielded a clear and loud response. The world of matter has replied to many of the questions that have been put to it. The stone has cried out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber has answered.
But if this is true and fruitful in philosophy, it is still more so in theology. The duty and function of the theologian is most certainly that of an interpreter, and that alone. With yet more positiveness may we adapt the phraseology of the opening sentence of the Novum Organum, and say, 'Man, as the minister and interpreter of revelation, does and understands as much as his observations on the order and structure of revelation permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.' For revelation is as much the product of the divine intelligence as the worlds are the product of the divine power. Man confessedly did not originate the world, and neither did man originate the Christian Scriptures. The ultimate authorship of each alike carries us back to the Infinite. For though in the propagation of the species, and the sustentation of animal life upon the planet, the creature oftentimes seems to have an agency analogous to that of the Creator himself, yet we well know that all things in the material universe are of God ultimately; so, likewise, though in the production of those documents which make up the canon of inspiration, many individual men were employed with a freedom and spontaneousness that looks like original authorship, yet it was the infinite and all-knowing intelligence of God which is the head-spring, the fons fontium of it all.
The attitude, therefore, of the human mind toward revelation should be precisely the same as toward nature. The naturalist does not attempt to mould the mountains to his patterns; and the theologian must not strive to pre-configure the Scriptures to his private opinions. The mountain is an object, positive, fixed, and entirely independent of the eye that looks upon it; and that mass of truth which is contained in the Christian Scriptures is also an object, positive, fixed, and entirely independent of the individual mind that contemplates it. The crystalline humour of the eye is confessedly passive in relation to the mountain mass that looms up before it in majesty and in glory. It receives an impression and experiences a sensation, not mechanically or chemically, indeed, as wax melts before fire, or as an alkali effervesces under an acid, yet inevitably and in accordance with the real and independent nature of the mountain. And the moral mind of man, in relation to the moral truth of God which is set over against it in his revelation, should in like manner be recipient, and take an impression that issues inevitably from the nature and qualities of fixed and eternal truth. Neither in the instance of the eye nor of the mind is the function that of authorship or origination; it is that of living recipiency and acquiescence. In the presence of both nature and revelation, man, as Lord Bacon phrases it, is a minister and interpreter, and not a creator and lord.
The talent, then, which comprehends the revelation of the Eternal Mind, is not creative but exegetical The etymology of the term exegesis implies a leading forth (ἐξηγέομαι) into the light of a clear perception, of an idea that is shut up in human language. It supposes words—words that are filled with thoughts that require to be conducted from behind the veil which covers them. Exegesis, therefore, implies a written word. It supposes a written revelation. There can be no interpretation unless thought has been vocalized, and fixed in outward symbols. An unwritten revelation, confined to the individual consciousness, never projected into language and never taking a literary form, could not be an object of critical examination, and could not yield the rich fruits of analysis and contemplation. Those theorizers who combat the doctrine of a 'book revelation,' and contend for only an internal and subjective communication from the mind of God to the mind of man, present a theory which, if it were transferred to the sphere of human literature, would bring all intellectual investigation and stimulation to a dead stop. If all the thinking of man were confined to consciousness,—if his ideas were never expressed in language, and written down in a literature that is the outstanding monument of what he has felt and thought,—if, within the sphere of secular thinking, man were limited to his isolated individualism, and were never permitted to fix his eye and mind upon the results to which fellow minds had come,—the most absolute stagnation would reign in the intellectual world. If, for illustration, we could conceive that the intellect of Newton had been able to go through those mathematical processes which are now embodied in his Principia, without expressing them in the symbols of mathematics and the propositions of human language,—if we could conceive of the Principia as held in his individual consciousness merely, and never presented in an outward form to become a κτῆμα ἐς ἀεὶ for all generations,—it is plain that the name of Newton would not be, as it now is, one of the intellectual forces and influences of the human race. All that mass of pure science which has been the subject-matter of mathematical exegesis for two centuries, and which has been the living germ out of which, by the method of interpretation, the fine growths of modern mathematics have sprung, would have gone into eternity and invisibility with the spirit of Newton, and 'left not a rack behind.'
I. Biblical Interpretation, therefore, postulates a written word and a sacred literature; and in now proceeding to notice some of the oratorical influences that issue from it, we mention, in the first place, the originality which it imparts to religious thinking and discourse. We shall maintain the position, that the sacred orator is quickened by the analytical study of the sacred volume into a freedom, freshness, and force, that are utterly beyond his reach without it.
