Preaching has long stood at the center of Protestant worship as the eucharist has stood at the center of Roman Catholic worship. This difference has been so striking that one observer commented that Protestant worship is “the non- sacramental alternative.” Protestants may be tempted to conclude from this difference that preaching is a Protestant invention. But that would be a serious error.
Preaching was one of the two central acts of worship in the ancient church period (roughly 100-600). The centrality of preaching in the ancient church reflected the apostolic practice which spread the faith through preaching. The ancient church produced some of the finest preachers the church has known. In the western half of the church, Ambrose and Augustine were among the most notable preachers. But it was the east that produced the greatest ancient preacher - and surely one of the very best of all times. This preacher’s name was John, dubbed the golden tongued Chrysostom by history.
John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) deserves to be remembered for many reasons. He was a pious and disciplined son of the church of Antioch. He championed the cause of the poor and oppressed. He was an insightful student of Scripture. He was a faithful pastor as bishop of Antioch and Patriarch of Constantinople. His courageous unwillingness to curry favor at the imperial court led to three years of exile and death.
Still it is right that he is remembered above all as a preacher of the Word. The Bible was central for all Christians, but especially the preacher: “The Christian who does not know the Bible is a workman without tools.” He believed that it was from the Scriptures that the preacher met the real needs of the congregation: “When I see your unsatisfied hunger after spiritual teaching, I cannot let a day go by without nourishing you with the treasures of the Holy Scriptures.”
Chrysostom’s concern about preaching led him to write a book entitled On the Priesthood. His focus in this book is almost entirely on the priest as a minister of God’s Word. The ministerial office is above all the preaching office. John Chrysostom discussed many aspects of preaching in his book. One of his concerns was how a minister must study: “Preaching comes not by nature, but by study; and though a man reach a high degree of perfection in eloquence, it will soon desert him unless he cultivate that power by constant practice and exercise. Thus there is greater labor for the wise than for the unlearned. They do not suffer equal loss if they are equally neglectful; rather, the difference in their losses is in proportion to the difference between their respective talents.”
Chrysostom knew what many need to learn today, that preaching is hard work and requires effort and time for preparation. His book stressed the spiritual importance of preaching: “Are you not aware that this body, the Church, is subject to more diseases and attacks than are our carnal bodies?... Save for good example, there is but one means and method of cure: the spoken word. This is the sole instrument, the only diet, the finest climate. It takes the place of medication, of cautery, and the knife. If it is necessary to burn or cut, this is the instrument which must be used; and if it fail, all else is useless. By this means we raise up the prostrate soul, and cool the fevered; we cut away its excesses and supply its defects; and we do everything else which is required for the health of the soul.”
A recurring and central concern of Chrysostom as he thought about preaching was the danger of fame. We may think today that few preachers face the temptation of too much fame. But Chrysostom broadened this danger to include a desire for praise and flattery. The temptation is to preach what the audience wants to hear. “If one does it only for the favor and praise of the listeners, he is a soul murderer.” He wrote, “He to whom this office of preaching is entrusted, dare not seek only that which is pleasant to his hearers, or what is of benefit to him; he should so deliver his sermon that it pleases God; for only God should be the goal and the rule of conduct, not the applause and praise of the listeners. He to whom the office of preaching is entrusted should not desist from preaching no matter whether he has success or not. If he converts only ten or five or even only a single one, should not that suffice to make him happy? Indeed, if he converts none at all, which seems to be an impossible case, it should still be a gain, if men would sin with somewhat less boldness and effrontery; and anyhow the reward for his trouble remains safe for him. For we are not obliged to convert people, but only to admonish them to be converted.”
Chrysostom was at his best not in writing about preaching, however, but in preaching itself. While we will not agree as Reformed people with everything that he said, his sermons should be read today. His sermons contain valuable exegesis of Scripture and arresting spiritual insight. He is especially memorable for the vivid images he paints to impress his points upon his hearers. His sermons are readily available in several volumes of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. He can help renew both the character of our preaching and our passion for preaching today.
Previously published in The Outlook, April 1990, by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. www.reformedfellowship.net. Used with permission.
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