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

Dennis E. Johnson

Ordained Servant: August–September 2012

Biblical Theology

Also in this issue

The Value of Daydreaming

Calvin’s Kline

Biblical Theology

Faith in Politics: A Review Article

Bonhoeffer: Whose Hero?

Ode on Solitude

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, by Hughes Oliphant Old. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Volume 1: The Biblical Period, 1998, 383 pages, $37.00. Volume 2: The Patristic Age, 1998, 481 pages, $45.00. Volume 3: The Medieval Church, 1999, 646 pages, $55.00.

Hughes Oliphant Old’s magisterial seven-volume series provides an illumining, humbling, provocative, and sometimes surprising exercise in time-travel. It takes readers through almost three and a half millennia of the proclamation of God’s Word in the worship of God’s people. Our tour guide may well be the premier living historian of worship in the Reformed tradition. He pastored Presbyterian (USA) churches in Pennsylvania and Indiana, completed doctoral studies on the patristic roots of Reformed worship at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and was a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, New Jersey. Recently he has been appointed as John H. Leith Professor of Reformed Theology and Worship and Dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary. He has published on prayer in worship, on baptism, and a widely-used introduction to the elements of worship.[1]

Both reading and reviewing Reading and Preaching pose daunting challenges. Excluding bibliographies and indices, the text of the seven volumes totals 4,125 pages. They are not best absorbed by quick skimming or speed reading. Trying to survey such a massive enterprise in a review of reasonable length is like introducing someone to the Pacific Ocean by offering a thimbleful of salt water—or, on the other hand, by pointing to the blue expanse between Asia and California on a satellite photo of the Earth. The editor of Ordained Servant has kindly let me write two reviews (volumes 1–3 now, volumes 4–7 to come). Still, my task is intimidating. I shall try to combine the two strategies just mentioned: to offer satellite-altitude observations about the features of the whole “ocean,” along with thimbleful tastes of the flavors to be found in Reading and Preaching. I assume that the pastors, elders, and other Ordained Servant readers approach book reviews with the question in mind, “Should I invest precious dollars and even more precious hours in this volume or set?” (If you were to pay full retail price—does anyone still pay this?—the set would set you back $337. Having read only 34% so far, I cannot begin to estimate the investment in hours to absorb what this set has to offer.) I am persuaded, nonetheless, that the costs in funds and time are well worth the investment.

First, a few words about the perspectives of our guide, as they emerge from the first thousand pages or so. Although Dr. Old’s ministry has been predominantly in mainline Presbyterian and ecumenical circles, his extensive and deep conversation with past generations of preachers has led him to conservative sensitivities and confessional convictions. It is not surprising, therefore, that recently he has been affiliated with Erskine Seminary, the theological school of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a NAPARC member denomination. His biblical, Reformed convictions and sense of historical perspective come to expression in his discerning assessment and critique of contemporary church practice and priorities, whether in mainline, evangelical, charismatic, confessional, or other ecclesiastical traditions. Our guide repeatedly notes how the church in earlier times offers correctives to the deficiencies of today’s churches. Concerning the preaching of Jan Hus (ca. 1372–1415), for example, Old writes:

His call for church reform foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation by a whole century. His demand for integrity in the Church has ecumenical implications. “Mainline” Protestantism here in America would do well to listen carefully to his warnings, for many of his criticisms apply as much to us. (3.468)[2]

Elsewhere Dr. Old speaks from his identity as a Christian who treasures his heritage from the Calvinistic Reformers as he registers respectful but forthright critiques of those who have gone before (for example, Origen’s and others’ allegorism, or the gospel-devoid moralism of much medieval preaching). Walking with Dr. Old through thousands of years enables readers to experience the value of staying in respectful conversation with the past. As C. S. Lewis observed in his oft-cited preface to a translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word, writers of other eras had their blind spots, as we today have ours. But their errors are not likely to be those to which we and our contemporaries are prone. Lewis advised that the “only palliative” to the self-reinforcing blindness of our own era is “to keep the clear sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only be reading old books.” Their authors “will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”[3] Dr. Old leads us into an engagement with the company of preachers who pioneered the way before us, approaching them with thoughtful humility that is simultaneously empathetic and appropriately critical.

