Princeton and Preaching, Archibald Alexander and the Christian Ministry, written by James M Garretson, (Banner of Truth Trust, hardback, 304 pages, £16.75) is a book which has recently appeared.
Although this book is primarily directed to ministers, everyone should profit from the excellent account of Alexander's life given in the first chapter. Garretson's purpose is to direct attention to "the lessons we may learn from the way that the professors at 'Old Princeton' prepared men to be effective ministers of the gospel", believing that these lessons "are still of abiding value". He further emphasises in his Introduction that "Archibald Alexander and his colleagues were deeply spiritual men who understood how best to prepare young ministers in their use of the 'spiritual weapons' supplied by God for the battle they faced. Knowing that the battle was a spiritual one that could not be fought with earthly weapons, they prepared their students to go out to fulfil their ministries in the strength of the Spirit."
The remaining chapters of this book cover subjects such as the call to the ministry, the preparation of the preacher's heart, and the difficulties and challenges of the Christian ministry. What we are given is Alexander's thoughts on such matters - from his books, but particularly from his unpublished lectures on pastoral theology, which he delivered in Princeton Seminary. Those who already know something of Alexander and his writings will not be surprised to discover in this book a wealth of deeply-spiritual observations from a man who was renowned for his sanctified common sense.
Many passages might be quoted, but we will restrain ourselves. First, after quoting in a lecture another writer's comments on the need for gravity and warmth in public speaking, Alexander pointed to the necessity of "that solemnity which arises from the fear of God; and that affectionate manner, termed unction which arises from a deep feeling of the truth and importance and excellence of what he utters from the Word of God. This qualification, which is nothing else but piety in a lively exercise, is of the utmost importance to good and useful preaching. . . . Without it he may be a good preacher, a splendid orator . . . . but there will be an essential defect in his sermons; the right spirit will be wanting. And while the multitude may be pleased and the refined gratified, the hearers will not be edified, nor sinners converted."
In an address to a minister at an ordination, he emphasised how "essential to the character of a faithful labourer in the vineyard of the Lord is a devotional spirit - a love of prayer and delight in communion with God. He who communes most familiarly and affectionately with God will best understand His will and will be best qualified to declare His counsel. That minister who wrestles much in private with his Maker is likely to plead His cause most earnestly and successfully in public. As the success of preaching is not owing to the learning or eloquence of the organ by which the Word is proclaimed, but on the blessing of a sovereign God, we have good ground to expect that, in common, those ministers who most abound in prayer will see most fruit of their ministry."
On a similar theme, he stated in another lecture: "It is an encouragement and comfort to the faithful minister that the cause in which he is engaged must prevail. The word of divine promise is sure, the Church of Christ cannot be overthrown. Whatever dark clouds may for a season shower rain, yet she shall rise and shine when the time - the set time to favour her - shall come. Glorious things are spoken in the word of prophecy respecting Zion, the city of our God, not one of which shall fail."
Alexander called for discriminating preaching. "How often", he complained, "do we hear a preacher expatiating on the rich consolations of the exceeding great and precious promises of God, when no mortal can tell, from anything which he says, to whom they are applicable. In much preaching there is a vague and indiscriminate application of the special promises of the Covenant of Grace, as though all who had heard them are true Christians and had a claim to the comfort which they offer."
And again: "It is but seldom that we hear a discourse from the pulpit which is calculated to afford much aid to Christians in ascertaining their own true character, or which will serve to detect the hypocrite and formalist and drive them from all their false refuges. In the best days of the Reformed Churches, such discriminating delineation of character, by the light of Scripture, formed an important part of almost every sermon. . . . This indeed requires something more than a fertile imagination and a ready utterance . . . . It requires that the preacher study much on his knees, that he examine his own heart with unceasing care, that 'the Word of God dwell in him richly, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding'; and also that he converse frequently and freely with experienced Christians."
In the light of all this, we might note Charles Hodge's testimony as to how Alexander put his own counsels into practice: "Perhaps most of those who remember him with personal gratitude recall him as their spiritual guide, who revealed to them the workings of their own hearts. Under his preaching was realised what the Apostle describes as the effect of intelligible discourse guided by the Spirit (1 Cor 14:24,25). Those who heard were convinced. Their conscience and consciousness bore testimony to the truth of what he said. They were judged, or examined. Their feelings, which lay as a confused, unintelligible mass, were analysed, examined, and their true character discerned and estimated. Thus the secrets of their hearts were revealed. They were brought to know and estimate themselves aright, and so falling on their faces, confessed that God was indeed with the truth and with the preacher."
And the reasons behind such spiritual power in the pulpit are explained in this book, largely in Alexander's own words. The material is very well presented and the author's comments show a mind in thorough sympathy with his subject. The book can be highly recommended. May it help today's ministers, young and old, in their use of the spiritual weapons which their Master has given them!
[Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, October 2005, which is edited by the author. Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland website: www.fpchurch.org.uk]