My Favourite Preacher: Jaques-Benigne Bossuet

Two summers ago I posted a piece on my favourite pastor, my first parish priest.  Protestants in general and Pentecostals in particular like their pastor to be a great pulpiteer to boot.  With the advent of Christian (well, part of the time) television, people have an opportunity to follow preachers other than their own pastor on a regular basis, and to support them financially.  So the favourite pastor and favourite preacher aren’t the same for many people.

Christian preachers divide themselves in many ways.  There are those who are orthodox and those who are not, and I’ve gotten after liberals aplenty on this blog.  Turning to the way the Bible and doctrine is preached, there are two types: topical preachers and expository preachers.  The last is almost a lost art; neither our ministers nor their congregations have a comprehensive enough knowledge of the Scriptures to either preach the Word in this way or to absorb the exposition.  My personal favourite expositor is J. Vernon McGee; although I don’t always agree with his doctrinal approach, his wit and ability to see the bigger issues made me a fan, especially in the late 1970’s when he had such an impact on me and my contemporaries.

With topical preachers, there are many variations.  Starting with the Protestants, way too many preach “sermonettes for Christianettes,” as McGee put it.  In non-liturgical churches the sermon is the centrepiece of the service, and thus the temptation is to expand the content to fill the time.  There are many ways of doing this, from endless stories to doctrinal expositions which generally show why I believe that “Protestant theology” is an oxymoron.  On the other end Pentecostal preachers do not have as their goal education but to lead the congregation to an experience with the Spirit; as such, Pentecostal preaching has been until recently something of an art form, as Robert Duvall recognised when he made The Apostle.  How this is going to hold up with increasing levels of formal education is one of the challenges with which full-gospel churches wrestle.

The plague of Anglican/Episcopal preaching, beyond the endless problem of liberalism, is Anglican Fudge.  The trick with Anglican Fudge is to use a tremendous amount of erudition (or more accurately an “empty parade of learning”, as J.N.D. Kelly used to say about Jerome) to produce an effect of satisfaction in the hearer without really saying anything substantive.  In quiet times you can get away with it, but living where the animals are tame and the people run wild I never could find those times.

That leads us to the Roman Catholics.  As I have commented elsewhere, the Roman Catholic Church has an unrivalled intellectual tradition.  Sometimes Catholic priests overdo it; in my first parish, one Jesuit put it on display for the congregation.  When he finished his discourse, he gave me, the lector, a blank look, to which I mouthed, “The Creed! The Creed!”  More often than not, however, this heritage never filters down to the parish level, and although there are certainly capable parish priests in the pulpit the tendency is drift into the schmaltzy, especially this time of year when the Blessed Mother or the right to life comes to the forefront.

The background for greatness is there, and it’s probably that which brings me to the person whom I consider my favourite preacher, the French Bishop Jaques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704).  His life is well documented elsewhere, so let me give the quick summary.  Born in Dijon (the home of the mustard) he was moulded into the priesthood from a very early age.  Coming to Paris, he quickly became well-known for his sermons at the Court at Versailles.  His sermons successfully competed with the stage entertainment of the day for audiences.  Appointed the “preceptor to the Dauphin” (i.e., the tutor of Louis XIV’s son, not the sharpest knife in drawer) he threw himself into the thankless task with energy.  In 1681 he was appointed Bishop of Meaux, east of Paris, where he composed many of controversial works and his matchless devotional works Elevations on the Mysteries and Meditations on the Gospel.  He died in 1704, active until just before the end.

Why Bossuet?  For his fans, the easier question is “why not?” but in brief here are his virtues:

  • He is Scriptural.  Bossuet is well versed in the Fathers of the Church in general and Augustine in particular, but it is the Bible that is the key book he refers to over and over again in his preaching.  As Bossuet explains in Elevations on the Mysteries, “I did not take up the pen to teach you the thoughts of men.” (Elevations, XVI, 3)
  • He is literary.  There is no English-speaking preacher who has the literary status in this language that Bossuet has in French, and that in a far more secular culture.  He is literary not because his style is ornate but because it is direct; there is simply no more eloquent speaker or writer in the French language than Bossuet.  Like Pascal and Avvakum, he showed that crisp, direct prose was the way to both show the faith and gain a place in one’s culture to boot.
  • He is Catholic without being churchy.  Although churchiness isn’t restricted to Roman Catholicism, it is a particular occupational hazard of Catholics, their church being so central to their faith.  Bossuet is certainly Catholic in outlook, but his presentation is broader than just going through the sacramental and devotional system that Roman Catholicism offers.  One of the best examples of this is his Sermon on the Profession of Mademoiselle de la Vallière (my personal favourite) where he skilfully turns a woman’s final entry into the religious life into an exposition of the journey of every soul that comes back to God.
  • His accent is on happiness.  In an age of “happy-clappy” preachers, that may seem a liability; in the seventeenth century, a dour time for much of Europe, it’s extraordinary.  Bossuet is too aware of the demands of the Gospel and too straightforward to cover them up, but a happy God who is the goal for happy people is a frequent theme for Bossuet.  In Elevations on the Mysteries, he puts it this way:  “He who is perfect is happy, for he knows his perfection… O God, I rejoice in your eternal happiness!”  In the early part of Meditations on the Gospel he says this: “Man’s chief aim in life is to be happy. Our Lord Jesus Christ came into this world in order to give us the means for attaining this happiness. To find happiness where it should be found is the source of all good, and the source of all evil is to find it where it should not be found…Let us also see the goal where happiness is found, and the means to attain it.”  Contrast that with the opening of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  With Bossuet, the happiness is both starting point and goal.

