GREAT PREACHERS AND THEIR PREACHING: AUGUSTINE

 |  June 12, 2024

The following article is part of a series of articles that will traverse church history to examine the preaching of great preachers.


Introduction

Overlooking the preaching of many church fathers is overlooking the ethos in which they lived, moved and had their being. One simply cannot assess Abraham Lincoln apart from his presidential speeches. Nor can one appreciate John Donne apart from his poetry. You may be able to say something, but whatever you say will be shallow and incomplete. Augustine scholar Peter Sanlon observes, “Augustine’s corpus comprises over five million Latin words, yet 15 percent of modern publications on Augustine focus on only two of his writings: Confessiones (Confessions) and De Civitate Dei (City of God).”[1] Augustine scholar Pierre-Patrick Verbraken estimates the bishop of Hippo preached nearly 8,000 sermons, yet we likely only possess about 10% of his sermonic material.[2]

Preaching had far reaching ramifications in the culture of late antiquity. Sermons served as the bullhorn of the church to the outside world. Preaching was the vehicle of the church’s communication to both believers and non-believers alike. Preachers were the prophets who declared to the world how they were supposed to understand the events around them. For Augustine, preaching was also the primary vehicle of persuasion.

Augustine the Rhetorician

The world of late antiquity was an oral culture, with an emphasis on talented orators and performers. Their’s was a culture of oratory “performance,” and the best preachers happened to be the best “performers.” Augustine maintained the value of classical education, particularly rhetoric, yet desired to promote such learning for the distinct calling of Christian preaching. Cicero was a dominant influence in the life of Augustine. Cicero’s five canons of oratory in De Inventione of invention, arrangement, expression, memory, and delivery.[3] In the centrality of the audience and understanding emotions, Cicero’s influence on Augustine is apparent. While in Milan, Augustine practiced the type of rhetoric consistent with what is called the Second Sophistic, as his education was “conducted on a classical Roman model, which meant that the core of his curriculum was rhetoric.”[4] While studying in Carthage, Augustine related how he was “at the top of the school of rhetoric” and “pleased with [his] superior status and swollen with conceit.”[5] His attacks against rhetoric later in life were attacks in the sophistic model which was prevalent in his time. Augustine, rather than dismissing his rhetorical training, affirmed its usefulness in the society and especially in preaching. Herrick summarizes Augustine’s contribution in the area of rhetoric:

Rhetoric provided a valuable means of discovering, presenting, and defending the truth of scripture. The rules of rhetoric—the topics and figures—are not as important for Augustine as are good models of eloquence, especially when joined with a thorough knowledge of scripture….Augustine thus takes what is of use in the theory and practice of classical rhetoric, especially some principles of Cicero, and appropriates this knowledge for the proclamation and defense of the Christian gospel.[6]

Augustine was a promoter of eloquence in preaching, but his was an eloquence in service to God’s word. Augustine the bishop could not tolerate eloquence for eloquence’s sake. While Augustine was inevitably formed by the classical rhetorical tradition, his manual for preachers, On Christian Doctrine, demonstrates that he was not enslaved to it. Charles Baldwin notes, “Augustine presents [emotional appeal] at once frankly and with just discrimination. To make it an end in itself, he is careful to show, is indeed sophistic; but to ignore it is to forget that preaching is a form of the oratory of occasion.”[7] Good preaching is not opposed to charm, humor, or persuasive argumentation. But preaching that focuses solely on persuasive tactics to the detriment of truth is no longer preaching; it is shallow banter.

Augustine the Preacher

Preaching took place in a basilica not unlike many churches today. Absent were pews or seating—everyone remained standing for the service. Augustine would take a seat (Latin – cathedra) on a raised platform. From here he would preach anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours. Contrary to today, where most sermons take place as the audience sits silent, perhaps interrupted by the occasional “Amen,” sermons in Augustine’s North Africa were interspersed by applause and acclamations. The style of public speaking, including preaching, in this day necessitated this kind of interaction and response.

