The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church

Derek Thomas Articles

This is a very big book! A thousand pages of detailed descriptions of sermons preached by almost a hundred preachers from the mid-eighteenth century to the present; well, almost, for the final entries are of men who died in the 1990s. Nor is Dr. Old done with this massive project for there is promised another (seventh) volume which is to include an analysis of the preaching of, among many others, Donald Grey Barnhouse, John Stott and William Still.

This is Volume 6 of the series called The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (hereafter, TRPS) which began eight years ago (in March 1998). Even the cursory observer will note a trend: each successive volume (except volume 4) has increased in size, ranging from 383 pages (TRPS 1: The Biblical Period) to almost 1,000 (TRPS 6: The Modern Age). Evidently, Old has warmed to his subject matter and his publishers have gained confidence with each new volume. Our esteemed friend, William ('Bill') Edgar blurbs with evident enthusiasm on the cover, "Studying these volumes is like walking around a great cathedral: every section, however distinctive, unites in a grand design whose aim is to restore preaching to its rightful place." Indeed, Old has a discernible polemic, one which he makes clear in the first volume written almost a decade ago: "There are plenty of ministers but few who seem able to hold a congregation... What has happened to preaching?" [TRPS 1:2] Old answer is suggest that mischievous liturgists have been meddling where they shouldn't, "all too eager to replace preaching with 'liturgy,' as though the two were in some kind of opposition to each other." [TRPS 1:3].

Old is, of course, a liturgical evangelist himself, having exercised a major force in the rediscovery of the historic (Patristic) roots of reformed liturgy. Witness, for example, the space given to The Book of Common Prayer in TRPS 4: The Age of the Reformation (only mentioning Latimer and Hooper as examples of the English Reformation). But he is equally eager to maintain that preaching is itself worship: he has been rightly critical of the, "Let's get the worship over with so that we can get to the preaching."

The tapestry of preachers has been fascinating to behold, if curiously disproportioned (TRPS 4 gives almost 100 pages to the counter-reformation but only half that much to puritan preaching). The two Cyrils provide a study in contrasts (TRPS:2, 3-31; 108-124): there is the "seeker-sensitive" Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315-286), ministering in a largely ignorant Gentile setting by his time enamored of Greek mystery religions. Employing cultural vocabulary familiar enough in his time, he flirted with ideas of the oil of baptism having the power to overcome the demonic, and turned Jerusalem into an array of sought-after holy relic shrines, adding Holy Week pageants to attract the annual tourist industry. In words that might have appeared on, this Cyril preached to the crowds that came to join with his church, "Perhaps thou knewest not whither thou wert coming, nor in what kind of net thou art taken. Thou art come within the Church's nets: be taken alive, flee not: for Jesus is angling for thee" [TRPS 2:5]. Then, there is his namesake, Cyril of Alexandria (whom Calvin revered, next to Chrysostom). In times of theological (Christological) confusion, this Cyril (should we call him Cyril explicatus?) faithfully preached through books of the Bible according to the lectio continua method, clearly delineating the articles of faith. And then there is the seraphic Chrysostom, the "golden-mouthed preacher" who held Antioch together during a period of civil crisis in ad 386 over taxation by expository skill and eloquent rhetoric, faithfully expounding Scripture.

Those expecting critical analysis of preachers and preaching will be disappointed. Here and there Old's sympathies and predilections appear in throw-away comments: thus, in one place he seems sympathetic to the higher-critical view of the structure of Isaiah [TRPS 1:69]; in another location, he disparages "decisional evangelism" without explaining what he means by it [TRPS 1:284) and he seems all too amenable to Origen's typological hermeneutic [TRPS 1:334f].

In the most recent volume, TRPS 6: The Modern Age, Old tells the story from the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1789-1989). During this time preaching continued to support the historic faith while the church undertook to resist secularization, come to grips with biblical criticism, and initiate bold overseas missions.

Beginning with the revived Catholic Order of Preachers, Abraham Kuyper, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, Old then considers the preaching output of John Henry Newman and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Evangelical Calvinism of New England is examined, as well as the beginnings of black preaching and the American school of Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and Harry Emerson Fosdick. The twentieth century includes the crises of the two world wars, especially the courageous ministries of German, Dutch, and Hungarian preachers during the Third Reich.

Oddly, there is nothing on Billy Graham (apart from two passing remarks (TRPS 6:461, 849). Is this because he did not exercise a consistent preaching ministry in a church? A promise is given in the closing sentence (p. 952) that William Still and John Stott will appear in the next and final volume. Nineteenth century Scottish preaching includes Robert Morrison, Thomas Guthrie, Robert Candlish, Alexander Duff, Alexander Whyte and George Adam Smith but no mention of Robert Murray McCheyne, only four pages on Alexander MacLaren and nothing on Thomas Chalmers or William Cunningham. And no survey of preaching covering the nineteenth century should omit a survey of the output of J. C. Ryle!

The volumes comprise a survey of sermons, occasionally giving details of their outline and structure, always carefully related to a specific historical context. Often, too often, they prove devoid of critical theological analysis. Thus, Schleiermacher's sermonic output is criticized merely from the vantage point of Barth's skepticism of the soundness of the foundations he laid for modern Protestant thought (TRPS 6:76). Karl Barth, he maintains, did as much as anyone to reawaken interest in the reading and preaching of Scripture (TRPS 6:876), though acknowledges that "Barth is not to be numbered among the outstanding preachers of the century" (TRPS 6:774). He says something similar about Bultmann a few pages earlier - "no one would claim that Bultmann was a great preacher" (TRPS 6:764).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones receives some fifteen pages, half given to sermons preached in the less significant ministry at Aberavon, Wales, rather than Westminster Chapel, London. His conclusion? That his sermons on Romans had been every bit as prophetic as Karl Barth's commentary on Romans produced in Germany a generation before (TRPS 6:952). Somehow, I'm not sure Lloyd-Jones would appreciate the comparison.

A similar but far less ambitious attempt at an historical survey of preaching through the ages has been written by O. C. Edwards - A History of Preaching [Abingdon Press, 2004], 879 pp. It, too, has its weaknesses: half the book covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and lacks adequate theological analysis.

No survey of this nature could possibly do justice to the demands of readers with regard to individual favorite preachers. At times, Old writes in order to provide us with a summary of the output of this or that preacher. These volumes provide a fascinating glimpse of the history of preaching. They reveal a line of continuity from Chrysostom to Lloyd-Jones who once wrote, "Any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached. But he will go on trying, hoping that by the grace of God one day he may truly preach" (Preaching and Preachers, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971.99).

Reflecting on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' preaching, J.I. Packer wrote that it came to him "with the force of electric shock, bringing to at least one of his listeners more of a sense of God than any other man he had known"(Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, [Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1985], p. 170.). It is doubtful that many will read these volumes through from cover though doing so we are reminded again of the great tradition of preaching, the good, the bad and the ugly! There is nothing quite like these volumes in print and Dr. Old is to be congratulated on what will undoubtedly prove to be a valuable and comprehensive survey of two thousand years of preaching. Perhaps, the most encouraging thing these volumes provide is a corroboration of a line of continuity through the ages of Bible exposition. For this alone, these volumes deserve to occupy an important place in homiletical studies.

Hughes Oliphant Old / Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007 
Review by Derek Thomas, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS, and the Editorial Director of reformation21