Has Preaching Changed since the Early Church?
Regular systematic expository preaching of Scripture takes central place in my vision for normal church ministry. As I preach through Bible book after Bible book with my congregations, I believe I am continuing a craft and tradition that has roots in the Pentateuch, Jewish teaching methods, and the Apostolic Church. Space does not permit us to elucidate the nature of these first flowerings of expository preaching; I have been asked instead to share reflections on the nature of our indebtedness to the preaching of the post-biblical Early Church.
Early Church preachers I look to as master craftsmen include Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Augustine, and Peter Chrysologus. However, when I read the sermons of these practitioners of expository preaching, I cannot help but notice that their preaching appears rather alien to what is today thought of as expository. How can modern expository preaching be dependent upon Early Church preaching that seems so alien to us?
SHARED CONVICTION BETWEEN ANCIENT & MODERN
First, it is vital to give due weight to the shared conviction that we and patristic preachers hold in common. Ancient and contemporary practitioners of expository preaching alike have believed that Scripture is true in all it states. Furthermore, they both have held that when the Bible is preached, God himself speaks.
In many places the Fathers, such as Tertullian, stated that whatever Scripture teaches is true. Augustine also declared, “I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” Such explicit affirmations of the Bible’s trustworthiness are valuable in reconstructing the patristic view of Scripture.
However, at least as relevant are the implications that may be drawn from the actual use made of Scripture throughout the vast corpus of the Church Fathers. Preaching was the main place that the Bible was used in the Early Church, and when citation after citation is piled upon quote after quote, it becomes abundantly clear that ancient preachers handled Scripture as they did because they believed that it was true, and through it God addresses listeners.
As Augustine preached, “Let us treat Scripture like Scripture: like God speaking.” Without such a conviction there is little motivation to pore over the biblical text in sermon preparation, as the Fathers did.
Why then do sermons from the Early Church read so differently than modern Western preachers who share the same commitment to Scripture’s role in God speaking? Patristic sermons often utilise obscure allegories, assume significance in numbers, and can leap around the Bible in apparently random fashion. Patristic sermons can contain reflections and excursions that seemingly diverge a long way from the text apparently under consideration. Is the idea that modern expositional preaching is the descendent of such ancient homilies merely wishful thinking?
EXPOSITORY PREACHING INTERFACES WITH PAGAN CULTURE
Expository preaching is a craft, art, and pastoral discipline which interacts with pagan culture in general, and pagan oratory in particular.
Patristic preachers (and contemporary preachers) committed to expository preaching take radically divergent views of pagan scholarship. Some preachers wove quotations from pagan authors into the fabric of their expositions. For example, Ambrose has over a hundred quotes from Virgil in his extant sermons, and used the medical writer Galen to help him explain Genesis. Tertullian decried pagan learning as inimical to theology. That his style of speaking utilised rhetorical techniques forged in pagan schools reminds us that nobody can entirely escape their context.
The frequency of citations from pagan authors is only the most obvious way pagan learning influenced patristic sermons. At a deeper level, the pagan culture of the ancient world was one fascinated by words—their meaning, formation, and significance. The sermonic piling of Bible quotation upon quotation, and the use of clear Bible passages to interpret more obscure passages, were techniques preachers learned from pagan schools’ handling of Homer.
As at the Reformation, the educational background of patristic preachers shaped their ministries in deep ways. The first manual on learning to preach was written by Augustine. It contained extensive sections reflecting on how best to appropriate lessons of oratory from Cicero. Augustine saw value in pagan insights to speaking well: “Why should those who speak truth do so as if they are stupid, dull, and half-asleep?” Despite commending some lessons from Cicero, in the end Augustine thought prayer and listening to good preachers more important.
Much of that which makes patristic sermons seem different to modern sermons arises from the fact that, in our ministries of expository preaching, we and our forebears are (wittingly or unwittingly) using the best of our available pagan insights to hermeneutics and communication. Ancient preachers believed the Bible to be a divine word of rich truth for listeners. They sought meaning in patterns of numbers because the pagan culture was one which saw beauty, truth, and meaning residing in hidden depths of numbers. If it was so for mathematics, persuasive speeches, and philosophy, they thought, surely it must be all the more so for a text inspired by God himself. The context of secular learning shaped ancient preachers’ approaches to their craft.
The same is true when it came to practical matters of preaching. Some preachers wrote their sermons out in full and read them. Others, such as Augustine, meditated on the passage during the week then spoke extemporaneously. Many schools of rhetoric taught students to speak in public by making them read and memorise speeches. Quintilian, a pagan orator, argued that this was a facile and immature way to speak in public. Whether a preacher agreed with Quintilian or not shaped his practice as regards speaking from a script.
It would be a grave error to assume that our modern approaches to understanding and preaching the Bible are automatically superior to those of ancient preachers. It would also be incorrect to miss the fact that modern expository preaching is a descendent of patristic homiletics and shares its fundamental convictions.
EXPOSITORY PREACHING DEVELOPS WITH CHURCH HISTORY
Another reason that patristic sermons appear so unique is that they were preached by people from within the context of church history they inhabited. In the ancient world, some preachers benefited from the cross referencing of translations begun by Origen in his Hexapla. Augustine wrestled with whether he should adopt Jerome’s more scholarly Bible translation, or stick with the version his congregation was more familiar with. He opted to keep the less accurate translation for his congregation out of pastoral sensitivity, while slowly integrating Jerome’s translation into his academic writings.
As church history progressed, so the tools and form of expository preaching developed. One of the most obvious areas where this applied was that of salvation history. In the early church, preachers were very aware that there was development within the Bible story. Irenaeus developed a theology of “recapitulation” based on perceived repetitions within salvation history such as the tree in Genesis 2 and the tree Christ hung on. Marcion’s heretical rejection of the OId Testament and interactions with Jewish scholars led many preachers to preach about the similarity and unity between the Testaments. Augustine’s emphasis upon grace in the Pelagian controversy led him to emphasise the difference between law and gospel. All of these—and the seemingly ubiquitous practice of allegory—were early attempts by preachers to engage with scriptural passages in a way that did justice to the entirety of salvation history.
Given the many developments in church history that offer us fresh ways to nuance and articulate salvation history, it is understandable that patristic sermons can appear quite alien in their theological interpretations. In reality, the great preachers of the early centuries were charting the possibilities for configuring unity and diversity within the canon—something we today still wrestle with and differ over.
Has expository preaching changed since the Early Church? To the extent that expository preaching must interface with pagan culture and must develop with church history, the answer is yes. Were this to blind us to the core shared convictions about scripture’s authority, and the passion that drives preachers to use the best material we can access in culture and theology to preach the Bible faithfully, we would not only dishonour the saints who have toiled before us, we would disinherit ourselves of a treasure that can help us improve our preaching—the preaching of the Early Church.
 Tertullian, Flesh of Christ, 6.
 Augustine, Epistle 82.3.
 Augustine, Sermon 162C.15.
 Augustine, Teaching Christianity, 4.3.
 Augustine, Teaching Christianity, 4.32.