Augustine's Theology of Preaching

Article by   November 2018

From its inception, preaching has held a prominent place within the life and advance of the church. A current revival of expository ministry is being cultivated throughout the evangelical world. However, such renewed awareness and commitment to an expositional pulpit ministry has been nurtured with a notable lack of historical awareness. To help us restore such awareness, specifically from the patristic era of church history, is one purpose of Peter Sanlon's book, Augustine's Theology of Preaching [Fortress Press, July 2014; 200 pp.]. Sanlon comments on the advantage of having a historical familiarity with preaching as follows:

Learning through and from preachers in church history develops a deeper self-awareness about the practice and possibilities of preaching. Getting beyond a superficial imitation of past preachers to the timeless convictions and debates bequeaths tools and confidence for the task today.

According to Sanlon, scholarship has emphasized Augustine as the philosophical theologian, the refuter of heresy, and the contributor to doctrinal clarity, but the recognition of Augustine as a biblical preacher has been abandoned. In addressing this scarcity, Salon's timely contribution to Augustinian scholarship has been welcomed by all who are interested in developing a historical theology of preaching based on the works of this patristic theologian.

Augustine's friend, Possidius of Calama, once remarked that "those who read what Augustine has written in his works on divine subjects profit greatly, but I believe that the ones who really profited were those who actually heard him and saw him speak in church." Augustine was a virtuoso orator. The surviving corpus of Augustine's sermons is staggering, yet it likely represents only a small portion of what he actually delivered. It includes the 124 sermons of his In Johannis evangelium tractatus (Tractates on the Gospel of John) and the 10 sermons of his In epistulam Johannis ad Parthos tractatus (Tractates on the First Letter of John). It also includes his massive Enarrationes in Psalmos (Expositions of the Psalms), which preserve at least one sermon on each of the 150 Psalms. His largest collection is his Sermones ad populum (Sermons to the People). Over 500 of Augustine's sermons have been discovered and authenticated, some complete, others fragments. The painstaking work of recovering lost sermons still continues.

After an introduction presenting five areas of contemporary homiletical importance for today's preacher, Augustine's Theology of Preaching begins in chapter one with an exploration into the historical context of Augustine's preaching ministry in North Africa during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In addition, Sanlon provides brief introductions to Ambrose, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Peter Chrysologus, showing both their influence and the differences between their preaching and that of Augustine.

Chapter two proceeds to set Augustine within an oratorical context. Sanlon investigates the impact and influence upon Augustine of antiquity's greatest orators: Gorgias, Plato, Cicero, Quintilian, and Apuleius. Beyond great oratory, Augustine came to the conviction that simple persuasion techniques were not enough to convince men to do as one asks. Instead, he believed an ultimate authority must be appealed to in order for people to acknowledge and appreciate the truth and therefore be persuaded to live by it. Augustine settled upon the ultimate authority of God's Word revealed in the Scriptures as the only sufficient means through which the truth may be revealed to the heart of man. The Word of God was Augustine's only authority throughout his life as a preacher.

In chapter three, Sanlon discusses De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). Augustine felt his training in pagan oratory was insufficient for the event of preaching and therefore wrote a training manual to help instruct preachers in the art of holy rhetoric. Again, the Bible was Augustine's ultimate authority for this work regarding sacred rhetoric. Chapter four of Sanlon's work gives us a set of hermeneutical glasses through which we can better view Augustine's approach to preaching by defining interiority and temporality.

The final chapters move from a discussion of Augustine as a preacher and focuses upon his actual preaching. Chapters five through seven engage in an analysis of the Sermons concerning the issues of riches and money, death and resurrection, and relationships. Sanlon's goal is to have the reader see how Augustine applied interiority and temporality to scripture as he addressed the congregation of Hippo. This is not an exhaustive treatment of the Sermons, but the taste provided here may prepare the way for readers to later explore the Sermones ad Populum for themselves through the lenses provided by Sanlon.

Sanlon's work evokes a two-fold desire in its readers. The first is to investigate further the preaching ministry of one of the stalwarts of the Christian church, and the second is to seek to emulate Augustine's passion and zeal for the authority of Scripture in all of life and ministry. Augustine's preaching ministry teaches the contemporary preacher that he is not to set himself over Scripture in judgment as if to control and manage its power. Quite the contrary, the modern preacher must approach Scripture expecting that God will, first of all, address him. Augustine constantly sought out the mysteries and obscurities, "in the hope that God's surprising voice would warm his heart and motivate him to draw others into the experience of hearing God speak" (175).

Augustine's Theology of Preaching is an excellent resource for the student and preacher alike who desire to more fully understand preaching in a historical and theological context. Sanlon's understanding of the hermeneutical keys of Augustine's preaching provides fresh insight into one of the most important figures in church history. This book is not shrouded in academic nuance and is very accessible to the modern reader. Throughout, Salon examines the life of Augustine in such a way as to provide application to the contemporary preacher in both his ministry and preaching. While Augustine was an "expository" preacher, in that he took a text and provided his audience with running commentary, Salon makes clear that Augustine's greatest contribution to the current preacher is his passion and zeal for God's Word. The life and preaching ministry of Augustine is a clear reminder that the preaching of the gospel should set the world alight with passion for God.

Dustin W. Benge is a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He is a Teaching Fellow for Reformanda Ministries and Editor of "Expositor Magazine." Dustin and his wife, Molli, live in Louisville, KY.


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