Preaching, Part 4: Learning from the History of Preaching

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

Sometimes reading the history of preaching can make you feel like a two-talent preacher surrounded by 10-talent preaching. After all, who among us can run in the same eloquent company with a John the Golden Mouth (Chrysostom), or soar with a Savonarola, or scale the heights of imagination with a Bunyan, or melt icy hearts like a Wesley or Whitefield, or wield the sword of the Spirit like a Spurgeon? Giants all, to name only a few, in the land of the giants known as the history of preaching.

But that history is still being written. Last week I had the privilege of attending the Evangelical Homiletics Society annual meeting at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary with 19 of our Doctor of Ministry students majoring in Expository Preaching. This year’s theme was the history of preaching. Hughes Oliphant Old, the almost octogenarian author of a magisterial seven-volume work on the history of preaching, talked about preaching yesterday and today. Haddon Robinson, the recently retired dean of evangelical homileticians, preached on the last night, followed by a birthday celebration and tribute to his long, distinguished, career as preacher and professor of preaching.

The conference also sported 12 papers, including two from Southwestern Seminary students. Joseph Park, a Ph.D. student from Korea majoring in preaching, delivered a superb paper on John Wesley’s preaching. Jared Musgrove, a recent Master of Divinity graduate and Associate Home Groups Minister at the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, presented a likewise superb paper on the preaching of Ulrich Zwingli.

As I listened to the sermons and some of the papers that were presented, I reflected on today’s usual headlong rush on the part of many pastors to feed at the trough of practicality. Often preachers don’t see the need nor take the time to read in the area of the history of preaching.  To fail to do so, however, is shortsighted and, quite frankly, a mistake. As curiously odd as it would be to imagine one can excel in systematic theology while ignoring the discipline of historical theology, it is no less strange to think we should spend all our time drinking at the fountain of practical “how to” books on preaching (as important as they are) while ignoring the deep well of the history of preaching. Understanding something of the great legacy of preaching’s past can’t help but improve one’s present preaching (and future I might add). There is much to be learned from those on whose shoulders we stand.

I reflected on today’s usual headlong rush on the part of many pastors to feed at the trough of practicality.

Consider the preaching of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). One of the triumvirate of early magisterial reformers along with Luther and Calvin, Zwingli, like his counterparts, was committed to expository preaching. After his conversion, and no longer content to give to his people the same old shop-soiled and befingered homilies that had become standard fare in Catholicism, Zwingli began to preach the Bible. At the age of 35, on his birthday, January 1, 1519, Zwingli became the pastor of the “Great Minster” (Grossmünster) Church in Zurich and announced he would preach through the Gospel of Matthew verse by verse. A man who memorized the entire Greek New Testament (which he had acquired from his friend Erasmus in 1516), Zwingli labored long and hard to feed his flock the Word of God. He preached as much or more from the Old Testament as he did the New Testament, including 134 sermons on Deuteronomy! Though his preaching apparently lacked something of the organizational structure that most prefer today, his exposition of the text was evident. Zwingli’s preaching electrified his congregation because it was, more than anything else, an exposition of Scripture.

And then there was Wesley in the 18th century (1703-1791). He, along with Whitefield, did more to arouse lethargic England from her stupefying spiritual slumber. His tonic—the preaching of the Word. The result—a great awakening. In a preaching ministry spanning two-thirds of a century, occasionally traveling more than 5,000 miles annually, and sometimes averaging three sermons daily, Wesley was England’s indefatigable Gospel preacher. Though not always expository, his sermons were always biblical. He preached to the up and outs and the down and outs with the same passion for their conversion. His evangelistic preaching was matched by his didactic preaching to new converts organized into small groups for discipleship. A prodigious reader (he often read while traveling on horseback) and a prolific writer (seven volumes of sermons, six volumes on church music, five volumes on natural philosophy, a four-volume commentary on the Old and New Testaments, three books on medicine, and a dictionary on the English language, not to mention many other works), it is nothing short of astonishing that he accomplished what he did. His Journal is must reading.

But their ranks, apart from us, are not complete! There are yet sermons to preach!

And what more can I say, for your time and my blog space fails me to tell of the many preachers who line the hallowed halls of preaching history—of Augustine, Wycliffe, Savonarola, Luther, Calvin, Whitfield, Knox, Jasper, Moody, Spurgeon and King to name only a few—who through preaching, subdued kingdoms, stopped the mouths of critics, and launched reformations. Some were beheaded; others were crucified or exiled on lonely isles or desert places. Some were burned at the stake; others languished in prisons, though the Word of God which they preached was not bound. Some preached in pulpits and others in the fields. Some preached under the banner of Calvinism, others under the banner of a more Arminian persuasion. These all died preaching–either with tongue or pen or life.

But their ranks, apart from us, are not complete! There are yet sermons to preach!

F. B. Meyer was a Baptist pastor in London during the days when both Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and Joseph Parker at the City Temple Church were holding court. Meyer never enjoyed the crowds of his 10-talent celebrity contemporaries, nor did he ever achieve celebrity status. He once described himself as a two-talent preacher. Yet Spurgeon said of him: “Meyer preaches as a man who has seen God face-to-face.” Parker said of Meyer that whenever he was around, “he always brought a benediction along with him.” Fortunately for his generation, and for ours, Meyer did not bury his two talents. His devotional books, commentaries, and sermons continue to be reprinted and read. His devotional commentaries on John and Hebrews, along with his famous sermons and studies on Bible characters, are required reading. Meyer wrote two books on preaching. One was addressed to bivocational preachers called Hints for Lay Preachers. The other is entitled Expository Preaching: Plans and Methods. In the introduction, Ralph Turnbull rightly noted that the only method of preaching that can resist the wear and tear of time in a long pastorate with its ceaseless demands is expository preaching. Meyer devoted himself to exposition and wrote to teach others how to go about doing it. “He being dead, yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).

When people by the droves seem to be passing your church by on their way to the 10-talent guy down the street, don’t be tempted to bury your talent.

When people by the droves seem to be passing your church by on their way to the 10-talent guy down the street, don’t be tempted to bury your talent. Whether you are a one-talent, two-talent, five-talent or ten-talent preacher, If God has called you to preach, don’t bury your talent. Preach the Word! And oh yes, don’t forget–there is no such thing as a great preacher … only great preaching about a great Savior.