Preachers’ Methods (1)

By J.W. McGarvey

(NOTE: To some, rules were made to be broken, other regard themselves the exception; but others read, ponder and profit from suggestions. Recently I acquired a book of lectures, Missouri Christian Lectures, delivered in 1883. It was reprinted by the Old Paths Book Club (now out of existence) in 1955. One of the lectures therein was by J.W. McGarvey on the above topic. I believe many today would also profit by it. – Donald P. Ames)

The duties of preachers are usually well known. They lie on the very surface of the New Testament, and the preacher who does not know htem is without excuse. But the best methods of discharging these duties are not so well known. They are not so easily learned, and but few of them are taught in the Scriptures.

There are two years of learning methods. We learn them by experience and by precept. The latter shoudl precede the former: for experience teaches largely by means of the mistakes which we make, and wise precept preceeding experience, if heeded, must save us from many mistakes. But precept, however wise, is seldom accepted in its fullness until we have tested it by our own experience. Experience is the only guide that we are willing to trust implicitly, yet no man should ever consider himself too old or too wise to profit by the experience and the advice of others. The two teachers, experience and precept, should be heard continuously, and every preacher should continue to grow by the help of each utnil the inevitable decay of old eage sets in.

The object of the present lecture is not to dictate, but to advise; not to suggest the only good method as thought there were but one, but to state what appears to the speaker the best method of discharging the duties which come under notice. Precepts of this kind are calculated not to better the midns of preachers, but rather to set them free by waking up thought, concerning methods which have been adopted woithout thought.

It is impossible to satisfactorily discuss, within the space of a single lecture, all the methods included in the subject which I have chosen. These might be distributed in a general way into Methods of Study, Methods of Delivery, Methods of Conducting Public Worship, Methods of Church Work, usually called Pastoral Work, and Methods of Personal Advancment. I will confine my remarks to the first of these and consider the methods, first, of studying the Scriptures, second, of studying other books, third, of making special preparation for the pulpit, and fourth of maintaining system in study.

Study Of The Scriptures

It is a common thought among the masses of the people that preachers pass their lives in studying the Bible. This appears to be their supreme work, requiring that they be freed from business cares and manual labor. It is doubtless true that they do study the Scriptures more than any other class of men, but no men know so well as preachers themselves, how woefully this duty is neglected. If I were to point out what I believe to be the greatest defect, not call it the greatest sin, in the lives of preachers, I think I would say it is their neglect of the word of God. The common thought of the people just mentioned is that which ought to be. They have a right to demand of eveyr preacher, after he shall have spent some years in his calling, that he be well acquainted with all of God’s word, and that he be able to give an intelligent answer to the questions commonly arising on every part. In order to do this it is necessary that he shall have studied the Scriptures laboriously and systematically.

There are four methods of studying the Scriptures, all having their respective advantanges and all necessary to the highest attainments. We may study them historically, by books, by topics and devotionally. We will speak of these methods separately and in order named.

By the historical study of the Scriptures we mean the study of its various events and records in the order of time. Its aims at its various events and records in the order of time. Its aims at obtaining a knowledge of all the events recorded in it, including the composition of its various books, in the order of their occurrence. There are but few books in the Bible in which all the events which it mentions are arranged in chronological order, and there are many which cover the same period of time with other books. In all these instances the facts recorded must not only be known, but we must learn to know them as far as possible in the order of their occurrence. The books of Kings and Chronicles, for example, must be interwoven with one another on the warp of chronology, and all the events recorded as referred to in chronology, and all the events recorded as referred to in the contemporary writings of prophets and poets, must be assigned their proper places amid the events of the historical books. In this way alone can we know in full the history of ancient Israel. In like manner, we must not only become acquainted with the four Gospels separately, but we must know the recorded events in the life of Jesus in the order of time if we would understand them; and so of Acts and the Epistles. Those Epistles which are contemporaneous with Acts, fill us in a good degree the historical gaps in that book, while the later Epistles continue the history of the apostolic church beyond the close of Acts.

Such a study of the whole Bible is absolutely necessary to the attainment of general Scriptural knowledge. It lies at the very beginning of the course of Scripture study, and it lays the only broad foundation for all subsequent study of Scripture topics. It is by this means alone that the gradual progress of revelation, and the consequent gradual elevation of mankind can be understood; and it may be doubted whether any one important event, or the composition of any one book of the Bible can be properly understood until it is viewed, as this method of study alone enables us to view it in the light of the events and the writings which precede it, and of those which follow it. I would advise every preacher, both old and young, who has never pursued such a course of study, to undertake it at once, and to prosecute it with vigor.

The study of the Bible by books is involved, to a large extent, in the method of study just named, and especially is this true of the historical books. But a man may acquire a good knowledge of events recorded in a historical book without having studied the book as a book – without, in other words, having given attention to the specific design of the book, as to the plan on which it is constructed. No one understands a book until he has done this. And in regard to the books which are not historical, while the student of sacred history may have gleaned the facts mentioned in these, and may have given the book itself and the author of it their proper place in the procession of biblical events, he may as yet have learned very little of what the book contains. When we have gleaned, for example, the historical facts embodied in the book of Job, in the Psalms, in Proverbs, in any of the prophets or in any of the epistles, how much remains that is yet to be learned? How much, too, that is, if possible, of more importance than the facts – matter to which the facts sustain only such a rel ion as does the scaffold to the building, or the golden framework to the gem which glitters within its embrace. In order to reach and gather this rich fruitage of Bible knowledge, every single book in the Bible must be made, in the course of a preacher’s life, a subject of minute and patient study.

The method of studying a single book is simple and obvious. It requires that we first obtain a general conception of its design and its contents. This is obtained by reading it for that special purpose.

This prepares the way for the second step, which is to ascertain the general divisions of the book, together with the aim and contents of each. When this is accomplished the framework of the book, showing the plan on which it is constructed, is distinctly before the mind, and we are prepared for the more minute examination of its particular parts. While reading it for these purposes, we will usually have formed some acquaintance with its historical connections, such as the time and circumstances under which it was written, and the influences at work upon the mind of the author. Next follows an exegetical study of every part by sentences and paragraphs. Much of this information can be obtained by reading an introduction to the book, but this is to obtain information at second hand – a process never to be adopted by a student except when the original sources are beyond his reach. Read introductions after you have studied the books and not before. Thus read, they may correct or modify your own conclusions, but read in advance they may mislead you and at best you are not able to judge of their correctness.

In addition to the study of Bible books separately, many of them should be studied in groups, according to their subject-matter, or the time of their composition. For example, the books containing the scattered statutes of the Mosaic law are a group of themselves; the prophets before the captivity, the prophets of the captivity, and the prophets after the captivity are three other groups. In the New Testament the four Gospels are a group having common subject-matter, and yet John’s Gospel, if grouped according to time, would stand with his three epistles and the apocalypse, as the latest writings of the New Testament. In like manner the apostolic Epistles should be studied in groups according to the time of their composition. Only in this way can we have before our minds the state of society which was before the minds of the writers, and possess the key to the vivid appreciation of these writings which these circumstances alone can furnish.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 4, pp. 107-108
February 16, 1984