3 Properties of Sermon Style

Preaching Style

Largely due to Doug Wilson’s gloriously incessant postings of Shedd quotations I cried, “Ad Fontes!” and ran down an old copy of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. I may write an extended review in the future, but all I’ll say for now is, “Feast away my preacher friend. Feast away.”

Shedd served as a Professor of English Literature for part of his academic career. Literary and rhetorical skill shine through on each page (hence why Wilson can ransack the book for pithiness). This brother knows what style is and teaches us how to preach it.

3 Fundamental Properties of Style

Shedd writes, “The fundamental properties of good discourse are as distinct and distinguishable as those of matter. Many secondary qualities enter into it, but its primary and indispensable characteristics are reducible to three: plainness, force, and beauty.” The Union man goes on to admit such characteristics aren’t peculiar to evangelical preaching, but they do have “a special reference to Sacred Eloquence.”

When people have asked me how they can pray for my preaching I’ve typically said, “Pray that it be bold (Eph. 6:20) and clear (Col. 2:2).” Shedd merely adds a third marker—beauty. If you need convincing that beauty belongs in the discussion just read Psalm 96 and Steve DeWitt’s book. Since finishing Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, I’ve started praying each day for God to make my sermons more plain, forceful, and beautiful.

To whet your appetite for an exploration of Shedd’s instruction, let me string together some choice remarks on each stylistic property.

Plainness in Preaching

  • “The understanding is the avenue to the man. No one is affected by truth who does not apprehend it. Discourse must therefore, first of all, be plain.”
  • “Plainness of style is the product of sagacity and keenness. A sagacious understanding always speaks in plain terms. A keen vision describes like an eye-witness.”
  • “Everything that covers up and envelopes the truth should be stripped off from it, so that the bare reality may be seen. There is prodigious power in this plainness of presentation.”
  • “When the style is plain, the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for a man starts when he is touched.”
  • “The preacher should toil after [plainness], as he would toil after virtue itself.”
  • “The preacher whose head it right, and whose conscience is right, will soon come to possess a love for this plainness.”

Force in Preaching

  • “[Force] in discourse renders it penetrative. Plainness is more external in its relations to the mind; force is more internal.”
  • “Force is power manifested,—power streaming out in all directions, and from every pore of his mind.”
  • “The oratorical power of the preacher depends on his recipiency; upon his contemplation of [truth].”
  • “The preacher’s first duty, in respect to [force], is to render himself a biblical student . . . He is one whose mind is continually receiving the whole body of Holy Writ into itself in a living and genial way, and how, for this reason, is becoming more and more energetic in his methods of contemplation and more and more forcible in his modes of presentation. A truly mighty sacred orator is ‘mighty in the Scriptures.'”
  • “Force is electrical; it permeates and thrills.”
  • “Perhaps the sole cause of the success of the radical orator . . . [is that] he is a man of one lone idea. . . . As a consequence he is an intense man—a forcible man. His utterances penetrate.”

Beauty in Preaching

  • “The best definition of beauty is . . . multitude in unity.”
  • “So long as the sermon is destitute of unity, it must be destitute of beauty.”
  • “Method (organization), unity, and simplicity are essential properties of true beauty.”
  • “There is no danger of an excess of unity and method in the sermon. The closer and more compact the materials, the simpler and more symmetrical the plan, the better the sermon.”
  • “The preacher should always make beauty of style subservient to plainness and force.”

If you’re looking for a fast and free way to read Shedd’s work, here you go!

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