Originality is a term often employed, rarely defined, and very often misunderstood. It is frequently supposed to be equivalent to the creation of truth. An original mind, it is vulgarly imagined, is one that gives expression to ideas and truths that were never heard of before,—ideas and truths 'of which the human mind never had even an intimation or presentiment, and which come into it by a mortal leap, abrupt and startling, without antecedents and without premonitions.' But no such originality as this is possible to a finite intelligence. Such ab-originality as this is the prerogative of the Creator alone, and the results of it are a revelation, in the technical and strict sense of the term. Only God can create de nihilo, and only God can make a communication of truth that is absolutely new. Originality in man is always relative, and never absolute. Select, for illustration, an original thinker within the province of philosophy,—select the contemplative, the profound, the ever fresh and living Plato. Thoughtfully peruse his weighty and his musical periods, and ask yourself whether all this wisdom is the sheer make of his intellectual energy, or whether it is not rather an emanation and efflux from a mental constitution which is as much yours as his. He did not absolutely originate these first truths of ethics, these necessary forms of logic, these fixed principles of physics. They were inlaid in his rational structure by a higher Author, and by an absolute authorship; and his originality consists solely in their exegesis and interpretation. And this is the reason that, on listening to his words, we do not seem to be hearing tones that are wholly unknown and wholly unheard of. We find an answering voice to them in our own mental and moral constitution. In no contemptuous, but in a reverential and firm tone, every thinking person, even in the presence of the great thinkers of the race, may employ the language of Job in reference to self-evident truths and propositions: 'Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also; I am not inferior unto you.' And these great thinkers themselves are the first to acknowledge this. Upon the fact of a community in reason, a partnership in the common ideas of humanity, Plato himself founded his famous argument for the pre-existence of the soul. The very fact that every human creature recognises the first truths of science and of morals as no strange and surprising dogmas, but native and familiar, would imply, in his judgment, an earlier world, a golden time, when their acquaintance was made under brighter skies and under happier omens than here and now.
Originality, then, within the sphere of a creature and in reference to a finite intelligence, consists in the power of interpretation. In its last analysis it is exegesis—the pure, genial, and accurate exposition of an idea or a truth already existing, already communicated, already possessed. Plato interprets his own rational intelligence; but he was not the author of that intelligence. He expounds his own mental and moral ideas; but those ideas are the handiwork of God. They are no more his than ours. We find what he found, no more and no less, if he has been a truthful exegete. The process in his instance and that of his reader, is simply that of education and elicitation. There has been no creation, but only a development—no absolute authorship, but only an explication. And yet how fresh and original has been the mental process! The same substantially in Plato and in the thousands of his scholars; and yet in every single instance there has been all the enthusiasm, all the stimulation, all the ebullient flow of life and feeling that attends the discovery of a new continent or a new star.
'Then feels he like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.'
Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one. Two great communications have been made to him,—the one in the book of nature, and the other in the book of revelation. If the truth has been conveyed through the mental and moral structure,—if it has been wrought by the creative hand into the fabric of human nature,—then he is the most original thinker who is most successful in reading it just as it reads, and expounding it just as it stands. If the truth has been communicated by miracle, by incarnation, and by the Holy Ghost,—if it has been imparted by special inspiration, and lies before him an objective and written revelation,—then he is the original thinker who is most successful in its interpretation,—who is most accurate in analyzing its living elements, and is most genial and cordial in receiving them into his own mental and moral being.
These observations find their enforcement and illustration the instant we apply them to the Christian Scriptures and their interpretation. We have already noticed that, in respect to the problems of religion, man can originate nothing, but must take what he finds given to him from the skies. Even if revealed religion be rejected, man does not escape from the authority of fixed truth, unless he adopt atheism and an absolute licentiousness of thought and action. The doctrines of natural religion are a divine communication, as really as those of revealed. They are immutable in their nature, and as independent of man's will and prejudices, as those of Christianity itself. When we wake up to moral consciousness, and begin to reflect upon the principles of ethics that are wrought into our moral constitution, we discover that we are already under their domination and righteous despotism. We have no option. Neither can we alter them; we cannot make a hair of them white or black. We are compelled to take them exactly as they are given. We must be passive and submissive to what Cudworth denominates the 'immutable morality,' which antedates all finite existence, and which was in the beginning with God. And so likewise, when we pass from the problems of natural religion to those of revealed,—when we pass from the question concerning human duty to the awful question concerning human salvation,—we discover that the principles upon which this salvation reposes, and the methods by which it is to be accomplished, are settled in the heavens. What is written is written, and man the sinner, like man the moralist, must be recipient and submissive to the communication that is made. For the promises of Christianity are more entirely dependent upon the divine option and volition than are the principles of ethics and natural religion. The Deity is necessitated to punish sin, but is under no necessity of pardoning it. When, therefore, the human mind passes from ethics to evangelism, it is still more closely shut up to the record which God has given. If it must take morality just as it is communicated in reason and conscience, it must most certainly take mercy on the terms upon which it is offered in the written word; because these terms depend solely upon the will and decision of the pardoning power.
