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The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures 
in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 4


The Reading and the Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church
Volume 4: The Age of the Reformation
Hughes Oliphant Old
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, paperback, xiii + 556 pp.
ISBN 0-8028-4775-7

In volume four of his magnum opus, Old treats the reader to over 500 pages of penetrating analysis of the main preachers and preaching schools of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, covering a period of about 250 years (from Luther [b. 1483] to Jean-Baptiste Massillon [d. 1742], the "Jeremiah of the Age of Louis XIV" [504] of France) and leading the reader through the lands of Europe (Germany, Switzerland, England, Spain, France and the Netherlands) to sample the best their pulpits had to offer.

Old takes the effort to treat the preaching of the Romish Counter Reformation preachers in which he finds "glory" (158), although he hopes that this is not Catholicism's last word (250). After treating the Huguenots, who because of the Edict of Nantes were only permitted to worship outside the walls of Paris, while the Court of Louis XIV heard eloquent Jesuits, Old pays tribute to the courage of this despised minority, and adds, "perhaps only in the eschaton will the Jesuit and the Calvinist lie down together" (447)! Although Protestants find Jesuit preaching distasteful because of the false gospel it proclaims, we can learn lessons on how not to preach from the examples Old discusses. Old, despite his ecumenical bent, is critical of much of the content and style of these sermons. By comparing these sermons with the Reformers and their successors we can see where the modern pulpit is failing and where we need to be on our guard.

First, Roman Catholicism despite the decisions of Trent, which had tried to call bishops back to their calling to preach, did not consider preaching to be important, and certainly not the chief means of grace (234, 250). In fact, if a preacher became too zealous in the pulpit he would come under Inquisitorial suspicion (e.g. Juan of Avila [169] Luis of Granada [171] and even Ignatius of Loyola himself [184])! Second, the exegesis of Roman Catholic preachers was strangled by a slavish devotion to tradition. Writes Old, "As the Council of Trent understood it, we must approach divine truth through mediators, through the hierarchy. Truth has to mediated by the saints and the holy hierarchs like Leo and Gregory and Isidore" (165). As a result, Counter Reformation sermons were not the lively preaching of the Word of God but "loaded up with Greek philosophy" (166) and stories about the saints and martyrs. Old describes one of Cardinal Bellarmine's sermons as "an honest attempt to do systematic expository preaching" but adds "the tradition he so dearly loved was too ponderous that the message just never got out" (217-218). Third, because the Counter Reformation, especially the Jesuits "found the Augustinian concept of grace repugnant" (197), its preaching aimed at the (supposedly free) will of the sinner (227). At this point, Old implicates the Jesuit "Middle Knowledge" theologian Luis Molina and the "Dutch Protestant theologian Arminius" in this denial of sovereign grace (197). The modern practice of manipulating the emotions of the sinner has its source here, not in Scripture. It is good to note that Old "regrets" Bellarmine's Pelagian tendencies (204). Fourth, because of the need to move the will, Counter Reformation was moralistic and relied on oratory to move men, not the power of God's Word (I Cor. 2:1-5). For example, Xavier's preaching was "moralistic catechism at its most moralistic" (188); and the preachers in the Court of the openly adulterous Louis XIV of France "preached against sin but in such a way that court etiquette was never offended" (492). Of these men Old writes "they show little grasp of God's redemptive work" (506) and that their sermons "titillated" the courtiers who "admired [the preachers'] greatness but they did not repent" (504).

Anglicanism [330-368]), too, left much to be desired. Anglican court preachers were keen to curry the favor of the kings and were leavened with the heresy of freewill as the Arminianism made a comeback. This contributed to similar weaknesses in their pulpits. For example, Lancelot Andrewes was an "orator of ability" whose sermons were characterized by "scholarly showmanship" but who "seemed to have an abhorrence for Calvinism" and who preached the "divine right of kings" before an appreciative James I (337-339). He and Robert South, "the most polished sycophant of the Restoration establishment" (363) are a far cry from the boldness of Latimer before Henry VIII (141) or to the "politically very dangerous" sermons of the Puritan Goodwin before Charles I (299)! Anglicanism, writes Old, was "a reversion to the Pelagianism of the late Middle Ages" (361). Other Anglican preachers of the period (when the godly and faithful Puritans were persecuted) such as Robert Tillotson "show[ed] little interest in the things of eternity or the matters of the heart" (367). Tillotson was the "paragon of polite preaching" for those "not passionately enamored with the Word of God" (367). In other words he was a teacher who tickled the itching ears of those who will not endure sound doctrine" (II Tim. 4:1-4).

Against this dark background Protestant preaching is beautiful in its simplicity and faithfulness to the text. In those days the saints would cheerfully listen to two hour sermons (255) and "loved solid theology" (387). First, Protestant sermons were exegetical. For Luther preaching was "fundamentally an interpretation and application of Holy Scripture" (38). Christians were attracted to Calvin's long sermons on Old Testament books because they had not heard such preaching "for centuries" (130). Thomas Goodwin, "a seventeenth century Gerhard Kittel" (290), so detailed was his work with the original language, was a "marvelous exegete" (288). It was "the intensity of the preacher's engagement with the text" that fascinated his congregation (288). The same is true in the Netherlands where the beauty of von Lodenstein's sermons lies in the exegesis (467). Second, they were soteriological. Luther insisted that it was not enough to preach history. Salvation must be proclaimed from the narrative (13). Similarly, a philosophical and scholastic treatment of the Logos in John 1 is useless. Preach the Gospel of the Incarnation! (15). Calvin agreed with this: "It was his job to present the Passion so that those in the congregation would recognize Christ as their Savior" (124). Third, they were plainly spoken. Luther spoke the "language of the people" (5-6) and was a "master at putting profound ideas in a simple way" (22), and yet he made "vivid and moving" what could have been dry and abstract (27). Plain does not mean boring! In fact all the great preachers were masters of the spoken word. Calvin's sermons in French are "pure delight for a lexicographer" (105). Flavel, although he preached to poor mariners, evidenced "wide reading" in his sermon preparation (325) while remaining simple in his preaching. The art of the preacher was not to show off his eloquence and erudition but to impress the congregation "with the majesty of the Word of God revealed in Christ" (269). Therefore, Oecolampadius had a "horror for sermons that tried to entertain the congregation" (65). Finally, we notice that preaching was vitally important to the whole Reformation cause. To it the lion's share of time and effort was devoted. For it men risked their lives. Through it Christ gathered and defended His Church. Luther viewed preaching as the way to glorify God and to save God's people even if the world shows little interest (20) and he warned against those who would demand that God "comes into my little prayer closet and speak to me privately" while despising the preached Word (41).

Martyn McGeown