Augustine’s preaching was less rigid and formulaic, yet it was not without form. Augustine’s preaching demonstrates a synthesis of freedom and order. The passage of Scripture provided Augustine with the order he needed in preaching, but he also felt free to “speak without notes on the issues he felt were important or potentially confusing to his congregation.”[8] Augustine preached through books of the Bible as well as doctrinal and occasional sermons. These type of sermons were usually prompted by a saint’s day, festival, or a false teaching needing to be addressed.[9] His Sermons 361 and 362 are the longest sermons from Augustine, and represent a doctrinal study on the nature of the resurrection.[10] A good pastor must know his congregation and the theological atmosphere in order to discern what kind of sermon and approach is appropriate for the occasion.

Augustine was able to gauge the crowd to see whether he should continue in his preaching or end his exposition, resuming where he left off for next time. Augustine’s preaching was one of personal connection to the people in the congregation. Sanlon notes, “He dove deep into the waters of scripture, and when he emerged for breath he had treasure to share with all who listened.”[11] Encouraging young pastors in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine relates:

Just as the listener is to be delighted if he is to be retained as a listener, so also he is to be persuaded if he is to be moved to act. And just as he is delighted if you speak sweetly, so is he persuaded if he loves what you promise, fears what you threaten, hates what you condemn, embraces what you commend, sorrows at what you maintain to be sorrowful; rejoices when you announce something delightful, takes pity on those whom you place before him in speaking as being pitiful, flees those whom you, moving fear, warn are to be avoided; and is moved by whatever else may be done through grand eloquence toward moving the minds of listeners, not that they may know what is to be done, but that they may do what they already know should be done.[12]

For Augustine, “real teaching necessarily involves personal relationship and encounter.”[13] When parishioners come to trust and respect the pastor, they truly wish to adhere to their teaching. Sanlon helpfully observes:

If we really are people with restless hearts, created to dwell together in God’s eternal city, it may be that Augustine’s preaching in the context of pastoral ministry provides deeper insight about how we learn and flourish than his more famous academic writings.[14]

For Augustine, the primary burden of the bishop was to preach. Augustine began preaching as a presbyter at the request of his bishop, Valerius. Breaking with the tradition of the church at this time, Augustine was likely chosen as a preacher because of his mastery of Latin. Numerous comments in his sermons demonstrate Augustine’s ability to freely interact with the crowd and even be spontaneous when the occasion called for it, though his style was balanced with rhetorical skill to make his spontaneity appear fluid and controlled. Both rhetoric and theology shaped Augustine’s preaching style. While sermons were often spoken off-hand with little formal preparation, the scriptural mind and rhetorical skills honed by Augustine made every sermon anything but ordinary.

Conclusion: Preaching as Meditation

Coupling rhetorical training with pastoral sensitivity, Augustine’s preaching was fueled by meditation upon Scripture, prayer, and its effects on the heart. Regarding the heart, or cor in Latin, Sanlon observes, “The cor became one of Augustine’s central theological images for the interior as a desirous compeller. The cor is the innermost place of desire, longing, valuing and love….The cor took central place in Augustine’s theologizing about interior loving.”[15] Preaching is meant to affect one’s core being. In this way, Scripture meditation affected Augustine’s cor and therefore enabled him to preach with conviction in order to affect the cor of his hearers. This concept of the cor is foundational to understanding the preaching method of Augustine. It helped him to understand his own affections in meditating on Scripture, as well as the behavior of his listeners. Understanding the emotional and spiritual state of one’s audience is essential for effective preaching.[16] In all these ways, attention to good rhetoric, sensitivity to the pastoral task, and a preaching fueled by biblical meditation, Augustine serves as a worthy example for pastors to follow today.

[1]Peter T. Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), xix.

[2]As cited in Saint Augustine, Essential Sermons, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2007), 13.

[3]James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001), 97.

[4]Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 125.

[5] conf 3.3.

[6]Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 129.

[7]Charles Sears Baldwin, “Saint Augustine on Preaching” in The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: De Doctrina Christiana and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric, eds. Richard Leo Enos and Roger Thompson et al. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 203.

[8]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxviii.

[9]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxviii.

[10]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxviii.

[11]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxix.

[12]de Doc Chr 4.12.27.

[13]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxx.

[14]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, xxxi.

[15]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, 75.

[16]Sanlon, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, 20.


Coleman Ford serves as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Texas Baptist College in Fort Worth, Texas.

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