In this wise and docile recipiency of that which is fixed and eternal, we find the fountain of perennial youth and freshness for the sacred orator. For by it he is placed in vital relations to all that universe of truth which is contained in the Christian Scriptures. Think for a moment of their contents. Bring to mind the ideas and doctrines which hang like a constellation in these heavens. Think of the revelation made in them concerning the trinal unity of God, that infinite vortex of life, being, and blessedness, to which the meagre and narrow unit of deism presents such a feeble contrast. Think of the incarnation, in which all the plenitude of the divine nature blends and harmonizes with the winning helplessness and finiteness of a creature. Think of the ideas that are involved in the biblical account of the origin of man, his fall into the abyss of moral evil, and his recovery to innocence, to holiness, and to glory. Think of the kingdom of God, an idea wholly foreign to the best of the natural religions of the world, with its indwelling energy of the Divine Spirit, and its continual intercourse with the invisible and the eternal. Contemplate these new ideas that have been lodged in the consciousness of the human race by the Scriptures of the Old and New Dispensations; think of their suggestiveness, their logical connections, the new light which they flare upon the nature and destiny of man, the totally different colouring which they throw on the otherwise dark and terrible history of man on the globe; weigh this immense mass of truth and dogma in the scales of a dispassionate intelligence, and say if the mind of the preacher will not be filled with freshness, with force, and with originality, in proportion as it absorbs it.
For, to recur to our definition of originality, the human intellect is stirred into profound and genial action, only as it receives an impression from something greater and grander than itself. If it adopts the egoism of such a theory as that of Fichte, for example, and attempts to create from within itself, its action must be spasmodic and barren. To employ the often repeated comparison of Bacon, it is not the spider, but the bee, that is the truly original insect. Only as the sermonizer and orator, by a critical analysis of the biblical words and their connections, saturates his mind with the biblical elements (στοιχεῖα), and feeds upon revelation as the insect feeds upon foliage, until every cell and tissue is coloured with its food, will he discourse with freedom, suggestiveness, and energy.
The influence of such familiarity with revelation is well illustrated by that of the great products of uninspired literature. The effect of a continual and repeated perusal of Homer in animating the mind is well known. It starts the intellect into original action. The Greek fire glows in these poems, and kindles everything it touches. Though the range of ideas in the Iliad and Odyssey is cabined, cribbed, and confined, compared with that of a Dante or a Shakespeare, whose intuition has been immensely widened by the Christian revelation under which he lived and thought,—though the old epic in which the fall of Troy is sung cannot compare for a moment in breadth, depth, and vastness with the Christian epic in which the fall of man is told,—yet every scholar knows that, just in proportion as he imbibes the ideas and spirit of this single pagan poem, all tameness is banished from his own ideas, and all feebleness from his language. The reader of Gibbon's autobiography will notice in the abstract which the historian gives of his readings, that day after day the appointed task of perusing so many lines of the Iliad is recorded as having been faithfully performed. And, moreover, he will observe that the study is done in the light of the Port Royal Greek Grammar,—in the light of a careful investigation and mastery of the Greek verb. Now we venture to affirm, that what there is of energy in the monotonous style of Gibbon, and what there is of originality and freshness in his naturally phlegmatic and heavy understanding, is due in no small degree to familiarity with the old bard of Chios. We have cited this as only one example of the impulse to original action that is started in the mind by the simple exegesis and interpretation of one truly grand product of the human intellect. Think of a similar contact with the Italian Dante or the English Chaucer, and say whether originality is to be acquired by a dead lift, or by a genial pressure and influence.
Returning now to the Christian Scriptures, we claim that they are the great and transcendent source of originality and power for the human intellect. The examples which we have cited from the range of uninspired literature fall far short of the reality, when we pass to the written revelation of God. Though grouped together in the most artless and unambitious manner,—though the work of divers ages and different minds,—though showing a variety and inequality that pass through the whole scale of composition, from the mere catalogue in the Book of Chronicles to the sublime ode in Isaiah or the Apocalypse,—though, so far as mere artistic form and laboured attempt at impression are concerned, almost careless and indifferent,—nevertheless the body of literature contained in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures has moved upon the mind of man, in his generations, as the moon has moved upon the sea. The influence has been tidal.
