Preaching of the Church Fathers

Preaching is never done in a vacuum. It demands both a preacher and a congregation. It is an embodied activity that is performed in the context of a specific culture in a specific time and place. It involves the communication of God’s message and its significance in the lives of those within a congregation in their particular historical-cultural setting.

By careful study of the sermons that are preached in any one time, place, or culture, we gain insights into the specific interests, challenges, and concerns of preachers, those who listen to them, and the world in which they live. When compared to preaching in other times, places, and cultures, patterns emerge that illuminate progress and development in the specific homiletical priorities of the Church.

Unchanging Message in a Changing World

The early Church experienced great change in the first five centuries of its existence. Consequently, preaching changed as well. Some of the changes that particularly impacted preaching include:

(a) a transition in the notion of preacher from charismatic prophet to hierarchic priest, (b) an equally significant change in the notion of worship from Jewish synaxis to Christian eucharist, (c) a totally new form of exegesis from Jewish allegory to Christian typology, and (d) a new style of presentation as classical rhetoric replaces biblical diatribe.[1]

None of these changes drastically affected the message preached – the gospel of Jesus Christ as summarized in the “rule of faith” – and the need for preaching to specifically address assorted audiences for a variety of reasons: “in every age the Church has practiced missionary preaching to convert, parenetic preaching to inculcate her moral precepts, and catechetical to instruct and explain.”[2]

The office of preacher developed over time. In the first century, “there seems to have existed side by side in the early Church a ministry of universal preaching involving Apostles, prophets and teachers, and a ministry of local leadership involving Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”[3] As the first century drew to a close and the second century began, the bulk of preaching fell to local leadership. The Didache (c. A.D. 70-100) seems to indicate that “the preacher was no longer the traveling prophet and had been replaced by the residential bishop who had appropriated his role.”[4]

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus (c. 200) argues that local preachers now share in the ministry and message of the Apostles. “We should listen to those elders who are in the church and who have their succession from the apostles for with their succession in the episcopate they have received the unfailing spiritual gift of the truth according to the Father’s wish.”[5] Local ministers took part in “apostolic succession” by preaching the same message as the apostles. Though the core message remained the same, their emphasis in preaching shifted from prophetic to didactic. “In this [historical] context prophecy was no longer the dominant dimension of preaching and was replaced by didache or teaching with its emphasis on the unity and authority of tradition as handed down from bishop to bishop.”[6] It is the preservation and proclamation of the apostolic message that demonstrates the catholicity of the church. Though the church is scattered over the world and manifested in different cultures, it remains one by means of the apostolic gospel.

On account of this office of preaching, the Church, although she is scattered all over the earth, unanimously believes with one soul and the same heart, and thus she preaches and teaches her traditions with harmony and with one and the same voice as if living in one house. For although the tongues of earthly speech differ, yet is the force of tradition ever one and the same… Just as the sun, God’s creature, is one and the same for all the world, so does the preaching of the truth everywhere shine and enlighten all men who are willing to come to the knowledge of the truth… For since their faith is one and the same, neither does he who can say a great deal about it actually add to it, nor does he who can say but little diminish it.[7]

The heart of the apostle’s message is preserved and passed on by what Tertullian (155 – 220 A.D.) calls “the rule of faith.” The essence of this rule – whose content is virtually identical to the Apostles’ Creed – is found in the quote below:

Now, with regard to this rule of faith – that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend – it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.[8]

This rule of faith preserves orthodoxy while providing a wide playing field for further growth. In this regard, Tertullian writes, “Let us search therefore within what is our own, under the guidance of our own, and about what is our own. This we may do on any matter arising for investigation provided the ‘Rule of Faith’ is not threatened… if the ‘Rule’ remains firm in its proper place you may explore, and investigate, indeed, satisfy your passionate curiosity, all you like.”[9] The affirmation of this central truth is not the end, but the beginning of the Christian journey. “The message remains constant in its fundamental themes; but it steadily grows in the richness of its significance and in the breadth of its applicability to our lives.”[10] The Spirit of God – the true “vicar” of Christ –has been given by God for this purpose: to increase the Church’s awareness of the significance of the gospel message.

