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 Worship and the Discipline of Doctrine

[Note: This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch's Preaching and Paganism.]

Saint Stephen

If one were to ask any sermon-taster of our generation what is the prevailing type of discourse among the better-known preachers of the day, he would probably answer, "The expository." Expository preaching has had a notable revival in the last three decades, especially among liberal preachers; that is, among those who like ourselves have discarded scholastic theologies, turned to the ethical aspects of religion for our chief interests and accepted the modern view of the Bible. To be sure, it is not the same sort of expository preaching which made the Scottish pulpit of the nineteenth century famous. It is not the detailed exposition of each word and clause, almost of each comma, which marks the mingled insight and literalism of a Chalmers, an Alexander Maclaren, a Taylor of the Broadway Tabernacle. For that assumed a verbally inspired and hence an inerrant Scripture; it dealt with the literature of the Old and New Testaments as being divine revelations. The new expository preaching proceeds from almost an opposite point of view. It deals with this literature as being a transcript of human experience. Its method is direct and simple and, within sharp limits, very effective. The introduction to one of these modern expository sermons would run about as follows:

"I suppose that what has given to the Old and New Testament Scriptures their enduring hold over the minds and consciences of men has been their extraordinary humanity. They contain so many vivid and accurate recitals of typical human experience, portrayed with self-verifying insight and interpreted with consummate understanding of the issues of the heart. And since it is true, as Goethe said, 'That while mankind is always progressing man himself remains ever the same,' and we are not essentially different from the folk who lived a hundred generations ago under the sunny Palestinian sky, we read these ancient tales and find in them a mirror which reflects the lineaments of our own time. For instance,..."

Then the sermonizer proceeds to relate some famous Bible story, resolving its naïve Semitic theophanies, its pictorial narration, its primitive morality, into the terms of contemporary ethical or political or economic principles. Take, for instance, the account of the miracle of Moses and the Burning Bush. The preacher will point out that Moses saw a bush that burned and burned and that, unlike most furze bushes of those upland pastures which were ignited by the hot Syrian sun, was not consumed. It was this enduring quality of the bush that interested him. Thus Moses showed the first characteristic of genius, namely, capacity for accurate and discriminating observation. And he coupled this with the scientific habit of mind. For he said, "I will now turn aside and see why!" Thus did he propose to pierce behind the event to the cause of the event, behind the movement to the principle of the movement. What a modern man this Moses was! It seems almost too good to be true!

But as yet we have merely scratched the surface of the story. For he took his shoes from off his feet when he inspected this new phenomenon, feeling instinctively that he was on holy ground. Thus there mingled with his scientific curiosity the second great quality of genius, which is reverence. There was no complacency here but an approach to life at once eager and humble; keen yet teachable and mild. And now behold what happens! As a result of this combination of qualities there came to Moses the vision of what he might do to lead his oppressed countrymen out of their industrial bondage. Whereupon he displayed the typical human reaction and cried, "Who am I, that I should go unto Pharoah or that I should lead the children of Israel out of Egypt!" My brother Aaron, who is an eloquent person—and as it turned out later also a specious one—is far better suited for this undertaking. Thus he endeavored to evade the task and cried, "Let someone else do it!" Having thus expounded the word of God (!) the sermon proceeds to its final division in the application of this shrewd and practical wisdom to some current event or parochial situation.

Now, such preaching is indubitably effective and not wholly illegitimate. Its technique is easily acquired. It makes us realize that the early Church Fathers, who displayed a truly appalling ingenuity in allegorizing the Old Testament and who found "types" of Christ and His Church in frankly sensual Oriental wedding songs, have many sturdy descendants among us to this very hour! Such preaching gives picturesqueness and color, it provides the necessary sugar coating to the large pill of practical and ethical exhortation. To be sure, it does not sound like the preaching of our fathers. The old sermon titles—"Suffering with Christ that we may be also glorified with Him," for instance—seem very far away from it. Nor is it to be supposed that this is what its author intended the story we have been using to convey nor that these were the reactions that it aroused in the breasts of its original hearers. But as the sermonizer would doubtless go on to remark, there is a certain universal quality in all great literature, and genius builds better than it knows, and so each man can draw his own water of refreshment from these great wells of the past. And indeed nothing is more amazing or disconcerting than the mutually exclusive notions, the apparently opposing truths, which can be educed by this method, from one and the same passage of Scripture! There is scarcely a chapter in all the Old Testament, and to a less degree in the New Testament, which may not be thus ingeniously transmogrified to meet almost any homiletical emergency.

