The earliest recorded Christian source for regular sermonizing is found during the late second century.4 Clement of Alexandria lamented the fact that sermons did so little to change Christians.5 Yet despite its recognized failure, the sermon became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century.'
This raises a thorny question. If the first-century Christians were not noted for their sermonizing, from whom did the postapostolic Christians pick it up? The answer is telling: The Christian sermon was borrowed from the pagan pool of Greek culture!
To find the headwaters of the sermon, we must go back to the fifth century BC and a group of wandering teachers called sophists. The sophists are credited for inventing rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking). They recruited disciples and demanded payment for delivering their orations."
The sophists were expert debaters. They were masters at using emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to "sell"" their arguments.' In time, the style, form, and oratorical skill of the sophists became more prized than their accuracy.19 This spawned a class of men who became masters of fine phrases, "cultivating style for style's sake." The truths they preached were abstract rather than truths that were practiced in their own lives. They were experts at imitating form rather than substance."
The sophists identified themselves by the special clothing they wore. Some of them had a fixed residence where they gave regular sermons to the same audience. Others traveled to deliver their polished orations. (They made a good deal of money when they did.)
IIbid., 13. The first recorded Christian sermon is contained in the so-called Second Letter of Clement dated between AD 100 and AD
150. Brilioth, Br/ef History of Preaching, 19-20.
Norri ngton, To Preach or Not, 13.
Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 109.
Douglas 1. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ITP Publishing, 1998), 56-57. Ibid.
We get our words sophistry and sophistical from the sophists. Sophistry refers to specious and fallacious (bogus) reasoning used to persuade (Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom, 57). The Greeks celebrated the orator's style and form over the accuracy of the content of his sermon. Thus a good orator could use his sermon to sway his audience to believe what he knew to be false. To the Greek mind, winning an argument was a greater virtue than distilling truth. Unfortunately, an element of sophistry has never left the Christian fold (Norrington, To Preach or Not, 21-22; Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 113). Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 113.
Sometimes the Greek orator would enter his speaking forum "already robed in his pulpit-gown." He would then mount the steps to his professional chair to sit before he brought his sermon.
To make his points, he would quote Homer's verses. (Some orators studied Homer so well that they could repeat him by heart.) So spellbinding was the sophist that he would often incite his audience to clap their hands during his discourse. If his speaking was very well received, some would call his sermon "inspired."
The sophists were the most distinguished men of their time. Some even lived at public expense. Others had public statues erected in their honor.'
About a century later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) gave to rhetoric the three-point speech. "A whole," said Aristotle, "must have a beginning, a middle, and an end."22 In time, Greek orators implemented Aristotle's three-point principle into their discourses.
The Greeks were intoxicated with rhetoric.' So the sophists fared well. When the Romans took over Greece, they too became obsessed with rhetoric." Consequently, Greco-Roman culture developed an insatiable appetite for hearing someone give an eloquent oration. This was so fashionable that a "sermonette" from a professional philosopher after dinner was a regular form of entertainment.'
The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed rhetoric as one of the greatest forms of art." Accordingly, the orators in the Roman Empire were lauded with the same glamorous status that Americans assign to movie stars and professional athletes. They were the shining stars of their day.
Orators could bring a crowd to a frenzy simply by their powerful speaking skills. Teachers of rhetoric, the leading science of the
Aristotle, On Poetics, ch. 7. Although Aristotle was speaking about writing "Mot"' or "Fable," his principle was nonetheless applied to delivering speeches.
The love of speech was second nature to the Greeks. "They were a nation of talkers" (Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 27).
Norrington, To Preach or Not, 21.
Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 40.
Brilioth, Brief History of Preaching, 26.
era, were the pride of every major city." The orators they produced were given celebrity status. In short, the Greeks and Romans were addicted to the pagan sermon—just as many contemporary Christians are addicted to the "Christian" sermon.
Was this article helpful?