There is indeed only one Rule of Faith; it alone cannot be changed or reformed… Keep this Rule of Faith secure, then other aspects of the discipline and of our behavior admit change and improvement, for the grace of God continues to work and advances right to the end… the Lord sent the Paraclete so that the discipline might gradually be directed, ordered and brought to perfection by the Holy Spirit, that “vicar” of the Lord… What then is the administrative work of the “vicar” Paraclete except this, to direct discipline, reveal the Scriptures, reform the understanding, to lead to better things?[11]

First and Second Century Preaching

The earliest description of a Christian congregation is found in Justin’s First Apology (c. 150 A.D.).

On the day which is called Sunday there is a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the neighboring outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, for as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly verbally admonishes and invites all to imitate such examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer up our prayers, and, as we said before, after we finish our prayers, bread and wine and water are presented. He who presides likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings, to the best of his ability, and the people express their approval by saying “Amen.” The Eucharistic elements are distributed and consumed by those present, and to those who are absent they are sent through the deacons…  Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and (prime) matter, created the world; and our Savior Jesus Christ arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified Him on the day before that of Saturn, and on the day after, which is Sunday, He appeared to His apostles and disciples, and taught them the things which we have passed on to you also for consideration.[12]

In this weekly gathering, the sacred writings composed of material from the Old and New Testament are read, followed by verbal admonition from the one presiding over the congregation – presumably the bishop or pastor. When this picture of the Church is combined with the pastoral letters we possess from the second century, we gain insight into the particular concerns of this era – concerns that build upon a situation that is similar to the Church in the first century.

In the first century of the Church, under the leadership of the Apostles and prophets, the Church was primarily composed of “Gentile adherents to synagogues, former slaves, and women.”[13] The society that the apostles created was unlike any other. It was comprised of a wide cross-section of people who would not be associated together under any other circumstances – Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, males, and females. All of these diverse groups of people were “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Thus, the apostles were involved in a ground-breaking social experiment as they sought to “shape a community of the new age.”[14]

Early congregations experience[d] immense internal tensions because they [broke] all accepted social rules by binding together disparate and even hostile groups. The pastoral preachers [were] involved in a challenging exercise in social engineering – nothing less than the creation of ideal communities in which old enmities and traditional distinctions [were] laid aside.[15]

This tenuous state existed throughout the first century and into the second. In light of this, one can understand the dominant aspects of second century preaching that are often misunderstood by contemporary Christians. First and second century preaching was very simplistic and moralistic – focused on basic beliefs and godly behavior. The reason is obvious: the Church was threatened from without and from within. Unlike other religions in the Roman Empire, Christianity was not an established and respected religion. The possibility that converts might turn to Judaism to gain a little more respect or revert to paganism to alleviate tension always lurked in the background. Preachers had to respond appropriately. Dunn-Wilson describes the situation:

As the groups [grew], new problems [became] apparent. The congregations’ underdeveloped theology [made] them easy prey for persuasive preachers with unorthodox ideas, and they [were] under continual pressure from family and friends to revert to their former ways and beliefs. The temptation to apostatize [was] very great, and it [became] clear that, side by side with evangelistic proclamation, there [was] a growing need for what may be termed “pastoral preaching” to demonstrate a correct blend of exhortation and education.[16]

The importance of this was intensified in the second century. When reading the extant writings of second-century preachers “[i]t is difficult to resist the feeling that the specter of widespread defection and apostasy hovers over the postapostolic sermons. In many cases, the first ecstatic enthusiasm of the believers has passed and they face the challenge of living routine Christian lives in an unsympathetic world.”[17] Many of the early preachers’ hostile accusations against the Jews must be read in this light. The possibility of apostasy to Judaism – at the time, a more respected religion than Christianity – called for strong warnings. This does not justify the anti-Semitic statements of the early preachers; it simply explains them by positioning them within their unique historical-cultural context.