Now, I may as well confess that I have preached this kind of sermon lo! these many years ad infinitum and I doubt not ad nauseam. We have all used in this way the flaming rhetoric of the Hebrew prophets until we think of them chiefly as indicters of a social order. They were not chiefly this but something quite different and more valuable, namely, religious geniuses. First-rate preaching would deal with Amos as the pioneer in ethical monotheism, with Hosea as the first poet of the divine grace, with Jeremiah as the herald of the possibility of each man's separate and personal communion with the living God. But, of course, such religious preaching, dealing with great doctrines of faith, would have a kind of large remoteness about it; it would pay very little attention to the incidents of the story, and indeed, would tend to be hardly expository at all, but rather speculative and doctrinal.

And that brings us to the theme of this final discussion. For I am one of those who believe that great preaching is doctrinal preaching and that it is particularly needed at this hour. The comparative neglect of the New Testament in favor of the Old in contemporary preaching; the use and nature of the expository method—no less than the unworshipful character of our services—appear to me to offer a final and conclusive proof of the unreligious overhumanistic emphases of our interpretation of religion. And if we are to have a religious revival, then it seems to me worshipful services must be accompanied by speculative preaching and I doubt if the one can be nobly maintained without the other. For we saw that worship is the direct experience of the Absolute through high and concentrated feeling. Even so speculative and, in general, doctrinal preaching is the same return to first principles and to ultimate values in the realm of ideas. It turns away from the immediate, the practical, the relative to the final and absolute in the domain of thought.

Now, obviously, then, devout services and doctrinal preaching should go together. No high and persistent emotions can be maintained without clear thinking to nourish and steady them. There is in doctrinal preaching a certain indifference to immediate issues; to detailed applications. It deals, by its nature, with comprehensive and abstract rather than local and concrete thinking; with inclusive feeling, transcendent aspiration. It does not try to pietize the ordinary, commercial and domestic affairs of men. Instead it deals with the highest questions and perceptions of human life; argues from those sublime hypotheses which are the very subsoil of the religious temperament and understanding. It deals with those aspects of human life which indeed include, but include because they transcend, the commercial and domestic, the professional and political affairs of daily living. We have been insisting in these chapters that it is that portion of human need and experience which lies between the knowable and the unknowable with which it is the preacher's chief province to deal. Doctrinal preaching endeavors to give form and relations to its intuitions and high desires, its unattainable longings and insights. There is a native alliance between the doctrine of Immanence and expository preaching. For the office of both is to give us the God of this world in the affairs of the moment. There is a native alliance between expository preaching and humanism which very largely accounts for the latter's popularity. For expository preaching, as at present practiced, deals mostly with ethical and practical issues, with the setting of the house of this world in order. There is also a native and majestic alliance between the idea of transcendence and doctrinal preaching and between the facts of the religious experience and the content of speculative philosophy. Not pragmatism but pure metaphysics is the native language of the mind when it moves in the spiritual world.

But I am aware that already I have lost my reader's sympathy. You do not desire to preach doctrinal sermons and while you may read with amiable patience and faintly smiling complacency this discussion, you have no intention of following its advice. We tend to think that doctrinal sermons are outmoded—old-fashioned and unpopular—and we dread as we dread few other things, not being up to date. Besides, doctrinal preaching offers little of that opportunity which is found in expository and yet more in topical preaching for exploiting our own personalities. Some of us are young. It is merely a polite way of saying that we are egotistical. We know in our secret heart of hearts that the main thing that we have to give the world is our own new, fresh selves with their corrected and arresting understanding of the world. We are modestly yet eagerly ready to bestow that gift of ours upon the waiting congregation. One of the few compensations of growing old is that, as the hot inner fires burn lower, this self-absorption lessens and we become disinterested and judicial observers of life and find so much pleasure in other people's successes and so much wisdom in other folk's ideas. But not so for youth; it isn't what the past or the collective mind and heart have formulated: it's what you've got to say that interests you. Hence it is probably true that doctrinal preaching, in the very nature of things, makes no strong appeal to men who are beginning the ministry.

But there are other objections which are more serious, because inherent in the very genius of doctrinal preaching itself. First: such preaching is more or less remote from contemporary and practical issues. It deals with thought, not actions; understanding rather than efficiency; principles rather than applications. It moves among the basic concepts of the religious life; deals with matters beyond and above and without the tumultuous issues of the moment. So it follows that doctrinal preaching has an air of detachment, almost of seclusion from the world; the preacher brings his message from some pale world of ideas to this quick world of action. And we are afraid of this detachment, the abstract and theoretical nature of the thinker's sermon.

