Editor’s Note: There are advantages to preaching from “the lectionary.” Saving congregations from the whims and pet agendas of their preachers is not least among them. Yet the Reformed tradition was shaped from the very beginning by its recovery of the ancient patristic practice of lectio continua preaching, i.e., preaching through books of the Bible consecutively. This approach also has advantages. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, discusses why the lectio continua approach is so “salutary” in his book, Life Together (see “Reading the Scriptures”). But preaching the lectio continua also raises questions, especially for those who attempt to do it in our times. The late Hughes Oliphant Old, one of the world’s foremost experts on Reformed worship, discusses some of these questions in the following essay, which comes from the introduction to a little–known book of sermons he published on the Book of Micah.1 Like the previous interview (though with differences too), it gives practical insight into ‘how the sausage is made,’ as it were, from a seasoned practitioner.
What began the discussion was a chapter on preaching in my book, Worship Reformed According to Scripture.2 In this chapter I showed what a prominent place the preaching of the lectio continua has occupied in the ministry of the Word, as it was exercised both by the Fathers of the ancient Church and by the Reformers of the sixteenth century, but then I suggested that this method is quite viable today. It is this which sparked the discussion. The question which many of my readers raised was whether it really would be profitable to preach the lectio continua in a modern American Church.
Would not most of our congregations find it tedious? Surely one would not want to preach two hundred sermons on Deuteronomy straight through as Calvin did in Geneva! Or again, I have been asked how one could preach the lectio continua and still observe the Christian feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. These questions I take as a challenge to show how I have adapted this ancient tradition to my own preaching. As these sermons will show I have not simply performed an archaeological reconstruction of Patristic or Reformation preaching practices. I have adapted the practice quite considerably.
In the first place, I preach the lectio continua more rapidly than many of those who have practiced this discipline before me. While Calvin devoted seventeen sermons to Micah I have covered the book in six sermons. This requires a study of the whole book by the preacher and a selection of the passages of the book which appear to be the most significant for the congregation to whom one is preaching. The selection is part of the job of interpretation.
On the other hand, I sometimes preach through a book more slowly. I once took some twenty–five Sundays to preach through the Sermon on the Mount. But then I figure that these three chapters which make up the Sermon on the Mount are among the most weighty passages of the New Testament. The decision to give so much to them was a matter of interpretation on one hand and on the other hand a matter of pastoral care. It seemed important at that point in the life of my congregation to emphasize what Jesus taught about the living of the Christian life. In preaching Jeremiah, I limited myself to fourteen sermons while Calvin preached eighty-seven. But then Calvin was preaching five times a week and I was preaching only once a week.
For the most part I limit myself to about a dozen sermons on a single book at a time. In preaching through Romans, for example, I divided the book into three parts. The first six chapters I preached in the early Spring arranging it so that I was preaching on chapter six at Easter. Then in the following Fall I took up again with chapter seven preaching through to the end of chapter eleven just before Thanksgiving. Once more I broke the series for several months and then continued with chapters twelve to the end of the book during the following summer. Here again, as with the Sermon on the Mount, it seemed that the preaching of Romans deserved so much attention because it is the rich center cut of the Gospel. To give it so much attention at a particular point in the life of a congregation was an important pastoral decision.
Now, of course, one of the objections to preaching the lectio continua is a certain uneasiness about emphasizing the Bible too much in preaching. Leander Keck has spoken about this problem with a great deal of sensitivity. For several generations, controversy over science and the Bible and over the historical sources of the Biblical texts has made biblical preaching in any of its forms more difficult than it once was. It has seemed so much easier to cut oneself loose from these problematic texts and simply base one’s preaching on Christian principles. So many biblical texts had begun to appear inauthentic or hopelessly confused by interpolations. Busy parsons themselves hardly knew what to make of them; how were their congregations going to understand them? Most sensitive preachers in the last generation have been troubled by this problem, but the appearance and the acceptance of Dean Keck’s book indicates that the Church is beginning to recover from this uneasiness about Biblical preaching. 3
A second question which has been posed is whether the lectio continua is the only kind of preaching I use. Let me hasten to make clear that I use a number of other of forms. … I do catechetical preaching. During the first year I preached through the Apostles Creed. Here, too, I had plenty of patristic examples to follow as one could easily gather from the chapter on preaching in my recent book. The Reformers of Strasbourg had likewise taken the lead of the Fathers in this matter. They began a long tradition of catechetical preaching in the Protestant pulpit, a tradition which I enthusiastically labor to maintain.
