Wednesday, March 12, 2008

JW McGarvey: Still Relevant 125 years later!

JW McGarvey

One of the forebears of the movement of which I am a part is J.W. McGarvey.  McGarvey is perhaps known best to the evangelical world for his "Four-Fold Gospel" harmony of the gospels, his commentary on the book of Acts, his "A Treatise on the Eldership" or his descriptive work "Lands of the Bible" (which while outdated is still fascinating reading).  He wrote much more, but I think those are some of the things for which people outside of our fellowship might recognize him. 

I was doing what for me is the second-best thing to being in heaven and that is browsing at Powell's City of Books here in Portland. (  Powells is something like a five-story bookstore that covers an entire city block in downtown Portland. 

But, while browsing in the Preaching section, I found a little book entitled "The Supernatural and Preaching or the Missouri Christian Lectures, delivered at Independence, MO, July 1883."  (They really knew how to title books back then!)

(I later found an online copy of McGarvey's lecture here.)  The lectures are kind of cool because at the end of each lecture, a group of panelists (A. Proctor, Isaac Errett, J. A. Dearborn and W. S. Priest)  all give comments, questions, rebuttals, etc. to the lecture just presented. 

McGarvey's lecture is entitled, "Preacher's Methods" and in beginning to read it, I expected it to be quaint advice to preachers that fit a by-gone era and were not particularly relevant to 2008.  Wrong again. Listen in on several excerpts:


"There are two ways of learning methods. We learn them by experience and by precept. The latter should precede the former: for experience teaches largely by means of the mistakes which we make, and wise precept preceding experience, if heeded, must save us from many mistakes. But precept, however wise, is seldom accepted in its fulness 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 until the inevitable decay of old age sets in."

1. Study of the Scriptures

"There are four methods of studying the Scriptures, all having their respective advantages and all necessary to the highest attainments.

  • "By the historical study of the Scripture we mean the study of its various events and records in the order of time. It 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.
  • "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....  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....  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.
  • "The study of the Scriptures by topics is the third method which I have named. While prosecuting the methods already mentioned, a general knowledge of leading topics will have been obtained; but the preacher should never be satisfied with a general knowledge of any topic treated in the Bible. Detached pieces of information are never satisfying, and the are very likely to prove misleading. Complete, systematic and exact information is what our calling demands, and this we must as soon as possible acquire.
    • First, by means of your recollection from former readings, and by use of your Concordance, gather up all the passages which treat of the subject in hand, or which throw any light upon it.
    • Second, classify these passages according to the different branches of the subject with which they are connected.
    • The next step is to arrange the thoughts and facts under each branch of the subject in some natural order of sequence, and thus obtain a systematic view of it as it stands in the Scriptures.
    • Finally, the parts must be studied with reference to one another and the whole; and the whole must be studied with reference to all its parts. When this is done you are prepared, and not till then, to write or speak on the subject or any of its parts with the assurance of one who understands fully what he proposes to say.
  • "In the last place, I am to speak of studying the Scriptures devotionally. The preacher who has not a devotional spirit, lacks the chief elements of power with the people both in the pulpit and out of it. He is utterly incapable of cultivating a devotional spirit in his hearers; and without this the entire service of the church becomes an empty form.
    • When we speak of devotional parts of the Scriptures, the mind turns at once to the book of Psalms; for in it are collected the richest poetic effusions of pious hearts throughout the period of Jewish inspiration, from Moses to the poets of Babylonian captivity.
    • But besides the Psalms, there are many passages in Job, in Ecclesiastes, in Proverbs, in the prophets, and even in the historical books of the Old Testament, the study of which lifts up the soul to the loftiest sentiments, while in the New Testament, which contains not a single book of poetry, there are passages in the Gospel, in Acts, in the Epistles, and in the Apocalypse, fully equal to the sublimest poetry for filling the soul with every holy emotion. The preacher, while studying the Scriptures historically, by books and by topics, will have found all these passages. He should mark them as he discovers them, and should subsequently revert to them, for devotional reading until both their contents and their places in the book became familiar to him.
    • In order to the best effect upon our hearts, our devotional study should not consist in a mere dreamy reading of the parts referred to; for in this way the impression made is likely to be shallow and transitory. We should study these passages exegetically, searching into the significance of every figure employed, and trying to paint before imagination's eye every image projected by the writer.
    • But the best effects of devotional study will still lie beyond our reach, if we do not commit many of these inspiring passages to memory, so that we can meditate upon them in the night watches, call them up amid our labors and our journeyings, and make them subjects of conversation when the Bible is not at hand. It is in this way that the word of God is to dwell in us richly in all wisdom. If you will inquire you will find it almost universally true of men and women eminent for piety, that their Memories were vast storehouses for the most precious portions of God's Holy Book."

(to be continued)

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