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The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church

Dennis E. Johnson

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, by Hughes Oliphant Old. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Volume 4: The Age of the Reformation, 2002, 556 pages, $52.00. Volume 5: Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening, 2004, 620 pages, $55.00.

I may as well start with the confession: when Part One of this review appeared in the August-September of 2012 of Ordained Servant, I seriously expected to be able to read, digest, and then review the final four volumes in H. O. Old’s majestic series in a single, second installment, within a timely schedule. That hope proved utterly unfounded. So Ordained Servant’s patient and flexible editor has again responded graciously to my plea to renegotiate our “covenant treaty,” allowing me to review volumes 4 and 5 now, and then to submit a third installment a bit later. As it turns out, this unanticipated three-installment format means that each part will treat about a third of the material in Old’s seven volumes: volumes 1–3 (covering roughly 28 centuries) contain about 1,400 pages of text; volumes 4–5 (covering about three centuries) contain about 1,100 pages; and volumes 6–7 (covering a bit over two centuries) contain just over 1,600 pages.

Themes and perspectives introduced in the first three volumes reappear and are reinforced in volumes 4 and 5, which explore Christian preaching and worship in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Preaching God’s Word is the central event of the church’s corporate worship. Preaching should, indeed, responsibly exposit and pastorally apply the text of the Bible to the spiritual needs of listeners. Although festal preaching on appropriate biblical passages and the use of lectionaries in text selection have their place, Old generally commends the lectio continua approach of preaching through biblical books, practiced by Fathers such as Chrysostom and Reformers such as Bucer and Calvin as a way of giving God’s people a consistent, contextually-informed grasp of God’s Word. Preaching has a doxological objective, fostering adoration of God for his glory and his grace. Preaching in the context of the church’s worship should be evangelistic, not only with a view toward calling unbelievers to repentance and faith but also with a view toward grounding believers’ pursuit of holiness in the gospel, motivating obedience through grateful assurance rather than insecure fear or bare duty. Catechetical preaching has proven its value in establishing recent converts and all the faithful, generation after generation, in the cardinal truths revealed in the Bible. With respect to language and style, either simplicity or literary polish, extemporaneous delivery or prepared manuscripts, may effectively convey God’s message to human hearts. Yet a plain style does not have to be devoid of vivid imagery and illustration, and biblical illustrations and images are particularly powerful when employed appropriately. Effective preachers find ways to bring the truth home to hearers’ hearts intelligibly, persuasively, and movingly. The reading of substantial portions of Scripture in the church’s worship liturgy is a legacy worth recovering, a virtue deserving emulation by the twenty-first century church. The consistency of a preacher’s character with his gospel message of humbling love is a key to the congregation’s ready reception of the Word from his lips.

Volume 4 narrates developments in preaching, theology, and worship in the tumultuous sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its focus is on the Western Church, specifically in Germany, Switzerland, France, England, and the Netherlands. Six of its chapters are devoted to preaching in the churches arising from the Reformation. First-generation Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Calvin, Latimer, and others) are profiled, as are the pulpit ministries of the Puritans in England and the non-Puritan wing of seventeenth-century Anglicanism, and the flowering of Protestant orthodoxy in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Two chapters describe preaching developments associated with the Church of Rome: the polemical response of Counter-Reformation spokesmen (Jesuits and others), and the sometimes daring, sometimes diplomatically cautious, confrontation of decadence by French prelates during the reign of Louis XIV.

As its title suggests, volume 5 surveys a variety of theological and ecclesiastical movements that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (although the brief chapter on Russian Orthodoxy discusses preachers from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries). The focus of attention is on the English-speaking world, old and new, although the German-Lutheran roots of pietism are discussed, and chapters are devoted to the ministry of the Word in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Spanish California, Romania, and Russia. Old shows that the themes and tone of Protestant preaching were subtly reconfigured in the generations following the flowering of Protestant orthodoxy by tensions inherited from the past and pressures exerted by developments in the wider cultural and intellectual milieu. The tensions from the past included the sometimes violent religio-political conflict between Rome and the Reformers and among competing parties within Protestantism, painful and embarrassing expressions of doctrinal extremism that moderating preachers such as the Anglican Latitudinarians sought to avoid. With the church, preachers also confronted the challenge of reviving spiritual vitality and commitment in second-and-later-generation heirs of the Reformation, who formally assented to the gospel of grace that they had inherited but seemed to evidence little of its life-transforming power. Externally, the influence of the Enlightenment and the rise of romanticism encouraged subtle shifts in homiletic strategy (from heralding divine revelation to invoking human reason) and thematic focus (from the objective realities of Christ’s redemptive accomplishment and God’s justifying verdict to the subjectivity of conversion experience and moral reformation).

