Spurgeon the Theologian?
Was Charles Spurgeon really a theologian? No doubt at all he was a great and influential preacher. In person he preached up to thirteen times per week, gathered the largest church of his day, and could make himself heard in a crowd of twenty-three thousand people (without amplification). In print he published some eighteen million words, selling over fifty-six million copies of his sermons in nearly forty languages in his own lifetime. But none of that is quite the same as to say that he was a theologian. Indeed, some antagonists insisted quite categorically that he was not. According to the Dean of Ripon, who crossed swords with Spurgeon over the question of baptism, Spurgeon “is to be pitied, because his entire want of acquaintance with theological literature leaves him utterly unfit for the determination of such a question, which is a question, not of mere doctrine, but of what may be called historical theology.”
With such things having been said about Spurgeon, many were quietly surprised in 1964 when the eminent Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote his Encounter with Spurgeon, a work in which he commended Spurgeon in the very warmest terms. Really, they wondered, was a self-educated Victorian preacher worthy of the attention of the rector of Hamburg University? It was the beginning of a change that Spurgeon seems to have fore- seen: “For my part,” he had written, “I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”
As much as anything, what has thrown people here is the sheer lucidity of his style. He wrote and spoke with such limpid prose, it could all too easily be mistaken for shallow simplicity. But, Spurgeon knew, to think that difficulty of style is a true indicator of depth of substance is only the mistake of the intellectually proud.
Brethren, we should cultivate a clear style. When a man does not make me understand what he means, it is because he does not himself know what he means. . . . If you look down into a well, if it be empty, it will appear to be very deep; but if there be water in it, you will see its brightness. I believe that many “deep” preachers are simply so because they are like dry wells with nothing whatever in them, except decaying leaves, a few stones, and perhaps a dead cat or two. If there be living water in your preaching, it may be very deep, but the light of the truth will give clearness to it.
Indeed, he believed, such clarity of expression is part of the Christlike humility to which all theologians and ministers of the Word are called.
Some would impress us by their depth of thought, when it is merely a love of big words. To hide plain things in dark sentences, is sport rather than service for God. If you love men better, you will love phrases less. How used your mother to talk to you when you were a child? There! do not tell me. Don’t print it. It would never do for the public ear. The things that she used to say to you were childish, and earlier still, babyish. Why did she thus speak, for she was a very sensible woman? Because she loved you. There is a sort of tutoyage, as the French call it, in which love delights.
Almost as damning for his reputation as a theologian was his refusal to dabble in speculation or spend time on peripheral matters. “Speculation,” he declared, “is an index of the spiritual poverty of the man who surrenders himself to it.” Now certainly he was a man of broad interests, but he lived with such a sense of urgency and such a conviction of the sufficiency of Christ that the need to preach Christ crucified tended to trump worrying over obscure Scriptures or off-center doctrines.
There is, certainly, enough in the gospel for any one man, enough to fill any one life, to absorb all our thought, emotion, desire, and energy, yea, infinitely more than the most experienced Christian and the most intelligent teacher will ever be able to bring forth. If our Master kept to his one topic, we may wisely do the same, and if any say that we are narrow, let us delight in that blessed narrowness which brings men into the narrow way. If any denounce us as cramped in our ideas, and shut up to one set of truths, let us rejoice to be shut up with Christ, and count it the truest enlargement of our minds.
He is so glorious, that only the infinite God has full knowledge of Him, therefore there will be no limit to our study, or narrowness in our line of thought, if we make our Lord the great object of all our thoughts and researches.
Yet, for all that, Spurgeon was, quite self-consciously, a theologian. Avid in his biblical, theological, and linguistic study, he believed that every preacher should be a theologian, because it is only robust and meaty theology that has the nutritional value to feed and grow robust Christians and robust churches.
Some preachers seem to be afraid lest their sermons should be too rich in doctrine, and so injure the spiritual digestions of their hearers. The fear is superfluous. . . . This is not a theological age, and therefore it rails at sound doctrinal teaching, on the principle that ignorance despises wisdom. The glorious giants of the Puritan age fed on something better than the whipped creams and pastries which are now so much in vogue.
Thus, while he was no theological innovator, he sought to avoid superficiality in theology with just the same enthusiasm as he avoided obscurity in communication.
The notion that we have only to cry, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” and repeat for ever the same simplicities, will be fatal to a continuous ministry over one people if we attempt to carry it out. The evangelical party in the Church of England was once supreme; but it lost very much power through the weakness of its thought, and its evident belief that pious platitudes could hold the ear of England.
That combination of concerns, for theological depth with plainness of speech, made Spurgeon a preeminent pastorally minded theologian. He wanted to be both faithful to God and understood by people. That, surely, is a healthy and Christlike perspective for any theologian. And that is why he is such a rewarding and refreshing thinker.