This hostile climate also explains the strong emphasis on the importance of maintaining strong ties with the Church. “The preachers launch[ed] their assault by presenting their hearers with a high ecclesiology to show them that defection from the church [was] no light matter. [They preached that the] church [was] no mere human organization but a mystical fellowship.”[18]

The strong ethical component of early preaching can be summarized in the “three major pitfalls described by Hermas – sexual sins (‘adultery and fornication’), sins of excess (‘drunkenness, wicked luxury, many viands and costliness of riches’), and sins of speech (‘falsehood, hypocrisy and blasphemy’).[19] Over time, this strong moral emphasis resulted in a diminished view of marriage, the exaltation of virginity, and suspicion of femaleness.[20]

The Rise of the Apologists

The second century also saw the rise of the apologists. Though most were not ordained ministers within the Church, their writings reveal an attempt to present the gospel message in a hostile environment in order to defend the Christian faith and bring unbelievers to conversion.

The apologists also helped fill a void that arose in light of the basic and moralistic message of the early preachers. As Christianity continued to grow, the Church experienced “increasing numbers of educated and influential converts.”[21] The church needed “preachers who [could] meet their congregations’ intellectual demands, alert them to the spiritual dangers that threaten[ed] them, and convince them of Christianity’s eventual triumph.”[22] Thus, there is a great difference between the postapostolic preachers and the apologists.

The postapostolic preachers wrote mainly for Christians, but these apologist preachers [were] also determined to confront pagan intellectuals and they [were] well equipped for the task. Their work [was] adorned by references to Homer and Virgil drawn from the common educational heritage they share[d] with all the empire’s cultivated people, and their training in philosophy and rhetoric enable[d] them to meet pagan intellectuals on their own ground.[23]

The apologist preachers sought to change the public’s perception of the Christian faith. To those outside the Christian faith, believers appeared to be culturally-anemic, anti-empire, and morally reprehensible. The apologists addressed each of these charges in order to correct the misperceptions of the Romans. In the process, they also sought to make a case for Christianity.

First, in contrast to Roman culture, the Christians appeared culturally-anemic.

Many pagans despised the Christians as simple-minded people, possibly even the dupes of quacks and jugglers, who nevertheless professed a knowledge not unlike that of the philosophers and expected educated pagans to take their message seriously. Their knowledge, however, did not appear to be rooted in the great tradition of classical literature which acquired some validation by its sheer artistic power. To the pagans Christians seemed deliberately to spurn the Greek and Roman classics. They produced an authentication for their views rather in the Bible which the pagans regarded as the barbaric writings of an insignificant people. Some of their views, indeed, could find no support in methods of reasoning established in pagan schools. The pagans mocked at nothing more persistently than the Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead, the latter of which in particular was outside all the bounds of normal reasoning.[24]

Secondly, pagans also complained that the Christian faith was disruptive to the social order. This was not without warrant. “Christians were marked by their reluctance to participate in public festivities, which they saw as demonic rituals of idolatry. Suspicion and resentment were aroused especially when the festivities from which the Christians withdrew were in honor of the Emperor.”[25]

Thirdly, Christians were perceived to participate in odd and immoral worship practices, including incest (probably derived from their calling one another, “brothers and sisters”) cannibalism (they “ate the body and blood of Christ”), and sexual immorality (deriving from their participation in Eucharistic “love feasts”).

The apologists answered these accusations in different ways. Tertullian, a lawyer who rejected any integration of a biblical defense of Christianity with Greek philosophy (he is the author of the famous statement, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”), built his case for Christianity by arguing for its peaceful, moral, and godly stance.

