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The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part Three)

Dennis E. Johnson

Servant Reading

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, by Hughes Oliphant Old. Volume 6: The Modern Age. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007, xxii + 997 pages, $60.00.

Dr. Old’s seven-volume The Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church requires and rewards slow and sustained reading and reflection. For that reason this review has been appearing piecemeal over several years. Part One, covering the first three volumes (the biblical period, the patristic age, the medieval church), appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of Ordained Servant. Part Two, surveying volumes four and five (the Reformation, and the subsequent era of “moderatism, pietism, and awakening”), came out in February 2013. This third segment now addresses only volume six, the period extending from the late eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth, which Dr. Old characterizes as “the modern age.” A fourth and final review, yet to come, will address the seventh volume, which describes and analyzes preaching in “our own day” (mid-twentieth century through the first decade of the twenty-first).

Not surprisingly, as the series has moved toward the present day, Dr. Old has been able to consult an increasingly large treasury of resources. Thus he can give more detailed examination to more preachers, homiletical schools, and (to some extent) liturgical traditions. The vastness of these resources may explain aspects of Volume Six that seem somewhat at odds with the emphases of the series as a whole. As noted in previous reviews, two distinctive strengths of the series are its catholicity and its attention to the liturgical significance of the reading of God’s Word in corporate worship (not only preaching). Old intends to be catholic by describing and evaluating the ministry of the Word not only across the centuries but also across the spectrum of Christian traditions—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and, where sources allow, throughout the global church. In this volume, on the other hand, the focus is virtually exclusively on the western church in the United States (six chapters), the United Kingdom (three chapters), and the European continent (three chapters). The missionary outreach of the American Adoniram Judson in Burma (6:202–5) and the Scotsmen Robert Morrison in China (6:636–42) and Alexander Duff in India (6:675–83) are briefly discussed; and our author regrets that he had had no access to resources on the preaching of Scotland’s groundbreaking evangelist to Africa, David Livingstone (6:634). Two of the “American” chapters deal with the beginnings of black preaching (ch. 7) and German preaching to westward-bound settlers in what would become the midwestern states (ch. 8)—a reminder that in the nineteenth century these were still “missionary territory.” Nonetheless, this volume is less geographically and demographically “catholic” than volumes one through five, and volume seven.

Ecumenically, this volume, despite its massive length (over 1,000 pages, including front matter) concentrates on Protestantism in a way that the other volumes do not. Dr. Old profiles Reformed and Presbyterian preachers in the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and America (with individual chapters on New England Calvinists and the Presbyterian “old school”), Lutherans in Germany and America, Southern Baptists, and what he calls “the great American school,” a theologically diverse “tradition” that will be discussed below. Four Roman Catholic preachers on the continent of Europe, along with three Reformed, are profiled in the first chapter, which narrates “religious revival in a secularized Europe.” Several sermons of John Henry Newman, who moved from high church Anglicanism to Rome, are treated in the chapter on “the Victorians.” But that is about all the attention that Roman Catholicism receives, and even less is said of Eastern Orthodoxy in this volume.

Volume Six is also exceptional in the series because of its almost exclusive concentration on preaching, with little treatment of the reading of Scripture in the churches’ worship liturgies. Earlier volumes narrated the development of lectionaries to structure the systematic and extensive hearing of the Word of God by congregations gathered for worship, and volume seven will note the influence of Vatican II on the recovery of the hearing of the Word in twentieth-century Roman Catholicism. Dr. Old has previously expressed admiration for the delight in the reading of extended biblical passages in earlier eras (2.295; 3:72, cited in my first Ordained Servant review). Fixed lectionaries are not the only way, of course, to ensure that the breadth of Scripture is read and heard in our worship, and Dr. Old is aware that lectionaries have drawbacks: a lectionary may place a biblical text in a particular conceptual context that differs significantly from its setting in Scripture itself (6:128). On the other hand, Dr. Old also notes that preaching lectio continua through biblical books, though reinforcing each text’s biblical context, has its potential dangers, such as when young preachers imitate the slow pace and extended series of a master such as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (6:949).[1] Old’s discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together gives him opportunity to stress the importance of the church’s continuous exposure to substantial portions of the Scriptures, heard in their biblical context (6:807–9). We who are heirs of the Westminster Assembly, which produced a Directory for Publick Worship instead of a revised Book of Common Prayer, do well to consider how our worship services can and should be permeated by God’s Word, read and heard, prayed and sung, as well as preached. Perhaps the relative paucity of comment on this “reading” motif in these last two volumes reflects the “famine ... of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11) that our author finds in the liturgies, whether fixed and formal or ad hoc, of recent Protestantism (mainline and evangelical).

