Thursday, January 17, 2008

The best of Highland experimental preaching

One of the best books for giving a true flavour of the character and attainments of spirituality in the Highlands of Scotland in the past is John Kennedy's 'The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire'. This is now available online here

A classic section of the book deals with the character of the preaching of the Fathers in Ross-shire and in the process outlines the character of true experimental preaching that is accompanied by the unction of the Spirit.

'As preachers they were all remarkable. There are some who preach before their people, like actors on the stage, to display themselves and to please their audience. Not such were the self-denied preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach over their people. Studying for the highest, instead of doing so for the lowest, in intelligence, they elaborate learned treatises, which float like mist, when delivered over the heads of their hearers. Not such were the earnest preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach past their people. Directing their praise or their censure to intangible abstractions, they never take aim at the views and the conduct of the individuals before them. They step carefully aside, lest their hearers should be struck by their shafts, and aim them at phantoms beyond them. Not such were the faithful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach at their people, serving out in a sermon the gossip of the week, and seemingly possessed with the idea, that the transgressor can be scolded out of the ways of iniquity. Not such were the wise preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach towards their people. They aim well, but they are weak. Their eye is along the arrow towards the hearts of their hearers, but their arm is too feeble for sending it on to the mark. Superficial in their experience and in their knowledge, they reach not the cases of God s people by their doctrine, and they strike with no vigour at the consciences of the ungodly. Not such were the powerful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others still, who preach along their congregation. Instead of standing with their bow in front of the rank, these archers take it in line, and reducing their mark to an individual, never change the direction of their aim. Not such were the discriminating preachers of Ross-shire. But there are a few who preach to the people directly and seasonably the mind of God in His word, with authority, unction, wisdom, fervour, and love. Such as these last were the eminent preachers of Ross-shire.

While all of them were excellent, each of them was peculiar; and their variety was as necessary as their skill. In apt and striking illustration Porteous and Mackenzie excelled, and have left more memorable sayings behind them than any of the others; Calder and Macphail preached in clear, unctuous words filled full of Christ crucified, while from their manner and language all was carefully excluded that might withdraw the minds of their hearers from the spiritual import of the message which they carried; for exactness of exposition, and precision of statement, Macadam and Forbes were second to none; Dr Mackintosh was eminent in solemnity and power; and for clearness and skill in unfolding the doctrines of grace, and in fervent appeals to the Christless, Fraser and Macdonald excelled them all.

Their preaching was remarkable for its completeness. It combined careful exposition, fulness and exactness of doctrinal statement, a searching description of experimental godliness, and close application of truth to the conscience. The admixture of these elements, in wisely-adjusted proportions, constitutes the true excellence of preaching. Careful to ascertain the mind of Cod in His Word, they were not content merely to prefix a passage of Scripture as a motto to their sermon. They chose to preach from a text, rather than to discourse on a subject. They did not try what they themselves could say about it, but to tell what the Lord said through it, to their hearers. But, while careful expounders, they were systematic theologians as well. They clearly saw, and they clearly taught, "the form of sound doctrine." No loose statement of doctrine would satisfy them, and yet no men were further than they from being frozen into the stiffness of a cold, lifeless orthodoxy. Their zeal for a sound creed was at least equalled by their desire for a godly experience and a holy life. They loved "the form of sound doctrine," but they also loved "the power of godliness." They insisted on a clear understanding of the former, but they also insisted on a deep experience of the latter. It is in fashion to speak of objective and subjective preaching, and to commend each by itself as excellent in its way; but surely that preaching is defective, that presents a statement of doctrine without any description of the experience which the application of that doctrine produces, or of the fruits in which that experience results; and preaching without distinct doctrinal statement is like attempting to build without a plummet or a plan.

Their preaching was distinguished by the minuteness with which the Lord guided them, to speak to the varied cases of their hearers. In this respect they were quite singular; and many marvellous instances of this might be given. Some of these might be easily accounted for. In dealing with the cases of God's people, a minister, acquainted with the power of godliness, will be sure to have a counterpart, in his own experience, of many of the fears, hopes, and enjoyments of those whom he addresses. Speaking from the heart, he will be sure to speak to the heart; declaring what he himself has felt, he will be sure to express the feelings of others. When the honour the Lord has been wont to put on the ordinance of preaching, and His tender care of His children are taken into account, who will limit the degree of minuteness to which the Lord's guidance may be given, in adapting the message sent by His servant to the varied feelings of the hearers? Words marvellously seasonable have been often thus spoken, to account for which no prophetic gift should be ascribed to the preacher. The pressing need of a beloved child had to be seasonably met, and the Lord revived, in the memory of His servant, a corresponding experience, and guided him to tell it, and this is often the whole secret of the matter. There have been, however, instances of "words in season" that cannot thus be explained. Some more direct guidance of the speaker's mind was required, and some more abrupt impression must have been produced of the case, to which the Lord was sending a leaf from the tree of life, or an arrow from the quiver of the law. Care will be taken that any such instances as may be given, shall be accurately stated rather than satisfactorily explained.'