'Exegesis,' says Niebuhr, 'is the fruit of finished study.' This is a remark which that great historian makes in his letter to a young philologist, which deserves to be perused annually by every student, secular or sacred. 'Do not read the great authors of classical antiquity,' he remarks, 'in order to make aesthetic reflections upon them, but in order to drink in their spirit, and fill your soul with their thoughts,—in order to gain that by reading which you would have gained by reverently listening to the discourses of great men. This is the philology which does the soul good; and learned investigations, even when we have got so far as to be able to make them, always occupy an inferior place. We must be fully masters of grammar (in the ancient sense); we must acquire every branch of antiquarian knowledge, as far as lies in our power; but even if we can make the most brilliant emendations, and explain the most difficult passages at sight, all this is nothing, and mere sleight-of-hand, if we do not acquire the wisdom and spiritual energy of the great men of antiquity,—think and feel like them.' Precisely this is the aim and influence of biblical philology and exegesis. The theologian and preacher, by his patient study of the written revelation, must gain that by reading which he would have gained by reverently listening to the discourses of the prophets and apostles and the incarnate Son of God. And this is the uniform effect of close linguistic investigation. The power of a grammarian is a vernacular power. Turn, for illustration, to the commentaries of some of the Greek Fathers, such as Theodoret and Chrysostom, for example, and observe the close and vivid contact which is brought about between their minds and those of the sacred writers, by reason of their homebred knowledge of the Greek language. These commentators are not equal to some of the great Latin Fathers in respect to the insight that issues from a profound dogmatical comprehension of Christian truth. So tar as interpretation rests upon the analogy of faith and a comprehensive system, Chrysostom is inferior to Augustine. But in regard to everything that depends upon the callida junctura verborum,—upon the subtle nexus of verbs, nouns, and particles,—these exegetes, who were 'native and to the manner born,' must ever be the resort and the guide of the biblical student.
Now, such an exegesis as this—an exegesis of the Scriptures that is the result of 'finished' study, and that fills the soul with the very thoughts and spiritual energy of the holy men of old who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost—is a well-spring of originality. The influence of it is strikingly illustrated by a comparison of the English pulpit of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with that of the eighteenth. The minds of Hooker and Howe, of Taylor and South, of Barrow and Bates, were thoroughly imbued with the substance and spirit of the written revelation. It was an age of belief, of profound religious convictions, of linguistic, reverent, and contemplative study of the Word of God. Secular literature itself was tinctured and tinged with the supernaturalism of the Bible. The plays of Shakespeare, nay, the licentious plays of the old English stage, are full of the awful workings of conscience. If men sinned, they suffered for it; if they committed adultery, they were burned in hell-fire therefor. This was the ethics, and this was the drama, of a period for which God was a living person, the Bible an 'inspired book, and the future life a solemn reality. The strong sense and healthy genius of England had not yet sophisticated itself into the denial of God's holiness, and God's revelation, and the authority of the human conscience. Men had not learned, as they have since, to rush into sin, and then adjust their creed to their passions. Look now into the sermonizing and eloquence of these English divines, and feel the freshness and freedom that stamp them instantaneously as original minds. They differ much in style. Some exhibit an involved and careless construction; others a pellucid and rhythmical flow; and one of them, according to De Quincey, is the only rhetorician to whom, in company with Sir Thomas Brown (himself a reverent and a biblical mind), 'it has been granted to open the trumpet-stop on the great organ of passion.' But all alike are profound religious thinkers, and all alike are suggestive and original discoursers.
Pass now into the eighteenth century, and read the discourses of Alison and Blair. We have descended from the heights of inspired doctrine towards the level of natural religion; from the incarnation, the apostasy, the redemption, to the truth that virtue is right, and vice is wrong,—that man must be virtuous, and all will be well. How tame and unsuggestive are these smooth commonplaces! How destitute of any enlarging and elevating influence upon a thoughtful mind! How low the general range of ideas! And the secret of the torpor and tameness lies in the fact that these intellects had never worked their way into the deep mines of revelation, and found the ore in the matrix. It was an age in which biblical exegesis had declined, and they had experienced only the more general influences of the written Word. The living elements themselves, the evangelical dogmas, had never penetrated and moulded their thinking.
