Saturday, December 18, 2004


By O.C. Edwards Jr.

Abingdon, $65, 879 pages, CD-Rom


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. As the universities came into existence, sermon styles took on a “passion for dividing and subdividing” a subject. Today, 80,000 written sermons survive from the period of 1150 to 1350 A.D. The epoch produced collections of sample sermons, handbooks with outlines, stories and quotes for preachers, and encyclopedic reference works to find sermon material.

We learn that while Reformation leader Martin Luther had a very individual style — some call it “heroic disorder” — Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther’s early followers, set down a fusion of classical rhetoric and Protestant sensibility that Lutheran preachers followed for generations after. In time, the English Reformation produced “metaphysical” and “plain” style preaching. The first was characterized by the language (and compilers) of the King James Bible, and the second by the Puritans, who preached as if arguing legal briefs for salvation.

Both these traditions, Anglican and Puritan, leavened early American preaching, and then were sidelined by the new “religion of the heart,” typified by the evangelistic outdoor preaching of a George Whitefield and John Wesley. It is surprising to learn, Mr. Edwards said, that Jonathan Edwards — America’s greatest theologian — was not at all emotional, but coolly logical in preaching his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Throughout this long history, the best preachers put down guidelines for constructing sermons, working with audiences, and developing styles of delivery. When women entered the pulpit in the 20th century, they read advice on how to avoid distracting female traits or gestures to simply become a powerful preaching figure.

The last half of “A History of Preaching” looks at the English-speaking world and speeds up considerably in modern times to touch on so much diversity. Five modern turning points stand out. Roman Catholic and Anglican preaching changed as liturgical rituals became more participatory for worshippers. The “romantic” preaching of the Social Gospel produced the “we must” sermon of social ethics, and preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick infused preaching with “pastoral counseling.” He began each sermon with a human problem, and then exited the Bible text with a practical solution.

Another turning point was the “biblical theology” movement between World War I and II and associated with Swiss theologian Karl Barth. It answered wartime pessimism and the historical criticism of the Bible by digging for the essential “proclamation” of salvation in Christ. Finally, the national experience of seeing Martin Luther King on television brought the emotive and narrative power of black preaching to the fore.

And there is more, of course. Some female preachers were heralds of more concise preaching and televangelists and megachurch pastors groomed new styles. Modern studies peg listener attention spans at four minutes, so a preacher better move to a next point by then. And given the “crisis in communication” today, some preachers inverted the whole art. This upending of tradition is called “inductive” preaching, where particular things are first expounded, and then a general principle arrived at much later. (In deductive preaching, the mainstay of history, a general truth is stated at the outset, and then proved by illustrations).

Some preaching today, often experimental, is simply a good old yarn, as long as the end of the story points to God. Yet Mr. Edwards shows that some preaching formats, set in stone centuries ago, remain the norm. The words of Cicero, the Roman model for so much Christian rhetorical study, still holds for sermon-giving: “when noble and elevated natural gifts are supplemented and shaped by the influence of theoretical knowledge, the result is then something truly remarkable and unique.” A more recent adage, however, is just as true as Cicero: there are “sermons that have something to say and sermons that have to say something.”

Despite such unevenness over two millennia, the act of preaching has clearly shaped history, Mr. Edwards argues persuasively. “Most of the significant movements in the history of the church have involved preaching in their development and expansion,” he concludes. Caught up in their weekly task, preachers today lose sight of the grand landscape of which they are a part. “Preaching has been the major means by which Christians have been converted and formed intellectually.” That is a lot of persuasive oratory, as this admirable history shows.

Larry Witham is a Maryland writer.

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