I think the fear is not well grounded. What is the use of preaching social service to the almost total neglect of setting forth the intellectual and emotional concept of the servant? It is the quality of the doer which determines the value of the deed. Why keep on insisting upon being good if our hearers have never been carefully instructed in the nature and the sanctions of goodness? Has not the trouble with most of our political and moral reform been that we have had a passion for it but very little science of it? How can we know the ways of godliness if we take God Himself for granted? No: our chief business, as preachers, is to preach the content rather than the application of the truth. Not many people are interested in trying to find the substance of the truth. It is hated as impractical by the multitude of the impatient, and despised as old-fashioned by the get-saved-quick reformers. Nevertheless we must find out the distinctions between divine and human, right and wrong, and why they are what they are, and what is the good of it all. There is no more valuable service which the preacher can render his community than to deliberately seclude himself from continual contact with immediate issues and dwell on the eternal verities. When Darwin published The Descent of Man at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the London Times took him severely to task for his absorption in purely scientific interests and hypothetical issues. "When the foundations of property and the established order were threatened with the fires of the Paris Commune; when the Tuileries were burning—how could a British subject be occupying himself with speculations in natural science in no wise calculated to bring aid or comfort to those who had a stake in the country!" Well, few of us imagine today that Darwin would have been wise to have exchanged the seclusion and the impractical hours of the study for the office or the camp, the market or the street.

Yet the same fear of occupying ourselves with central and abstract matters still obsesses us. At the Quadrennial Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held recently at Des Moines, thirty-four bishops submitted an address in which they said among other things: "Of course, the church must stand in unflinching, uncompromising denunciation of all violations of laws, against all murderous child labor, all foul sweat shops, all unsafe mines, all deadly tenements, all excessive hours for those who toil, all profligate luxuries, all standards of wage and life below the living standard, all unfairness and harshness of conditions, all brutal exactions, whether of the employer or union, all overlordships, whether of capital or labor, all godless profiteering, whether in food, clothing, profits or wages, against all inhumanity, injustice and blighting inequality, against all class-minded men who demand special privileges or exceptions on behalf of their class."

These are all vital matters, yet I cannot believe that it is the church's chief business thus to turn her energies to the problems of the material world. This would be a stupendous program, even if complete in itself; as an item in a program it becomes almost a reductio ad absurdum. The Springfield Republican in an editorial comment upon it said: "It fairly invites the question whether the church is not in some danger of trying to do too much. The fund of energy available for any human undertaking is not unlimited; energy turned in one direction must of necessity be withdrawn from another and energy diffused in many directions cannot be concentrated. Count the adjectives—'murderous,' 'foul,' 'unsafe,' 'deadly,' 'excessive,' 'profligate,' 'brutal,' 'godless,' 'blighting'—does not each involve research, investigation, comparison, analysis, deliberation, a heavy tax upon the intellectual resources of the church if any result worth having is to be obtained? Can this energy be found without subtracting energy from some other sphere?"

The gravest problems of the world are not found here. They are found in the decline of spiritual understanding, the decay of moral standards, the growth of the vindictive and unforgiving spirit, the lapse from charity, the overweening pride of the human heart. With these matters the church must chiefly deal; to their spiritual infidelity she must bring a spiritual message; to their poor thinking she must bring the wisdom of the eternal. This task, preventive not remedial, is her characteristic one. Is it not worth while to remember that the great religious leaders have generally ignored contemporary social problems? So have the great artists who are closely allied to them. Neither William Shakespeare nor Leonardo da Vinci were reformers; neither Gautama nor the Lord Jesus had much to say about the actual international economic and political readjustments which were as pressing in their day as ours. They were content to preach the truth, sure that it, once understood, would set men free.

But a second reason why we dislike doctrinal preaching is because we confound it with dogmatic preaching. Doctrinal sermons are those which deal with the philosophy of religion. They expound or defend or relate the intellectual statements, the formulae of religion. Such discourses differ essentially from dogmatic sermonizing. For what is a doctrine? A doctrine is an intellectual formulation of an experience. Suppose a man receives a new influx of moral energy and spiritual insight, through reading the Bible, through trying to pray, through loving and meditating upon the Lord Jesus. That experience isn't a speculative proposition, it isn't a faith or an hypothesis; it's a fact. Like the man in the Johannine record the believer says, "Whether he be a sinner I know not: but one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see."

