The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 7: Our Own Time By Hughes Oliphant Old (Eerdmans, 2010)

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 7: Our Own Time (Paperback)
by Hughes Oliphant Old

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This is the final volume in the magnum opus by Hughes Oliphant Old, John H. Leith Professor of Reformed Theology and Dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary. Old has, for the last twenty-five years, meticulously plotted the trajectory of preaching from the biblical period, all the way to the current day, in seven magisterial volumes. The breadth of knowledge and grasp of salient issues demonstrated in these tomes define Old as the elder-statesman of the fine art and craft of homiletics. (EHS members will be excited to know that Old is the scheduled plenary speaker at our society’s 2011 Annual Conference!)

This last volume of the series is structured to cover “The End of the Mainline,” Billy Graham and a “new breed” of Presbyterians, and black, Catholic, charismatic, and megachurch preaching, as well as preaching in Latin America, Romania, Britain, and East Asia. Old’s modus operandi is to pick prominent preaching exemplars in each category and analyze particular sermons. That necessarily makes for more descriptive writing. While this is adequate for the one historically inclined, a bit more interpretive and analytical reflection would have aided the preacher of today looking for ideas to employ or dangers to eschew. Nonetheless, this volume, like its predecessors, is chockfull of information; of course, Old’s writing is not only informative, it is also entertaining, and makes for a good read.

In the chapter titled “The End of the Mainline,” Old incisively remarks that “[i]t seemed that the only function of the church in those days was to preach up support for the Democratic Party platform” (14). (One wonders what preachers today are doing!) Also it was during this period that Craddock’s “inductive preaching” became wildly popular. Why? And what might those reasons (sociological? cultural? ecclesiological? political?) mean for the post-modern preacher today? No synthetic conclusion is offered and the reader is left wondering: “So what?”

Billy Graham gets his own chapter (and also graces the cover). He, according to Old, exemplifies “populist” and “democratic” oratory, though “[s]ometimes his interpretations of Scripture are naïve” (77). Populist orators “play the crowd as though it were a gigantic organ” (78), and “[l]ike country music, it is a popular art form” (81). Nice!

In the chapter titled, “A ‘New Breed’ of Presbyterians,” Old describes this “back-to-the-Bible,” ad fontes movment, that includes practitioners like Earl Palmer, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller, Scotty Smith, et al. Somewhere in that chapter, Old’s pedagogical tendencies surface: “[A] sermon is not the same thing as a discourse on a moral or philosophical theme …. Still less is the Christian sermon a forensic oration designed to convince a court of law of the justice of the Christian way of life. … The expository sermon is something quite different. Its aim is to expound the text of Holy Scripture” (101). Amen! I might add that its goal is to transform lives for the glory of God.

More like George Burns or Bob Hope, Earl Palmer is evoked as having a gift for stand-up comedy (107). I wondered, reading this, if Palmer and Co. were the originators of pulpit humor. Old, with his perceptive gaze on the hour glass of preaching history, does not enlighten us. Did Augustine joke around? Or Chrysostom? Interesting question to ponder.

Old introduces the chapter on black preaching with this: “The white pulpit has become so literate that it produces literature rather than oratory. Its sermons appeal to the eye, that is, the eye of one reading the sermon, rather than to the ear of the one hearing it. … While the white preacher and the white congregation have lost the feel of oratory, the black preacher has not” (356). On Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A preacher is not a preacher simply for having great ideas. One is a great preacher when one can bring the Word to words, to effective, powerful words.” (371). King was one, but several modern models (e.g., Anthony Evans or E. K. Bailey) don’t show up here; no conclusion to this chapter either.

The evolution of charismatic preaching is well documented. “Entertainment was developing into an art, and Sister Aimee was ready to learn any technique that the entertainment industry could teach her. One of the most significant techniques she developed was the illustrated sermon,” enlivened by all kinds of props—fire alarms, motorcycles, police sirens, etc. (402). Was this the beginning of preaching as ecclesiastical entertainment? Old does not care to speculate on this, nor on the consequences such theatrics had for the field of homiletics as a whole.

The megachurch movement heralded “a recovery of classical Christian preaching”—“hold on to your surfboards, Lloyd Ogilvie and Chuck Swindoll are taking the same approach to preaching in Southern California that John Calvin used in sixteenth century Geneva” (494). Interestingly, like Calvin and others, this crop of homileticians also produce a plethora of commentaries that are essentially edited sermons (505–6). According to Old, megachurch preachers have decided “that it [the Bible] is still the Word of God and that, however one may explain it, that Word still has the authority to bring life to God’s people. … The homileticians of the older generation can’t believe their ears. The bigger the church, the longer the sermon. … But then it’s always been that way; if you have something to say, people will listen” (494–5). Terrific! Old cites Ps 1:2 as the “secret of Swindoll’s ministry” (545). May it be ours, as well, as we delight in God’s Word.

Most surprisingly, the “Conclusion” to this volume, and therefore to the entire series, consumes less than a page! Aside from a few brief autobiographical notes and a statement of hope that that Word will be spread and preached on every shore, there is no reflective summary or even a speculation as to where homiletics is headed in the future. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a project that took 25 years, for Old admits that it was time to lay down his pen (667). I wish he had held on to it a chapter longer. Of course, we could ask Prof. Old about that at our Annual Conference next October.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 11 (2011): 96–98

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