Let me give a few examples.  First, this Augustinian gem from Mlle. de la Vallière’s profession:

Therefore let us consider, Christians, what is this newness of hearts, and what is the state from whence the Holy Spirit draws us. What is older than love itself, and what is newer than being one’s own persecutor? But he who persecutes himself must have seen something he loves more than himself, so that there are two loves which motivate everything. St. Augustine explains it by these words: Amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. (City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 28) One is the “love of self, even to the contempt of God.” This is what makes the old life and the life of the world. The other is “the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” This is what makes the new life of Christianity, and that is brought to its perfection in the religious life. These two opposite loves will be the whole subject of this address.

On a more “Pentecostal” note, we turn to this “aisle runner” which comes from his exposition of Matthew 21:21 in Meditations on the Gospel:

Behold here the wonder of wonders: man clothed in the omnipotence of God.

Go, said the Saviour, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils: freely have you received, freely give. (Mt. 10:8)  Who ever gave such a command?…

Here, therefore, is the greatest miracle of Jesus Christ.  Not only is he all-powerful, but here he renders them all-powerful and, if possible, more power than he himself is, constantly performing greater miracles, and all through faith and through prayer: “and all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.”  Faith, therefore, and prayer are all-powerful, and they clothe man with the omnipotence of God.  “If you can believe,” said the Savior, “all is possible to him who believes”.

The performance of miracles, therefore, is not the difficulty.  Rather, the difficulty is to believe.  “If you can believe.”  That is the miracle of miracles to believe absolutely and without hesitation.  “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief”…

Thus the great miracle of Jesus Christ is not to make us all-powerful men.  Rather, it is to make us courageous and faithful believers who dare to hope all from God, when it is a question of his glory…

Let us dare all things, and no matter how slight our faith may be, let us fear nothing.  A small grain of faith, the size of a mustard seed, enables us to undertake anything.  Grandeur has not part in it, said the Savior.  I ask only for truth and sincerity if it becomes necessary that this small grain grow, God who has given it, will make it grow.  Act then with the little you possess, and much will be given to you: “And this grain of mustard seed” and this budding faith “will become a great tree, and the birds of the air will dwell in the branches thereof.”  The most sublime virtues will not only come there, but will make their abode therein.

Lastly I’ll include the end of Meditations on the Gospel.  Early in the closing discourse Bossuet exhorts Christians to always pray in the name of Jesus Christ, something which is, ahem, lacking in many of our prayers, but then ends it with this:

Let us enter, therefore, with Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ, into the construction of the entire body of the Church, and rendering thanks with Her through Jesus Christ, for all those who are complete, let us ask for the completion of the entire body of Jesus Christ, and all the society of the saints. Let us ask, at the same time, with confidence, that we may find ourselves placed in the ranks of the blessed, never doubting that this grace will be extended to us, if we persevere in asking for it through mercy and grace; that is, through the merit of the blood which has been shed for us, and of which we have the sacred pledge in the Eucharist.

After this prayer, let us go with Jesus Christ to the sacrifice, and let us advance with Him to the two mountains; that is, to the Mount of Olives, and to that of Calvary. Let us go, I say, to these two mountains, and let us pass from one to the other: from that of the Mount of Olives, which is the one of agony, to that of Calvary, which is that of death; from the Mount of Olives, which is that of combat, to that of Calvary, where, in dying, one triumphs with Jesus Christ; from the Mount of Olives, which is the mountain of resignation, to that of Calvary, which is the mountain of actual sacrifice; and, finally, from the one where we say: Not my will but Thine be done, to the one where we say: Into Thy hands I commend my spirit (Luke xxii. 42; xxiii. 46); that is, from the one where we prepare ourselves for all things, to the one where we die to everything with Jesus Christ, to Whom be rendered honor and glory, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Bossuet was involved in many controversies; some with people whom Protestants tend to think highly (Fenelon, Mme. de Guyon) some without such a reputation (Richard Simon) and of course with the Protestants themselves.  But French Protestant Huguenots such as Jaques Saurin, in Dutch exile, studied his sermons.  His Augustinian outlook was akin to their own Reformed bent, and they knew a good preacher when they saw one.  So should we.  Until a preacher of the Gospel takes his or her place in Anglophone literature that Bossuet has in French, we would do well to read and emulate the man whose moniker in history is “the Eagle”.

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