History of Preaching
History of Preaching
Assessing today's preaching in light of history
The history of preaching with its procession of personalities and schools of preaching is as rich and as complex as the story of Christianity itself. This brief survey will identify four types of preaching that have dominated the story. In conclusion, some practical questions will be raised for twenty-first century preachers.
Key preaching types
While it is notoriously difficult to classify preaching styles, it is possible to contrast the defining beliefs and practice of four main types of biblical preaching, (though many preachers are composite in practice).
Teacher preachers have a defining belief that hearers should understand Scripture. Such preachers stay close to the text and explain its meaning deductively. Typically doctrinal and instructional, this preaching examines verses in logical order. Some examples of teacher preachers are John Stott, John Ortberg, Tim Keller, Jack Hayford, and John MacArthur. Often cerebral in style, teacher preachers want to get information across. A sermon form often used by teacher preachers is verse-by-verse preaching.
Herald preachers have a defining emphasis on God's empowering of both Scripture and the preaching event itself. Though such preaching shares deductive and propositional characteristics in common with teaching, it sounds very different. Herald preachers are often dramatic in style. While teacher preachers are left-brain, referring to small details and building their sermons with many bricks, herald preachers are right-brain, using a few large building blocks. Often herald preachers present a few bold issues with fire and call for a holistic response. Examples of herald preachers include Billy Graham, Gardner Taylor, Jeremiah Wright, Robert Smith Jr., the reformer Martin Luther, and Karl Barth.
Inductive preachers have a defining belief that hearers' needs are most important and that preaching must be relevant to them. In marked contrast with the deductive preaching of teachers and heralds, this style has an inductive dynamic that begins where people are and goes back to Scripture to find appropriate texts. Such inductive preaching may be evangelistic (as with the "felt needs" orientation of seeker-sensitive preaching), apologetic (defending Christianity against false doctrines), pastoral (meeting needs within congregation or society) or political (addressing current issues). Examples of inductive preachers include Bob Russell, John Maxwell, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels.
Narrative preachers have a defining belief that sermons should have a story form that catches listeners up in an experience of God's truth. Though most preachers use stories, this kind of preaching pays particular attention to hearers' listening patterns and plans sermons accordingly. With its roots in Scripture's narrative and especially Jesus' parables, it has recently gained popularity. Notable examples of narrative preachers are Calvin Miller, Max Lucado, Lee Strobel, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Eugene Lowry.
These different types are expressed through preaching history by preachers and schools of preaching.
Period 1: New Testament beginnings
By the time of Christ, Jewish synagogue worship included readings from the Law and the Prophets followed by commentary in the form of a teaching sermon. However, in Jesus' first sermon in a synagogue teaching context (Luke 4), he dramatically emerged as a herald preacher, announcing good news in himself—"Today this word has come true" (Luke 4:21). Such strong, propositional, herald preaching lies at the heart of Jesus' ministry, proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14;Luke 4:43) and commissioning disciples (Luke 9:2;Luke 10:9;Matthew 28:20). Also we see Jesus as a narrative preacher. His parables remain classic examples of such teaching (Matthew 18:23) and reveal the power of communication by story telling.
When the church was birthed by the Holy Spirit and by a sermon (Acts 2:14-41), herald preaching initiated mission breakthroughs at every turn, as the church moved into the Gentile world, proclaiming God's inclusive grace (as in Acts 10:34-40;Acts 13:16-49;Acts 17:22-34). Apostles defined faith by proclaiming the kerygma—core facts about Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3)—and preaching took many forms: in formal settings, in homes, outdoors, and on the road. Teacher preaching has a key role in building up the church (and Paul's epistles bear the oral signs of preaching). Forms of inductive preaching also emerged in this period. Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-31) provides an early model for seeker-sensitive preaching. Note his cross-cultural motivation (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In the period up to A.D. 150, bishops also seemed to have a key role in apologetic preaching against early heresies such as Gnosticism, (similar to more recent New Age phenomenon).
Period 2: Classical preaching
With the church's increasing establishment and acceptability, (particularly with Emperor Constantine's conversion in 312 A.D.), preaching faced a major crisis. How would it respond to the classical high art of rhetoric—the art of influencing an audience by persuasion? Earlier the apostle Paul had warned that clever eloquence might compromise the "foolishness" of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:20-25), though he himself was obviously persuasive in his Greek culture, (as with his skillful use of the diatribe technique in Romans).
