A Brief History Of Preaching

Source: The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Robert E. Webber, General Editor

Preaching has always been a significant moment in the church's worship. During the Middle Ages, preaching became almost completely irrelevant to the people as the consecration of the eucharistic elements became the sole focus of the liturgy. Fewer and fewer people could understand the Latin of the service. The mendicant preachers of the late Middle Ages began to restore preaching to the people, but the Reformation brought a new focus on preaching, often to the exclusion of the Eucharist. The...

The Jewish Roots Of The Christian Sermon

The sermon has its unique roots in Jewish tradition and was carried on and explored in the Christian tradition, as this entry demonstrates.

The Sermon In Synagogue Worship

The sermon in synagogue worship was always in the context of prayers, benedictions, psalms, hymns, and the reading of Scripture. When Hebrew was no longer the spoken language for many Jews, the Scripture was first read in Hebrew, then translated into the spoken language. This translation from one language to another necessitated an interpretation.

Teaching And Preaching In The Synagogue And Early Church

Preaching in the Jewish synagogue instructed members in faith and practice but also could be intended for indoctrination and proselytizing. Christianity first spread through the preaching of Paul and others who traveled from city to city, preaching Jesus and the Resurrection and calling Jews to conversion in Christ.

Jesus At Nazareth

In the account of the sermon Jesus delivered in his hometown, three necessary elements of preaching are evident. First, there is the liturgical element: Jesus' sermon was in the context of worship. Second, there is the exegetical aspect: Jesus interpreted a text.

The Kerygma Of The Early Church

The kerygma (preaching) is a summary of the preaching themes of the early church, based on the study of the sermons in the book of Acts. These themes, most visible in Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41), lie at the heart of the gospel:

The Preaching Of Paul

There appears to be a distinction in early Christian worship between the Jewish tradition (fixed forms, with a somewhat didactic preaching) and gentile worship (free worship with ecstatic utterances). Paul's preaching appears rational and exegetical, as do his remarks to the Corinthian community (1 Cor. 1214). Paul's sermon preached in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) is a prime example of logic and coherence. It begins with a thesis statement and builds an argument from the premise that moves toward a logical conclusion.

Lay Preaching In The Early Church

Evidence collected about the early church suggests that most of the preaching in hamlets, villages, and rural areas was done by uneducated but devout lay people. The apostolic preaching, as well as the writings of the apostolic fathers of the second century that have been preserved, stand as exceptions to this overall trend.

Melito Of Sardis (d. 190)

Formerly it was thought that Christian rhetoric did not begin until the fourth and fifth centuries. The discovery, however, of a sermon by Melito, bishop of Sardis, known as "On the Passover" suggests that a tradition of skilled rhetoric and sermon construction had begun earlier. Melito's sermon carefully blends typology, analogy, and parallelism.

Origen (185–254)

Origen was one of the earliest and most influential of the Greek preachers. He intertwined exegesis and preaching and created a sermon style that was essentially a running commentary of the text. This style dominated Christian preaching in the ancient church and continues to be used effectively today. In addition, Origen developed the allegorical method of exegesis, a method which is associated with the Alexandrian school of thought and the Eastern church.

Basil The Great And Gregory Of Nazianzus (fourth Century)

Christianity changed considerably in the fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, who made Christianity legal and opened the door toward its accommodation with society. Worship developed rapidly through extensive building projects, the development of liturgies, the observance of the Christian year, creation of the lectionary, and the contributions of music and the arts. In this setting, preaching took on the characteristics of Roman rhetoric and became considerably more formal.

John Chrysostom (347–407)

John Chrysostom, known as the "golden orator," was a master communicator, certainly one of the two or three greatest preachers in the church's history. He was a follower of the Antiochian method of biblical exegesis. This tradition rejected the Platonic allegorizing of the Alexandrian school in favor of a concern for a grammatical, historical, theological method of interpretation.

Augustine (354–430)

Augustine represents the preaching of the Latin church, a style that may be traced from Tertullian through Cyprian to Ambrose, Augustine's spiritual father and mentor. The Latin style of preaching shows an acquaintance with classical literature, Latin rhetoric, and symbolism.

Bernard Of Clairvaux (1090–1153)

The renewal of preaching in the medieval era is traced to the rise of the crusades, the monasteries, and the scholastics. Bernard combined the enthusiasm of crusade rhetoric with the ascetic lifestyle of the monk and reflected a scholastic influence through his struggle with Abelard. His fiery eloquence was powerful enough to make an impression even on those who did not understand his language. Unusually gifted, he was a master of the art of public speaking.

Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274)

An influence on preaching that originated from both the monasteries and the scholastic theology of the universities was the logic of Aristotle. As a result, sermon writers placed greater emphasis on coherence and clarity. This scholarly approach to preaching was developed in the great universities of the medieval period such as Paris and Oxford and spread to the Dominicans (Bernard), the Franciscans, and the Augustinian Anchorites.

John Tauler (d. 1361)

In the late medieval era, a renewed concern for the inner life emerged. This new kind of mysticism affected the medieval sermon. Mystic John Tauler did not completely abandon the scholastic rules for preaching, but he did alter them freely. It may be said that he practiced a devotional style of preaching.

The Reformers: Martin Luther (1483–1546) And John Calvin (1509–1564)

Martin Luther, like John Wycliffe, John Huss, and Girolamo Savonarola before him, may be classified as a preacher of "prophetic personality. " For these preachers, preaching was an act of spiritual warfare. Luther's sermons are polemics against the abuses within the Roman church and the hard-heartedness of many of its priests. Luther also began the tradition of preaching an additional pedagogical sermon. In these catechistic sermons he taught the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and doctrines of the Reformation.

John Wesley (1703–1791) And George Whitefield (1714–1770)

In the mid-eighteenth century, John Wesley and George Whitefield became famous through their revivalistic preaching. Although based on a Scripture, it differed from Reformed preaching in that it was not exegetical and did not place as much emphasis on correct grammatical, historical, and theological contexts. Instead, Wesley and Whitefield developed topics and presented applications for their listeners. Sin, grace, and reconciliation with God were their favorite themes.