Pulpits and Peripatetics

The Greek Origin of the "Sermon"

It is our purpose in this paper to expand on some suggested Reform laid down in the workbook entitled "The Elder's Checklist." There we made some applications of the Biblical concept of the "Priesthood of All Believers." Our goal is to get every believer to strive toward the good work of Spiritual oversight, not in the sense of "office" and top-down exercise of power, but in the sense of having developed a "life message," have developed maturity and wisdom through experience which needs to be transmitted to the younger so that they can become mature. Every Christian should be functioning as a leader of some other, less mature, Christians.

But a major stumbling block to many Christians, keeping them from striving for maturity and a relationship of "mentor" to another, is the format of the Christian assembly, particularly as it is presently focused around the event called the "Sermon," or in Reformed jargon, "The Preaching of the Word."

In "The Elder's Checklist" we suggested that "preaching" is a Biblical term more akin to "evangelism," or the announcement of the extension of Kingdom Blessings. Admittance to the Kingdom is the goal of evangelism, or "preaching," while the building up of those once admitted is better called "teaching."

Kerussein [to "preach"] does not mean the delivery of a learned and edifying hortatory discourse in well-chosen words and a pleasant voice.
G. Friedrich, "Kerusso," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 3:703 (1965)

We suggested some attributes of "teaching," but that was beyond the scope of the workbook. In a future paper we shall set forth some positive characteristics of Biblical "teaching." All we were able to do in "The Elder's Checklist" was to show that the duty to teach was a duty we all had. But we did show that this duty was a broad one:

We suggested that the verbal application of the Word of God to the specific problems of believers, the exhortation to stand against such duties are the duties of all Christians.

Tragically, most believers do not feel they are capable of counseling other believers, since these are duties only "educated professionals" can undertake. "I can't shepherd younger Christians," they say. "I don't know how to get up in front of a crowd, stand behind a pulpit and give an oration following the standard rules of rhetoric." The biggest roadblock to a functioning priesthood of all believers is the "sermon;" a polished, "educated" display of learning and professionalism. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: {5} That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. {6} Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
1 Corinthians 2:4-6

But the "sermon" is not at all what is required of the mature Christian man. The "sermon" cannot be found in the New Testament. Its origin is the world of Greek and Roman philosophy.

What we attempt in this paper is strictly negative. In this paper we focus on the "sermon." Our thesis is that the "sermon" is a Greek invention of little value to the Christian, and that it cannot be used as an excuse for Christian fathers to sit back and watch, rather than to become Biblical "elders." There is no such thing as a "professional Christian."

Greek-Christian Syncretism

That Biblical Christianity has been in large degree smothered by Greco-Roman Humanism cannot be doubted by any student of the Scriptures or Church History. Those influenced by the thought of the Protestant Reformation, in particular John Calvin, and those who have followed their footsteps, notably Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary, have tried to be especially sensitive to the presence of non-Biblical thinking in what passes as "Christianity." The Reformation of the Church must surely be an on-going commitment.

The word "syncretism" is used by some writers to describe the formation of a religious perspective by picking and choosing from various existing religious beliefs. Greek-Christian syncretism describes, usually, a Christian who looks at the Bible and says, "I like that," then turns to the Humanism of the Greco-Roman world and says, "Oh that looks nice too; I'll take some of that." This smorgasbord approach ends up with a very inedible religious diet: It won't find favor with the Humanists and it is decidedly non-Biblical.

In his book A Christian Theory of Knowledge, Van Til describes the departure of the theologians from the Bible as they pick and choose from the various man-centered systems of thought. Other writers have done the same (e.g., Edwin Bevan, Hellenism and Christianity [Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1967 {1921}]), although where Van Til abhors the practice, some applaud it.

Of particular interest to us here is the book, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, by Edwin Hatch (Gloucester,MA: Peter Smith, 1970). Hatch is one of those Humanists who has a love-hate relationship with Christianity, outwardly very sympathetic to parts, plainly hostile to other parts. It is the kind of Christianity J. Gresham Machen found so abominable in the Presbyterian Church. But while we must maintain a keen eye for his biases, we can still find much truth in his book.

For example, in his introductory lecture he notices the decided shift in Christianity from Theonomic [law-centered] dominion to Greek intellectualism:

It is impossible for any one, whether he be a student of history or no, to fail to notice a difference of both form and content between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. The Sermon on the Mount is the promulgation of a . . . law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology; metaphysics are wholly absent. The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it. The one belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers.

There is plainly exaggeration here; metaphysics, e.g., the presupposition of an Infinite Creator-God (necessary for ethical sovereignty), is surely not "wholly absent." As a knee-jerk reconstructionist, my first reaction was simply to dismiss the author as anti-Trinitarian. But this was hasty. As we heard Calvin say (in our study on Logic), doctrinal issues should not be made the basis for endless disputation and speculation. What matters far more is Godliness and Christian growth in Dominion.

Intellectualism vs. Whole-Man/Whole-Bible Christianity

There can be no doubt that much of the early church disputes over the deity of Christ were shrouded in Greek Philosophy, and the question of Dominion and the application of Biblical Law to the collapsing Roman Empire was ignored. Thus we can find truth in Hatch's remarks: There probably was too great an emphasis on a philosophical-intellectual comprehension of the Trinitarian nature of God and too little on His Law.