We are a society with a common religious feeling, unity of discipline, and a common bond of hope. We meet in gatherings and congregations to approach God in prayer… We pray also for the Emperors, for their ministers, and for those in authority, for the security of the world, for peace on earth, and for postponement of the end.[26]

For Tertullian, it was Christianity’s ability to produce godly, moral, and upright people that demonstrated its truthfulness.

On the other end of the spectrum is the “address and petition” of Justin Martyr to the Emperor Antoninus, his sons Marcus and Lucius, and the Roman Senate. Instead of rejecting Greek philosophy and Roman culture, Justin goes to great pains to “present the case for Christianity within the terms and assumptions held by his pagan readers.”[27] By emphasizing that Christians value many of the same virtues applauded by Greek philosophy, he argues that Christians are good, moral citizens who are no threat to the Roman Empire. “By presenting this list of virtues Justin not only denies the rumored charges that Christians are incestuous, passionate and turbulent people, but also demonstrates that Christians have the character of the ideal ‘rational’ person, whose life was to be, in the Stoic view, unmoved by passion.”[28]

Clement’s Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Greeks) incorporates the same tactic as Justin. “In Clement, as in Justin, we have an instructive example of an attitude apparently common in the second century: the message to the pagans must declare the historic faith of the Church, but the messenger must also endeavor to build bridges to his audience with at least some images available to the experience of both.”[29]

Minucius Felix’s Octavius takes the defense of the faith even farther by establishing a norm for Christian witness. In his apology, he endeavors “to lead an unbeliever to the point of faith through general revelation, through natural reason. Only then is the pagan mind and heart, no longer profane, ready to hear and understand the core of the Christian message.”[30]

The preaching of the apologists paves the way for presenting a case for Christianity in a pagan culture. By presenting “the gospel in a form which commands intellectual respect and offers a clear alternative lifestyle”[31] they provide a template for future defenses of the gospel.

From Allegory to Typology to Historical Narrative

One great hurdle for preaching in the early Church involved demonstrating a relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the apostolic documents (the New Testament).

Though sociologically disengaged from Judaism, Hellenistic Christianity retained the Jewish scriptures and was thus exposed to the Jewish tradition of exegesis, which ranged from the crudest literalism to the wildest flights of allegory. Neither of these schools could alone express the new and essential element in the Christian approach which lay in the relation between the Old and New Testaments.[32]

If Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes, as the apostles declared, then this ought to be apparent in the Hebrew Scriptures. Determining how to relate the Old to the New Testament was the impetus for the use of allegory and typology in interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Carroll distinguishes these two hermeneutical methods in the following manner:

Typological exegesis is the search for divine intentional links between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas Allegory is the search by man for a secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meaning of a narrative.[33]

Borrowing from Jewish tradition, the earliest Christian preachers made use of allegory to unite the Hebrew Scriptures with the apostolic message. Their purpose was not to undermine the literal historicity of the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead, they desperately sought to demonstrate how God’s purpose finds its fulfillment in Christ. When this is understood, it allows us moderns to go a little easier on some of the wild flights of hermeneutical fancy that the ancient preachers take.

Over time, allegory gave way to typology. Instead of discovering hidden meanings in the text, typology allowed the reader to discover a pattern that finds its fullness in Christ.

Even though the typological method has much to commend it over the allegorical method, it still falls short of demonstrating the relationship of the Old and New Testament. In contrast to allegory or typology – or a fusion of both which is the exegetical characteristic of the Alexandrian school of hermeneutics – Irenaeus offers a better way.

According to Irenaeus, it is neither allegory nor typology that unites the two testaments; it is redemptive history. The Old and New Testament share the same narrative history – a history that culminates in Christ.

