R.L. Dabney is better known today for his extraordinary idiosyncracies and and rabid racism than for his careful education of future preachers. Yet in 1870, Dabney produced a work called Sacred Rhetoric (now titled Evangelical Eloquence and published by the Banner of Truth Trust). Along with On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons by Broadus, Dabney’s work was a standard text on homiletics in the nineteenth century, and was quite well reviewed, even by Anglican, Baptist, and Methodist sources. While most of us would find his emphasis and thorough examination of ancient rhetoric unnecessary at best, I don’t know of anyone who would dispute the two chapters where he explains “the cardinal requisites of the sermon”.
It is worth pointing out that Dabney (and his nineteenth century contemporaries) called these seven things requisites. In other words, these seven items were minimum standards, without which the sermon was deficient. These seven categories were essential to the sermon:
- Textual Fidelity: Dabney’s Protestantism is clear right from the start. The minister is not entitled to preach his own insights or opinions; he is a herald of the great King, and his duty is to clearly declare the mind of God revealed in Scripture. The sermon must be entirely faithful to the text; another way of saying this would be to say that the text must not just be in the sermon, but the sermon must be in the text. You can test for this requisite by asking yourself, “Do the significant points of the sermon match the significant points of the text?” If not, textual fidelity is lacking.
- Unity: I’m going to allow Dabney to speak for himself here. “Unity requires to things. The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres throughout. He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearers soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent.” The test for this requisite is to ask ten people after the sermon, “What was the sermon about?” Eight should be able to give you (roughly) the same answer.
- Evangelical Tone: this requisite is composed of two things, namely, zeal for God and compassion for the hearers. This might be better called the sermon’s Christological focus. Ask yourself, does the sermon compel you to flee to Christ as the only hope for the penitent hearer? If not, Christ has not been preached, and the sermon has failed the test of evangelical tone.
- Instructiveness: “The instructive sermon,” writes Dabney, “is that which abounds in food for the understanding.” The Christian faith is manifestly about truth, and we must be instructed in truth, sanctified in truth, and immersed in truth. Yet the modern sermon is almost never truly instructive. Ask the question, “Does this sermon seriously engage the mind, or is it full of clichés and slogans? Is a hearer likely to genuinely rethink his view of God, the church, etc.?”
- Movement: This is simply a way of saying that the sermon has sustained progress. The parts of the sermon are contributing to the whole of the sermon in such a way that the earlier parts give the later parts a fuller effect. If you’ve ever left a sermon thinking, “That seemed to go on forever” or “It felt like the sermon bogged down” then the sermon lacked movement.
- Point: This is the overall emotional and mental impact of the sermon. The hearer should be able to discern a specific point pressing itself on him to which he must either assent or deny, agree or disagree. Ask yourself, “Is the effect on the hearers similar?” If it left one thankful, for instance, did it leave all thankful for the same reason? If not, then the sermon was lacking point.
- Order: This is perhaps the most lacking of the cardinal requisites. I would term this structure or organization rather than order, but the idea is the same. The sermon should be well organized, with the parts properly arranged. A good test for order is to see if the hearers could compare notes and reproduce the sermon’s outline, or could state how it progressed from one part to another.
All of this being said, I would point out that several of these are interrelated. For example, if a sermon lacks structure, it will tend to lack movement, point, and unity as well. I am left agreeing with Dr. John Carrick that Dabney’s cardinal requisites are honored almost exclusively in their breach in our era! Rehearsing this list exposes the defective nature of preaching in the present day, because most of you know that you rarely (if at all) hear a sermon that has all seven of these qualities.
To my knowledge, in the history of homiletics, no one has ever argued against these qualities. Certainly, some have said (and I would agree), that a sermon can be instructive in the wrong way: that is, delivered more like a lecture and far too full of information. But I don’t think anyone has said that a sermon shouldn’t be instructive in the way Dabney meant “instructive”: that is, appealing to the entire person through the mind or understanding.
Brothers, pray for your pastors!
- From fire and brimstone to humble pie, how I write a sermon (geoffsurratt.com)
- 10 Questions for Expositors (timchester.wordpress.com)
- 7 Steps to Successful Sermon Prep (deandeguara.com)
- “Put your heart into your sermon” by Charles Bridges (tollelege.wordpress.com)
- How NOT to Listen to a Sermon (jimmyroh.wordpress.com)