“In the beginning was the Word.” At the root of apostolic preaching is God’s proclamation of the world’s salvation in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This essay offers brief descriptions of pastors who preached during significant, but lesser known, periods of Christian expansion, renewal, and reform.
Little is known about preaching during the second century when the expanding Christian mission followed patterns established by hellenized Jewish communities. The apologist Justin Martyr offered this account of Christian practice: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits: then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
The message and tone of the oldest written sermon, the Second Epistle of Clement (ca. 150) suggests conditions in which Christians struggled with internal divisions and social pressures to abandon their calling into Christ’s kingdom. The preacher announces Christ as God, “Judge of the living and the dead,” and rejoices that the church, the “barren women” of Isaiah 54, has given birth to children—signs of Christ’s engendering power. This new reality prompted a series of pastoral exhortations to acquire Christian habits embodied in the words and deeds of Jesus. Christians are urged to repent and to return to God, and to go on with whole-hearted devotion to Christ and hope in the resurrection of the dead.
The first comprehensive picture of Christian preaching is provided by Origen (d. 254) whose ascetic way of life enabled him to remain faithful despite threats, imprisonment, and torture. During a long pastoral ministry at Caesarea of Palestine, Origen established the Christian usage of the homily—that is, a discourse on a biblical text for a congregation as part of its service of worship. Its distinctive characteristic was its conversational manner and artlessness, setting it off from studied or stylized speech. Confident that each text was inspired by God, Origen would explain a passage and then proceed to show how it could teach and profit each of the faithful.
Although Origen immersed himself in the Bible to study, to learn, and to comment, his goal was pastoral, to lead believers to union with God. Despite his superior erudition he requested that his congregation pray for him, as he states, “If the Lord should see fit to illuminate us by your prayers, we will attempt to make known a few things which pertain to the edification of the church.” Origen’s congregation included inquirers, simple believers, the more educated, and the spiritually advanced. He viewed Scripture as having a body, soul, and spirit, which yielded levels of interpretation that could speak appropriately to beginning, middling, and mature Christians. He struggled to explain the Bible by the Bible according to the church’s rule of faith, preaching even the most challenging sections of the OT as Scripture in its relationship to Christ. A gifted evangelist and apologist, Origen’s perspective was primarily shaped by ecclesial and pastoral exegesis for the instruction and edification of the church.
As bishop of Regius Hippo in North Africa, Augustine (d. 430) was confronted by challenges that accompanied the legalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire. As he wrote in a letter, “In this city are many houses in which there is not even a single pagan, nor a single household in which there is not a Christian.” His pastoral aim, therefore, was to build up a church that was as comprehensive and faithful as possible: orthodox in belief, obedient in its behavior, and universal in its scope. However, strong competition for the loyalty of his people remained in the form of both Donatism and paganism. Remembering the power of his own conversion, Augustine preached as a missionary to call the church into the fullness of Christian conversion—love of God and love of neighbor.
Augustine attributed special status to Christian revelation, including Scripture and preaching, for mediating truth to the understanding, the heart, and the will. He preached to instruct, to delight, and to transform listeners, trusting the language of Scripture and the Holy Spirit to shape and to empower his speech. Many of Augustine’s sermons were delivered in popular form, not primarily for the educated, but for ordinary people, always aiming to give a clear exposition of a biblical text. For example, his 124 sermons on John’s Gospel are marked by meticulous workmanship that joins orthodox theology with pastoral wisdom. Augustine delivered these extemporaneously, exercising disciplined flexibility that adhered to the text while remaining attuned to the capacities of his congregation.
Augustine also wrote the first handbook for preachers, De Doctrina Christiana , in which he unfolded the logic of reading and preaching Scripture: the worship of the Triune God. Pastors must immerse themselves in Scripture to discover God and his wisdom and to speak what they have heard to their people. According to Augustine, such preaching cannot be learned as a skill or technique. Rather, it is a gift that resides in pastors who faithfully indwell Scripture and the church, thereby becoming a “living sermon.”
After the fall of Rome, monasteries became centers for Christian and classical learning, evangelism, and mission. Although a revival of preaching occurred within monasticism during the twelfth century, significant changes in society prompted a new outpouring of preaching during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: expanding networks of travel and trade, the expansion of cities, the increase of educated laity, and the threat of doctrinal heresy. New ways of evangelization and catechesis were provided by the founding of religious orders, called friars.
Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and Dominic of Calaruega (1170-1221) founded orders that were shaped by a new spiritual yearning for the gospel life as revealed in the writings of the NT evangelists. The Franciscans, or Friars Minor, were characterized by a deep desire to follow Christ in poverty and self-denial, preaching on their way. Their early sermons were simple, addressed to common people with whom they worked and lived. They exhorted their hearers to follow the example of Jesus, proclaiming the love of God and the Christian way of life. Their call to repentance offered assurance that God would receive sinners with abundant love. Eventually they were authorized to hear confessions and to offer guidance to the penitent. Francis advised the brothers that “their words be well chosen and chaste, for the instruction and edification of the people, speaking to them of vices and virtues, punishment and glory, in a discourse that is brief, because it was with few words that the Lord preached while on earth.”
The Dominicans, or Order of Preachers (literally, God’s watch dogs), viewed preaching as both a gift and calling: the work of God’s grace to which the friar must contribute prayerful study in the liberal arts, theology, and Scripture. Both orders aimed to impart pastoral wisdom for preaching before a variety of audiences: heretics, popular crowds, village churches, city cathedrals, princes and rulers, and even the papal court. The friars’ sermons cannot be defined by one style, since their mission was shaped by the apostolic ministry of Christ to reach all kinds and conditions of people.
In sixteenth-century Geneva, the pastoral ministry of J. Calvin (d. 1564) integrated the roles of theologian, exegete, and preacher. From his biblically derived theology, Calvin viewed preaching to be the will of God for the church, justified by neither its effectiveness nor its popularity, but because God wills it and it honors God. In a manner similar to Luther, he considered the practice of preaching to have a certain divine givenness—that its authority is external to both preacher and people: the Word of God who wills to speak and to be known.
Calvin also had a deeply pastoral vision of preaching, that it should instruct and edify, changing the mind and captivating the heart for God. His conviction was that preaching is a sacrament of God’s presence, an act of worship, a moment of divine disclosure. The Holy Spirit uses the words of Scripture spoken in the words of the preacher to bear witness to Christ, to his grace and mercy, so that it is as if God speaks in person. Calvin therefore explicated and applied Scripture sentence by sentence to the life of his congregation, drawing listeners into its narratives, images, metaphors, and teachings. His sermons were simple, clear, and lively, expressing faith in the Holy Spirit to render the identity and activity of Christ among the people of Geneva.
In our contemporary efforts to discern the way forward to faithful ministry of the Word, we are participants in a company of preachers who continue to instruct, challenge, and encourage. For additional insights on preaching, be sure to glean from H.O. Old (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church [7 vols.; Eerdmans, 1998]); W. Willimon and R. Lischer, eds. (A Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching [Westminster John Knox, 1995]); O.C. Edwards (A History of Preaching [Abingdon, 2004]); M. Pasquarello III (Sacred Rhetoric: Preaching as a Theological and Pastoral Practice of the Church [Eerdmans, 2005].