Therefore the biblical narrative must be taken very seriously. It is that narrative which witnesses to the work of God, whose eternal purposes unfold in history. If the Bible becomes no more than an allegory, nothing is left of that work and that witness. Scripture, rather than setting forth a series of eternal truths which could be discovered apart from our historical circumstances or from God’s revelation in history, teaches us what Irenaeus calls the divine oikonomia, the history of God’s relationship with humankind. Therefore, there is progression in the biblical narrative, and there is also continuity. Without progression, history would be no more than a shadow, as is the case in the Platonic tradition. Without continuity, without discernible patterns, history would be meaningless.[34]

Irenaeus “was the first to lay down the fundamental principle of the relationship between the two Testaments for he was not content to treat figures of the Old Testament as prefigurations of Christ but went on to elaborate a theology of history on the basis of this exegesis.”[35] His progressive economy of salvation – an economy revealed in the unfolding narrative of sacred Scripture – was the key to uniting the Hebrew Scriptures with the apostolic message. The God who was active in the Old Testament is the same God active in Christ and by the Spirit in the new.

Preaching in the Fourth and Fifth Century

Things drastically changed for the Church when the Roman emperor, Constantine, embraced the Christian faith and set the stage for its official recognition by the Empire. Carroll summarizes the various elements of this transformation:

The Peace of Constantine in 313 brought the Church into a new set of circumstances which greatly affected the character of her preaching, as the liturgy, of which the homily was an integral, if loose-fitting, part, became more developed and well-defined. Several factors contributed to this development. In the first place, the increased number of catechumens brought about a clear distinction between the liturgy of the catechumens and the liturgy of the faithful. Secondly, the theological controversies of the age, trinitarian and christological, were naturally aired in the pulpit. Thirdly, to the same degree that prophecy definitely had become silent in this era, preaching became the official act of the bishop, who sometimes delegated the responsibility to the presbyters. Fourthly, as the Church year grew complete in her liturgical seasons and in the various festivals of saints and martyrs, there arose the need for thematic preaching and panegyrics. Finally, the appointment as bishops of men who had once studied in the ancient schools of rhetoric, and the spacious new buildings in which they addressed their large congregations were twin factors that called for new and more vigorous forms of eloquence.[36]

As worship became ever more sophisticated, preaching took its place in an elaborate liturgy. This called for an increase in homiletical skills. Sermons became an art form and preaching became an acquired skill. The great preachers were those who were skilled in the practice and theory of preaching. This careful attention to sermon-crafting raised preaching to new heights.

The two greatest preachers of this period are Augustine and Chrysostom. “To these Fathers belong more than half of the three thousand sermons and catecheses that are extant from this period between Nicaea and Chalcedon, modern research assigning about eight hundred to Chrysostom and over a thousand to Augustine.”[37] Augustine and Chrysostom not only preached, but broke new ground by writing books about preaching. It was important for them not only to prepare sermons but also to prepare future preachers to skillfully do the same.

Augustine composed two textbooks on preaching: De catechizandis rudibus and De doctrina Christiana 2-4. In these books, he applied the rules of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric to preaching. He followed the teaching of Cicero who argued that

“an eloquent man should speak in such a way that he teaches, pleases and persuades or speaks to intellect, feeling and will.” For Augustine as a Christian preacher this means to explain, to edify and to convert. To these three categories correspond three kinds of delivery, namely, the subdued, the moderate, and the grand which in their turn again are means of instructing, holding the attention, and convincing.[38]

Though he gave much credence to the insights of classical rhetoric, an analysis of his sermons reveals that he refrains from rhetorical excess. “He avoids the elaborate introductions of the Greeks as he does their development of particular or peripheral biblical themes. As a result his sermons are more conversational than declamatory, more homiletical than rhetorical.”[39]

Chrysostom’s writings on preaching do not focus on classical rhetoric as much as they do on the passion, faithfulness, and godliness of preachers. The hard work of preaching is not so much in the preparation of a sermon as it is in the perseverance of the preacher.