And as we look out into this nineteenth century, we observe the same fact. The only originality in the Church or out of it, in sacred or in secular literature, is founded in faith. We are well aware that the age is fertile, and that a rank growth of belles-lettres has sprung up during the last twenty-five years, having its root in unbelief. But it is a crop of mushrooms. There is nothing in it all that will live one hundred years. Compare this collection of sceptical poems, novels, and essays,—these slender attempts of the modern naturalism to soar with a feeble wing into the high heaven of invention,—with the unfaltering, sustained sweep of Dante, steeped in religion, and that, too, the religion of an intense supernaturalism; or of Milton, whose blood and brain were tinged through and through with Hebrew ideas and beliefs;—compare the light flutter of the current sentimentalism with
'the pride and ample pinion
That the Theban eagle bear,
Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air;'—
and tell us where wisdom shall be found, and where is the place of understanding.
II. We pass from this topic, to consider a second effect of the exegesis and apprehension of the Christian revelation, that bears yet more directly upon the office and functions of the pulpit. The thorough exegesis and comprehension of the written Word of God endow the human mind with authority.
'By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority to do these things?' was a question which the chief priests and the scribes and the elders put to Jesus Christ. If it was a natural question for them to ask of the Son of God, it is certainly a natural question for the secular, and especially the unbelieving, world to ask of the Christian herald. By what right does a mortal man rise upon the rostrum, and make positive statements concerning the origin of the human race, the dark mysterious beginnings of human history, the purposes and plans of the infinite Mind, and conclude with announcing the alternatives of eternal salvation and eternal damnation? With respect to these dark and difficult problems, all men stand upon a common level, if divine revelation is thrown out of the account. Apart from the light poured upon them by a communication from the Divine Mind, Confucius and Socrates have as much right to speculate and dogmatize as you or I. By what right, then, does that portion of the world which calls itself Christendom undertake to inform that portion of the world which is called heathendom, concerning God and the future life,—concerning the soul, its needs, its sorrows, and its doom? What authority has the Christian man above that of the pagan man in regard to the whole subject of religion, and who gave him this authority? Why does not Christendom, as it peers into the darkness beyond the tomb, look reverently to Mohammedanism for light? Why does Christianity insist that Mohammed shall come to the mountain; and why does the mountain refuse to go to Mohammed? As matter of fact, the entire human race is now receiving its lessons in theology and religion from only a portion of the race. In the outset, this portion which set itself up as the teachers of mankind was only a mere fragment of the sum-total—a mere handful of men in a corner of Palestine. The proportion has indeed greatly altered during the eighteen centuries that have elapsed since the death of Christ, but the vast majority of mankind are still pagan, the pupils still immensely outnumber the teachers. By what title does a mere fraction of the equally rational and equally immortal masses that crowd this planet, arrogate to itself the position of the tutor, and demand that the remaining majority take the attitude of the pupil? And, to narrow the circle, by what title does a small class of men rise up in Christian pulpits, and profess to impart instruction to the large congregations of their fellows and their equals, upon the most momentous and the most mysterious of themes?
Unless Christendom possesses a superior knowledge, it has no right to instruct heathendom; and unless the Christian clergy are endowed with the authority of a special revelation, and can bring credentials therefor, they have no right to speak to their fellow-men upon the subjects of human duty and destiny. The first and indispensable requisite, consequently, in both speculative theology and practical homiletics, is authority; and this authority must be found in a direct and special communication from the mind of God, or it can be found nowhere. Throw the Scriptures out of the account, and the whole human race is upon a dead level. No one portion of it, no one age or generation of it, is entitled to teach another. That clear commanding tone, without which the Christian herald has no right to speak, and without which the world will not erect its ears and hear, cannot issue from ethics and natural religion. It must be the impulse and the vibration of the gospel. 'I am not ashamed,' says St. Paul, 'of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God.' Divine revelation, in his definition, is divine power; and power is at the bottom of authority. Power generally is not ashamed, and needs not to be. In an age like this, when force is worshipped, when the hero and the Titan are set up as divinities, it will surely not be disputed that where there is power, there need be no hesitation or timidity; and that whoever is really possessed of it, is entitled to speak out with a commanding and an authoritative intonation. By virtue, then, and only by virtue of its possession of the living oracles of God, Christendom is entitled to sound a trumpet, and tell the world in all its centuries, and all its grades of civilisation, that he that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned. By virtue of his intuition and mastery of inspired ideas and doctrines, the Christian herald is entitled to attempt
'the height of the great argument,
And justify the ways of God to men.'
