« PreviousContinue »
moment, and unspeakably more conducive to the edification of the hearers, that in the distribution of the parts, more regard be had to the natural connection, that may subsist between the sentiments, than to the artificial division of the words into chapters and verses, For it is manifest, that in making this distribution of the sacred books, which by the way is an invention merely human and not very ancient, there hath often been very little attention given to the sense. You will easily conceive, that it must be still a greater fault in expounding, to confine one's self regularly, as some do, to the same or nearly the same number of verses. No. thing can tend more effectually to injure the sense, and to darken (instead of enlightening) the subject. Nothing would less fall under the description, which the apostle gives of the manner of the workman that hath no reason to be ashamed, “his rightly dividing the word of truth.” To merit this praise, one must, like a skilful anatomist, chiefly' attend, in the division, to the distinctive characters and limits, which nature hath assigned to the several parts ; and not, like a carver for the table, merely to the size and form.
The second remark I shall make, is that if the portion of scripture be, as to the sense, not so independent of the words immediately preceding, but that some attention to these will throw light upon the sacred lesson, the preacher may very properly introduce himself to his subject by pointing out in few words the connection. There are cases in which this is necessary; there are in which we should say it were improper; and there are no doubt in which it is discretionary. Of the first kind are many passages in Paul's epistles ; for though perhaps you can say of the passage with
strict propriety, it is one, because it is only one topic that is treated in it, or at least the argument is con. sidered in one particular point of view, yet it makes, as it were, a member of a train of reasoning which runs through several chapters; and of this series it may be requisite to take a cursory review, in order to obtain a more distinct apprehension of the import of the passage read. It is improper, when there is no connection at all with the words preceding, as in the relation given us of several of the miracles performed by our Lord, which have no other connection in the history than that the one in fact preceded the other ; or it may be only, that the one is first related, and the other immediately after. The same may be said of several of the parables. Some of these indeed have a natural connection with a preceding passage, having been pronounced by our Lord in the illustration of some point which he had been just inculcating. In such cases, when the design of the parable is sufficiently clear of itself, to trace the connection is not absolutely necessary. As good use however may be made of it, it cannot be called improper. This therefore is an example of those cases wherein it is discretionary. There are several other instances which the intelligent hearer will easily distinguish for himself. I shall mention only
Were it the design of a preacher to expound to a congregation the Lord's prayer, as recorded in the sixth chapter of Matthew, he may justly consider it as a matter of mere choice, whether he shall take any no. tice of the words preceding or of the subsequent, because though his text be connected with both, it is so independently intelligible, and so completely one in
itself, that he is under no pecessity to recur to these for the illustration of his subject.
My third observation shall be, that his exposition of the portion of scripture read, may either be, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, where there is any obscurity or difficulty in the verse, sentence or paragraph, that seems to require it; or it may be, by a kind of paraphrase of the whole passage. I have observed already that there are two kinds of discourses, the exposition, and the lecture, into which this class may be distributed; the former of these methods, by verses or sentences, is best suited to the first, the latter, by paraphrase, to the second. In the first, there are supposed some difficulties to be removed and some darkness to be dispelled : in order to this, more minuteness and closer attention to the several parts is necessary. In the second, as the scope of the whole passage is supposed to be abundantly per. spicuous, a few pertinent introductory remarks may sometimes happily enough supersede the necessity even of a paraphrase.
The fourth observation shall be in relation to the difficulties, which, in the first species of lectures mentioned, the expounder must endeavour to remove. And they are these, an apparent inconsistency between the import of any verse or expression and the principles of right reason, or a seeming contradiction to other texts of scripture, or to any known historical fact; in like manner if the words taken literally seem to support any erroneous opinion, or to authorize any improper practice, or if the preacher is aware that it consists with the knowledge of a considerable part of his audience, that such uses are made of the words by
some sect or party still subsisting amongst us. I mention these things with the greater caution, because if the difficulties are not obvious of themselves, or are such as can be reasonably thought to have come to the knowledge of very few, if any, in the auditory, it is much better they remain unnoticed by the speaker, lest he should be imagined to have more the talent of suggesting scruples and raising difficulties than of removing them. And this will especially hold, in regard to what hath at any time been pleaded in favour of the errors of ancient or distant sects, of which the congregation knows little or nothing, and by whose arts they can be in no hazard of being seduced. If the subject were, for example, the parable of the supper, in the 14th chapter of Luke, it would be very pertinent to show that the expression “Compel them to come in,” which occurs in that passage, doth not authorize persecution or force in matters of religion ; because it is notorious, that this absurd use hath been and still is made of the words. But if the portion of scripture to be explained were the first chapter of the gospel by John, to what christian congregation would it answer any valuable purpose, to make them acquainted with the ravings of the Gnostics and their wild extravagancies about the Eons ?
I shall add, that particular care ought to be taken in expounding the scriptures to the people, not to appear over-learned and over-critical in one's explications. There is no occasion to obtrude on an audience, as some do, all the jarring interpretations given by different commentators, of which it is much better that the people should remain ignorant, than that they should be apprized. For this knowledge can serve no other purpose, than to distract their thoughts and perplex their judgment. Before you begin to build, it is necessary to remove such impediments, as lie directly in your way; but you could not account him other than a very foolish builder, who should first collect a deal of rubbish, which was not in his way, and consequently could not have obstructed his work, that he might have the pleasure and merit of removing it. And do the fantastic, absurd and contradictory glosses of commentators deserve a better name than rubbish ? No, surely. But if such absurd glosses are unknown to your congregation, they are rubbish which lies not in your way. No interpretation therefore or gloss should ever be mentioned in order to be refuted, unless it be such as the words themselves on a superficial view, might seem to countenance, or such as is generally known to the people to be put upon them by some interpreters, or sects of christians. Where a false gloss cannot be reasonably supposed to be either known or thought of by the audience, it is in the preacher worse, than being idly ostentatious of his learning, to introduce such erroneous gloss or comment. And as to an excess of criticism in this exercise, it ought also doubt: less carefully to be avoided. We must always remem. ber the difference between a church and a college. In most christian congregations there are very few, if any, linguists. I do not say that in our lectures we ought never to mention the original or recur to it. Justice to the passage we explain may sometimes require it. Nor is it necessary, that our translators should be deemed infallible even by the multitude. It is enough, that we consider as the pure dictates of the Spirit those intimations, with which the prophets and apostles were