In telling the story of the way that the church’s pastors and theologians have handled the Word in worship, Old’s perspective is catholic—that is, he is positively inclusive and universal in several respects. Obviously the series aims to be chronologically catholic. It spans roughly three and a half millennia from the ministry of Moses at the exodus to the first decade of the twenty-first century. The treatment is theologically and ecumenically catholic, giving attention to preaching among the Orthodox communions, the Church of Rome, and the various Protestant traditions, both in their confessional expressions and in modernist departures from the church’s historic faith revealed in God’s Word and articulated in ancient creeds. As much as possible, Old’s catholicity strives to be geographical and ethnic as well. Not surprisingly, available resources and the author’s ecclesiastical setting converge to produce a certain focus on the western church, on Protestantism, and on the European and American scenes. This less-than-global focus is especially evident in volumes 5 (roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) and 6 (nineteenth and twentieth centuries), though the former has chapters on Romanian and Russian Orthodoxy. Yet volume 7 (late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries) reopens the lens to a wider angle, profiling preaching taking place today in the churches of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.

The series title speaks of the reading, as well as the preaching, of the Scriptures in worship. Preaching has pride of place in Dr. Old’s discussion, but his scope exceeds a history of homiletic practice or theory. In the present time, when the reading of significant and sizable portions of Scripture is in decline in much of the Western church, Old illustrates how our contemporary “lite” exposure to the Word in worship falls short of the liturgical priorities and practices of the church in earlier times and in other places. Old describes and evaluates various approaches that have been employed in the organization of preaching series and selection of biblical texts for individual sermons, ranging from catechetical (topical) sermons, to festal sermons linked to an ecclesiastical calendar, to sermons preached specifically for evangelistic and prophetic purposes, to the practice of expositing and applying texts successively through whole books of the Bible (lectio continua, “continuous reading,” in contrast to lectio selecta, reading and preaching texts chosen for their relevance to specific doctrines or liturgical days or seasons). He finds evidence of lectio continua biblical exposition as far back as the practice of the pre-Christian Jewish synagogue, then in the ministries of such fathers as Origen (1.342–45) and John Chrysostom (1.173–89), in that of Bonaventure in the medieval period (3.363–64), and in the pulpit ministry of the major Protestant Reformers and their successors (4.19–27, 46–47, 92–121, etc.). Lectio continua was also an organizing principle that guided the composition of some of the lectionaries—annual or seasonal schedules of scriptural texts to be read in worship on particular dates—that have survived from the early centuries of the church’s history. Fragments of patristic and medieval lectionaries evidence a thoughtful selection of passages from the Law, the Prophets, the Epistles, and Gospels that are correlated with each other thematically as well as aligned with the liturgical calendar of seasons and feasts, while others direct preachers toward a progressive exposition of biblical books. Dr. Old discusses fifth-century lectionaries used in Jerusalem (2.135–66) and by the Syriac-speaking church (2.277–95); lectionaries developed in Gaul from the fifth to seventh centuries (3.81–95), and lectionaries used in the great centers of Christianity, Byzantium (3.67–72) and Rome (3.143–84). Whichever rationale was followed to determine which Scriptures were to be read weekly (and sometimes daily) in worship, the point to be taken away from this aspect of Old’s narrative is that reading and hearing Scripture—substantial portions of Scripture—are intrinsic to the corporate worship and spiritual vitality of the church. Dr. Old’s survey of the Syriac lectionaries closes with an observation with implications for today’s church: “One cannot help but be impressed by the fact that so much of the Bible is included. The enthusiasm of the Syriac-speaking church for the public reading of Scripture is evident” (2.295). Likewise, regarding the Byzantine lectionary, our guide comments: “There is an obvious delight here in the reading of Scripture. That the same passage might be read a second or third time in the course of a week seems to bother no one” (3.72). In our planning of the church’s worship, are we providing to God’s people a rich and balanced diet of hearing the Word of God read aloud?

Dr. Old directs our attention to the church’s corporate worship as the context for the reading and preaching of Scripture. Elsewhere he presented the argument of Calvin and his heirs that the Scriptures, in which God reveals his will for his people, have supreme authority to direct our worship practices; and he traced the trajectory of biblically-warranted liturgical elements throughout church history.[4] In this series, the focus is on the announcement of God’s Word given in Scripture, through reading and exposition, as definitive of the sacred meeting of the Lord with his redeemed and worshipful people. Beginning with the Book of Exodus, Old comments: “According to the oldest traditions, the reading of Scripture goes back as far as the worshiping assembly of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.... Moses reads the book of the covenant before the assembly of the people as an act of solemn worship” (1.22, 24). This biblical perspective on preaching, sounded in the opening pages of Volume One, reappears throughout. Preaching is more than conveying truth, persuading others, and motivating them to repentance and obedience—though it must not be less than these. Both the preacher and his hearers must be aware that they stand in the presence of the living God, humbled by his holiness and searching omniscience but also heartened by his grace in Christ to anticipate his Spirit’s refreshing and renewing power at work in his Word preached.

