Homiletics

The discussion of the art and theology of preaching. The earliest Christian sermon was called a “homily,” a term deriving from the Latin homilia, “a conversation.” From the earliest times preaching played a basic part in the religious life of the OT. Moses, Joshua, and Elijah all appealed by the spoken word to the listening congregation. The great literary prophets were preachers as well as writers. The prophetic oracles may have been used as proclamation in the cultic life of the community during the Exile. In the Jewish synagogue service on the Sabbath there developed the custom of an address delivered on the portion of Scripture which had been read in the congregation (cf. Luke 4:16-21; Acts 15:21).

The NT opens with the preaching of John the Baptist which reechoed the prophetic message of the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. Jesus Himself devoted a great part of His ministry to preaching, and His word had the unique personal power and authority of God Himself. He also sent out His disciples to preach in His name (Matt. 10:7), promising that their word would have the same power and authority as His own personal utterance (Luke 10:16), and would cause the spread of His kingdom till the end of the world (Matt. 24:14). After the resurrection, the apostles found that Jesus continued His ministry through their proclamation (i.e., His former ministry was only a beginning-Acts 1:1). God Himself, they believed, appealed to men and stretched out His hand to heal as they preached. They had no hesitation in claiming that what they preached was the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; Acts 4:31; 1 Pet. 1:23) which saved men (1 Cor. 1:21). Moreover, they believed that through their preaching the powers of salvation and of the new age were being implanted within human life and history to hasten the fulfillment of the hitherto hidden purpose of God to unite all things in Christ and fully to perfect the new creation (cf. Col. 1:22-29; Eph. 1:9, 10; 3:4-13). The accounts of the apostolic church indicate that preaching in the form of the exposition of Scripture took place not only as a missionary activity, but also in the context of the assembled congregation of believers, especially on the Lord's Day (Rom. 15:4; Acts 18:24-28; 20:7ff.). The continuance of this custom is reflected in Justin's account of worship in the second century.

The earliest Christian preaching took the form of a simple conversational, practical, and pastoral homily, based on the text which had been read, and often following the varied topics suggested by the text, in the order in which they arose within the text, with little concern to attain a satisfying rhetorical structure. The sermon began when and where the text began, and ended when the text ended. It was often delivered extempore, though arising out of careful preparation. It was regarded as the primary duty of the bishop to preach, and he often did so seated, while the congregation stood. The great preachers of the third and fourth centuries-Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom, and Augustine-were conscious that they lived in a world in which the normal method of communication involved the use of traditional rhetoric; and while they recognized the deep difference between their task as Christian preachers and that of pagan rhetoricians whose aim was merely to impress an audience with a great speech, they felt that the church must accept the help which the study of rhetoric could bring to preaching. The first important discussion of homiletics in this light was made in Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, a work that has never ceased to be important.

In the early Middle Ages, arrangements and excerpts from the sermons of Augustine, Caesarius of Arles, and other Fathers were circulated to help preachers who could not produce their own sermons. In the revival of preaching with the Dominican and Franciscan friars, a great variety of homiletic helps, with sermon suggestions for every possible occasion, was published. The art of illustrating sermons with fantastical allegorical fables was greatly developed, giving rise to many collections of exempla for this purpose. Treatises on preaching (e.g., by Humbert of Romans) were issued. In the thirteenth century a “modern” new form of thematic preaching from a short text with careful introductions, transitions, conclusion, and, of course, three headings, appeared in university circles. It was called “modern” in contrast with the older form of homily. Calvin and Luther at the Reformation tended to return to the older form of preaching, but the medieval forms prevailed with succeeding generations. Influential works on homiletics were produced, e.g., by Hyperius and Keckermann. The most important Puritan work, recently republished, was William Perkins's Art of Prophesying. Later there appeared Simeon's Horae Homileticae and Vinet's Homiletics, immensely popular in their day.

What is usually said on the subject of homiletics has been best discussed by following the topics traditionally used in works on rhetoric: invention (finding out what to say), disposition (arranging the material), style (clothing it in suitable language), memory (the task of fixing for the mind what is to be delivered), and delivery.

In addition to books cited above, J. Bingham, The Antiquities of the Christian Church 2 vols., (1878); J.A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (1893); R.G. Owst, Preaching in Mediaeval England (1926); C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (1936); R.F. Bennett, The Early Dominicans (1937); J.J. von Allmen, Preaching and Congregation (1962); J.W. Blench, Preaching in England (1964); St. Francis de Sales, On the Preacher and Preaching (1964); Y. Brilioth, A Brief History of Preaching (1965).