Now, let this new experience of moral power and spiritual insight express itself, as it normally will, in a more holy and more useful life, in the appropriate terms of action. There you get that confession of experience which we call character. Or let it express itself in the appropriate emotions of joy and awe and reverence so that, like Ray Palmer, the convert writes an immortal hymn, or a body of converts like the early church produces the Te Deum. There is the confession of experience in worship. Or let a man filled with this new life desire to understand it; see what its implications are regarding the nature of God, the nature of man, the place of Christ in the scale of created or uncreated Being. Let him desire to thus conserve and interpret that he may transmit this new experience. Then he will begin to define it and to reduce it, for brevity and clearness, to some abstract and compact formula. Thus he will make a confession of experience in doctrine.

Doctrines, then, are not arbitrary but natural, not accidental but essential. They are the hypotheses regarding the eternal nature of things drawn from the data of our moral and spiritual experience. They are to religion just what the science of electricity is to a trolley car, or what the formula of evolution is to natural science, or what the doctrine of the conservation of energy is, or was, to physics. Doctrines are signposts; they are placards, index fingers, notices summing up and commending the proved essences of religious experience. Two things are always true of sound doctrine. First: it is not considered to have primary value; its worth is in the experience to which it witnesses. Second: it is not fixed but flexible and progressive. Someone has railed at theology, defining it as the history of discarded errors. That is a truth and a great compliment and the definition holds good of the record of any other science.

Now, if doctrines are signposts, dogmas are old and now misleading milestones. For what is a dogma? It may be one of two things. Usually it is a doctrine that has forgotten that it ever had a history; a formula which once had authority because it was a genuine interpretation of experience but which now is so outmoded in fashion of thought, or so maladjusted to our present scale of values, as to be no longer clearly related to experience and is therefore accepted merely on command, or on the prestige of its antiquity. Or it may be a doctrine promulgated ex cathedra, not because religious experience produced it, but because ecclesiastical expediencies demand it. Thus, to illustrate the first sort of dogma, there was once a doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Men found, as they still do, both God and man in Jesus; they discovered when they followed Him their own real humanity and true divinity. They tried to explain and formalize the experience and made a doctrine which, for the circle of ideas and the extent of the factual knowledge of the times, was both reasonable and valuable. The experience still remains, but the doctrine is no longer psychologically or biologically credible. It no longer offers a tenable explanation; it is not a valuable or illuminating interpretation. Hence if we hold it at all today, it is either for sentiment or for the sake of mere tradition, namely, for reasons other than its intellectual usefulness or its inherent intelligibility. So held it passes over from doctrine into dogma. Or take, as an example of the second sort, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated by Pius IX in the year 1854, and designed to strengthen the prestige of the Papal See among the Catholic powers of Europe and to prolong its hold upon its temporal possessions. De Cesare describes the promulgation of the dogma as follows:

"The festival on that day, December 8, 1854, sacred to the Virgin, was magnificent. After chanting the Gospel, first in Latin, then in Greek, Cardinal Macchi, deacon of the Sacred College, together with the senior archbishops and bishops present, all approached the Papal throne, pronouncing these words in Latin, 'Deign, most Holy Father, to lift your Apostolic voice and pronounce the dogmatic Decree of the Immaculate Conception, on account of which there will be praise in heaven and rejoicings on earth.' The Pope replying, stated that he welcomed the wish of the Sacred College, the episcopate, the clergy, and declared it was essential first of all to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit. So saying he intoned in Veni Creator, chanted in chorus by all present. The chant concluded, amid a solemn silence Pius IX's finely modulated voice read the following Decree:

"'It shall be Dogma, that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of the Conception, by singular privilege and grace of God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved from all stain of original sin.' The senior cardinal then prayed the Pope to make this Decree public, and, amid the roar of cannon from Fort St. Angelo and the festive ringing of church bells, the solemn act was accomplished.'" Here is an assertion regarding Mary's Conception which has only the most tenuous connection with religious experience and which was pronounced for ecclesiastical and political reasons. Here we have dogma at its worst. Here, indeed, it is so bad as to resemble many of the current political and economic pronunciamentos!

Now, nobody wants dogmatic preaching, but there is nothing that we need more than we do doctrinal preaching and nothing which is more interesting. The specialization of knowledge has assigned to the preacher of religion a definite sphere. No amount of secondary expertness in politics or economics or social reform or even morals can atone for the abandonment of our own province. We are set to think about and expound religion and if we give that up we give up our place in a learned profession. Moreover, the new conditions of the modern world make doctrine imperative. That world is distinguished by its free inquiry, its cultivation of the scientific method, its abandonment of obscuranticisms and ambiguities. It demands, then, devout and holy thinking from us. Who would deny that the revival of intellectual authority and leadership in matters of religion is terribly needed in our day? Sabatier is right in saying that a religion without doctrine is a self-contradictory idea. Harnack is not wrong in saying that a Christianity without it is inconceivable.

