A History of Preaching

CC BY-NC, Luther Seminary, Flickr

In two thousand years of church history, preaching has undergone an evolution of purpose and meaning. The earliest form of what became Christian preaching is witnessed in the declarations of the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic tradition ended with Malachi (John the Baptist for some) and gave rise to a different style of proclamation. This was the rabbinic tradition with its Jewish sages who, like the Greeks, taught in a master-disciple approach. Jesus followed this method of preaching and demonstrated to his culture his stellar ability to teach—”Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to him?” (Mark 6:2).

Preaching was very simple in the New Testament church period and accompanied only by the scriptures. It was common that the teacher would sit as the people stood in attention. Interestingly, whenever the discourse was very good, the people would applaud, offer vocal acclamations, wave handkerchiefs, and even toss garments. Many would write the sermon word-for-word in order to save it for posterity.

Lakesides, private homes, synagogues, and public streets were all used for preaching; for a time there were no edifices specifically designed for such public discourse. In fact, it was considered corrupt practice when churches later began to be constructed for ceremonial display with great alters, images, and processional aisles. This became more common throughout the fourth century as heathen temples and basilicas were converted to Christian churches.

During the second century the church began organizing itself into a more unified body, and its preaching adapted to these changes as well. The bishops or an appointed presbyter bore the responsibility of speaking the word of God. Preaching was mainly hortatory, or exhortative, and termed by purpose: tractate (exposition), disputation (polemic), allocution (doctrinal thesis), and homily (popular conversation). Preaching was also done to reflect on events and occasions.

The homily has characterized preaching for most of church history. It is not greatly different from the sermon (lecture providing religious instruction), except that it is given to free, explanatory discourse on a familiar topic, whereas the sermon holds tightly to homiletics. Eventually, the homily shortened to a form known as the postil that was a mere glossing over a text with brief explanation.

In time preaching began to lose its original intent and was gradually replaced by ceremony, panegyric (eulogistic oration) for saints and martyrs, and veneration for Mary in the growing Roman Catholic tradition. The Protestant Reformers are credited with returning preaching to its early roots in the saving message of Christ.