A faithful preacher must be an outstanding preacher for the right reasons. The preacher must desire to please God through sublime preaching while refraining from becoming a slave to the approval of people lest he or she become a mere performer or entertainer. The preacher must deliver such masterful sermons that the people will applaud (a common occurrence in Chrysostom’s day) and yet the preacher must not deliver sermons for the sake of the applause of people, but for the applause of God. He writes about this careful balance:

If a preacher despises praise, yet does not produce the kind of teaching which is “with grace, seasoned with salt,” (Col 4:6) he is despised by the people and gets no advantage from his sublimity. And if he manages this side of things perfectly well, but is a slave to the sound of applause, again an equal damage threatens both him and the people, because through his passion for praise he aims to speak more for the pleasure than the profit of his hearers. The man who is unaffected by acclamation, yet unskilled in preaching, does not ruckle to the people’s pleasure; but no more can he confer any real benefit upon them, because he has nothing to say. And equally, the man who is carried away with the desire for eulogies may have the ability to improve the people, but chooses instead to provide nothing but entertainment. That is the price he pays for rounds of applause.[40]

In order to keep from a slavish need for applause, the preacher must view his relationship to his or her parishioners in the same way a parent does to a child.

The priest should treat those whom he rules as a father treats very young children. We are not disturbed by children’s insults or blows or tears; nor do we think much of their laughter and approval. And so with these people, we should not be much elated by their praise nor much dejected by their censure, when we get these things from them out of season.[41]

The finest praise that a preacher can receive from his or her people is their positive reception evidenced by faithful obedience to the message preached. “It will be my praise if you transmute all my words into deeds.”[42]

This will not always be the case, however. The preacher must prepare for casual and cold responses. For Chrysostom, this is the most painful aspect of a preaching ministry.

How can anyone “endure the deep disgrace of having his sermon received with blank silence and feelings of boredom, and his listeners waiting for the end of the sermon as if it were a relief after fatigue? . . . [I]t is enough to kill enthusiasm and paralyze spiritual energy.[43]

On a number of occasions, Chrysostom’s frustration grew so great that he wondered whether he was simply wasting his time by preaching:

The Lord has entrusted me with the task of giving his household their allowance of food, i.e. with the ministry of the word at the appointed time… But how can I? Where and when can I find a time when you will listen to me? The greater part of your time, nearly all of it in fact, you spend on mundane things, in the marketplace or the shops; … Nobody, or hardly anybody, bothers about God’s Word… But why complain about those who are not here? Even those of you who are, are paying no attention.[44]

In another sermon, he laments his efforts with young people in the Church: “Indeed I often encourage young people to apply themselves to the study of the Sacred Scriptures but as far as I can see I am only wasting my time for I have never succeeded in inducing any of them to the study of the Bible.”[45]

The painful difficulties of preaching should not deter the preacher from continuing to preach. God’s call is clear: God desires faithful, committed shepherds who will obey God’s command, regardless of the apparent results.

All who have been ordained for the Ministry of the Word have received from the dear God the command never to abandon our duty, and never to be silent, whether anyone listens to us or not. Thus I am determined… as long as I live, and as long as God pleases to leave me in this life, to fulfill this duty and carry out this command, whether anyone pays attention or not. There are those who make merry over us and say: Stop the good advice, skip the admonitions; they will not listen to you, let them go. What are you saying? Have we promised to convert all men in one day? If only ten, or only five, or indeed only one, repents, is not that consolation enough? … What is not accomplished today, can be accomplished tomorrow or if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow or later. So a fisherman may draw in his net all day long without any catch: yet, in the evening, at the very moment when he is about to depart for home he often catches a fish that had avoided him all day long… The very same is true of each and every calling.[46]

Andrew Purves demonstrates how Chrysostom’s call to perseverance is as contemporary as ever:

