In the mid-eighteenth century, John Wesley and George Whitefield became famous through their revivalistic preaching. Although based on a Scripture, it differed from Reformed preaching in that it was not exegetical and did not place as much emphasis on correct grammatical, historical, and theological contexts. Instead, Wesley and Whitefield developed topics and presented applications for their listeners. Sin, grace, and reconciliation with God were their favorite themes. Wesley united this message with a zeal for sanctification. This style of preaching was directed particularly toward the poor, resulting in a tremendous movement for social and political justice.
Martin Luther, like John Wycliffe, John Huss, and Girolamo Savonarola before him, may be classified as a preacher of “prophetic personality.” For these preachers, preaching was an act of spiritual warfare. Luther’s sermons are polemics against the abuses within the Roman church and the hard-heartedness of many of its priests. Luther also began the tradition of preaching an additional pedagogical sermon. In these catechistic sermons he taught the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and doctrines of the Reformation. The tradition of featuring both catechetical and homiletical sermons in services became common in some Lutheran (and Reformed) churches, and this practice still continues in some churches today.
In the late medieval era, a renewed concern for the inner life emerged. This new kind of mysticism affected the medieval sermon. Mystic John Tauler did not completely abandon the scholastic rules for preaching, but he did alter them freely. It may be said that he practiced a devotional style of preaching.
An influence on preaching that originated from both the monasteries and the scholastic theology of the universities was the logic of Aristotle. As a result, sermon writers placed greater emphasis on coherence and clarity. This scholarly approach to preaching was developed in the great universities of the medieval period such as Paris and Oxford and spread to the Dominicans (Bernard), the Franciscans, and the Augustinian Anchorites. Consequently, a great many new handbooks on preaching were published along with collections of illustrations and outlines for sermons.
The renewal of preaching in the medieval era is traced to the rise of the crusades, the monasteries, and the scholastics. Bernard combined the enthusiasm of crusade rhetoric with the ascetic lifestyle of the monk and reflected a scholastic influence through his struggle with Abelard. His fiery eloquence was powerful enough to make an impression even on those who did not understand his language. Unusually gifted, he was a master of the art of public speaking.
Augustine represents the preaching of the Latin church, a style that may be traced from Tertullian through Cyprian to Ambrose, Augustine’s spiritual father and mentor. The Latin style of preaching shows an acquaintance with classical literature, Latin rhetoric, and symbolism.
John Chrysostom, known as the “golden orator,” was a master communicator, certainly one of the two or three greatest preachers in the church’s history. He was a follower of the Antiochian method of biblical exegesis. This tradition rejected the Platonic allegorizing of the Alexandrian school in favor of a concern for a grammatical, historical, theological method of interpretation.
Christianity changed considerably in the fourth century with the conversion of Constantine, who made Christianity legal and opened the door toward its accommodation with society. Worship developed rapidly through extensive building projects, the development of liturgies, the observance of the Christian year, creation of the lectionary, and the contributions of music and the arts. In this setting, preaching took on the characteristics of Roman rhetoric and became considerably more formal. Among the Greek Christians of the time, several stand out as exceptional preachers, especially Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus—collectively called the Cappadocians—and John Chrysostom, who will be treated in the next entry.
Origen was one of the earliest and most influential of the Greek preachers. He intertwined exegesis and preaching and created a sermon style that was essentially a running commentary of the text. This style dominated Christian preaching in the ancient church and continues to be used effectively today. In addition, Origen developed the allegorical method of exegesis, a method which is associated with the Alexandrian school of thought and the Eastern church. The allegorical interpretation of Scripture leads the listener to five possible meanings of the text: (1) the historical; (2) the doctrinal; (3) the prophetic; (4) the philosophical; and (5) the mystical sense.
Evidence collected about the early church suggests that most of the preaching in hamlets, villages, and rural areas was done by uneducated but devout lay people. The apostolic preaching, as well as the writings of the apostolic fathers of the second century that have been preserved, stand as exceptions to this overall trend.