Christianity has always valued preaching as an important means of teaching congregations, offering them guidance on practical issues, and encouraging them to remain faithful. The sermon served an important devotional role during the Middle Ages, particularly in a monastic context.20 But sermons were not limited to the monastic world. A homily would be (or was meant to be) preached in each parish church at Sunday mass. These sermons were often based on biblical passages, but a tension can be discerned, particularly in England—namely, the desire to get across a particular, authorized interpretation of a biblical passage or narrative, without allowing the laity to get hold of the full biblical text itself.21
The rise of biblical humanism in the 1520s saw increased attention being paid to the sermon as a means by which the wisdom of the Bible could be conveyed to the people eloquently and accurately.22 Erasmus of
Rotterdam played a major role in encouraging this development, which was designed to increase lay access to the Bible—a program that Erasmus had set out in his Handbook of the Christian Soldier. Yet the rise of Protestantism gave a new status to the sermon, with important consequences for the shaping of the movement. While a number of factors contributed to this development, two are of particular importance.
In the first phase of Protestant history, the justification for the breach with the medieval church was of paramount importance. Congregations needed to be reassured that this schism was justified and that the salvation of their souls was not imperiled by the breach with Rome. Although the essence of Protestantism was arguably the recovery of Christian authenticity (both in life and thought), the ideological agendas of its first period led early Protestant preachers to portray Catholicism as "the other," or "the enemy." Not surprisingly, the popular conviction arose that the essence of Protestantism was anti-Catholicism, whereas in fact anti-Catholicism was merely a situationally specific expression of Protestant identity, not that identity itself.
A second reason for the growing importance of the sermon was the emerging belief that it was, in some sense of the term, the "Word of God." The sermon was the means by which God spoke to his people. This idea, which emerged at a very early stage in Protestantism, is often linked to Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli's successor as the religious leader of Protestant Zurich. For Bullinger, "the preaching of the word of God is the Word of God."23 Although this idea can be discerned within both early Lutheranism and early Anglicanism, it is particularly associated with the Reformed tradition within Protestantism. As the office of the preacher came to be regarded with especial importance, a number of other significant developments would shape the form that Protestantism took.
The most significant of these changes concerned church architecture. Initially, Protestantism took over existing church buildings, adapting them to its basic principles and beliefs. The modifications introduced by Protestants are very revealing. The interiors of the churches of the United Provinces, as painted by Emmanuel de Witte, Hendrick van Vliet, Gerrit Beckheyde, and Gerrit Houckgeest, make it clear that the pulpit was the central focus of the building, reflecting the new importance of preaching.
The greatest ecclesiastical structure in Geneva is St. Peter's Cathedral, which dominates the old city and dates back to 1160. The interior of the building was totally reordered in the late 1530s, in line with Calvin's vision of reform. The altar was removed, and a pulpit, raised high above the congregation, was installed. All frescoes, statues, and any other forms of religious imagery were removed. The focus of the building was once the altar; now it was the pulpit. A substantial shift in theology underlies this tactile transition. God was now to be encountered indirectly, through the preaching of the word, not substantially or mystically through the sacrament of the bread and wine. The clergy were now to be regarded as authoritative spokesmen for a distant God rather than as a wonder-working priesthood who ensured the direct presence of God within the everyday material world.
The layout of St. Peter's reflects the reordering of an existing building. What happened when a building was specially commissioned, purposely built to meet the agenda of Protestantism? The first such building is thought to be the chapel of the castle of Hartenfels in Germany, which was formally inaugurated by a sermon preached by Luther on August 5, 1544.24 The chapel takes the form of a simple rectangle with four bays, surrounded by a two-story stone gallery. The focal point of the chapel is the elevated pulpit, decorated with biblical scenes. In his sermon, Luther declared that "the purpose of this new building" was "that nothing else may ever happen in it except that our dear Lord himself may speak to us through his Holy Word, and we respond to him through prayer and praise."
Reformed Protestantism displaced all forms of secular and ecclesiastical authority with an appeal to the word of God—to the Bible. Yet the Bible required authoritative interpretation and application to the situations faced by believers. Protestantism placed the preacher as the intermediary between God and the congregation, charged with the sacred task of interpretation and application of the Bible. Armed with a theology that insisted that obedient and faithful preaching was an authorized channel of divine communication and instruction, the preacher was clearly placed in a position of some authority and power within the community of faith. So how could abuse be avoided?
