Puritan Preaching #5 – The Art of Illustration

December 5, 2009

The WPWD is extremely brief about the art of illustration.  “The illustrations, of what kind soever, ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.”  Yet given the Puritan’s emphasis on making sermons memorable, it is an important subject.   When something is in the dark it is difficult to delight in it, but when it is brought into the light, then it’s beauty can be seen.  Illustrations are intended to enhance a believer’s perception of the beauty of God’s Word.  Hence the WPWD speaks of ‘conveying the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.  The Puritans’ illustrations are rarely more than a sentence or two.  They are of several sorts:

(1)  They love to refer to the experiences of people in the Bible.  The experiences of the godly and ungodly become fodder for illustrating God’s Word.  Of course this required that their hearers know their Bible history well since the preachers did not devote any time in telling the story.  Manton, for instance, refers in one sermon to Balaam as a notable instance of natural conscience.   If you don’t know the story you will miss the point.  For people who lived in their Bibles, what could be more characteristic than that they derive many, if not most of their illustrations from the sacred book!

(2)  Surprisingly, they will refer to stories from classical authors, without drawing them out as a storyteller would.  Frequently they are quoted to illustrate the virtue to which a pagan could attain, which is then contrasted with what a Christian ought to accomplish.  It’s a form of the ‘if they could do this, how much more ought we to do that.’

(3)  Likewise they will utilize the early church fathers.  In speaking of how spiritual delight will help a Christian maintain consistency in his conduct, Manton cites Augustine, who said, “Lord, my chaste delights are your Holy Scriptures.”  In another place, he relates the how a Bishop of Iconium, by the name of Amphilocius, argued before the emperor, Theodosius the Great, against toleration for the Arians.

(4)  They will refer to current events, but often without explicit detail.  Many sermons were preached on fast or thanksgiving days to lament some current disaster or to celebrate some wonderful Providence.

(5)  Very frequently they will draw analogies between nature or human behavior and the truth under consideration.  Manton writes, “Pleasure is the great witch and sorceress that enchants with the love of the world, makes us unmindful of the country from which we came and to which we are going…” or “Painted fire needs no fuel; a dead formal profession is easily kept up…”  or again, “Dig in the mines of knowledge, search into the scripture, do not gather up a few scattered notions, but look into the bowels.  Silver does not lie on the surface of the earth, but deep in the bottom of it and will cost much labor and digging to gain.”

Such illustrations are liberally sprinkled throughout their sermons.  They cast a quick beam of light on a truth before the preacher moves on to his next point.  Later that Lord’s Day or during the week, their hearers could recall the truth illustrated and apply it to themselves.  Caveat Lector!  JOB


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