Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Paper. 556 pages, $45.00. ISBN 0-80284775-7.
By: Hughes Oliphant Old
Anyone giving a life-time to preaching needs at least a basic grasp of the shape of the discipline over the centuries. As categories under Church History generally, the history of doctrine, the history of liturgics and the history of preaching have obvious relevance to our tasks in the church. Dargan’s classic work from the early twentieth century (even as updated by Turnbull in an additional volume) tended to be descriptive but not very analytic. F.R. Webber’s multi-volume work focused only on Britain and America and innumerable monographs often of high quality all made the need for more contemporary address in a comprehensive history all the more commanding.
Three major efforts to address the lacuna were virtually simultaneous. My own 900 page The Company of the Preachers, A History of Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Kregel, 1998) was one such contribution. Ronald E. Osborn’s first volume of a projected four, Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching (Chalice, 1999) was impressive in many respects although hewing to the Jesus Seminar line. After the initial volume the project has been dealt a heavy blow by the death of its author. The most massive and truly magnificent address to the gap has been the multi-volume series by Hughes Oliphant Old, veteran Presbyterian pastor and specialist in the history of liturgy. Old has been located in recent years at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, where he has also been teaching homiletics at Princeton Seminary.
Old’s contribution is monumental and stellar. The books are an aesthetic delight to handle and read, although their cost makes the average pastor’s investment in the whole series unlikely. The extensive footnoting in much German and French resourcing is a scholar’s delight but an immense irrelevance to the parish pastor. Seeing preaching in its liturgical and ecclesiological context is most helpful. The reader milks two disciplines for the price of one. Reveling in and loving Scripture as a good Barthian always does moves us but evangelicals will be a little put off by his higher critical sympathies (as in his celebration of deutero-Isaiah, I, 69). His insistence that worship is evangelism and his disparagement of “decisional regeneration” (I, 283) are disappointing. This is especially so since he tends to be so positive about everything and everybody, including Origen’s hermeneutic, Schleiermacher, von Harnack and Fosdick. Still there is enrichment on every lucidly and beautifully written page. His third volume on the Medieval Church was peerless and ran to 647 pages.
Those who have been tracking the series have awaited Volume 4 on the Reformation with great eagerness, given the Reformed proclivities of the author. We are not disappointed in his characterization of the seismic changes which took place in preaching with the Reformation. Daily preaching took the place of the daily mass. He properly emphasizes that Luther and Calvin’s theology of the Word gave rise to the highest view of the criticality of preaching. Nor is Zwingli neglected with his strong addiction to lectio continua. Curiously the English Reformation is limited to Hugh Latimer and John Hooper, when in fact a firmament of at least a dozen worthies deserves attention in a study of this scope. The attention given to The Prayer Book Lectionary is at once a bonus and delight but the mix of preaching and the liturgical is occasionally frustrating.
Old disappoints us with his definitions of sermonic form. For him all proclamation of Scripture is expository; hence Jesus is expository and Spurgeon was a great expositor. Many would incline toward a more classic definition of exposition as in John Broadus or Haddon Robinson. He is allergic to eschatology (millennialism is “eccentric”) and speaks only pejoratively of pietism. I wonder what he will do with Bengel, Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf. His extensive and very learned section on the Roman Catholic preaching of the Counter-Reformation runs to 92 pages but then most curiously his sketchy treatment of Puritan preaching runs to only 68 pages. He does not seem to see that the Puritan sermon was an inverted pyramid with minimal exposure of the text. (Thomas Shepard, first president of Harvard, preached four years on the parable of the Ten Virgins.) This is the first really great disappointment in the basic space allocation, which is always a most vexed and vulnerable point in any history of preaching.
I can guarantee that any reader will find treasures as I have on every page that Olds has written. Notwithstanding my caveats, I delight in these volumes. The rumor is that the fourth entry into the field will soon be in hand. O.C. Edwards, Jr., long at Seabury-Western (Episcopal) in Evanston, IL (now retired) will soon heave into sight with his much?awaited history of preaching. His 43-page entry on “The History of Preaching” in Willimon/Lisher Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching has whetted our appetite for his full history (although we are troubled by his basic scepticism about the words of Jesus). For many good reasons I would predict that no multi-volume history of preaching will ever surpass what Hugh Oliphant Old has given us and will give us.
Review by DavidL. Larsen