By the third and fourth centuries, through the influence of the church's founding fathers, both teacher and herald preachers had consciously adopted rhetorical principles, especially of forensic speech with its introduction, series of points, and summary conclusion. This has had lasting effect. The Eastern church developed the Greek sermon through Origen (185-254), in Caesarea, and Chrysostom (337-407) of Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Both combined careful exegesis of the text with carefully structured sermons. Similarly, the western church developed the Latin sermon, reaching its greatest heights with Augustine (354-430) of Hippo, North Africa, who wrote the first preaching textbook, On Christian Doctrine—Book 4. Inductive preaching also successfully confronted many current heresies. However, with the decline of Roman civilization into the Dark Ages, preaching also decayed, often taking the form of mechanical repetitions of older sermons.
In the Middle Ages (1100-1500) classical preaching revived through several influences. Universities rediscovered the educational role of sermons and created many teaching aids. Orders of preaching friars, the Dominicans and Franciscans, also had wide impact constructing sermons on a single Bible verse with three points and sub points, often called the scholastic method. Dissenting preachers such as John Wyclif (1330-1384) reacted against his method and preached extemporaneously verse by verse. Preaching was also impacted by the need to motivate volunteers for crusades against Islam. Such preaching was an unusual and controversial form of inductive preaching, and its most famous preacher was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).
Period 3: Reformations and printing
The great Renaissance figure, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), edited the first Greek New Testament to be printed in 1516 and translated it into Latin. This aided the tumultuous rediscovery of Scripture in the Reformation through Martin Luther (1483-1546) who, trained in an Augustinian monastery, developed a style of herald preaching that prized biblical content, simplicity, and everyday application. His theology of preaching described the Word of God in three forms: the incarnate Word (Jesus), the written Word (Bible), and the proclaimed word (preaching).
Afterwards, Protestants were a new force comprising many other significant preachers such as John Calvin (1509-1564) in Switzerland, a colorful herald preacher (surprisingly). In a rich time of preaching, Roman Catholics launched a counter-reformation, and new radical groups emerged such as the Anabaptists. Several new movements arose in different contexts, such as the Puritans in Britain, who were teacher preachers whose sermons contained two parts, first an exposition of a text's doctrinal points and second its application to hearers. This so-called plain style remains a significant teaching model today.
Importantly, reformation preaching greatly benefited from the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg (around 1456). Mass printing enabled sermons to be read, and their teaching gave uniform catechism to mass populations. Printing encouraged deductive sermons with linear forms of points and sub points. Technology has always impacted preaching, as in today's electronics revolution.
Period 4: Evangelical preaching and increasing diversity
Within Protestantism, explosive preaching fueled the rise of evangelicalism through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with many different emphases. George Whitefield (1714-1770) popularized open-air, emotionally charged preaching, and traveling between America and Britain he influenced other important preachers. These included John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism who was a noted herald teacher, and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), an intellectual heavyweight whose Puritan teaching led to the First Great Awakening (1726-1750s) in North America. Whitefield also encouraged black preaching with a notable succession of African American preachers leading to Andrew C. Marshall at Savannah (1812-1856). Black preachers often used narrative preaching to skillfully retell Scripture stories and intertwine their own.
The nineteenth century was a golden age for herald preaching. Most denominations claimed to possess "star preachers" such as: Charles Simeon (1759-1836) an Anglican, C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), a Baptist, and Catherine Booth (1829-1890), Salvation Army. Charles Finney (1792-1875) and Dwight Moody (1837-1898) used mass evangelism techniques. Herald preaching also flourished among liberal American preachers, as represented by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopalian.
In the twentieth century there was further diversity. The biblical theology movement encouraged theological preaching, as in Karl Barth (1886-1968), who endorsed the herald model. Inductive preaching embraced psychology to counsel people from the pulpit, as with Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Others, responding evangelistically to spiritual needs, used mass communication. Billy Graham (b. 1918) became the most heard and seen evangelistic preacher of all time. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) gained international importance as his preaching addressed poverty, suffering, and oppression.
Most recently there has also been greater analysis of major preaching traditions, such as black preaching (often narrative in style) and the preaching of women (often pastoral), which though represented by few great figures in the past, like Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), has grown dramatically since the 1920s. The electronic revolution and emphasis on the visual has diversified preaching styles and heightened the use of story telling.
Megachurch preachers reflect different styles, though currently popular seeker-sensitive worship falls firmly within the inductive model, meeting people where they are.
Often preaching history has been seen from a viewpoint that omits much of the story's richness, including the impact of Latin American and Asian preaching. Today's world church has seen tremendous growth in the southern world—Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Overall, much of the "northern church" of North America and Western Europe seems to be in decline, while the "southern church" (some call it the "majority church") shows significant revival with preaching that resembles the New Testament period for spiritual vitality and missionary impact.
Preaching history is immensely rich, and preachers can learn from each other. It is essential to respond to an increasing range of experiences from the practice of black, Hispanic, Asian, and female preachers as well as to keep open to narrative preaching and other styles.
