Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pulpit Review: History

Edwards, O. C., Jr. A History of Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon, 2004. 879 Pages. Cloth with CD-Rom. $68.50. http://www.abingdonpress.com/forms/ProductDetail.aspx?pid=1430 (P)

The Lutheran Confessions describe the pastoral office as an office of preaching and teaching (AC V). It therefore goes without saying that preaching is an essential function of the pastoral office, as well as being essential for the life and vitality of Christ’s Church. In A History of Preaching, O.C. Edwards Jr. provides the pastor with a valuable service and resource for fulfilling his office as preacher of God’s Word.

Edwards traces the art and practice of preaching from the earliest extant Christian sermons of the first century to current trends. The investigation follows a roughly chronological approach though thematic excursions are included. Specific preachers are not the focus of the book. Rather, Edwards attempts to explore trends and emphases in preaching as demonstrated in an era’s greatest preachers. An entire chapter is devoted to Augustine, for example, but the subject matter does not focus on him per se, but on the preaching typically heard in churches of late antiquity. Edwards did not consider preaching from the standpoint of trying to determine what was good or bad preaching. Rather, his interest was on evaluating the general trends observable in preaching throughout history. Thus, sermons are neither evaluated from a Law/Gospel perspective nor their faithfulness to the Biblical witness. 

Each chapter concludes with the sources cited as well as references “For Further Study.” This is a marvelous resource for anyone wanting to study preaching of a particular historical period or for more detailed material for a specific preacher. A CD ROM is also included with the book. It contains the sermons chosen by Edwards that exemplify preaching of a given period or movement. This too is a marvelous resource.

Preaching from both the East and West is reviewed up until Augustine, whom Edwards claims is the pinnacle of western, Latin preaching. Thereafter, only preaching in western Christendom is considered. Once preaching during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras are considered, the remainder of the book only reviews English preaching, particularly in Britain and America. The chapters on preaching in America from colonial days through the First and Second Great Awakenings are immensely valuable. No Missouri Synod preachers are mentioned. Two chapters are devoted to women preachers–helpful resources for any LCMS pastor though Edwards seems to support women’s ordination. Covering two-thousand years of history necessarily requires certain selectivity in material, yet each chapter is studded with nuggets of insight that challenge, provoke, and encourage, often simultaneously.

Edwards concludes that exegetical and expository preaching are the standard form of preaching throughout church history beginning with Origen’s verse-by-verse sermons, although thematic and topical sermons are also common. Allegorical, typological, historical-grammatical, and historical-critical methods of Biblical interpretation are tools used in expository preaching. Both preaching extemporaneously and from a manuscript have been a part of the church from the beginning, though Edwards concludes that the most effective preachers did not use manuscripts. 

Edward’s style of writing is engaging and winsome with almost a narrative flow to it. Chapters build upon each other so there is great value in reading the book from cover to cover. That being said, one can also read only the chapters that pertain to a particular era of study and find much that is helpful. A History of Preaching is intended to be a survey of Christian preaching, not a comprehensive analysis of every conceivable trend. Thus, the chapters are of sufficient length to provide a good overview while sparking curiosity for further study. Personally, I cannot recall how many times I thought to myself that this preacher, era in church history, etc., would be worthy of further study and reflection. 

During and after reading A History of Preaching, I experienced a profound sense of awe, humility, and encouragement. I was reminded once again that pastors are part of a great company of preachers who were subject to the limitations of historical, geographical, political, and social contexts. Every frustration a pastor might feel related to the preaching task has been felt before; every joy has been experienced before in one measure or another. I was reminded yet again that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), and therefore highly recommend A History of Preaching for reading and study.    

The Rev. Kenneth Mars is pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, Kimball, Nebraska and Immanuel Lutheran Church Burns, Wyoming, Secretary of the Wyoming District of the LCMS, and a regular QBR contributing reviewer.