New Look at the Prince of Preachers
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) is a towering figure in church history, in seminary classrooms—yes, even on Twitter. The pastor of London's Metropolitan Tabernacle is history's most widely read preacher outside of Scripture. So voluminous, in fact, was Spurgeon's output that more written material exists from him than from any other Christian author, living or dead.
A 15-year project in the making, Tom Nettles's new book, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Christian Focus), distills in 700 pages Spurgeon's life, ministry, and theology. According to one decent preacher, this biography will be the "standard for a long time."
I corresponded with Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary and one of America's foremost Baptist historians, about whether the "Prince of Preachers" was a lousy theologian and inadequate expositor, what Spurgeon would say to evangelicals today, and more.
You write that Spurgeon's soul was "spilled out into his letters." What do these letters uniquely reveal about his life and thought?
His letters reveal how deeply personal gospel truth was to Spurgeon. The experience embedded within forgiveness, justification, the indwelling of the Spirit, the operations of God in sanctification, the sense of the privilege of sonship, and the knowledge of Christ's intercession is deeply personal. They constitute material he'd communicate to friends and family in tones of deep earnestness and palpable awareness. These letters are lessons in the applicability of doctrine to devotion.
Additionally, the dangers of error, the devastation of betrayal, the disorientation and debility caused by pain, and the disappointment and embarrassment of public ridicule are presented with unvarnished sensitivity. These letters clearly portray reality. They show Spurgeon could be beautifully sharp in response to perceived injustice toward himself, and honest amid sickness—all the while being supported by humble resignation to God's providence.
What was the Downgrade Controversy, and what lessons ought contemporary Christians learn from this difficult period near the end of Spurgeon's life (1887-1892)?
The Downgrade Controversy received its name from a series of articles Spurgeon published in The Sword and the Trowel in 1887. These articles, the initial ones written by Robert Shindler, outlined the doctrinal decline in historically evangelical denominations after the doctrine of biblical inspiration—and thus inerrancy—was compromised. This phenomenon had spread in the Baptist Union's ranks, among its leadership, and in its pulpits. Spurgeon wasn't free to reveal names and examples because of a pledge made to a friend, S. H. Booth, secretary to the Union. The reaction to Spurgeon, involving the posture of taking offense on the one hand and seeking unity by silence on the other, drove him to resign from the Baptist Union. Spurgeon's reward for faithfulness was censure from his brethren.
This conflict should teach us that nothing positive is gained for the kingdom when we seek unity at the expense of vital truth or think error will voluntarily go away.
Some portray Spurgeon as merely a populist preacher and a poor theologian. Is this an accurate portrait?
It's a grossly inadequate impression. Put Spurgeon in our megachurches today, or even our best pastors' conferences, and let him preach "Things that Accompany Salvation." Everyone would be struck by, or lost in, the thick doctrinal exposition of the eternal covenant of redemption—its contours in eternity, its outworkings in time, and the ways God executes his eternal decrees in the arena of human life and responsibility.
"A poor theologian!" One who rejects the Reformed confessional heritage might think so, but Spurgeon's knowledge of the deep doctrinal tradition of Puritanism informed his sermons and writings. His style was purposefully designed to reach the masses, but his theology was neither poor, flighty, nor ephemeral—but rich, consistent, and ageless. He's been a constant doctrinal enrichment to my own soul.
Was the "Prince of Preachers" an adequate expositor?
Exactly what does an "adequate expositor" do in a sermon? During each service, Spurgeon did a running homily of a long passage of Scripture in which he set the text of the sermon in context. His sermon was then a more doctrinally orientated exposition of a shorter portion—perhaps one verse or phrase—of that larger section of Scripture. His people weren't unaware of context or the flow of the biblical narrative. In fact, they were more educated than typical congregations in terms of the doctrinal implications and coherent unity of the Bible.
In my opinion, this attention to doctrine is better exposition that the hypertextual isolation of much that passes for faithful exposition today. Spurgeon showed his awareness of the relation between the literary and contextual interpretation of Scripture and of the distillation of doctrine from "forgotten quaint, remarkable, out-of-the-way texts." While endorsing and demonstrating the chaste way in which spiritualizing a text should be done, he nonetheless insisted, "The first sense of the passage must never be drowned in the outflow of your imagination; it must be distinctly declared and allowed to hold the first rank; your accommodation of it must never thrust out the original and native meaning, or even push it into the background."
Of Spurgeon Justin Taylor remarks:
He often worked 18 hours a day. His collected sermons fill 63 volumes (the largest set by a single author in church history). He read six books a week and could recall their contents. He read through The Pilgrim's Progress more than 100 times. 14,460 people were added to his church's membership, and he did most of the membership interviews himself. He trained 900 men to the pastorate. He founded an orphanage, edited a magazine, produced more than 140 books, and is said to have received 500 letters a week to respond to. More than 25,000 copies of his sermons were printed each week. He often preached 10 times a week in various churches. He did all this while suffering from gout, rheumatism, and Bright's disease—living only to the age of 57. And I think his wife was sick most of that time.
How is this really possible, even for a perfectly fit man? Is some of this hagiography? Was Spurgeon a workaholic?
This isn't hagiography; it's simple fact. One could say, "Do the math." To overestimate how well he did each thing would be hagiography, but to note he actually did them is true. His book reviews were pertinent but not, for the most part, extended critical reviews. Sometimes sermon preparation overwhelmed him, for he was unable to use sermons more than once due to their immediate availability to the public through print. He had effective, talented, and devoted deacons and elders who aided him in every aspect of his ministry. They took on much of the burden of initially interviewing new converts and prospective members and preparing the way for Spurgeon's final interview. His brother did almost all the baptizing, and the discipline of the congregation was largely in the elders' hands. In letter writing Spurgeon was the master of short but witty, sensitive, and relevant responses. He also had a personal secretary who aided in his daily literary production, as well as devoted publishers who wanted everything he spoke or wrote.
It's well known that Spurgeon struggled mightily with depression. What should we learn about suffering from how he faced this battle?
He understood the mysterious interaction of body and soul and was able to interpret the depression of his spirits with a knowledge of the oppressive nature of pain. His depression always drove him to God in prayer and dependence—not into an isolation from the spiritual exercises and convictions that supported his public ministry. He maintained a productive schedule of accomplishing his many duties and a clear awareness of God's purpose in affliction even during times of deep soul weariness.
If Spurgeon could address evangelical ministers today, what do you think he'd say?
If we read Lectures to My Students we'll learn the answer to this question. For example: "Sanctity in ministers is a loud call to sinners to repent, and when allied with holy cheerfulness it becomes wondrously attractive." Or, "Men are not called to the ministry who have no knowledge and no definite belief. When young fellows say that they have not made up their minds upon theology, they ought to go back to the Sunday school until they have." Or, "Garnish your dishes, but remember that the joint is the main point to consider, not the garnishing." Or, "Above all things, beware of letting your tongue outrun your brains. Guard against a feeble fluency, a garrulous prosiness, a facility of saying nothing." Or, "Brother, if the truth be in thee it will flow out of thine entire being as the perfume streams from every bough of the sandal-wood tree; it will drive thee onward as the trade-wind speeds the ships, filling all thy sails; it will consume thy whole nature with its energy as the forest fire burns up all the trees of the wood. Truth has not fully given thee her friendship till all thy doings are marked with her seal."