Practical issues and questions
Church history shows a vital connection between effective preaching and healthy church mission. From the New Testament onwards, preaching has spearheaded each missionary expansion. Early preachers "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6 AV). Some preaching has immediate impact. Chrysostom confronted lifestyle issues of his urban congregation and critiqued aspects of the Byzantine Empire; Luther addressed Germans on every issue of moral, political, and social importance. Long term effects of preaching are often dramatic. The Reformation began the modern era for Western civilization, shaping Christian Europe and seeding the modern missionary movement. It has promoted revival, reformed church life, and affected society.
Preaching is a spiritual matter, marked from its New Testament beginnings by spiritual vitality (1 Thessalonians 1:5), gospel clarity (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), cross-cultural relevance (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) and boldness (Acts 4:13,Acts 9:27). All preaching requires spiritual vitality. Is there now less belief in God's presence in the preaching event? Is there less boldness today? Today, the "southern church" seems to be growing through preaching, but the "northern church" faces a critical need for prayerful recovery of spiritual authenticity and courage.
Are there church traditions today that preaching should challenge? At several points of its history, preaching needed to reform the church in its practices or doctrine. The Reformation was partly precipitated by a courageous attack on the wealth and privilege of the Roman church that sold guarantees (indulgences) about shortening purgatory. John Wesley preached out of concern for holy living and founded Methodism.
Churches can easily become sidetracked by wealth, privilege, and complacency to downgrade doctrine. Preaching is involved in leadership as it focuses God's will for his church expressed by "correction, rebuke and encouragement" (2 Timothy 3:16,2 Timothy 4:2). This remains a difficult but necessary task for the twenty-first century.
How much is doctrinal teaching needed today? Reformation and renewal are always associated with personal rediscovery of biblical text and doctrine after a time of biblical illiteracy. The clearest example is Martin Luther's discovery of Pauline convictions about sin, grace and justification by faith. Whenever preachers are personally committed to live out the Bible by explaining and applying its truth, preaching forms "people of the Book." However, when preaching becomes mechanical and routine, it loses power, as in the Dark Ages.
Where is apologetic preaching needed today? Apologetic preachers seek to understand and confront current false teachings. Early New Age type Gnosticism was followed by a succession of attacks on orthodox beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the nature of salvation, and Christianity's exclusive claims. Augustine remains the best example of a preacher whose intellect, exegesis, and doctrinal perspicacity defended orthodoxy against several rivals, such as the Pelagian heresy that diminished Christ's role in salvation. In today's relativism and spiritual diversity, preachers need to respond to rival opinion formers with clear apologetics for exclusive Christian claims.
Can preachers be more relevant? Evangelistic preaching begins with lost people where they are. George Whitefield developed open-air preaching with great dramatic flair. Like Paul on Mars Hill, more recent seeker-sensitive preaching makes connections with contemporary authorities in order to establish the credibility of Christian claims.
Bill Hybels at Willow Creek church represents this approach. Pastoral preaching, in which preachers respond to specific needs within the congregation, as with Fosdick, can engage appropriately. Are there fresh ways to ensure that good news is made relevant?
How does changing media and forms of communication affect preaching? In order to be heard and understood, preachers have always needed to relate to contemporary culture. In Jesus' oral culture, the role of narrative was especially important. Classical preaching adopted rhetoric's principles. Later, Reformation preaching took advantage of mass printing and gained previously unthinkable influence.
There is general agreement that Western modernity, influential for the last 250 years, is giving way to post-modernity, which calls for fresh sensitivity to communication styles. Today, preachers need to use all available technological resources and appropriate means of communication.
How much do preachers make use of preaching helps? Through history, preachers have always benefited from preaching helps. Augustine's textbook was seminal. In the Middle Ages, European universities published large numbers of primers—around 80,000 survive from the two centuries following 1150. John Broadus (1827-95) had influence in early twentieth century and more recently Fred Craddock (b. 1928) and others have introduced new styles of biblical preaching—especially inductive and narrative preaching. It is important to stay open to valid developments in preaching's theology and practice.
For further reading:
Brilioth Y.A Brief History of Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965).
Dargan, E. C.A History of Preaching—from the Apostolic Fathers to the Nineteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Baker 1954)
Edwards, O. C.A History of Preaching (2 vols forthcoming)
Fant, C. E. and W. M. Pinson.Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching: an Encyclopedia of Preaching.
Mitchell, H.Black Preaching—the Recovery of a Powerful Art (Nashville: Abingdon 1990).
Old, H. O.The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church,5 vols (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2002).
Wilson, P. S.A Concise History of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon 1992).