Sometimes I have the opportunity to connect with authors. Thomas Breimaier has written a book about one of my favorite preachers. I reached out via email. Tom’s book Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon [affiliate link] is good stuff. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
Who is Thomas Breimaier? Tom was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to the United Kingdom in 2013. Alongside studying at the University of Edinburgh, he helped out in various capacities at Hope City Church, Edinburgh, a church plant in the west of the city. He currently works at Spurgeon’s College in London, teaching classes in systematic theology and church history. Tom is married to Hannah, a primary school teacher who is originally from Scotland.
Our exchange follows.
BAS: For my readers who do not know much about Charles Spurgeon, who was he, and why is he a notable figure?
TB: Charles Haddon Spurgeon was quite possibly the most well-known preacher of the 19th century. That said, he was born in a small village and spent virtually all of his childhood in villages and small towns between Essex and Cambridge. As such his upbringing was very much steeped in a rural identity. He is most known for his preaching in London, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which was the largest Protestant church in the world. He preached to thousands each week, and through his influence he started a college for pastors as well as two orphanages which would eventually become home to over 800 boys and girls. Spurgeon was known first and foremost for his sermons, which were transcribed and printed each week, and often sold tens of thousands of copies both in Britain and globally. He died comparatively young, at 57, and yet he remains one of the most influential evangelical figures in global Christian history.
BAS: What led you to the study of Surgeon, his preaching, and his ministry?
TB: I think it really started when I took a class during my graduate program called “The Bible in the Nineteenth Century.” I had read a bit of Spurgeon beforehand, but I wanted to take the opportunity to dig deeper into the sermons and writings of a Christian figure who captivated the minds of millions in his century. These ideas percolated in my mind for a few years, and when I applied to the doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh, I thought this might be my opportunity to really dig into this topic. It was really fun to work on a project that combined history, theology, and biblical studies, and it was also a genuine encouragement to me personally to spend several years reading Spurgeon’s heartfelt writing every day.
BAS: Your book explores two main themes of Spurgeon’s preaching: his focus on conversion and on the cross. Why were themes important to Spurgeon? How did they shape his ministry?
TB: These themes are two of David Bebbington’s famous ‘quadrilateral’ definition of Victorian evangelicalism. [The others are a particular focus on the Bible and also social activism.] So, in a sense, I’m tapping into themes that are part of evangelical identity across a range of figures. That said, what I’ve argued in the book is that these themes held a particular bearing on his engagement with the Bible. Spurgeon grew up in a context that held the Puritans in particularly high regard, and as such I think he’s taken theological streams that were prominent in the various European reformations and brought them into the modern world. This, in my view, shows us two key things. First, these truths which undergird the Christian message of the Gospel are timeless and transcendent. Second, while these truths are timeless, it is the obligation of Christians to know their mission fields well, and to communicate the hope of the Gospel clearly and in an engaging way.
BAS: Spurgeon is best known for his preaching ministry. But he also established a magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and a training school for pastors, now known to us as Spurgeon’s College. Why did Spurgeon launch these initiatives, and how did they increase his influence?
TB: Spurgeon never had the benefit of a formal university education. During his youth, nonconformists (i.e. non-Anglican Protestants) weren’t able to study theology at the ancient universities like Oxford and Cambridge. There were a few Baptist training institutions, but they were similarly targeted at a constituency that was already well-educated, and also largely restricted to those that could afford the various expenses that come with higher education. Spurgeon set out to create a training path for ministers who would not have had a chance to apply to the other ministerial training facilities. Spurgeon didn’t care nearly as much about the students’ previous academic records as he did their capacity for ministry. As such, he started with bright and able preachers and ensured that they learned necessary elements of biblical and theological studies, as well as further instruction on preaching and rhetoric.
The magazine is in some ways a similar endeavor. Spurgeon realized that not everyone was called to be in paid ministry, however he had the expectation that all men and women would benefit from further study and reflection on biblical and theological topics. As such, he reprinted his and other people’s sermons, offered various news on the state of Christianity and missionary works, and he also included a number of book reviews in each issue, which directed his readers to further resources.
For me, both of these enterprises show a strong desire on his part to provide clear, helpful instruction for the whole church. I should also say that for me it is an absolute privilege to be part of Spurgeon’s College today, where I’m able to play a small role in training men and women for Christian mission, ministry, and leadership.
BAS: Lastly, how is Spurgeon instructive for us today? What can we learn from his life, preaching, and ministry?
TB: First off, I often tell students and others that they shouldn’t feel obliged to be Spurgeon! He was who he was, he had his own gifts, we have ours. In ministry and everything else, comparison is often a road to disappointment and dismay. Nevertheless, I’d say that we ought to be inspired and challenged by his approach to the Bible. We should read widely like he did; and preach plainly, like he did. But we can’t forget the most important thing: to preach Christ and him crucified. We shouldn’t feel compelled to avoid the gospel because it’s not explicit in a particular text. Yet we also shouldn’t try to tack on an altar call to an otherwise unrelated sermon. Instead, we can recognize-like Spurgeon did-that the Bible is a book which is ultimately about reconciliation with God the Father through the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and step into that mission by proclaiming those ancient truths. Spurgeon took these truths and presented them in accessible and engaging ways, and he never preached without sharing the good news. I think it’s a good reminder, and a convicting reminder, for every man or woman who wants to teach God’s word.