Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching, by Robert L. Dabney. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999. 361 pp. $8.99 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
More than 20 years ago, a friend gave me the old book of which this is a reprint. The original title was Sacred Rhetoric; or a Course of Lectures on Preaching. I regarded it then as one of the finest, most helpful books on making sermons and preaching that I had ever read. I regard it so still today.
No seminarian should enter the ministry without having read it carefully and having taken its instruction and warnings to heart. He should re-read it periodically thereafter. Ministers who have not read it should make up the lack as quickly as possible, regardless of their age and experience.
The book is the teaching of preaching by a preacher to would-be preachers. Beginning with what preaching is, it takes the student through all the aspects of making and delivering a sermon: choosing and working with the text; arranging the material in the sermon; “style,” or delivery, including voice and gesture; and more.
Valuable as the book is as a solid work on the formal aspects of homiletics, it is invaluable because of its spiritual and practical instruction and warning from beginning to end.
Above all, the preacher must be a godly man. This theme, passionately urged and developed, runs through the work like a refrain: “Only the eminent Christian can be an eminent preacher of the gospel”; “The prime qualification for the pulpit orator is eminent piety”; “What can give this glow [of the zeal of heavenly love] except the indwelling of the Holy Ghost? You are thus led again to that great, ever-recurring deduction, the first qualification of the sacred orator, the grace of Christ”; “You must be men of faith and prayer; you must live near the cross and feel ‘the powers of the world to come.’ We thus learn again the great truth that it is divine grace which makes the true minister”; “The pastor’s character speaks more loudly than his tongue.”
Every preacher must work hard at his sermons: “Whatever may be your method, excellence can only be the result of strenuous effort. He who labours most on each sermon is usually the best preacher…. To preach a sermon is a great and awful task. Woe to that man, who slights it with a perfunctory preparation and a careless heart!”
Proper preparation means writing the sermons out and then going over the manuscript with painstaking care. Indeed, Dabney exhorts preachers to be writers:
The first upon which I insist is careful writing. The abundant and painstaking use of the pen is necessary to give you correctness, perspicuity and elegance of language, and to make these easy to you. No man ever learns to compose a sermon at his desk in rhetorical language save by speaking extempore under the rhetorical impulse; so no man ever learns to speak well extempore save by learning to write well.
But the preacher may not read his sermon. “Reading a manuscript to the people can never, with any justice, be termed preaching…. Mere reading, then, should be sternly banished from the pulpit.” Having interpreted the text, having written the sermon out in the right form, which includes a logical flow, and having gone over the sermon in his study so that the Word of God in the text is also in his soul, the minister must, and can, preach it in what Dabney calls “extempore” fashion.
Dabney warns against all political preaching (especially powerful, coming as this warning does from Stonewall Jackson’s chaplain during the war between the states); eulogistic funeral addresses (always a temptation, also in the Protestant Reformed Churches); needless criticism of the KJV; failure carefully to prepare the sermon’s conclusion; not following one line in the sermon, “lest [the] sermon will be a crude bundle of little sermons”; and announcing the main divisions of the sermon at the outset.
The last chapter is excellent instruction of the minister concerning public prayer. This chapter is reprinted elsewhere in this issue of the Standard Bearer.
Robert L. Dabney was one of the outstanding southern Presbyterian theologians of the nineteenth century. The contents of the book are the lectures he gave on preaching at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Whatever one may think of the change of the original title, Dabney himself suggested it (see pp. 30ff.).
The one criticism that must be made is that Dabney does not sufficiently make plain that true preaching is the living voice of Christ Himself and that, in the final analysis, this is its power. This is, no doubt, assumed and implied, but without the mention of this, and stress upon it, the reader can go away with the impression that the power of preaching is the preacher’s own preparation, piety, and eloquence.
Dabney closes his treatment of preaching this way:
Let me impress you with the high responsibility of ascending the pulpit, and beseech you to form a lofty ideal. He who proposes to sway the souls of a multitude, to be their teacher, to lay his hands upon their heart-strings, to imbue them with his passion and will, makes an audacious attempt. But nothing less than this is true preaching. It behooves the man who attempts this high emprise to have every power of his soul trained and braced like an athlete, and to perfect his equipment at every point, with the painful care of the commander who is about to join battle with a powerful enemy. He begins the adventure with a solemn awe, an anxious diffidence, whose palpitations nothing but a heroic will controls. The great Athenian statesman, Pericles, the model upon which Demosthenes formed himself, was wont to say, that so solemn did he deem the act of speaking, he could not ascend the bema without an anxious invocation to the immortal gods for their assistance. Surely, the minister of a divine Redeemer should mount his pulpit with a more holy dread, by as much as he discusses a more sacred theme and more everlasting destinies. To preach a sermon is a great and awful task. Woe to that man, who slights it with a perfunctory preparation and a careless heart!