1. In applying this topic more particularly to the position and duties of the sermonizer and preacher, we remark, in the first place, that the close exegetical study of the Scriptures imparts a calm and conscious authority, by reducing the whole body of Holy Writ to harmony. The influence of doubt in respect to the symmetrical agreement and self-consistence of the Bible, is weakening in the highest degree. No sacred orator can be bold and commanding in his tone, if he believes or if he fears that there are fatal contradictions and irreconcilable inconsistencies in the written revelation. It is for this reason that infidelity is now applying its utmost acuteness and ingenuity to detect intrinsic and absolute contradictions in the sacred records. The four Gospels, in particular, are the field of operations. If it can be shown, if it can be demonstrated, that these biographies of the God-man fatally conflict with each other, then the portraiture of that personage who fills all history as the sun fills the hemisphere, becomes a fancy sketch, and Christianity disappears with its founder.
Now, we are certain and confident that the careful and minute study of the evangelists, in the light of grammar, of philology, and of history, results in the unassailable conviction of their trustworthiness. The process is one of those profound and unconscious ones which bring us to the goal before we are aware. The conviction that the four Gospels are organically connected, and constitute one living and perfect harmony, cannot be violently and quickly forced upon the mind. At first sight, the objections and difficulties fill the foreground; particularly when protruded and pressed upon the notice by the dexterity of the biassed and hostile critic. But as, when we look upon a grand painting, in which there are a great variety and complexity and apparent contrariety of elements, it requires some little time for the eye to settle gradually and unconsciously into the point from which the whole shapes itself into harmony and beauty, so it requires wise delay, and the slow penetration of scholarship and meditation, to reach that centre from which all the parts of the evangelical biography arrange themselves harmoniously, and all contradiction disappears for ever. And when this centre is once reached, and the intrinsic, natural, artless harmony is once perceived, there is repose, and there is boldness, and there is authority. He who speaks of Christ out of this intuition, speaks with freedom, with enthusiasm, with love, and with power. Objections which at first seemed acute, now look puerile. The piecemeal criticism which, like the fly, scans only the edge of a plinth in the great edifice upon which it crawls, disappears under a criticism that is all-comprehending and all-surveying.
2. And similar to this, in the second place, is the influence of a clear understanding of the dogmatic matter of revelation. This results in a self-consistent theological system, and this endows the mind with authority. Say what men may, it is doctrine that moves the world. He who takes no position will not sway the human intellect. Logical men, dogmatic men, rule the world. Aristotle, Kant, Augustine, Calvin,—these are names that instantaneously suggest systems; and systems that are exact, solid, and maintain their place from century to century. And when the system is not a mere product of the human mind, like a scheme of philosophy or a theory of art, but is really the scheme and system of God himself imparted to his creatures, and certified to them by miracle, by incarnation, and by the Holy Ghost,—when the body of doctrine has a celestial origin,—it endows the humble and docile recipient of it with a preternatural authority. That which is finite can never inspire and embolden the human soul like that which is infinite. The human mind is indeed a grand and noble intelligence, and we are the last to disparage or vilify its products. We look with respect and veneration upon the great names in all the literatures. We exclaim, with Hamlet, 'How noble in reason! in apprehension how like a god!' But when we are brought face to face with the problems of religion,—when the unknown issues of this existence press heavily upon the apprehensive soul,—when the vortex of eternity threatens to ingulf the feeble immortal,—how destitute of authority and certainty are all the utterances and communications of these heroes of human literature! When I rise into this plane of thought, and propose this class of questions, I need a voice from the open sky to assure me. I demand an authority that issues from God himself, before I can be certain and assured in my own mind, and still more before I can affirm with positiveness and power to the minds of others.