As a confessional Presbyterian, I found much to appreciate in Dr. Old’s description and evaluation of the various streams of post-Enlightenment Protestant preaching. I was heartened by his appreciation for the biblical insight, focus on Christ’s cross and resurrection, eloquence, and personal fervor in the sermons of Abraham Kuyper (6:45–60). My appreciation grew for Charles Spurgeon’s skill with language and his vivid, down-to-earth illustration, even as I was reminded that the power of Spurgeon’s preaching resided not in his technique but in his confidence in God’s sovereignty, his commitment to preach Christ and his grace, and his dependence on the Holy Spirit’s presence (6:422–43). In chapter 4, I learned more about the preaching of Old School fathers about whom I knew something (Archibald and J. W. Alexander, John Livingston Nevius), and I met others for the first time. His brief (eight-page) introduction to Klaas Schilder highlighted the Dutch preacher’s meticulous exegesis, literary art and imagination, and sensitivity to the Old Testament’s witness to Christ and his sufferings (6:856–63). My curiosity was piqued to learn more about preachers such as James Stewart, “a Presbyterian Bonaventure,” under whose theological instruction and pulpit ministry Dr. Old had profited spiritually during a winter spent in Edinburgh in the 1950s (6:902–27).

I also found myself nodding in agreement with the negative assessments rendered over influential preachers and theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Friedrich Schleiermacher’s sermons and his homiletical theory, Pietism’s subjectivism met the Enlightenment’s anti-supernaturalism to yield a message that affirmed humanity’s intrinsic divinity, replaced vicarious atonement with Jesus’s exemplary faith, and substituted for the apostolic testimony to Christ’s bodily resurrection “a moment when the risen Savior appears to our spirits and with his life-giving power empowers us,” in the words of one of Schleiermacher’s Easter sermons (6:81–87). Our author aptly comments, “One cannot help but wonder if what we are hearing here is not some sort of self-realization philosophy, hiding in tabs and pulpit gown” (6: 88). It is puzzling that Dr. Old allots nine pages to New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who “rarely entered the pulpit” during his professorial tenure at Marburg and whom “no one would claim ... was a great preacher” (6:764). Yet Bultmann’s single volume of twenty-one sermons “have been widely acclaimed,” since they express his existentialist slant on New Testament theology (6:765). Old frankly shows that these sermons clearly express both doubt and indifference toward the historical events of the gospel. He judges them to be “unbearably abstract” and questions whether Bultmann’s hearers would even understand the response he sought from them, much less be moved to offer it (6:770, 773). So perhaps those nine pages are well invested, after all, as a cautionary tale about ways that error in the academy can wreak ruin in the pulpit. Moreover, it is no secret where Dr. Old’s sympathies lie as he profiles two twentieth century British preachers, contrasting the Anglican William Temple’s urbane explanation of “The Meaning of the Crucifixion,” in which he took pains to deny “that Jesus bore the penalty that was really due us” (6:693), on the one hand, to the Methodist William Sangster’s proclamation of Christ our substitute and punishment-bearer, on the other. From Sangster we hear “the historic Christian doctrine of the atonement, found so clearly in the New Testament, lost sometimes at one point or another in the history of the church, but clearly recovered in the Protestant Reformation” (6:935).

Then again, at points Old’s theological discernment and his irenic inclination to offer a “judgment of charity” seem to stand virtually at an impasse. Take, for example, his discussion of the sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a name well known to those familiar with the Presbyterian conflict that birthed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. (In case OS readers wonder: No, Fosdick’s 1922 manifesto, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” is not mentioned in the 20-page treatment of “the most influential preacher of the Great American School,” 6:530–51.) Dr. Old faithfully summarizes the arguments and cites selections from several of Fosdick’s famous sermons, gently injecting his own assessment along the way. Of “On Catching the Wrong Bus,” for instance, he concludes, “There is not a trace of Calvinism in this sermon. It is Puritanism without Calvinism. There is no suggestion of grace anywhere in the sermon” (6:538). Old finds hints of grace in “No Man Need Stay the Way He Is,” but in this sermon, ostensibly on Romans 8:1, “Fosdick’s understanding of grace does not come very close to the eighth chapter of Romans” (6:541). The four pages (!) devoted to this sermon clearly demonstrate the accuracy of Old’s assessment that Fosdick’s view of grace was far removed from the Apostle Paul’s. Yet the author’s the irenic conclusion is:

This is an evangelistic sermon. It may not be quite the same gospel that other evangelists were preaching in that day, but Fosdick ... was concerned to find some way of presenting the gospel that his generation could accept.... Given the presuppositions of those to whom he preached, it is probably not a bad attempt. (6:542)

I would grant that willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt is a hallmark of both Christian humility and scholarly wisdom. But how can a sermon that offers “grace” and “good news” that are unrecognizable by apostolic standards, in order to avoid running afoul of hearers’ self-confident presuppositions, be judged “not a bad attempt”?

