An Interview with Thomas Breimaier, Author of Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon

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.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

Image by Nino Carè from Pixabay

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

The Marks of a Great Preacher

Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay

A truly great preacher is marked by a combination of faith and fire–faith in two senses. The first is the faith was once delivered unto the saints. The sermons of great preachers are messages of substance. They are not merely frothy concoctions of sentiment and anecdote, but rather they find their center of gravity in the purity of doctrine, in the profundity of Scripture, and in the power of the gospel. The second is faith in the sense of personal conviction. This living faith is also fuel for the fire. Great preachers have convictions that are contagious. They speak existentially to the whole person, unleashing deep emotions and galvanizing the heart, the intellect, and the will. They move their hearers, and not merely in an ephemeral or superficial way. Deep calleth unto deep. The hearer feels located, as if the preacher is speaking specifically to him or her. The messenger provokes a response in the listener.

Timothy Larsen, writing in the foreword to Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles Spurgeon [affiliate link]

This sounds all of the right notes.

Van Gogh’s Ecumenism

I’m reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, and enjoying every page. A year ago I took an art class with Chad Hines, who has an infectious love of Van Gogh.

Naifeh and Smith detail Van Gogh’s religious influences. His father was a Dutch minister. His work in London as an art dealer brought him into contact with Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle. Van Gogh was a close reader of Thomas A’Kempis. His depictions of the sower were inspired by his experiences in the countryside, but also by his father’s favorite parable. Before he discovered his calling as an artist, Van Gogh wanted to be a minister. During a period which brought him back to Dordt, Naifeh and Smith write:

Vincent spent every Sunday going from church to church in a marathon of devotion, ignoring differences between Lutheran and Reforemd, Dutch and French, even between Catholic and Protestant, sometimes logging three or four sermons in a day. When Görlitz [his roommate at the time] expressed surprise at his ecumenism, Vincent replied, “I see God in each church . . . the dogma is not important, but the spirit of the Gospel is, and I find that spirit in all churches.” For Vincent, only the preaching mattered. In letters to Theo [his brother], he described how the Catholic priest lifted up the poor, cheerless peasants in his flock, while the Protestant preacher used “fire and enthusiasm” to sober the smug burghers in his.

Inevitably these Sunday tours rekindled Vincent’s ambition to preach. At home, he began studying the works of the most inspiring preacher he had ever heard, Charles Spurgeon, and drafting sermons during his late-night study sessions. He regaled his scornful fellow borders with impromptu inspirational readings, even as they laughed and made faces at him. He tested everyone’s patience, even Görlitz’s, with interminable dinnertime prayers. When Görlitz urged him not to waste his time on his housemates’ souls, Vincent snapped, “Let them laugh . . . someday they will learn to appreciate it.”

Van Gogh later abandons his pursuit of religion, of theology, and of ministry. Following a family conflict, he abandons belief in God. I knew of Van Gogh’s disagreeableness and his declared atheism. I did not know about his early religious pursuits and that they were informed by figures like A’Kempis and Spurgeon.

But now I know. And so do you.