It is here that we observe the difference between the dogmatism of a philosopher and that of a theologian; between the positiveness of the secular and that of the Christian mind. Compare Immanuel Kant with John Calvin. No human being has been more successful than the sage of Königsberg in giving an exact and transparent expression to what he himself denominates 'pure reason.' The crystal under his chemistry acquires a second crystallization. The rational intelligence of man, as developed and expressed by him, answers to the description of wisdom in the apocryphal book: 'She is more mobile than any motion; she penetrates and passes through all things by reason of her pureness.' But it is finite reason; it is human intelligence only. The questions that are raised, and the answers that are given, pertain to a limited province. Within this province, the philosopher is clear as the sun, positive, and dogmatic of right. He knows whereof he affirms, and speaks with a corresponding authority. But when I pass these limits, and invite him to pass them, I hear another tone. The positive-ness and the certainty disappear, and we are both alike left to querying and vague conjecture. What can he tell me with confidence and certainty concerning the interior and absolute essence of God? Does the trinal unity dawn within the hemisphere of his 'pure reason?' Does he know the name of the first man? Can he describe to me the origin of that dark ground of evil which, by his own confession, inheres in every human will? Can he tell me with authority and certainty, when the decaying body is being lowered to its resting-place in the heart of the earth, that 'all that dust shall rise?' Does he know that there is pity in those stern and ethical heavens which shut down like brass over a guilty and terrified human conscience? The authority and dogmatic certainty of the philosopher stop at the limits of his domain; and it is here that the authority and certainty of the theologian begin. Turn to the Institutes of the man of Geneva, and observe the boldness and high certainty of that naturally cautious and careful understanding, upon these very themes which make the man of Königsberg to hesitate and waver. Read those words with which Calvin closes, as with a clarion peal, his great argument for the necessity of the Reformation, and say whence come the sublime confidence and overcoming energy: 'We know, and are verily persuaded, that what we preach is the eternal truth of God. It is our wish, and a very natural one, that our ministry might prove beneficial and salutary to the world; but the measure of success is for God to give, not for us to demand. If this is what we have deserved at the hands of men whom we have struggled to benefit, to be loaded with calumny, and stung with ingratitude, that men should abandon success in despair, and hurry along with the current to utter destruction, then this is my voice (I utter words worthy of the Christian man, and let all who are willing to take their stand by this holy profession subscribe to this response): "Ply your fagots." But we warn you, that even in death we shall become the conquerors; not simply because we shall find, even through the fagots, a sure passage to that upper and better life, but because our blood will germinate like precious seed, and propagate that eternal truth of God which is now so scornfully rejected by the world.' This is the positiveness, this is the high celestial dogmatism, that is necessitated by the reception of divine revelation. There is no option. There may be natural timidity; there may be the shrinking nature of the weeping prophet; but the instant the mind perceives that the eternal Intelligence has originated and communicated a series of revelations, the instant the ear hears the 'Thus saith the Lord,' a transformation takes place, and human weakness becomes immortal strength.
We have thus considered, in a rapid manner, two oratorical influences and effects of the apprehension of revealed truth. Originality and authority issue from this source as from no other. If Sacred Eloquence is to maintain its past commanding position in human history, and is to exert a paramount influence upon human destiny, it must breathe in and breathe out from every pore and particle the living afflatus of inspiration. By this breath of life it must live. If the utterances of the pulpit are to be fresh, spiritual, and commanding, the sacred orator must be an exegete. Every discourse must be but the elongation of a text.
And certainly there never was greater need of originality and authority within the province of religion than now. The cultivated unbeliever is fast settling down upon the low commonplaces of ethics and natural religion, or else is on his way to the arid sands of atheism, and all the freshness of his mind is being dried up. Rejecting all mystery, which is confessedly the parent and nurse of high thinking and lofty feeling; rejecting all supernaturalism, by which alone God comes into quickening and personal contact with his creatures; throwing out of his creed all those truths upon which Christendom rests, and without which a Christendom is impossible, and reducing the whole credenda and agenda of man to the merest and most meagre minimum,—what can he do toward the impregnation and fertilizing of the human mind? Look at the two or three religious dogmas, starved and hunger-bitten, which are left to the human intelligence after his manipulations, and tell us if literature and art and philosophy will be characterized by originality, if his methods prevail. Tell us if pantheism will produce another Shakespeare, if anti-supernaturalism will produce another Milton, if a nerveless, voluptuous naturalism will produce another Dante. Unless the coming literature of England and America shall receive a fresh impulse and inspiration from the old Christian ideas which penetrated and enlivened it in the days of its glory, the future will witness the utter decline and decay of one of the noblest literatures of the world. The age of sophistry, the age of pedants, the age of critics, the age of elegant languor, will come in, and the Anglo-Norman mind, like the Greek and Roman before it, will give place to the bolder and more original intelligence of a more believing and solemn race.
The same remark is even more true, when we pass from the wide domain of general literature to a particular province in it, like Sacred Eloquence. The Christian pulpit in this age is in danger of losing its originality, because it is tempted to leave the written revelation and betake itself to lower and uninspired sources of thought. Listen to those who neglect the constituent and organific ideas of Christianity,—the doctrines of sin and guilt, of grace and redemption,—and who find their themes in that range of truths which every student sees scattered over the pages of Plato and Cicero, of Antoninus and Seneca, and tell us if they are original and stirring homiletes. The doctrines of natural religion are differentiated from those of revealed, by the fact that they will not bear everlasting repetition and constant expansion and illustration. You cannot preach year after year upon the immortality of the soul and the nature of virtue, and preserve the theme ever fresh and new. There is a limit in this direction that cannot be passed with safety. But it is not so with the distinctively Christian truths. Even the dark, solemn theme of human corruption, expounded by one who has been instructed out of the written revelation, and the thronging, bursting consciousness of his own soul,—even this sorrowful and abstractly repellent theme, when enunciated in a genuinely biblical manner, fascinates the natural man himself like the serpent's eye. Such a preacher is always felt to be original. Men never charge him with tameness and feebleness. And still more is this true of that other and antithetic doctrine of the divine mercy in the blood of the God-man. This string may be struck with the plectrum year after year, century after century, and its vibration is ever resonant and thrilling, yet sweet and Æolian.
