“O you who dislike certain portions of the Holy Writ, rest assured that your taste is corrupt and God will not stay for your little opinion.”
“How depraved you are if you can perceive no heavenly luster about the Book of God!”
Charles Spurgeon really thinks you should treat the Bible a bit more seriously.
Spurgeon was a 19th century Baptist preacher. That description does not even begin to capture the force of nature he was. There is a 63 volume set of sermons he preached at a couple of different churches, with nearly 3600 sermons in it. In addition, he published around 50 books in his lifetime. He would have loved the Internet Age.
So, deciding to read some Spurgeon could be a bit overwhelming. When faced with a pile of sermons this high, where does one begin? Enter Jason Allen and Moody Press. They recently launched The Spurgeon Speaks Series, what promises to be collection of short volumes consisting a selection chosen by Allen of sermons given by Spurgeon on Assorted Topics. The two volumes so far are on Prayer and Scripture.
The volume Spurgeon on the Power of Scripture suggests both the potential and the pitfalls of books like these. On the plus side, the volume has seven sermons which is a lot less intimidating than a 63 volume set. You definitely get the flavor of a Spurgeon sermon when reading these. It is not hard to see why he was and remains quite popular. If you want a sermon which feels like it is flowing straight from the source, Spurgeon is your guy. He is passionate, full of vim, and doesn’t mince words.
The downside? When you pick up a book entitled Spurgeon on the Power of Scripture by an author who is widely reputed to be among the most theologically literate preachers of the 19th century, you will be forgiven for starting out thinking this is a volume explaining and elaborating on the power of Scripture. You might well expect the equivalent of a work of theology, a person systematically setting out the arguments for why Scripture matters. When you see chapter titles like “The Infallibility of Scripture” and “The Bible Tried and Proved” and “The Bible,” you might think you are really sure that is what you are getting.
But these are sermons, not a theological tract, and they are thus much less directed and focused than you would have expected. This should not be surprising, but somehow it is. Spurgeon has a tendency to raise issues in the heat of is argument and never quite trace the thought to its end.
How do you know that God wrote the book? That is just what I shall not try to prove to you. I could, if I please, do a demonstration, for there are arguments enough. There are reasons enough, did I care to occupy your time in bringing them before you. But I shall do no such thing. I am a Christian minister, and you are Christians, or profess to be so, and there is never any necessity for Christian ministers to make a point of bringing forth infidel arguments in order to answer them. It is the greatest folly in the world. It is folly to bring forward these firebrands of hell even if we are well prepared quench them. Let me of the world learn error of themselves; do not let us be propagators of their falsehood.
That is a bit jarring to the academic mind, but we really can’t fault Spurgeon for things like this. He is, after all, preaching a sermon. This sort of argument makes total sense for a sermon, but not for a theological work. The form difference has a rather large effect on the substance. Sermons are not the same as theological exercises.
To get a flavor of the form of argument, consider a matter Spurgeon returns to repeatedly in the sermons collected here. How should we read scripture?
How differently some people read the Bible from the way in which they read any other book! I have often noticed how people let novels get right into them, trash as they generally are, but when most people read the Bible, they appear to be anxious to get the unpleasant task finished. In some cases, they seem to think that they performed a very proper action, but they have not been in the least affected by it, moved by it, stirred by it.
Yet if there is any book that can thrill the soul, it is the Bible. If we read it aright, we shall lay our fingers among its wondrous harp strings and bring out from them matchless music. There is no book so fitted or so suited to us as the Bible is. There is no book that knows us so well, is so much at home with us, has so much power over us, if we will but give ourselves up to it.
Similarly, Consider Spurgeon’s discussion about the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew Chapter 12.
The Savior generally carried in the war into the enemy’s camp, and He did so on this occasion. He met them on their own ground, and He said to them, “Have you not read?”—a cutting question to the scribes and Pharisees, though there is nothing apparently sharp about it. It was a fair and proper question to put to them; but only think of putting it to them. “Have you not read?”
“Read!” they could have said, “Why we have read the book through very many times. We are always reading it. No passage escapes our critical eyes.”
Yet our Lord proceeds to put the question a second time: “Have you not read?” as if they had not read after all, though they were the greatest readers of the law then living. He insinuates that they have not read at all, and then he gives them, incidentally, the reason why he asked them whether they had read. He says, “If you had known what this means,” as much as to say, “You have not read, because you have not understood.” Your eyes have gone over the words, and you have counted the letters, and you have marked the position of each verse and word, and you have said learned things about all the books, and yet you are not even readers of the sacred volume, for you have not acquired the true art of reading. You do not understand, and therefore you do not truly read it. You are a skimmers and glancers at the Word; you have not read it, for you do not understand.
Passages like that apply not just to the Bible, but to every book. As Adler and Van Doren put it in How to Read a Book, the question is not how many books you have read, but how many books have read you. The question is not how much time you spend reading the Bible, but how much time you let the Bible read you.
Thinking about how to read a book, or specifically how to read the Bible, makes it clear that reading a short collection of Spurgeon’s sermons also demands something of the reader. This is not a philosophical book or a theological book. It is a self-help manual. For Spurgeon, thinking about the Bible is an applied science. The ultimate question is not “What does the Bible say?” but rather, “What are you going to do once you understand that the Bible has something important to say?” “How are you going to read this book?” morphs into “How are you going to live your life now that you have read this book?” Sermons are there to educate, sure, but the difference between a sermon and a college lecture is this question of application. A college lecture may inform. As sermon is there to exhort.
So, Spurgeon on the Power of Scripture is an aptly named book. The sermons are there not to talk about the idea of Scripture. The sermons are there to demonstrate the power of Scripture to affect the way you live your life.
(Moody Press sent me a copy of the book in exchange for this review.)