The classic response was simple: what preachers say must be controlled. This concern about limiting the freedom of the preacher was evident in England during both the Edwardian and Elizabethan eras. The Book of Homilies set out prefabricated, centrally approved sermons that preachers were required to deliver. The Puritans were incensed; they regarded this practice as a human distortion of the word of God and sought to establish "lectureships" that would allow them to preach what they believed the biblical text said, rather than what the authorities wished them to believe.25
The real question, however, was deciding who could be said to be authorized to preach. State churches retained a tight control over those who were permitted to preach, fearful of the threat of sedition, unrest, or scandal. The issue was important in other contexts as well. During the period of the Puritan Commonwealth, the Westminster Assembly accepted the need for a "directory for preaching." While insisting that it was Christ who called preachers and endowed them with the gift of his Spirit, the Westminster Larger Catechism stipulated that only those who were "duly approved and called to that office" could be permitted to preach in public. Preachers were to be "ordained"—that is to say, authorized. The fifth commandment—"You shall honor your Father and Mother"—was interpreted by the Westminster Assembly to extend beyond physical parents and to refer particularly to those who, "by God's ordinance, are over us in place of authority" (q. 124). The preacher was thus firmly embedded in the authority structures of Puritanism.
The Westminster Assembly also set out a specific theology of preaching that emphasized its unique character and its special place in the Christian life. How, asked the Westminster Larger Catechism, was the "word made effectual to salvation"? While reading the Bible was helpful, the Catechism emphasized that preaching was the supreme means by which the Holy Spirit enlightens, convinces, and humbles sinners (q. 155). To help audiences gain the most from such sermons, the Catechism also recommended that they "attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer" and "receive the truth" that it conveyed (q. 160).
So how is a sermon to be structured? Does its efficacy depend on following a set formula—and if so, who has the right to determine it? This question has been debated and discussed throughout Christian history. A particularly influential model of preaching was set out in the thirteenth century by Robert of Basevorn, based on the sermons of
Jesus, Saint Paul, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux.26 Robert recommended using various forms of ornamentation to hold the audience's interest, including vocal modulation, humor, and gestures. The debate flared up in the early years of Protestantism as controversy raged over whether the Bible itself defined a specific pattern of preaching. The debate, though lengthy, was inconclusive. Should a "plain style" of preaching be used, so that nothing distracted the listener from the simple truths that were being proclaimed and applied? Or might an "ornamented style" be used, to hold the interest of the audience? The difference is easily appreciated by comparing seventeenth-century Anglican and Puritan sermons.
An Anglican sermon—as preached, for example, by that prince of the pulpit, Lancelot Andrewes—would often open with the statement of a theme, generally linked to a biblical verse. The preacher would then launch into an exploration of the wording and imagery of the text, using each as the starting point for a remarkable piece of verbal or conceptual embroidery, weaving together a rich web of allusions and associations. Although the text was the ultimate foundation of all that was said, it was often used as little more than the occasion for the preacher's rhetorical flourishes and elaborate ornamentations. Eventually, the sermon would come to its triumphant conclusion, having steadily gained verbal and conceptual momentum as it proceeded.
A Puritan sermon—as exemplified by William Perkins, who did much to shape this genre—tended to consist of three essential components: doctrine, reason, and use.27 The sermon would open with a reading of the text, followed by brief comments that restated its verbal imagery in more prosaic terms, set the context of the passage, and explained difficult terms. The sermon would then turn to the first of its three points, setting out the basic doctrine contained in the text. The preacher would use the same flat tone of voice throughout, trusting in the power of his message rather than relying upon any rhetorical skills. Having explained the doctrine, he would move on to consider its proofs, usually set out as numbered points, before finally turning to apply the doctrine to his audience. That being done, the sermon would end.
Substantially the same debates about sermons remain significant within Protestantism to this day. In the Victorian age—regarded by many as the golden age of Protestant preaching—these debates were supplemented by an additional controversy: should sermons be read from a full text or delivered extempore?28 One side argued that written sermons were generally better organized and more logically sound than extemporaneous ones; the other side recognized that written sermons were often less powerful than those delivered without the impediment of a full text. Those committed to preaching without notes argued that passion was more important than precision and that extemporaneous sermons had "more life, vigor, and power" than those that had been committed to writing and were merely being read aloud in church.
From what has been said, it will be clear that the preacher has played a major role in maintaining and developing the ethos and identity of Protestant groupings. Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, Methodist, and Baptist churches have all seen preaching as playing a determinative role, often exceeding the influence of authorized denominational officials or directives. Preachers are the "guardians" of the various Protestant traditions, acting as centers of nucleation, purification, and growth for what is perceived to be reliable, relevant, persuasive, and powerful statements of their positions.
It is no accident that probably the most influential Baptist of the nineteenth century was Charles Haddon Spurgeon and that the most influential British evangelicals of the twentieth century were Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. All three were highly effective preachers who extended their influence through their published sermons and related works. Each was based at a large London church—the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Westminster Chapel, and All Souls' Church in Langham Place, respectively—that rose to prominence through their preaching. Each continues to be regarded as an authority within his constituency, and occasionally beyond it.
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