And now I know you are thinking in your hearts, Well, what inconsistency this man shows! For a whole book he has been insisting on the prime values of imagination and feeling in religion and now he concludes with a plea for the thinker. But it is not so inconsistent as it appears. It is just because we do believe that the discovery, the expression and the rewards of religion lie chiefly in the superrational and poetic realms that therefore we  want this intellectual content to accompany it, not supersede it, as a balancing influence, a steadying force. There are grave perils in worshipful services corresponding to their supreme values. Mystical preaching has the defects of its virtues and too often sinks into that vague sentimentalism which is the perversion of its excellence. How insensibly sometimes does high and precious feeling degenerate into a sort of religious hysteria! It needs then to be always tested and corrected by clear thinking.

But we in no way alter our original insistence that in our realm as preachers, unlike the scientist's realm of the theologians, thought is the handmaid, not the mistress. Our great plea, then, for doctrinal preaching is that by intellectual grappling with the final and speculative problems of religion we do not supersede but feed the emotional life and do not diminish but focus and steady it. It is that you and I may have reserves of feeling—indispensable to great preaching—sincerity and intensity of emotion, that disciplined imagination which is genius, that restrained passion which is art, and that our congregations may have the same, that we must strive for intellectual power, must do the preaching that gives people something to think about. These are the religious and devout reasons why we value intellectual honesty, precision of utterance, reserve of statement, logical and coherent thinking.

We are come, then, to the conclusion of our discussions. They have been intended to restore a neglected emphasis upon the imaginative and transcendent as distinguished from the ethical and humanistic aspects of the religious life. They have tried to show that the reaching out by worship to this "otherness" of God and to the ultimate in life is man's deepest hunger and the one we are chiefly  set to feed. I am sure that the chief ally of the experience of the transcendence of God and the cultivation of the worshipful faculties in man is to be found in severe and speculative thinking. I believe our almost unmixed passion for piety, for action, for practical efficiency, betrays us. It indicates that we are trying to manufacture effects to conceal the absence of causes. We may look for a religious revival when men have so meditated upon and struggled with the fundamental ideas of religion that they feel profoundly its eternal mysteries.

And finally, we have the best historical grounds for our position. Sometimes great religious movements have been begun by unlearned and uncritical men like Peter the hermit or John Bunyan or Moody. But we must not infer from this that religious insight is naturally repressed by clear thinking or fostered by ignorance. Dr. Francis Greenwood Peabody has pointed out that the great religious epochs in Christian history are also epochs in the history of theology. The Pauline epistles, the Confessions of Augustine, the Meditations of Anselm, the Simple Method of How to Pray of Luther, the Regula of Loyola, the Monologen of Schleiermacher, these are all manuals of the devout life, they belong in the distinctively religious world of supersensuous and the transcendent, and one thing which accounts for them is that the men who produced them were religious geniuses because they were also theologians.

It is to be remembered that we are not saying that the theologian makes the saint. I do not believe that. Devils can believe and tremble; Abelard was no saint. But we are contending that the great saint is extremely likely to  be a theologian. Protestantism, Methodism, Tractarianism, were chiefly religious movements, interested in the kind of questions and moved by the sorts of motives which we have been talking about. They all began within the precincts of universities. Moreover, the Lord Jesus, consummate mystic, incomparable artist, was such partly because He was a great theologian as well. His dealings with scribe and Pharisee furnish some of the world's best examples of acute and courageous dialectics. His theological method differed markedly from the academicians of His day. Nevertheless it was noted that He spoke with an extraordinary authority. "He gave," as Dr. Peabody also points out, "new scope and significance to the thought of God, to the nature of man, to the destiny of the soul, to the meaning of the world. He would have been reckoned among the world's great theologians if other endowments had not given Him a higher title."

It is a higher title to have been the supreme mystic, the perfect seer. All I have been trying to say is that it is to these sorts of excellencies that the preacher aspires. But the life of Jesus supremely sanctions the conviction that preaching upon high and abstract and even speculative themes and a rigorous intellectual discipline are chief accompaniments, appropriate and indispensable aids, to religious insight and to the cultivating of worshipful feeling. So we close our discussions with the supreme name upon our lips, leaving the most fragrant memory, the clearest picture, remembering Him who struck the highest note. It is to His life and teaching that we humbly turn to find the final sanction for the distinctively religious values. Who else, indeed, has the words of Eternal Life?

 

 

 

 

 

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