The focus on preaching in the venue of the church’s worship, however, does not mean that preachers can merely presuppose their hearers’ acceptance of the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection. In view of recent debates in our circles over the legitimacy of preaching in worship that not only edifies saints but also calls unbelievers to repentance and faith in Christ, Old brings a horizon-expanding perspective by citing the practice of preachers who served in the midst of pagan (pre-Christendom) cultures, which have growing similarities to the post-Christendom environment that confronts the contemporary church. One of the few surviving sermons from the early second century is the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, which is actually a sermon preached to the church at Corinth, expounding a prophetic text (Isaiah 54:1), a Gospel text (Matt. 9:13), and other Scriptures (1.278). The sermon “is preached to a Christian congregation and yet it is also a witness to non-Christians.” Its evangelistic approach is not based on a theology of decisional regeneration or baptismal regeneration, but “on justification by faith, on the confidence that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” So the sermon calls all its hearers, whether professing faith or not, to repentance leading to salvation (1.283). In a similar vein, Old hears in John Chrysostom’s sermons on Genesis, preached two and a half centuries later when the Roman Empire was, nominally, friendlier to Christian faith, “a very definite evangelistic thrust.” John preached the typological connections between the patriarchs and Christ to equip his parishioners to offer persuasive arguments “in friendly exchange with the Jews,” in dependence on God’s Spirit to open blind eyes and convince hearts (2.179).

While commending the example of preachers who have prioritized evangelizing the unconverted along with building believers, Dr. Old is not unaware of the risks of trying to speak Christ’s gospel in terms that are intelligible to the unpersuaded. He comments,

Origen made it possible for the Church to speak the language of that [third-century Alexandrian] culture.... He was the first in a long line of Christian preachers who would make a bridge between the Christian faith and the prevailing culture of the day. After Origen would come a Gregory the Great, a Bossuet, a Schleiermacher, an Adolf von Harnack, and a Harry Emerson Fosdick, each of whom in one way or another built a bridge between the Christian faith and a very different culture. (1.307)

Some names in this cavalcade of church-to-culture bridge-builders could well lead us to suspect that efforts to speak God’s truth to the world as well as to the church too easily introduces distortions of that precious, saving truth. Old himself admits: “Each made certain compromises, some acceptable, some regrettable” (1.307). We may differ about where the line falls between “acceptable” and “regrettable” compromises. Yet, despite the risks, preachers must speak gospel truth clearly, without compromising its content. This duty is enjoined by such biblical precedents as Paul’s speeches in Dispersion synagogues and the Areopagus (admittedly, not venues of Christian worship) and the way that his epistles—to Christian congregations—engage Greco-Roman philosophical concepts and cultural institutions, summoning readers to self-examination, repentance, and faith in Christ. Old reminds us that gospel preachers, ranging from the matchless Chrysostom to the lesser known Maximus of Turin, preached evangelistically in worship, “inviting non-Christians to receive catechetical instruction and baptism” in their sermons (2.342–4).

The mention of Chrysostom above invites comment on Old’s evaluation of the interpretive handling of Scripture by the preachers whom he surveys in these first three volumes. Chrysostom, “the greatest preacher the Church ever produced” (2.170), was a master of the typological hermeneutic that the School of Antioch derived from Jesus’s and the apostles’ redemptive-historical, Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament. Our guide unabashedly affirms,

It was Jesus himself, as summed up in the story of the Emmaus road, who opened to his disciples the Scriptures (Luke 24:32). It was Jesus who established the Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, and it was from Jesus that the apostles learned this interpretation . . . presenting Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures. (1.251)

Old finds sound applications of the New Testament’s typological interpretation of the Old Testament not only in Chrysostom, but also in Second Clement (1.284); in Melito of Sardis (1.285); and even in an Alexandrian preacher such as Hesychius of Jerusalem (2.131).

