Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Right Use of Parables in Preaching

In his book Matthew 13: The Parable of the Sower, Samuel Stennett (1728-1795) looks at the proper use of parables as a mode of instruction and how they should assist in the interpreting of Scripture.  He warns "against the wanton abuse of allegory, too common among some people in discourses on religious subjects," (p. 32).

Before Mr. Stennett expounds Matthew 13, he defines what a parable is and how they should be rightfully used in scriptural interpretation.  He notes that the "word parable, as appears from its derivation, signifies a similitude or comparison...This mode of instruction is familiar and pleasant.  Sensible objects may very properly be considered as images of spiritual and invisible things; and by this use of them we are assisted in our conceptions and reasonings about matters, of which we should otherwise have scarce any idea at all," (p. 32).

First, the author looks at the rules for assisting in the interpretation of parables:
  1. The carefully attending to the occasion of them (pp. 33-34)
  2. Our attention should be steadily fixed to that object (p. 34)
  3. That great caution should be observed in our reasoning from the parables to the peculiar doctrines of Christianity (pp. 34-35)
Mr. Stennett stresses that "[w]e mean not therefore to condemn the use of metaphors and similitudes, but only to correct the abuse of them.  And what occasion there is for an attempt of this kind none can be ignorant, who consider the manner in which public preaching is conducted in many popular assemblies," (pp. 35-36).  He reminds us that "our Lord had particular reasons for speaking so frequently in parables, and that after His ascension, when the veil was taken off the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, another mode of instruction took place.  The apostles, wherever they came, held up the truth in its most plain and simple form, represented things as they were, entering into their nature, qualities, connections, and evidence, with no other assistance from figure and allegory than was absolutely necessary.  If this fact were duly weighed, I think it would check the luxuriance of some good men's imagination in this way, and bring them back to the standard of preaching in the New Testament," (pp. 39-40).

Again, the author notes that he does not want to forbid figures, comparisons, and similitudes, but warns pastors who use allegorical preaching to use them with discretion and moderation.  He cautions that:
  1. An intemperate use of figures tends to sensualize the mind and deprave the taste (pp. 42-43)
  2. The misapplication of figures gives false ideas to the hearer of the things they are made to stand for (pp. 43-44)
  3. Injudicious reasoning from types and figures begets a kind of faith that is precarious and ineffectual (p. 44)
Finally, he warns against the use of declamatory preaching defined as "all discourses, whether allegorical or not, that are destitute of sober reasoning and addressed merely to the passions; loose essays, or harangues on popular subjects, filled with trite observations, and set off with witty conceits and trifling stories, delivered in a manner more suitable to the stage than the pulpit," (p. 46).  This type of preaching does not instruct and edify, but it is pernicious because:
  1. It begets contempt in those who are ill-affected to religion (p. 46)
  2. It excites levity in those who are indifferent (p. 46)
  3. It disgusts sensible and serious Christians (p. 46)
  4. It mistakes the effect of a mere mechanical influence upon their passions, for the work of God upon their hearts (p. 46)

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"For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ," (Gal. 1:10).