Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures 
in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 1


The Reading and the Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church
Volume 1: The Biblical Period
Hughes Oliphant Old
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, paperback, x + 383 pp.
ISBN 0-8028-4356-5

Hughes Oliphant Old has set himself an audacious task: to study the history of preaching in the church beginning with Moses until the present day. Old has already completed six of the planned seven volumes and his historical research makes for fascinating reading.

In the first section of the first volume, Old gives a detailed survey of the preaching of the biblical writers, beginning with Moses (28), whom Old considers to be the first preacher (at least his sermons in Deuteronomy are the earliest recorded), proceeding through the prophets (Samuel to Jeremiah) and the "Wisdom School" and then treating the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Old notes that the Old Testament Church placed great importance on a thorough knowledge of the Word of God and the priests and prophets saw their primary calling to teach (30). One criticism of this section is Old's toleration of liberal higher criticism. For example, Old's chapter on Isaiah is followed by a section on "Deutero-Isaiah," thus denying (although with some reservations) the unity of that book (69ff). In other places his affirmation of Scripture's inspiration is weak: he does not affirm verbal inspiration but contends that,

… it was God who inspired Matthew to pick up his pen and write what he knew of the words and works of Jesus. Surely we would want to affirm that the Holy Spirit guided the thoughts of Matthew and any who worked with him in producing the Gospel that bears his name" (263, my italics).

Earlier, he argues against some who relegate the account of the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2) to "legendary tales" that "the story may very well preserve reliable material" because "much about it rings true" (128). No doubt, Old is a genius of a scholar, but his liberalism is disappointing.

The second section deals with the early church of the second and third centuries AD and describes in considerable detail the sermons of prominent church fathers of that period, particularly Origen. Old's work is filled with juicy historical tidbits. For example, the Didache is evidence that the early church considered that Christ is present in the preaching (265); Clement of Alexandria was opposed to what later developed into the asceticism of voluntary poverty in the church (see his sermon on the Rich Young Ruler [298-306]); sermon series preaching has a very old pedigree; human interest stories were rare in the sermons of the early church (304) and preachers were generally given an hour to preach (329). Origen is an especially interesting character: it is fascinating to read how Origen chose preaching units in a day when there were no chapter or verse divisions (322-323) and quite disturbing (if not amusing) to see how Origen engaged in allegory and numerology (a la Harold Camping!) with reckless abandon (318). Old rightly criticizes Origen for this but adds that for all his allegorizing Origen "insisted on the historical integrity of Scripture" (338).

I end by quoting a very astute observation. In days when churches preach "potted gospel messages" for the unconverted we need to follow the pattern of the early church:

Evangelism did not require a special message preached for the unconverted, different from the one for the converted, nor did it mandate that the faithful hear and enthusiastically support again and again evangelistic sermons that were not really directed to them. Rather, when Christ is proclaimed as Lord and Savior, when God's promises are proclaimed, and a witness is given that God is faithful and that in Christ those promises have been fulfilled, and will yet be fulfilled, evangelism is done (283).

That kind of preaching, doctrinal, expository preaching with exegetical application will save us and our children and those who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

Martyn McGeown