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steve taylor: too blunt? the mirror held by early church preaching

Is the phrase “Biblical preaching” simply too blunt? I began to wonder this as I gazed into the preaching mirror held by the early church.

With over forty years of missionary service in Africa, David Dunn-Wilson has made a study of the sermons of the early church. In his book, A Mirror for the Church (Eerdmans, 2005) David points out how sermon change – in style, in subject – as the needs of congregations and contexts change.

The chapter headings tell the story.

The missionary preacher pastors. Paul’s letters are designed to be read aloud. As sermons they are a Biblical response to the arrival of new converts, mixing education and exhortation. They utilise what is a new technology – the epistolary sermon.

The apologist preachers. In the 2nd and 3rd century, the Roman Empire undergoes widespread cultural anxiety. The sermons of the likes of Origen and Irenaeus offer “distinctly ‘Christian’ exegesis of Old and New Testament passages.” They are mixed with the poetry of Homer and Vigil, in order to engage the challenges of a resurgent intellectual paganism. For Dunn-Wilson: “As part of their strategy, they create a common cultural climate by interlarding their treatises and sermons with hundreds of references to classical writers.” The goal of their Biblical exposition is intellectual apologetics and the announcement of an alternative Christian lifestyle.

The mystic preachers. Antony of Egypt is often pigeon-holed as the first Christian monk. Yet he was also widely respected as a preacher, offering a ministry in which he used the biblical texts to urge a radical, heart-felt discipleship.


The theological preachers. The Cappadocian fathers were preaching pastors as well as towering theologians. Their sermons offered a Trinitarian theology that engaged regular congregational life in all its pastoral height and depth. One example, Basil, was noted for the way he paused in the pulpit to invite questions and respond to audience participation. Another theologian of this century was Hilary of Poiters. His conversion came as a result of studying the Bible. As a result, throughout his ministry he insisted that Scripture be read before he preached. His sermons fused painstaking exegesis with a practical spirituality. As well as preaching, he also gave time to write hymns, believing that songs could serve “Biblical preaching” by teaching doctrine.

The homiletical preachers. Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom belong to the age of “magnificent preachers.” Their sermons are essentially Biblical exposition. Yet, all excelled in the art of persuasion, preaching sermons noteworthy for their use of cultural tools such as rhetoric in order to aid digestibility and enhance evangelistic effectiveness.

Reading about the preaching ministry of the likes of Anthony, Origin and the Cappadocian Fathers has given much food for thought. All emerge from congregational life. All share a passion to advance the good news. All share a commitment to Biblical exposition. Yet each outwork “Biblical preaching” in such diverse ways.

In response to a changing world they adopted different pulpit postures. For some it became a place to pastor or a space to offer mystical encounter. For others it became a time to speak theologically or engage culturally.

I thought back over my recent sermons. Does my being “Biblical” capture the diversity and nuance offered by these early church preachers?

A challenging mirror, worth polishing.


  1. andrew says:

    “Good comment, Steve. Those preachers loved the Bible (in ways appropriate to their context) with a warmth that I rarely sense in the ‘scientific’ expositors of the 19th and 20th centuries. They loved it like their beloved, not like a fascinating, exciting research object.”

  2. steve taylor says:

    thanks Andrew. “dissection” is such an interesting word. Some exegetical approaches can certainly do that. And always the danger of the human intellect, whether in cynical doubt or in creative additions, trumping the biblical text.


  3. Scott Mackay says:

    A helpful post Steve. I come away with the impression that these preachers were absorbed, not with the task of preaching itself, but with the Word himself, and the reception of this Word in a dark world. A great challenge.

  4. Geoff New says:

    In reading your post Steve (and Scott’s comment), I was reminded of an observation that Sandra Schneiders made in an article:

    “In reality the most intellectually rigorous and spiritually fruitful work on the biblical texts throughout history has been done by those who were not only speaking competently and even authoritatively to their academic peers but were also passionately concerned with spirituality: Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Bultmann, Barth, Lagrange, Raymond Brown, and many others.”

    Urs von Balthasar made a very similar comment but was more pointed basically lamenting that beyond the Reformation and Counter-reformation such a heritage was lost (actually naming Ignatius Loyola as the 1st to split theology and spirituality).

    Thanks Steve for your “call” to reconsider our spiritual ancestry by way of inspiration and example.

  5. steve taylor says:

    thanks geoff and scott.

    I certainly think there’s something in this about the fertile mix of gospel-church-world in the sense of faith thinking-pulpit-mission, which all too often flies apart in our contemporary division between church|seminary,

    easy to forget that, for example, Barth’s theology began in a pulpit!


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