Augustine the Preacher

One of the reasons I was attracted to Augustine as the subject of my doctoral studies is that he was a preacher. Naturally, the primary source that I chose to engage with in understanding his theology of joy is his Enarrationes in Psalmos (Commentary on the Psalms) which is a collection of his notes, commentary, and particularly sermons on the Psalms.

The mind of a preacher is fascinating. This is especially true of pastor-preacher, that is, one who is located in one local church and responsible for shepherding God’s people through the preaching of the Word. The pastor-preacher stands in contrast to a travelling-preacher who preaches and teaches the Word of God but has less (or no) understanding of the congregation. The pastor-preacher and travelling-preacher preach differently. The former has to exegete both the Scriptural passage and the people he is seeking to build up with the Word of God, whereas the latter would place a greater emphasis on biblical exegesis because he probably doesn’t know the people who he is speaking to until he gets there.

Anyway, the mind of a preacher is fascinating because a lot of things happen behind the scenes. Questions like:

  1. What is the passage saying?
  2. How does this passage help me (and my listeners) to better see and savour the salvific work of Christ?
  3. How does this passage encourage and enable my congregation to take small steps of faith this coming week to demonstrate that Christ is their greatest treasure?
  4. How do I preach this in such a way that is both reverent and relevant – showing that Scripture speaks into their very modern circumstances and problems?

There are many more and these are just some. But one thing that I’ve been thinking about in reading more on Augustine is the place of rhetoric. I’m curious to know if you agree or disagree. Here is a paragraph from Gerald Bray’s Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God which is a book that I’d recommend for an introduction to Augustine’s life and thought.

“One big difference between Augustine’s day and ours is that back then, the ability to speak effectively in public was regarded as an essential ingredient of education. Today, the word rhetoric has a slightly pejorative connotation, but in ancient times it was regarded as a highly accomplished skill that anyone in Augustine’s position would be expected to master. In a world where the written word was rare and expensive, oral communication was the norm, and the ability to move an audience was crucial to success. By contrast, the modern preacher is seldom trained in rhetoric, with the result that sermons nowadays are often eminently forgettable, and many people regard them as the low point of public worship. The content may be fine, but the delivery is poor, and in any case people are more accustomed to listening to sound bits than to extended expositions. There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, it is fair to say that ours is not a great age of preaching”

Augustine on the Christian Life, Gerald Bray

Wow, what a rebuke – especially the final sentence.

If there is anything worth communicating with the best of our ability, surely it is the Good News of the Bible! Why is it that so many of us (preachers) give so little thought and effort into communication?

To be sure, there are Paul’s warnings about the dangers of eloquent speech (1 Corinthians 2:1). But if you’ve read Paul’s sermons, especially Acts 17, I don’t think I’d call that ineloquent either. Surely a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 2:1 pushes us to conclude that true power comes from the Good News of Jesus and not rhetoric, therefore we depend not on rhetoric but the power of God. Therefore, the conclusion is probably along the lines of “depend on the power of God” and not “do not be eloquent”.

I think that if you ever give thought to having a structure to your sermon then you’re already thinking about eloquence and rhetoric – you’re thinking about how to get the meaning, weight, and significance of this passage across to your listeners. Bray’s critique of modern sermon through Augustine’s eyes should encourage us to take a few more steps towards that direction.

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