These seven requisites (not excellences, but requisites) are seven minimal requirements R.L. Dabney believed (and his viewers agreed) were essential to every sermon. None of these seven categories is subjective; each is perfectly susceptible of objective evaluation.
Here is his list, briefly articulated; those interested in reading his own lengthier descriptions may read the entirety of his chapters.
1. Textual Fidelity Here Dabney’s Protestantism is visible. For Dabney, a minister is an ambassador, who represents another, declaring the will of that Other. Therefore, he is not entitled to preach his own insights, his own opinions, or even his own settled convictions; he is entitled only to declare the mind of God revealed in Holy Scripture. Since the mind of God is disclosed in Scripture, the sermon must be entirely faithful to the text—a genuine exposition of the particular thought of the particular text.
Test: Does the significant point of the sermon arise out of the significant point of the text? Is the thrust of the sermon merely an aside in the text? Is the text merely a pretext for the minister’s own idea?
“Unity requires these two things. The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout. But this is not enough. He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent.”
Test: If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or a similar) answer?
3. Evangelical Tone “It is defined by Vinet as ‘the general savour of Christianity, a gravity accompanied by tenderness, a severity tempered with sweetness, a majesty associated with intimacy.’ Blair calls it ‘gravity and warmth united’ . . . an ardent zeal for God’s glory and a tender compassion for those who are perishing.”
Test: Do hearers get the impression that the minister is for them (eager to see them richly blessed by a gracious God), or against them (eager to put them in their place, scold them, reprimand them, or punish them)? Is it his desire to see them reconciled to and blessed by a pardoning God? Does the sermon press the hearer to consider the hopelessness of his condition apart from Christ, and the utter competence of Christ to rescue the penitent sinner?
The instructive sermon is that which abounds in food for the understanding. It is full of thought, and richly informs the mind of the hearer. It is opposed, of course, to vapid and commonplace compositions; but it is opposed also to those which seek to reach the will through rhetorical ornament and passionate sentiment, without establishing rational conviction. . . . Religion is an intelligent concern, and deals with man as a reasoning creature. Sanctification is by the truth. To move men we must instruct. No Christian can be stable and consistent save as he is intelligent. . . . If you would not wear out after you have ceased to be a novelty, give the minds of your people food.
Test: Does the sermon significantly engage the mind, or is the sermon full of commonplace clichés, slogans, and general truths? Is the hearer genuinely likely to rethink his view of God, society, church, or self, or his reasons for holding his current views? Is the mind of the attentive listener engaged or repulsed?
Movement is not a blow or shock, communicating only a single or instantaneous impulse, but a sustained progress. It is, in short, that force thrown from the soul of the orator into his discourse, by which the soul of the hearer is urged, with a constant and accelerated progress, toward that practical impression which is designed for the result. . . . The language of the orator must possess, in all its flow, a nervous brevity and a certain well-ordered haste, like that of the racer pressing to his goal.
Test: Do the earlier parts of the sermon contribute to the latter parts’ full effect? Does the address have intellectual (and consequently emotional) momentum?
Dabney uses the word point to describe the overall intellectual and emotional impact of a sermon. Point is thus a result of unity, movement, and order, which put a convincing, compelling weight on the soul of the hearer. The hearer feels a certain point impressing itself on him, and feels that he must either agree or disagree, assent or deny.
Test: Is the effect of the sermon, on those who believe it, similar? If it encouraged one, did it tend to encourage all, and for the same reason? If it troubled one, did it tend to trouble all, and for the same reason? If it made one thankful, did it tend to make all thankful, and for the same reason?
We would probably call this organization, but the idea is the same. A discourse (sacred or otherwise) cannot have unity, movement, or point without having order. Order is simply the proper arrangement of the parts, so that what is earlier prepares for what is later. A well-ordered sermon reveals a sermon’s unity, makes the sermon memorable, and gives the sermon great point. Test: Could the hearers compare notes and reproduce the outline of the sermon? If they could not reproduce the outline, could they state how it progressed from one part to another? I don’t insist that Dabney’s way of describing what is essential to a sermon is
I don’t insist that Dabney’s way of describing what is essential to a sermon is the only, or necessarily best, way of doing so. One could make a reasonable case that both movement and point are in fact results of a sermon that has unity and is well ordered. We would then be left with five essential traits of a Christian sermon: that it have unity and order, and that it be expositional, evangelical (i.e., Christ-centered), and instructive. I don’t think anyone could argue against these, and I don’t believe, in homiletical history, that anyone ever has argued against them.
- Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon, 2009.
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