Why has there been in a decline in expository preaching since the first century? The decline is well documented in the histories of preaching. James F. Stitzinger not only chronicles this decline but he identifies the culprit: “The rapid deterioration of primitive Christianity has been well documented. A lack of expository preaching in the post apostolic period is an evidence of this….One of the major causes of deterioration was the importation of Greek philosophy into Christian thinking by the Church Fathers” (James F. Stitzinger. The History of Expository Preaching. TMS 3/1 Spring 1992 5-32, page 12).
Discursive preaching replaced narrative preaching in the second century because of the influence of Greek and Roman rhetoric on patristic preaching. “When the church moved solidly into the Hellenistic world to offer the gospel, however, preaching adopted a discursive style . . . in contrast to first-century narrative preaching . . . Church fathers from Origen to Chrysostom, while imbued with the mind of Christ, exegeted and preached with the mind of Plato and Aristotle,” observed Wardlaw.
Origen (185-254) impacted preaching in two areas. Origen affected the content and the form of the sermon. Broadus observes that Origen “forms the transition from the earlier to the later style of Christian preaching.” Origen immensely and adversely affected the content of preaching by popularizing the method of allegorizing Scripture. John Bright defines an allegory as “the finding of hidden, mystical meanings in the words of the text itself.” Allegorization was a Greek idea that had been passed on to the Jews by Jewish philosophers who had been trained in Greek philosophy.
The Greeks allegorized Homer’s writings to get rid of morally objectionable passages. Homer’s writings were esteemed sacred and necessary for moral training. Therefore, all morally offensive texts had to be allegorized. For example, Apollo, the god of the sun, was seen as immoral when he murdered men with his arrows. So to clear Homer of impropriety, those passages were allegorized. Hatch provides an example. “Apollo is the sun; the ‘far-darter’ is the sun sending forth his rays: when it is said that Apollo slew men with his arrows, it is meant that there was a pestilence in the heat of summer-time.” Jews trained in Greek philosophy used allegorization to remove the moral difficulties in their sacred book: the Old Testament.
Philo allegorized the Old Testament
Philo, (30 B.C.– 45 A.D.) the Greek-trained Alexandrian Jew and philosopher, took the Greek method of allegorization and interpreted the Old Testament. He entitled his work on Genesis: Allegories of the Sacred Law. According to Philo, the Old Testament passages had a literal or moral interpretation and a symbolical or hidden meaning.
Origin allegorized the New Testament
Because Origen had studied Greek methods of interpretation and Greek philosophers, he applied allegorization to Christian exegesis. Eusebius records that Origen learned from the books of Cornutus “the figurative interpretation, as employed in the Greek mysteries, and applied it to the Jewish writings.” Origen defines his system of interpretation in his On First Principles, which was “a comprehensive investigation of Christian doctrine on a scale never before attempted.” Origen describes his three bases of interpretation: “Just as man, therefore, is said to consist of body, soul and spirit, so also does the Holy Scripture, which has been bestowed by the divine bounty for man’s salvation.” The body of Scripture is the literal interpretation, the soul is for those who have made some spiritual progress, and the spirit of Scripture, which is allegorization, is for the spiritually mature. So by implication, the literal interpretation is for the spiritually immature. An example of Origen’s allegorization is his famous interpretation of the Good Samaritan in a homily he preached on Luke 10. Origen in Homily 34 actually refers the interpretation of an unnamed elder which he approves.
One of the elders wanted to interpret the parable as follows. The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is . . . the Church. And further, the two denarrii mean the Father and the Son. The manager of the stable is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming. All of this has been said reasonably and beautifully.
Broadus accurately assesses the impact of Origen: “In this way he injured preaching.”Along with impacting the content of the sermon, Origen also influenced the form of the sermon. By the second century apostolic preaching had disappeared. Christian preaching became known as a homily: Hatch comments: “its form came from the sophists . . . . It is probable that Origen is not only the earliest example whose writings have come down to us, but also one of the earliest who took into the Christian communities these methods of the schools.” By the fourth century, the influence of Greek rhetoric is full-blown; not only had the preachers of the fourth century been trained in rhetoric, but they had also taught rhetoric. Old confirms: “The fourth century saw a flowering of oratory. It was Christian oratory, a true renaissance of the classical art in the service of the Christian faith.”
Augustine writes the first book on Homiletics
One of the last patristic fathers who impacted preaching was Augustine (354-430) with his On Christian Doctrine, the first homiletical textbook. The shadow cast by Augustine’s textbook and preaching fell across the entire Middle Ages. His textbook was endorsed by Wiclif and Erasmus. Old notes, “His actual sermons were collected, memorized, and preached all over the Latin world.” Augustine also influenced the liberal arts education of preachers with his statements: “every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s,” and “just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.”
Augustine found the mother lode of “Egyptian gold” in Cicero. Being trained in Ciceronian rhetoric, Augustine held the prestigious professorship of rhetoric at Milian. In Books I-III of Of Christian Doctrine, Augustine taught how to interpret the Bible and in Book IV how to preach the interpretation. Augustine stressed the following Ciceronian rhetorical principles with regard to interpreting and preaching God’s revelation: “(1) inventio, the collection of materials: (2) dispositio, the arrangement of the materials; (3) elocutio, the verbal expression of the materials; (4) memoria, the memorization of the speech; (5) actio, the technique of delivery.”
Kevin Craig captures the significance of the Greek influenced allegorization not only on the content but the style of preaching: “These sermons were not just a setting forth of Greek-influenced theology: They were in fact external copies of the rhetorical manner of the most popular Greek philosophies of the day. It is not just what was said in the sermon, it is that the entire presentation and format was carried over from paganism” (Kevin Craig. “Is the ‘Sermon Concept’ Biblical?” Searching Together 15 Spring/Summer, 1968, page 25).
How to preach became more important than what was preached. The science and art of preaching replaced the passion to impact lives with the truth of God’s Word. We must remember that God does not bless outlines. He promised that His Word would not return void.
Don W. Wardlaw, Preaching Biblically ( Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 11.
John A. Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching ( New York: Armstrong and Son, 1893), 44.
John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 79.
Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greeks Ideas on Christianity (New York: Harper, 1957), 62.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Kirsopp Lakevol. 2, (London: Heinemann, 1926), 59.
Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973), xxiv.
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2, The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2.
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 54, 75.