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Preaching and Sermons


PREACHING AND SERMONS. Preaching originates from the ministry of Jesus, the Word of God, and his mandate to "go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19). Saint Paul states, "Faith comes from hearing" (Romans 10:17); the Word is to be preached ceaselessly, "whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching." (2 Timothy 4:2; cf. 3:16) Preaching is proclamation, it is the Good News of "the Kingdom" (Mark 1:1415; 3839); it is God's word in human speech.


Scripture provides no instruction on format for preaching but leaves this to the preacher. From the early church to the present, the two principal forms have been the homily (homilia), a simple exposition of Scripture at the liturgy or in private gatherings, used extensively by the Alexandrian theologian Origen (d. 254), and the sermon (sermo, contio), a more formal discourse on a scriptural topic, a religious mystery, theme, custom, event, or saint's life. Variations on these two formats could be considerable.

From the Middle Ages into the early modern era, the more customary form of preaching was the Scholastic, or thematic, sermon, whose intention was primarily teaching. It began usually with a "theme," a short passage from the Gospel read at mass, which was divided into two or three parts, then a protheme, a brief statement of the theme to direct the audience's attention. After a prayer for divine assistance, a repetition of the theme, the preacher gave his sermon in two, sometimes three, parts (corresponding to the elements of the scriptural quotation). In these parts he might give definitions, make distinctions, support points with quotations from Scripture, the church fathers, or other authorities, and give examples. This was followed by a conclusion. As formalistic as this appears, it could be used effectively. It was flexible and could be substantially modified for addressing fellow clergy and religious (ad cleros) or "the people" (ad populum). To assist preachers, homiletic materials abounded: sermon collections, catenae (compilations of biblical exegesis), florilegia of patristic writers, summae of virtues and vices, books of exempla, the famous Legenda aurea (Golden legend) of Jacobus de Voragine (1298), saints' lives whose material preachers could repeat or adapt for preaching, and treatises on preaching (Artes praedicandi), for composing sermons according to the thematic method.

By 1500, the Artes praedicandi and the thematic sermon had begun to fall out of favor, or at least undergo significant changes. With the revival of Roman rhetorical education and the rediscovery of the classics, humanist-trained ecclesiastics understood preaching more broadly as "sacred eloquence" and saw it as falling into line with the three aims of classical rhetoricto move, to teach, to delight (movere, docere, delectare) topics discussed as well by Saint Augustine in book four of De doctrina Christiana (397428). Good preaching was not a Scholastic disputation; it was scriptural, words that touched the heart, called to repentance, and taught matters necessary for salvation. This approach had solid medieval foundations. Franciscan preaching had eschewed the subtleties of Scholastic disputations to shake sinners out of their vices and instill virtue; it aimed at the spiritual needs of town dwellers, adopting their language, images, and stories, as Jesus had done with parables; it shunned "lofty words or wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1); it was brief, unostentatious, and scriptural, focused on basic Christian instruction (the Ten Commandments, the Creeds, the Our Father, etc.) and on virtues and vices.


Preaching occupied a vast campus. Jesus said, "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20), and preaching could occur everywhere. In highly formalized settings, as before popes at Solemn High Mass, or before kings at state funerals, sermons marked grand occasions. Apart from regular liturgies, sermons occurred in open air, in city squares, on street corners, at assemblies, at funerals, at the commemorations of saints, victories, and miracles, at Forty Hours (the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for forty continuous hours in a church), in times of pestilence, famine, and war, in extraliturgical events during Advent and Lent, on holy days and fast days, and in confraternities. It was important that preaching abound. The English cleric Gregory Martin's Roma Sancta (1581) describes late-sixteenth-century Rome as bristling with preaching in every church and crosswalk, thereby giving evidence of the city's holiness and the effects of good preaching on a city that years earlier had been sorely criticized for sordid vices. In Protestant circles, the surest sign of the true church was where the Word was preached and baptism and the Eucharist were dispensed. Preaching was the vital activity demonstrating God's intervention. Calvinist preachers preached in open fields and in private homes as well as in church. Because of the Reformation, good preaching became ever more credible evidence of the true church; preaching, too, was a competition, as every denomination knew that so much rested on the eloquence of its minister.


Early-sixteenth-century writers commonly lamented the deplorable condition of sacred oratory, but their words more likely reflect the greater demand for good preaching among educated laity. Much good preaching, in fact, occurred, and ecclesiastical authorities continuously urged homiletic reforms. The Fifth Lateran Council's (15131517) decree on preaching, Circa Modum Praedicandi (1516) acknowledged abuses, but articulated the direction preaching had already embraced when it demanded that clergy "preach and explain the evangelical truth and Sacred Scripture according to the declaration, interpretation and exposition of the doctors whom the Church or daily use has approved."

The Council of Trent (15451563) was the watershed in the reform of Catholic preaching. It defined preaching as the "special duty of bishops" and enjoined them "to preach the holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, to feed the people entrusted to them. . . ." It urged bishops to establish programs for liberal arts and the study of Scripture in their dioceses, which would be the beginning of the seminary system of priestly education, and the formation of excellent preachers. Trent's decree coincided with a revival in preaching that had already made a dramatic impact on Europe. Significantly, the new religious orders (Jesuits, Theatines, Capuchins, etc.) made preaching a priority and in this differed from most clergy. After Trent, few bishops could miss the idea that preaching was crucial; some issued "instructions for preachers" on preaching to the people (ad populum). In Protestant preaching, too, preparation of preachers in biblical studies and languages was paramount; it was the chief work of pastors.


