Book Review: The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: The Patristic Age

I’ve always been a strong advocate of patristic studies.  That’s not an easy advocacy in Evangelical Christianity, but it’s one that needs to be made.  It’s not always easy in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy either, because the Fathers of the Church–or more precisely those who wrote and, as we learn here, preached, during the Roman Empire and in the years immediately follow–don’t always follow the mould that today’s Catholic and Orthodox would like them to.

Most patristic studies focus on three aspects of their life and work: doctrinal/theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical.  In this volume entitled The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: The Patristic Age, the Reformed scholar Hughes Oliphant Old takes on the era from Constantine to Gregory the Great.  His idea (which is part of a long series on the subject) is to examine the church fathers (and some others) from the standpoint of their pulpit works.  What was their method and style?  What kind of training did they have?  How did they exposit the Scriptures?  And how did changes in the society at large and the church in particular affect the preaching of the Word?

Old’s book is broken down into six basic chapters:

  1. The School of Alexandria, which includes Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa,) Cyril of Jerusalem and Hesychius of Jerusalem.
  2. The Jerusalem Lectionary in the Fifth Century.  His view of the Jerusalem church–a church, whose links with its apostolic roots having been broken by the Roman sacks of the city, was both new in many ways and influential because of the many pilgrims that passed through–is interesting.  He spends some time in the development of this and other lectionaries but linking the preaching of the word with liturgical developments is not a strong point of this book.  (Some of the sermons he cites, for example, with the plan of salvation in them, sound much like some of the anaphorae current at the time, especially in the East.)
  3. The School of Antioch, including John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia (whom he gives more credit than is usually done,) and Theodoret of Cyrus.  His handling of theological differences amongst these and especially the Syriac Fathers is more even-handed than one often sees in Catholic and Orthodox literature.
  4. The Syriac Church, including Ephrem of Nisbis, Narsai and Philoxenus of Mabbug.  The Syrians get the short shrift in most literature on this era, both for doctrinal and ecclesiastical reasons, but their metrical homiletics deserve a wider treatment than they get, and Old gives them a good overview.
  5. The Latin Fathers, including Ambrose, Jerome, Maximus of Turin, and Augustine.   It goes without saying that Old is partial to Augustine, and sometimes he gets carried away with the praise, almost preaching himself in spots.
  6. The Eternal Gospel in a Dying Culture, featuring Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus and Gregory the Great.

It is in the last section where he clinches his case regarding the changes in the preaching and the changes in the church during this era.  Old spends a good deal of time linking Christian preaching in this era with classical rhetorical training.  His idea is that, with the collapse of classical education (especially in the West,) churches leaned more on the liturgy and “canned” sermons (to use a modern phrase) than the oratorical abilities of its priests and bishops.  He also notes that the fading of the adult catechumenate and the shift to infant baptism not only ended homiletical series aimed at these people; it also changed the nature of Lent, making it the central season of the Christian year, and shifting the penitential focus from the catechumens to the church at large.

Although his handing of doctrinal variations is reasonable, there are spots where Old struggles.  He has a hard time with Cyril of Jerusalem’s mystagogy and Leo the Great’s asceticism.  He also has a hard time with the Patristic method of Biblical interpretation in all of its variations, although he acknowledges that, more often than not, the Fathers got to the Gospel message.  His narrative style is somewhat looser than one usually finds in this kind of book.  That’s probably due to the fact that this is a long series, but it’s also due to the fact that he is a preacher himself.  He almost has an Origenistic flow to his narrative without the grammatical complexity of the Alexandrian master; he’s got a lot of ground to cover, he must hurry.

Despite this book’s limitations, it has one strong point: it makes you want to go and read this preaching for yourself.  The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: The Patristic Age is an excellent look at a vital if misunderstood era of the history of the church.

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