For our time, too, it is important to reaffirm the high calling of ministers to care for Christ’s people in a manner that reflects Christ’s love for them –which may not be the same as managing a congregation or forging a career! At a time when pastoral work does not carry high social status; when ministers on the whole are very poorly paid, have low professional self-esteem, and receive less and less job satisfaction, and yet tend to overwork; when the mainline Protestant churches are rife with conflict; and when received models of ministry appear to be breaking down, John Chrysostom reminds us of the truth: the pastoral vocation comes from the call of God. Indeed, pastoral work is built into the metaphysical structure of God’s re-creation. Pastoral work has a God-given dignity and significance that no one and no church dare take away, and pastors themselves must carefully attend to and exercise this authority with appropriate diligence.[47]

Purvis summarizes Chrysostom well: “Faithfulness in preaching, says Chrysostom, comes not by nature, but by hard work and constant application in which the desire alone is to please God.”[48]


In the midst of great cultural change, the preacher’s task remains the same – to communicate God’s message and its significance in the lives of those within a congregation in their particular historical-cultural setting.

Our study has evidenced the flexibility of the ancient preachers in adapting their message to their particular congregations and contexts. At the conclusion of Dunn-Wilson’s book on preaching in the first five centuries, he outlines the movement of preaching using the patristic metaphor of the Church as a ship. It is a fitting conclusion to our study.

We have seen how, after the first heady days of primary evangelism, preachers have to pastor apprentice-believers who might otherwise be swept overboard. As the church launches out into the pagan world, the apologist-preachers struggle to keep their congregations on course and, when the ship nearly founders under the weight of worldliness, the ascetic preachers ruthlessly lighten the vessel. It is the liturgist-preachers who have to refurbish the ship for imperial service and the theologians who provide it with the charts for future voyaging. Finally, the majestic homileticians inspire the crew and train its officers to keep the church afloat as the western empire sinks into the “Dark Ages.”[49]

[1] Thomas K. Carroll, Preaching the Word (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1984), 21.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 23. The Didache reads, “My child, night and day remember the one who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him as though he were the Lord. For wherever the Lord’s nature is preached, there the Lord is.” (4.1)

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 13.

[9] Robert D. Sider, The Gospel and Its Proclamation (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1983), 219.

[10] Ibid., 220.

[11] Ibid., 219, 220.

[12] Carroll, Preaching the Word, 26.

[13] David Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church: Preaching in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), 7.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Ibid., 15.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Ibid., 27.

[18] Ibid., 28.

[19] Ibid., 30-31.

[20] Ibid., 31.

[21] Ibid., 35.

[22] Ibid., 35.

[23] Ibid., 37.

[24] Sider, The Gospel and Its Proclamation, 88.

[25] Ibid., 22.

[26] Carroll, Preaching the Word, 141.

[27] Sider, The Gospel and Its Proclamation, 65.

[28] Ibid., 70.

[29] Ibid., 82.

[30] Ibid., 114.

[31] Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 47.

[32] Carroll, Preaching the Word, 29.

[33] Ibid., 29-30.

[34] Justo L. Gonzalez, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 55.

[35] Carroll, Preaching the Word, 31.

[36] Ibid., 63.

[37] Ibid., 167.

[38] Ibid., 174.

[39] Ibid., 194.

[40] Ibid., 100-101.

[41] Ibid., 102.

[42] Ibid., 104.

[43] Andrew Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 50.

[44] Carroll, Preaching the Word, 49.

[45] Ibid., 50.

[46] Ibid., 112-113.

[47] Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, 46-47.

[48] Ibid., 51.

[49] Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 121.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

One Response to “Preaching of the Church Fathers”

  1. Scott Canatsey says:

    Rich, This is a great reminder for all pastors and preachers as to their mission, who it is that has called them, and the import of challenging and encouraging the church in the times that are being lived in. It seems the church at large,(evangelical), would do well to remember the “rule of faith” and the importance of knowing the traditions and the apostolic wittness that has been passed down. We do not need to reinvent the church, or liturgy, to try to be relevant. We have the truth and we are the light, if we are truly the church that Jesus intended us to be. Thank you Rich for the reminder. Your bro’ in Christ, Scott Canatsey

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