The Power of Christian Preaching over Two Millennia

Article excerpt


Reading "A History of Preaching," a remarkable work of narrative, is like touring the Grand

Canyon from so many scenic rest-stops on the road. The vastness is out there, but from your car you glimpse only a few plateaus, peaks, or gullies at any one time.

The history of preaching is a similarly vast subject covering two millennia, and O.C. Edwards Jr. has given us a very fine tour. Each of his portraits of a great preacher, an era of Christian thought, or a change in preaching style or theory is scenic in its own right. Yet the author manages to tell his larger story in a seamless way, conveying the vastness and depth of preaching's impact across history.

It is a fine antidote for the many American churchgoers who remember only the last good or bad sermon they heard at Easter or Christmas. Mr. Edwards shows how sermons shaped civilization and preaching produced some of the greatest works and orators of all time. It was Pope Leo the Great's eloquence, after all, that persuaded Attila the Hun to not invade Italy in the mid-5th century.

This is a lengthy work, offering 900-pages of good narrative in volume one, and then 664 more pages in volume two, which is a CD containing 67 sermons mentioned in the text. Mr. Edwards, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, joins a lively story with an impressive conciseness on issues that are still much debated. He long had noticed the lack of such a modern overview, and this one is clearly a labor of love: he spent 18 years on it, and it was published in his 77th year.

The sermon, he explains, is a simple thing - an oration based on a Bible text given in a worship setting, the missionary field, or to students seeking Christian instruction. For this reader, the book was especially helpful in two particular areas, the early origins of the sermon and its transition from England to the American colonies and beyond. As Mr. Edwards explains, the book finally is most relevant to his American audience, secondarily for the British experience.

While sermons were given in early synagogues, and the Greeks and Romans had a long tradition or persuasive rhetoric for courts, legislatures, and ceremonies, the New Testament lacks any such formal exhortation. There is Jesus' "sermon" on the mount, a list of sayings, and formulaic missionary speeches in Acts. Perhaps the only texts that come off as sermons are Peter I and Hebrews. Meanwhile, the oldest surviving sermon is by Clement, bishop of Rome (end of first century), and he got off on the right foot with moderns: the sermon can be given in just half an hour.

Another strength of Mr. Edward's work, though it is a complex lineage indeed, is to show how various kinds of sermons and Bible interpretations developed. The earliest, given by the Asia Minor church fathers, were tedious verse-by-verse reviews of a Bible text, often with allegorical interpretations. Still, John Chrysostom (347-407) was named "golden mouth" for transfixing Constantinople audiences. The Alexandrian heretic, Origen (around 185-254), first melded Christian thought and Greek rhetoric, and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) - a professor of rhetoric - gave us the first preacher's textbook.

Until the Reformation, Augustine's theory of "things and signs" influenced all Bible preaching. Signs were symbols that pointed to unseen things. Augustine thus argued that whatever does not jibe with Christian doctrine or morality in the Bible is somehow symbolic, not literal. As he famously said, much of the Old Testament is about Christ, "but all wrapped up and hidden, tied up in riddles."

Moving ahead quickly: The Middle Ages saw catechism-type preaching to educate the barbarian converts, and then "thematic" sermons on single themes once the population was Christianized. Then friars of the Dominican and Franciscan orders made their appearance, combatting heretics and serving the new cities. …