Occasionally I find good reason in the life of the congregation or in current events to depart from my schedule. Besides that, I feel obligated to preach the traditional stewardship sermon, an appropriate sermon for Thanksgiving Eve or the Sunday before the Fourth of July. Somewhat inadvertently I have gotten into the habit of preaching on the Christian witness of such great saints of American public life as Woodrow Wilson, John Witherspoon, or Stonewall Jackson on some of these civil holidays. So obviously I have to admit to preaching biographical sermons. Such sermons I would prefer to deliver at some time other than the Lord’s Day service. But then I try not to be sticky about such things. More and more I find that I am asked to preach at funerals and weddings. I am well aware that some of the greatest sermons in the history of preaching have been funeral sermons. One remembers John Knox’s sermon at the death of the Earl of Murray or Jacques Bossuet’s sermon at the funeral of Queen Henrietta.
In my own ministry the emphasis has been on preaching to the Christian congregation when it is assembled for worship on the Lord’s Day. This I understand to be the natural context or accustomed place of lectio continua preaching. It is when the Church regularly comes together for the worship of God that the Scriptures are to be preached in a systematic way. There are other places where other types of preaching are appropriate and even necessary. Evangelistic preaching occupies an important place in the history of preaching, but it is rarely found in the context of worship. That is not its appropriate place. Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus was preached in the open air to those who were not Christians. He did not preach on a text of Scripture. The Celtic monks who evangelized Northern Europe and the Franciscan and Dominican preachers of the Middle Ages were great preachers and yet their preaching was not usually in the context of the celebration of the Mass. John Wesley and George Whitfield preached in fields and on street corners rather than in the ordinary service of worship. Evangelistic preaching by its very nature is outside the liturgy. It has a different context. Lectio continua preaching, on the other hand, is liturgical preaching. It is a particular ministry of the people of God which consists in listening carefully and systematically to the Word of God.
The preaching of the lectio continua can very easily be fitted into the observance of the major Christian feasts. Oecolampadius, the Reformer of Basel, did this very clearly even if Calvin seems to have made very little of the feasts in his preaching schedule. We know, for instance, that Oecolampadius preached a lectio continua of the First Epistle of John during Advent in 1523. In doing this he was following the example of the great patristic preachers. Oecolampadius knew that John Chrysostom often used the great feasts as the terminal poles of his lectio continua preaching. In Antioch the great Chrysostom had preached his series of expository sermons on Genesis during the forty days of Lent and his series on Acts during the fifty days of Pentecost. Again, one must remember that both Chrysostom and Oecolampadius preached daily.
The sermons which I am presenting in this book were preached between the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the Feast of Epiphany. I figured that is the time span which to my congregation makes up the Christmas holidays. As soon as Thanksgiving is over the merchants begin to put up Christmas decorations and announce their pre–Christmas sales. The university gets wound up for finals. Then students take off to celebrate Christmas with their families. Those who are permanent residents fill the Church on Christmas Eve with visiting relatives and then many of them take off for a week or two before the semester begins. The two Sundays after Christmas are apt to be very sparse in regard to attendance. But then by the Sunday after Epiphany the university has usually started up again and the holidays are over.