The biblical instinct to read the Old Testament Scriptures in relation to Christ also came to expression in allegorical excesses that Old cannot commend. Although capable of sober contextual exegesis, Origen also made strained connections between Old Testament texts and Christ through etymologies, numerology, and symbolism unrelated to Scripture’s historical contexts (1.317–18). Origen’s inventiveness occasions our guide’s insightful discussion of the similarities and differences between allegory and typology in the proclamation of the whole Bible’s Christocentric message (1.333–41). Though briefer than other treatments of biblical typology (as contrasted to allegorism),[5] this discussion early in the series makes distinctions that are helpful to bear in mind as one travels through succeeding centuries of Christian preaching—as, for example, when he finds even in the great Augustine, at times, “the wildest excesses of allegorical interpretation” (2.359–60).

Related to the importance of a sound approach to proclaiming the Bible’s Christ-centered focus is Old’s concern that preachers must proclaim the gospel, the great redemptive achievements of the incarnate Christ in his death and resurrection. As the gospel spread across the ancient and medieval world, drawing people into God’s light out of pagan darkness, generations of preachers faced the challenge of instilling holiness of life in newly converted congregants. Although Dr. Old empathizes with their pastoral concern, he cannot excuse sermons so heavily weighted toward moral duty that they were virtually devoid of the gospel of grace. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Beatitudes, for example, so stressed human self-discipline that God’s “mercy” to the merciful was reduced to a justly-earned, and thus graceless, reward (2.89–91). Likewise, toward the close of the medieval period, in the nominalist pietism of Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), Christ’s passion became a summons to “enter into the sufferings of Christ, that one might thereby achieve salvation.” (3.510) Old concludes soberly, “This sermon is not a proclamation of what Christ has done to free us from our sin, but an exhortation to do the best we can to earn our own salvation. That might make quite a bit of sense to the secular humanist of our day” (3.511).

On the other hand, though Old finds the great Augustine’s allegorical inventiveness unpersuasive, he also appreciates that the church father’s “simple, straightforward” Easter sermons show that “the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ was central to the preaching of Augustine, and in preaching it, as we have seen, he preached faith” (2.381). Likewise, in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas’s preaching on the atonement (indebted to Anselm’s soteriology) and on Christ’s resurrection exposed the gravity of our spiritual need and displayed the centrality of Jesus’s redemptive achievement (3.417–30). Preachers are most faithful to their calling (and, I would add, most effective in aiding true sanctification of affections, motives, and actions) when they imitate Paul’s resolve to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), delivering to their hearers “as of first importance” the central truths “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

So much more should be said about these first three volumes of Reading and Preaching. I have not even mentioned Gregory Nazianzen, “the Christian Demosthenes” (2.61–82); or Ambrose, whose preaching was so formative for Augustine (2.300–25); or Augustine’s invaluable homiletical handbook, On Christian Teaching (2.386–97); or the preaching of missionaries who brought the faith into Europe (3.73–141); or the homiletic distinctives of the medieval monastic orders, the Benedictines (3.185–252), the Cistercians (3.253–92), the Franciscans (3.341–86), and the Dominicans (3.387–440). I have bypassed questions and objections that I jotted here and there on page margins. (Yet, though I recognize the selectivity demanded of the author of so comprehensive an enterprise and the presumption of suggesting that anything significant has been omitted, nevertheless I will humbly register mild disappointment that the discussion of preaching in the New Testament itself [1.111–250] did not include the “word of exhortation” to the Hebrews [Heb. 13:22], the only sermon preached to a new covenant church to be found in the canon.)

At least, I hope that this sampling of Old’s awe-inspiring survey of almost three millennia of Word ministry, from Moses to the eve of the Reformation, helps readers glimpse the contours of this vast ocean and invites them to let the “clean sea breeze of the ages” refresh their approach to the high and holy calling of reading and preaching God’s Word in the assembly of his people.


[1] Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (Westminster John Knox, 1985; expanded and revised edition, 2002).

[2] In this review citations from The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures are identified simply by volume and page. Thus “3.468” is volume 3, page 468.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in St. Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. and ed. A Religious of the C. S. M. V. (1944; rev. ed. London: A. R. Mosbray, 1953), 5.

[4] Old, Worship. See also Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

[5] Edmund P. Clowney, “Preaching Christ from All the Scripture,” in Samuel T. Logan, Jr., ed., The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1986), 163–191; Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 11–44; Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 69–109, Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 94–108.

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.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2012

Biblical Theology

Also in this issue

The Value of Daydreaming

Calvin’s Kline

Biblical Theology

Faith in Politics: A Review Article

Bonhoeffer: Whose Hero?

Ode on Solitude

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