Old’s herculean endeavor to survey the history of Christian homiletical and liturgical practice as comprehensively as possible means that at certain points only general summaries can be offered, such as when few sermons have survived from preachers who were lauded by their contemporaries as heralds of the Word. These sections help to fill out readers’ sense of the great company of preachers worldwide and through the ages, but pastors seeking to learn from past mentors may find these historical surveys informative but minimally helpful.

Elsewhere, on the other hand, our author capitalizes on the abundance of available resources by leading us through a reflective engagement with one or several sermons from particular preachers. Here is where I find Old’s discussion most illumining and edifying. For example, Puritan John Flavel’s sermon series, gathered and published as Seaman’s Companion, exemplifies the application of profound biblical themes—prayer, divine providence, humility—to the concrete living conditions and challenges confronting a specific congregation (seafaring families in the English port city, Dartmouth) (4.319–26).[1] Old invests 16 pages in reflection on the sermon series by Thomas Shepard, a Massachusetts Bay Colony pastor and a founder of Harvard College, expounding Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom (4.194–209). Shepard’s exposition and application of the parable sometimes wanders into allegory. However, we have much to learn from his pastoral boldness and skill in addressing the spiritual lethargy threatening American colonists whose living conditions had improved from a dire struggle for survival to a degree of comfort and security. I found it spiritually refreshing to be guided through sermons by Scotland’s Robert Walker (1716–84) on providence (Heb. 13:5) and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 11:28), with extensive quotations from the latter sermon (5.465–77). It was a feast for the soul to sample the formidable gifts of Thomas Chalmers as he answered the intellectual challenges of the Enlightenment and expounded the transformative beauty and power of the gospel from Romans 5 in his classic message, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” (5.514–38).

I mentioned in the Part One of this review that readers may differ at points with how and where Dr. Old draws lines between faithful and less-than-faithful gospel proclamation, and volume 4 presented such a case to me. Old is convinced, as I am, that Christ, his cross, and God’s grace to us in this crucified and risen Son, must be central to the preaching of the Word. Yet that conviction seems to be applied inconsistently in his assessment of those whose sermons have centered elsewhere. Those of us who would insist that the Reformation is not “over” will be frustrated, for example, by the ambivalence of his discussion of Rome’s Counter-Reformation preachers. On the one hand, he opens the chapter with the frank observation, “for the most part Counter-Reformation preaching quite intentionally moved in the opposite direction” from the preaching of the Protestant Reformers (4.160). He notes that Jesuit champions such as Robert Bellarmine “found the Augustinian concept of grace repugnant,” preferring “a salvation achieved by a decision of the free will followed by a life of virtue and good works” to “the idea that one is saved by grace through faith” (4.197–98). Having surveyed sermons in which Bellarmine portrays salvation “in terms of an imitatio Christi rather than as a vicarious atonement,” Old expresses regret over “the Pelagian tendency of these sermons” (4.204). Yet his irenic ecumenism prompts him to opine that, despite such critiques, “we still want to recognize that Christ was preached and, through the preaching of the Counter-Reformation, many came to faith. For that, we must recognize these preachers as brothers in the service of the gospel” (4.160). One wonders: What sort of faith? Which gospel? By contrast, Old highlights the centrality of the atoning work of Christ on our behalf in John Calvin’s Holy Week sermons (1558):

The burden of preaching the cross for Calvin is not to exhort his congregation to take up their cross and follow Christ; although that theme is not absent from Calvin’s preaching, it is not primary.... The primary theme of Calvin’s preaching is that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. (4.125)

I finish these volumes stimulated to seek out and sample sermons from some of the past preachers to whom Dr. Old has introduced me. My curiosity was piqued as well about homiletics manuals that Old mentioned in passing or summarized: the Lutheran Andreas Hyperius’s sixteenth century homiletical handbook (4.371); the Huguenot Jean Claude’s essay on the composition of sermons (4.445–46), later included by Charles Simeon in his collection of over 2,500 sermon outlines, Horae Homileticae (5.467–69); F. A. Lampe’s “classic of Dutch homiletics,” Homileticarum Breviarum (4.460); and others. I suspect that Dr. Old will be pleased that his work has whetted others’ appetites to read more fully and learn more deeply from the company of preachers who have preceded us.

Endnote

[1] In this review citations from The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures are identified simply by volume and page. Thus “4.319–26” is volume 4, pages 319–26.

Dennis E. Johnson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as a professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, February 2013.

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