The longest chapter (but happily only a little longer than the chapter on Old School Presbyterian preaching) surveys “The Great American School,” from Charles Finney to Norman Vincent Peale (6:445–581). The chapter opens with a clarification that helps to explain Old’s measured critiques of preachers such as Fosdick: “These volumes have been written for the heirs of this [Great American] school, to help us figure out where we fit into the big picture.... We have a great heritage and yet that heritage has obvious flaws” (6:448)—among them, as Old had already admitted, “a rather weak understanding of Scripture” (6:447). To retain credibility in the estimation of his primary audience, our author adopts a low-key strategy, using historical description and understated evaluations to plant the thought that preaching can and should be significantly better than many of his mainline and evangelical readers have ever experienced.

I mentioned above that this school is theologically diverse. It includes, on the one hand, popular evangelists who held to biblical inerrancy such as D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and Billy Sunday; and, on the other, mainline spokesmen like Fosdick, who scorned those fundamentalists’ views of Scripture, miracles, the incarnation, and salvation. The school is broad enough denominationally to include Congregationalists (Horace Bushnell and Henry Ward Beecher), a noted Episcopalian bishop and homiletician (Phillips Brooks), Methodists (Sam Porter Jones), Presbyterians (Sunday, Fosdick, Henry Sloan Coffin, and George A. Buttrick), and Peale, who is given this introduction, despite his affiliation with the Reformed Church in America: “With no preacher in the Great American School does Arminianism surface so obviously as with Norman Vincent Peale.... Here is the ultimate preacher of American optimism, the ultimate evangelist of self-help” (6:572).

What factors, then, lead Old to view men who differed in so many ways as belonging to a single school of homiletics? In general, they assumed a revivalistic, rather than a churchly-catechetical, approach to entering and maturing in the Christian faith. Some filled pulpits in established congregations, while others preached in crusades and other venues that transcended ecclesiastical oversight and tended to minimize denominational distinctive. Subjective spiritual experience and individuals’ decisions overshadowed confessional orthodoxy and corporate nurture through and accountability to covenant communities. In response to the growing influence of naturalistic science, rising democratic populism, and other social shifts, these preachers sought to attract and retain Americans’ ears both through innovative methodology and through theological adaptation of their message. In this school, preachers’ perceptions of their hearers’ and the wider society’s needs (whether abolition and “temperance” or improving self-esteem) typically took precedence over the consistent exposition and application of the whole counsel of God as historically understood by the church. Old concludes the chapter with an analysis of the once-great American school’s demise of effectiveness, and thus of influence, and with it the mainline denominations who are his primary audience. He blames not only the critical biblical scholarship that subverts confidence in and submission to Scripture, God’s Word written, but also the spreading biblical illiteracy across the whole landscape of the American church. “Even more significant in the fall of the American pulpit at the end of the twentieth century was that American Protestantism, by and large, capitulated to the secular culture of its age” (6:580).

It is against this backdrop, I believe, that Old identifies the Calvinistic, evangelistic, expositional preaching of Lloyd-Jones—which seemed to be an archaic replay of classic Reformational and Puritan proclamation of God’s sovereign, saving grace in Christ—as a harbinger of better things to come. Volume Seven will open with “the end of the mainline” before going on to profile Reformed preachers such as William Still, John Stott, Richard Lucas, Sinclair Ferguson, and Timothy Keller; the ministry of Billy Graham; contemporary preachers of Africa, Latin America, and Asia; and the proclamation of the Word in the black church in America, the Charismatic movement, post-Vatican II Catholicism, and evangelical megachurches. Not surprisingly, the preaching of God’s inerrant Word and its focal point, Christ’s gracious redemptive achievement in history, has quite easily survived the demise of a “great” homiletical school that, presumably with good intentions, sought to attract and engage an increasingly secularized audience by reconfiguring its message to suit their presuppositions. The story continues and the good news still goes out in life-changing power, for “the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9).


[1] Despite this caveat, after deep study of “the Doctor’s” sermons, which “came to my attention only rather recently,” Dr. Old is persuaded that Lloyd-Jones’s blend of Calvinistic conviction, exegetical fidelity, and evangelistic boldness, “rather than being a vestige of the past ... is an intimation of the future ... the example a whole host of young evangelical preachers intend to follow” (6:944).

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, March 2014.

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