And certainly the age requires in its religious heralds and teachers that other characteristic of authority. If a man speak at all, he must speak as the oracles of God; he must speak oracularly and positively. For the intellectual world is now an arena of contending ideas and systems. Think you that all the dogmatism of the time is within the precincts of theology and the Church? Think you that scepticism stands meek and hesitating, like the ass which Sterne describes, which seemed to invite abuse, and to say to every passer-by: 'Don't kick me, but if you will, you may?' No! all ideas, the false as well as the true,—all systems, the heretical as well as the orthodox,—are positive and assertory. It is no time, therefore, for Christianity,—the only system that has a right to say to the world, 'Thou shalt,' and 'Thou shalt not,'—the only system that has a right to utter its high and authoritative, 'He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned,'—it is no time for that absolute and ultimate religion, in and by which this miserable and ruined race must live or bear no life, to be deprecatory, and 'borrow leave to be.'
If such, then, be the relation existing between Sacred Eloquence and Biblical Exegesis, the Christian ministry ought to lay deep the foundations of its address to the popular mind, in the understanding and interpretation of the Word of God. The proper function of the preacher is to put strictly revealed doctrine into oratorical forms for popular impression, and to imbue all discourse in the sanctuary and upon the Sabbath with a strictly biblical spirit For, after all, it is the spirit of a book, the spirit of an author, which is of chief importance. Pascal has left an instructive and quickening fragment upon the 'geometrical spirit.' It is the spirit of demonstration,—that bent and tendency in an intellectual person which spontaneously inclines him to define accurately whatever is capable of definition, and to prove irrefragably whatever is capable of proof. Whoever possesses this spirit, takes geometry with him wherever he goes. Of such a human mind—the mind of a Pascal—it may be said, as Plato said of the Eternal Mind, it perpetually geometrizes. And the same is true of the biblical spirit. He who has imbibed it from the close and penetrating study of the words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections of the sacred volume, puts the seal of the Eternal Spirit upon everything that he writes, and everything that he utters. The written Word of God is not only filled with a distinctive spirit, but it is also dictated by an Eternal Spirit. It has a Spirit for its Author, and it has a spirit as its inward characteristic. It is a wheel within a wheel; it is a sea within a sea; it is an atmosphere within an atmosphere. Spiritual in its origin, spiritual in its contents, and spiritual in all its influences and effects, well may it be the sole great aim of the pulpit orator to reach and acquire the spirit of the Scriptures. There is no danger of mysticism in such a striving; and no false spiritualism will result from it. Such an endeavour to drink in the pure essence of a merely human product might result in dreaminess of thought and feeling. The undue and constant musing of the New Platonists upon the Platonic speculations finally destroyed all clear thinking and healthy mental action. The effect was like that of the forbidden fruit upon Adam and Eve. They
'fancy that they feel
Divinity within them breeding wings,
Wherewith to scorn the earth.'
But the written revelation is a marvellous combination of the divine with the human, of the spiritual with the material, of the reason with the understanding, of the heavenly with the earthly. All the antitheses are blended, and counterpoise each other, with wonderful harmony, so that no human mind will ever become exorbitant and exaggerated by an exclusive and absorbing study of it. Like the ocean, while it has its undulations, and an unfathomed swell which no power can level, it never has the everlasting mountains and valleys; it never exhibits or produces extremes.
He, then, whose public discourse is pervaded with the spirit of revelation, and who speaks as the oracles of God, will be eloquent in the highest style. Truth will impart weight, and sincerity will impart earnestness, and feeling will impart glow, and at times devout enthusiasm will impart colour and beauty to his oratory, and he will verify the affirmation which the most highly educated and the loftiest of English poets puts into the mouth of the Son of God, in his reply to Satan, who pleaded the cause of secular letters against that of inspiration:
'Their orators thou then extoll'st as those
The top of eloquence;
But herein to our prophets far beneath,
As men divinely taught, and better teaching,
In their majestic, unaffected style,
Than all the oratory of Greece and Rome.'
—Homiletics and Pastoral Theology