Thursday, February 6, 2014

Popular Preachers Past: Charles Spurgeon's Spiritual Comfort Food

From the February 2011 E-Block.


I chose Charles Spurgeon as a subject for this series because I have known more than one person who held Spurgeon in high esteem. This included two of my pastors (one of whom wrote a book about him) as well as a prominent pastor with a Spurgeon website. I thought that if I read some of Spurgeon’s works, I might come to understand this fascination with him.

I read a collection of about 25 of his sermons. I still don’t understand the fascination. And no – I don’t think reading more will help. Quite the opposite.

Well, all right, maybe I do understand. Although Spurgeon lived in the middle of the 19th century, I found in his sermons the germs of what would become what is most popular in pastoral writers like Lucado and Swindoll and Arthur today. He refers frequently to his hearers/readers as “beloved” or “brethren”. (I understand why extroverts like this, but as an introvert, it creeps me out.) He uses stories and illustrations – frequently. He often poses his teachings in the form of a conversation between himself and his hearer. He repeats single points about 50 different ways – and in a way that is not entirely disinteresting, at least as long as you only read one of his sermons a week. (Reading 25 in a row, though, will make his style much less engaging.) And he adds just enough conscience-pricking admonitions to make the faithful nod in vigorous assent. Spurgeon’s material doesn’t have much meat, but it is definitely akin to the modern stuff that I’d call spiritual comfort food.

What else, other than that? I didn’t come to Spurgeon’s material expecting to find anything factually wrong, any more so that in any other average pastor’s sermon (e.g., imposing modern ideas of “conscience” on the text, and being too familiar in references to God and Jesus). And I didn’t: Only one passage truly made me cringe, and it reflects a broader practice within Spurgeon as well. It’s rather long (as is just about anything Spurgeon does), so I’ll sum it up.

He tells an account of an elder divine who evaluated a younger man’s sermon -- apparently on some text that did not have Jesus as a subject -- as a poor one. The younger man asked if he had not done a competent job of exegesis, and asked of various other faults; the elder man said none of those were the problem. The problem was that the younger man hadn’t brought his sermon back to the topic of Jesus.

Now while this may seem like admirable piety, in reality it is badly misguided. In this I see the seeds of such things as modern Sunday School material that strains mightily to make even obscure OT texts relevant to a modern Christian life – when they aren’t. In turn, this leads to a perception (rightly) that Christians force meanings into texts that simply aren’t there.

Perhaps what is happening here is that Spurgeon was torn between having an emphasis on the Gospel and acknowledging that the whole Bible was the Word of God – and the only way he could reconcile these two options – which for most of the Bible, will end up being mutually exclusive – was to imagine some way to connect the dots of every text so that eventually, it got back to Jesus. The only problem is the same one we’d get with connect the dots if we had dots, but assigned the numbers to the dots ourselves: you’re hoping to end up with a duckie or a horsie, but you end up with something patently unrecognizable as much of anything.

The end result of this kind of reasoning is also exhibited in Spuregon as he frequently takes texts broadly afield of their contexts and develops them into lessons that would never have been derived from them in their original settings. Taking Ezekiel 9:9, for example -- and only a quarter of it at that (“The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great”), and expanding it into an entire teaching of the greatness of every person’s personal sin, is an act of homiletic outrage. Likewise, adding all manner of speculative details to the backgrounds of Biblical stories in order to draw lessons (e.g., Cain may have “laughed and jeered” at Abel’s sacrifice) is simply uncalled for apart from solid social or literary evidence. Spurgeon clearly added such details not because he knew what was likely to happen, but because it added weight to his point. Exegetically, that’s a no-no.

On the brighter side, Spurgeon had plenty to say about Christians truly living their faith and being committed to serving Christ. In that respect, he is also like many modern authors (such as MacArthur), and is to be commended. But I would also say that Spurgeon is best admired as a historical curiosity, a step (or mis-step) on our road to where we are now, with a spiritual crisis on our hands. 

Modern authors like Lucado, whether directly or indirectly, are imitations of Spurgeon – and they need a better role model.

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