Among the Phillips Brooks reminiscences is one that goes back to his first days in seminary. He observed that in the devotional meetings there were certain students who would pray with rare fervor. But then came Brooks’s disillusionment: next morning in the classroom these same students showed with shocking clarity that they had not done their homework in Greek. Wryly Brooks commented, “The boiler had no connection with the engine.”
The misplaced connection between zealous prayer and disciplined study suggests a similar relationship that preachers frequently mishandle. Our business is to correlate homiletical form and pulpit freedom in such fashion that the maximum impact is delivered at the point of congregational and personal response. Put any tag on the sermon that you will—evangelistic, didactic, practical—if it is worthy of the name, it must be, in Jowett’s famous phrase, preaching “for a verdict.” To go back to the Brooks figure, the steam of inspiration requires an efficient enginery for its use.
So long as men practice the arts—music, painting, sculpture, rhetoric—the question will occur and recur: What is the relation between form and freedom? Obsession with form results in style. Style, however, carries no guarantee of content. Obsession with freedom means the uncovering of reality, but with no assurance that it will be transmitted in a fashion that will make it either attractive or assimilable. Break the marriage and, as always with broken marriages, something precious is forfeited. This holds for preaching, which, though more than an art, is not less.
Let us go back to an eminent preacher born two centuries ago. For more than fifty years the pulpit of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, was occupied by Charles Simeon, of whom Lord Macaulay once said, “As to Simeon, if you knew what his authority and influence were, and how they extend from Cambridge to the most remote corners of England, you would allow that his real sway over the Church was far greater than that of any Primate.”
The present Archbishop of York, the Very Rev. Donald Coggan, a close student of Simeon’s career, has given five reasons why the preaching of this renowned servant of the Word had such extraordinary effects. One of them is this: “his revival of the formal sermon-scheme.” Simeon is on record as having said that for the first seven years of his preaching he “did not know the head from the tail of a sermon.” The turning point came when he got hold of a monograph, written by a French Reformed pastor, entitled “Essay On the Composition of a Sermon.” Later he translated it for the conclusion of his monumental series of sermon volumes known as Horae Homileticae, wherein may be found 2,536 sermons!
Simeon discovered that a worthy sermon has form, structure, rhythm, inner relationships of logic, and outer vestments of rhetoric and illustration, through which the energy of biblical truth can run like the electric current that flows through a properly wired house. The discovery did not destroy his freedom: it channeled it—and enhanced it. The homiletical hobo, wandering hither and yon through the wide open spaces of the preaching hour, became the sermonic soldier, with gleaming gun-barrel, controlled fire-power, and a bead on the target.
Did this attention to the craft of the sermon cost Simeon his freedom? One may presume that the switch from meandering to method may have seemed awkward for a little while. But then came a freedom wider than ever, and far more authentic. Always, the method subserved the message.
One day a very small girl sat listening to Simeon as he preached. Looking up to her mother, she asked in a whisper, “What is the gentleman in such a passion about?”
Fire, freedom, spirit—it was all there! And along with it, as its vehicle, an artistry which, at least in dedication, was worthy of the incomparable Gospel being preached.
Let us have done, then, with this false antithesis between form and freedom. They belong together. Let us have done, too, with the opaqueness and laziness that stand between us and some recognizable degree of proficiency in our preaching task—the opaqueness that sees it not in its importance and the laziness that dares it not in its achievement.
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