In years past, the passages I have selected to preach at Christmas might be regarded as the more usual sort of fare. I have done a lectio continua series on the nativity story in Matthew and the one in Luke, the Prologue to the Gospel of John, a series on the traditional Messianic passages in the first eleven chapters of Isaiah and a series on the so-called salvation oracles in chapters thirty to thirty-three of Jeremiah. Some of these, of course, I have done more than once in my eighteen years of preaching.
The fact that I was preaching these sermons during the Christmas holidays has obviously influenced my selection of texts and my approach to these texts. Some twenty years ago I preached on Micah in my first Church. That series was preached in the summer and it treated the book in only five sermons. What I thought needed to be preached then was quite different from what it seems to me needs to be preached now.
One of the beauties of preaching the lectio continua is that it allows the text to interact with the changing of the times. Micah should not always be preached at Christmas nor should Acts always be preached between Easter and Pentecost. In the same way I must confess that what interested me in the prophecies of Micah in the sixties is not quite the same as what interests me now. Times have changed and the message which needs to be preached is obviously quite different. At one point I actually looked into my barrel to see if some of those twenty–year–old sermons could be revamped for this series. I decided that not a single one would do. I found that I divided the book up quite differently now than I had back in the sixties. Different texts had caught my attention. It is not that they were not good sermons or that I do not believe the same things I used to believe. It was much more that God has a way of having different messages for different times.
Brevard Childs in his introduction to Micah has made this quite clear. In putting together the collection of Micah’s prophetic oracles into what is now recognized as the canonical text there was an attempt on the part of the editors to make the book speak to a different age. There was an attempt to make Micah’s message contemporary. This was not a corruption of the text but rather a deepening of the text.
In turning to Micah to hear his prophetic message at Christmas, I have depended greatly upon the second Scripture lesson. That was the original point of having a second Scripture lesson. Even in the days of Jesus, the preacher was supposed to choose a passage from the Prophets as the basis of his interpretation of the Law. I pointed this out in the chapter on the ministry of the Word in my book. In some of the sermons I have made more use of the second lesson than in others. In some of the sermons the use of the second lesson was more implicit than explicit; nevertheless, what I have always aimed at is a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew prophet.
The sermons in this little publication are real sermons. They were preached at Faith Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana, from December, 1984 to January 6, 1985. They are typical of the way I preach. They have behind them the amount of preparation which realistically a practicing pastor can come up with in a week’s time. I have resisted the temptation to restudy the text in the course of preparing the manuscript for publication. It often happens that late on Saturday night I discover some facet of the text I would like to chase down, but the sermon has to be preached the next morning. I obviously do not have time to chase down more material. I do the best I can with the time I have.
In the same way I have contented myself with the limitation of my own library. Fortunately, I have a good library. My first year in seminary, Bruce Metzger admonished me to start building a library appropriate to a minister of the Word. I have been working on it ever since. Important to my library are the classics: the commentaries of John Calvin from the Reformation period, Matthew Henry, “the most pastoral of Presbyterians,” from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and George Adam Smith, that poet of Scottish Old Testament scholars, who wrote at the end of the last century. For modern commentaries I have only three: James Luther Mays, René Vuilleumier, and Delbert Hillers. From our church library, which I have stocked with commentaries over the years, I borrowed the commentary of Leslie C. Allen.
It may surprise some homileticians that I often refer to my favorite commentators in the course of a sermon. There are people in my congregation who find this of interest. This is particularly the case because often when I begin a series of sermons on a particular book of the Bible I will write something for the church newsletter about the series I intend to preach. Among other things, I usually introduce the major commentators. There are people at Faith Church who find it important that their preacher has done research on the text and on how the text has been interpreted down through the centuries. They also find it interesting to know that saintly and learned interpreters have often differed quite considerably on the meaning of a text.
