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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Preaching the Word

Scripture was not always read as an academic exercise, and in the period after the end of the ancient world that was not the natural way to come to it. The purpose of the study of scripture was edification. It was the Word of God and it was ‘given’ to teach God's people about him and bring them to him. So it was first and most characteristically used in preaching.

Sermons of the patristic period could be very long. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) would preach for an hour or more, with his audience as involved as though they were at a theatre. He gave several long series (for example, on the Psalms, on St John's Gospel) in the course of which he expounded whole books of the Bible. The analysis was detailed and would have been testing for the listener, although the text is full of life and anecdote. Gregory the Great was still preaching in the same style at the end of the sixth century.

During the early Middle Ages the pattern of preaching changed for two main reasons. The number of individuals capable of preaching freshly composed sermons depended upon the number educated to a sufficient level, and those were for some centuries very few. It became usual for preaching to diminish to a mere reading of the surviving ‘published’ sermons of Augustine and Gregory and other ‘Latin Fathers’.

The second reason was the loss of Latin as the language of normal exchange in the west. It gradually became the language of the ‘learned’ and so the text of scripture and these old sermons could not be understood by ordinary people in parishes. Largely uneducated clergy concentrated on the liturgy and left out sermons altogether.

In the late eleventh century Guibert of Nogent wrote a pioneering book on how to preach a sermon, which was the first of a series produced until the mid-thirteenth century. These revolutionized the practice of preaching and brought it to life again. By the end of the twelfth century (Alan of Lille) ‘the art of preaching’ had become a recognized branch of rhetoric. Formally taught in this way, the technique was to take a short passage of scripture as a ‘text’ (rather than to progress through a whole book of scripture). The theme was then developed by dividing the meanings of the key terms in the text and analysing each in turn.

National Library, Prague. A XXI/I, Collection Prague Metropolitan Chapter of St Vitus Cathedral.

Ancient Art & Architecture Collection.

During the same century a few preachers of exceptional talent arose who could speak without such props. Notable among these was Bernard of Clairvaux. His sermons read like Augustine's. They are shot through with biblical allusions and citations and direct quotations, to the point where half or more of each sentence is scriptural. Some are lengthy expositions of scripture, even a series on a single book, the Song of Songs, which he did not finish and which set a fashion among would-be imitators who aspired to complete it. Bernard's powers as a preacher were not merely verbal, although his skills with words were outstanding. He understood, as the ancient rhetoricians had done, that delivery is important. There is a story of his preaching in Latin to a German-speaking audience and reducing it to tears. When the translator got up to explain to them what Bernard had said, the audience was far less moved by the sense than they had been by the delivery.

The orders of friars, which were founded first and foremost to preach, had different needs in their use of scripture. The Franciscans were wandering preachers, who sought to bring souls to Christ with their sermons. The Dominicans were founded to preach against heresy in the north of Spain and the south of France. Their task involved combating holders of unorthodox beliefs mainly of two types: the ‘Waldensian’ and the ‘Albigensian’. The Waldensians were in some senses proto-Lollards, and they had among their number individuals well briefed in scripture and able to exchange quotations with any preacher who came against them. So the Dominicans needed at the outset a higher level of education and a clear understanding of the ways in which texts of scripture could best be set against one another to counter unorthodox positions.

During the thirteenth century, the two orders became rivals for the chairs in Europe's universities and both became highly focused on training the minds of their recruits. They produced a series of Bible-study aids and theological handbooks. The relationship between the two is important and intricate.

Preachers needed a variety of practical aids, all of which can be seen developing by the end of the twelfth century, but which were taken much further by the friars. They needed ‘dictionaries’ of biblical terms, so that they could look up a word which was to feature prominently in a sermon and see where else and in what other senses it occurred in scripture. They needed reference-books of illustrative stories and parallels and brief patterns of argumentation. They needed handbooks of ‘authorities’. But, and this remained perhaps especially true for the Dominicans, they also needed arguments. An example of that type of aid is Peter the Chanter's De tropis loquendi, from the end of the twelfth century. This Parisian scholar is also the author of a Verbum abbreviatum, which is a digest and handbook to the Bible, but it is the De tropis loquendi which is most instructive in demonstrating the development of genres to meet specific needs. Peter the Chanter put two things together in this book. He confronted the problem Augustine had addressed in his ‘Harmony of the Gospels’, that scripture appears in places to disagree with itself. He used the teaching of logicians on methods of identifying and resolving sophistries. He thus provided the preacher with a means of tackling embarrassments in the exposition of any text he might be dealing with in which this problem arose. The requirements by way of preachers' aids were in fact identical with those recognized in the teaching of ancient rhetoric.

Staatsbibliothek, Bamberg, Msc. Patr. 5, fol. 1v.

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