In the early sixteenth century, scathing criticisms abounded about poor preaching. Erasmus of Rotterdam's (1466?1536) works, for example, suggest that nearly every contemporary preacher was incompetent or disgraceful. In fact, competent preachers abounded in every confession. Some of the more noted Catholic preachers were Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), Roberto da Lecce, (d. 1495), Girolamo Savonarola (d. 1498), Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg (d. 1510), Bernardino Ochino (d. 1564), Cornelio Musso (d. 1574), Francisco Panigarola (d. 1594), François de Sales (d. 1622), Jean-Pierre Camus, bishop of Belley (d. 1652), Nicolas Caussin (d. 1651), Gian Paolo Oliva (d. 1681), Paolo Segneri (d. 1694), and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (d. 1704). Some were known less for their eloquence than for the example they set as preachers, most notably Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (d. 1584), whose regular preaching made him a model Tridentine bishop.

In Protestant lands, numerous preachers acquired excellent reputations. Among the best known are Martin Luther (d. 1546), Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531), Théodore de Bèze (d. 1605), John Calvin (d. 1564), Heinrich Bullinger (d. 1575), and William Perkins (d. 1602). Tragically, too few of their sermons survive.


By 1500, the homily and sermon found new life as humanist-trained preachers returned to the sources (fontes) of Christian tradition to acquaint themselves with the eloquence of the Greek and Latin Fathers (Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, etc.). New editions of the Fathers made clear that the foundations of Christian eloquence lay in classical instruction and study of Scripture.

Erasmus of Rotterdam's groundbreaking and influential treatise on homiletics, Ecclesiastes sive de Ratione Concionandi (Ecclesiastes; or, On the Method of Preaching, 1535) codified a method for applying principles of classical rhetoric to preaching. The humanistic method of preaching had been in use at least since the mid-fifteenth century; but Erasmus's approach opened the way for others. Paradoxically, Erasmus himself fell out of favor in Catholic circles, as did his treatise, when his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 and 1564. His work, however, stimulated a flurry of preaching manuals after the Council of Trent, the "ecclesiastical rhetorics" (ecclesiastica rhetorica), that set standards for preaching for generations, the best known being the Rhetorica Christiana (Christian rhetoric, 1579) of Diego Valades; the De Rhetorica Ecclesiastica (On Ecclesiastical rhetoric, 1574) of Agostino Valier, bishop of Verona; the Rhetoricae Ecclesiasticae (Ecclesiastical rhetoric, 1576) of Luis de Granada, the Modus Concionandi: De Ratione Concionandi (The Method Of Preaching, 1576) of Diego de Estella; the Divinus Orator (The Divine orator, 1595) of Ludovico Carbone; the Orator Christianus (The Christian orator, 1613) of Carlo Reggio; the De Eloquentia Sacra et Humana (On Sacred and human eloquence, 1617) of Nicolas Caussin.

Significantly, the new "ecclesiastical rhetorics" defined preaching as "persuasion" (persuadere) for moving the heartinstructing the intellect, bending the will, delighting the senses. They explained the genera of discoursedeliberative, demonstrative, and forensic oratorywhich humanists saw as corresponding to three types of preaching: in deliberative oratory one urged the shunning of vice and growth in virtues; in demonstrative oratory one extolled the benefits of God, the wonders of the saints, the angels, and the mysteries of the Christian faith. On rarer occasions, a preacher might employ the judicial genus (the type of oratory characteristic of the law courts), though few writers found applications for this. The new manuals also elaborated on the three styles of speaking (the humble, middle, and grand), and on the ways these could be used appropriately; they discussed the parts of oratory, rhetorical devices, ornaments. Above all, they stressed the essential differences between preaching and secular oratory, for in preaching the "salvation of souls" and "the glory of God" are at stake. Classical rhetoric could benefit preachers, but they were about the work of the Lord, not their own aggrandizement.

By 1600, preaching currents across denominations changed dramatically. What Marc Fumaroli has labeled an "Age of Eloquence" in France can rightly be extended to the whole of Europe and to lands beyond, where preachers labored to spread the Gospel.

See also Rhetoric ; Theology .


Bayley, Peter. French Pulpit Oratory, 15981650: A Study in Themes and Styles, with a Catalogue of Printed French Pulpit Oratory. Cambridge, U.K., 1980.

Fumaroli, Marc. L'age de l'éloquence: Rhétorique et "res literaria", de la Renaissance au seuil de l'époque classique. 2nd ed. Paris, 1994.

McGinness, Frederick J. Right Thinking and Sacred Oratory in Counter-Reformation Rome. Princeton, 1995.

Murphy, James J. Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: A History of Rhetorical Theory from Saint Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley, 1974.

O'Malley, John W. Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 14501521. Durham, N.C., 1979.

Ruderman, David B., ed. Preachers of the Italian Ghetto. Berkeley, 1992.

Schneyer, Johann Baptist. Geschichte der katholischen Predigt. Freiburg, 1969.

Shuger, Debora K. Sacred Rhetoric: The Christian Grand Style in the English Renaissance. Princeton, 1988.

Smith, Hilary Dansey. Preaching in the Spanish Golden Age: A Study of Some Preachers of the Reign of Philip III. Oxford, 1978.

Taylor, Larissa. Soldiers of Christ: Preaching in Late Medieval and Reformation France. New York, 1992.

Taylor, Larissa, ed. Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early Modern Period. Leiden, 2001.

Frederick J. McGinness

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