These sermons are written by an “inductive method,” to use Fred Craddock’s term. I am one of whose preachers to whom he refers who must confess to writing the sermon before deciding what the text means. For me the writing itself is the process of thinking out what the text has to say. After I have written about ten pages then I spend Saturday evening and early Sunday morning outlining it, patching it up here and there, taking out irrelevant material and typing it up. What gets preached is very different from what is written. To reduce the preached sermon to a written sermon, therefore, takes quite a bit of work after the preaching. I have to take the outline from which I finally preached and try to remember what I actually said. Then I revise my written manuscript.
As I regard it, there is a big difference between the way the language should be written and the way it should be spoken. I like to think of myself as a practitioner of the art of preaching. I like to use all the devices of rhetoric of which great preachers like Chrysostom, Donne, Bossuet, and Spurgeon were masters. One uses these devices to keep people listening. I find myself in agreement with Elizabeth Achtemeier, “A preacher’s tools are words shaped into the rhythms and cadences, the fortissimos and whispers, the conversation and confrontation of oral speech.”4 But often many of these devices while they may be effective in the pulpit do not look quite right on the printed page. I have sometimes had tapes of my sermons transcribed and have never found them too satisfactory once they were written out. In finishing up these sermons, I have tried to make a compromise between how I would say it in the pulpit and how I would write it for publication.
Finally, before you begin to read these sermons there is one more thing you need to know. You need to know something about the congregation to which these sermons were preached. As others have put it before me, a sermon is not only an exegesis of the text but an exegesis of the congregation as well. These sermons were preached to a very particular congregation after I had been the pastor of this congregation for more than twelve years.
Faith Presbyterian Church is in West Lafayette, Indiana, the seventh Presbyterian Church in our community. There is the big church downtown. There is an even bigger congregation on the north side of town. Then there is University Church right next to the Purdue University campus and two more neighborhood congregations in various parts of town. We even have a Reformed Presbyterian Church where metrical psalms are sung, in pure Covenanter tradition, without the embellishments of instrumental accompaniment. For the most part the adult members of Faith Church are university educated people. We have a good number of professors and an abundance of graduate students. Mostly they are trained in the various fields of engineering and agriculture in which Purdue specializes. They are not likely to know a great deal about history or
literature. They are scientists of one sort or another, but they expect their minister to be as well prepared in the academic disciplines of interpreting Scripture as they are in their academic disciplines.
Faith Church is made up for the most part of young professionals entering the world of “high tech.” This is a rapidly growing segment of our society. Our congregation is not typical of the average American Protestant Church of a generation ago in which the highly educated were an exception. Most of our members have several college degrees. They are intelligent, thinking people who have been turned off by sermons aimed at twelve–year–olds. If they come to Church, it is because they are looking for more than a purely secular education has given them. They are looking for sacred learning, but they have high expectations of this sacred learning. They expect it to be at least as serious and as dedicated as secular learning. The congregation abounds in amateur theologians who are interested in reading the more popular writings of Augustine and Luther, Barth and Bultmann. It is to such people that Faith Church has made an appeal and the fact that this church has grown and prospered demonstrates that there are people who have been looking for this kind of ministry. To be sure, the largest response has been from people in their twenties and thirties, but this class of highly educated technicians is a growing element in our society and increasingly the Church will need to serve such people.
It is for this sort of person that the preaching of the lectio continua has a special appeal. It provides an opportunity for a systematic and scholarly hearing of the message of Scripture. Preaching the lectio continua makes it possible for the minister to sustain a disciplined study of Scripture, and it makes it possible for the congregation to enter into and follow that discipline.
Hughes Oliphant Old (1933-2016) is the author of many important books on worship, including The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite, Leading in Prayer, Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church, and a seven–volume series on preaching entitled The Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church, published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company from 1998-2010.
1 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Prophecies of Micah and the Gospel at Christmas (Danville, Illinois: Interstate Printers and Publishers, Inc., 1985).
2 Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture (Westminster/John Knox, 1984; revised edition, Geneva Press, 2004).
3 Leander E. Keck, Pauline Letters: Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984).
4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Creative Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), 22.