We should apply this test to all theological questions: Is this inquiry going to produce Godliness? Is it going to help me understand God's Law? Much of the disputation over the Trinity exceeded the plain statements of Scripture on the Deity of the Son or the Spirit. Questions pertaining to the inner workings of the Trinity which are not explicitly answered in Scripture occupied many hours and many pages. If a man denies the plain teachings of Scripture, we have a heretic. If he disobeys the plain commands of the Law, we have an antinomian. Beyond this, we enter a dangerous field. Calvin rightly comments (on 1 Timothy 1:4-6):

If this test had been applied over several centuries, then, although religion might have been corrupted by many errors, at least there would have been less of that devilish art of disputation which goes by the name of scholastic theology. For that theology is nothing but contentions and idle speculations with nothing of value in them. The more learned in them a man is, the more wretched he should be thought to be. I am aware of the plausible arguments with which it is defended, but they will never succeed in proving false what Paul says here by way of condemnation of this sort of thing. Subtleties of this kind build up men in pride and vanity but not in God. So today, when we define true theology, it is quite clear that it is we who desire to restore something which has been wretchedly mangled and disfigured by those triflers who are puffed up by the empty title of theologian, but offer nothing but emasculated and meaningless trifles.

Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. {5} Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: {6} From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling;
1 Timothy 1:4-6

I have often found myself in endless arguments with cults over the doctrine of the Trinity. Nothing upsets me more than to hear the line "The word 'Trinity' is not in the Bible." And yet, as with all arguments against the Faith of the Church Invisible, there is always an attack against the visible church with an element of truth in it.

Often, the cultists are reacting to what they perceive are Greek or Pagan constructions of the Bible, and are open to someone who is not trying to get the cultist to accept the whole Trinitarian package, but merely wants to become more obedient to the plain truths of Scripture.

I know my own tendency is to haggle over terms and philosophical notions that exalt my own knowledge, rather than over the clear texts of Scripture, which exalt the Word. It may be wondered if Calvin would have argued for hours with a lay cultist over the "Trinity" or whether he would take a step-by-step approach, showing him first the Bible's teaching on the Deity of Christ, adding to that a further understanding of our duties under God's Covenantal Law. On a future visit, he might speak of the Personality of the Holy Spirit, adding more on the requirements of Biblical holiness.

Do not misunderstand this line of thought to be a denial of the Trinity. The Bible clearly teaches the Deity of Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But to construct a standard of church membership on a theory of the interrelationship of the Three within the Godhead, which is not plainly set forth in specific passages of Scripture, is to make the philosophical systems of man the standard, and to diminish the centrality of God's Law. We need not defend wild speculations of philosophical theology in order to defend the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Philosophical theology dangerously underestimates the clarity and importance of Theonomic service (obedience to God's Law).

What, I ask, do they teach about faith or repentance, or calling on God, or human incapacity, the help of the Holy Spirit or the free remission of sins, or about the work of Christ, that can have any value in building up men solidly in Godliness?
(Calvin on 1 Timothy 6:20)

O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:
1 Timothy 6:20

And we might well remind even Calvin that the Scriptural emphasis on each of these doctrines is ethical, not philosophical. Concerning the contrast between the ethical emphases of the Bible and the philosophic emphases of the Hellenized church fathers, we must agree with Hatch:

     The contrast is patent. If any one thinks that it is sufficiently explained by saying that the one is a sermon and the other a creed, it must be pointed out in reply that the question why an ethical sermon stood in the forefront of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and a metaphysical creed in the forefront of the Christianity of the fourth century, is a problem which claims investigation.
     It claims investigation, but it has not yet been investigated. There have been inquiries, which in some cases have arrived at positive results, as to the causes of particular changes or developments in Christianity -- the development, for example, of the doctrine of the Trinity. . . . But the main question to which I invite your attention is antecedent to all such inquiries. It asks, not how did the Christian societies come to believe one proposition rather than another, but how did they come to the frame of mind which attached importance to either the one or the other, and made the assent to the one rather than the other a condition of membership.
     In investigating this problem, the first point that is obvious to an inquirer is, that the change in the centre of gravity from conduct to belief is coincident with the transference of Christianity from a Semitic to a Greek soil. The presumption is that is was the result of Greek influence. It will appear from the Lectures that this presumption is true. (p.2)

All of this emphasizes the ethical, and minimizes the philosophical. There is a place for "philosophical" theology, but compared to the practical applications of Biblical Law, its place has been greatly exaggerated throughout the history of the Hellenization of the Church.

The Philosophers and "The Sermon"

Not only did the "doctrines" (that is, intellectual or philosophical tenets) of Biblical Christianity become adulterated by Greek philosophy, but the practices of the Christian life and the worship of the Church became paganized. This was not only because, as our language suggests, a dichotomy arose between "doctrine" and "practice," (which underrated the role of Biblical Law in what the Bible calls "sound doctrine"), but because even "practice" itself became detached from God's Law.

This is most notable in the development of formal "worship" which defines "worship" not as "service" (which would entail full-orbed obedience to God's Law in every area of life, by every believer, seven days a week), but as an infrequent and ritualized program of religious acts centering around a philosophical discourse called a "sermon." The original act of commemorating the Lords Death and Resurrection on the "Lord's Day" (the day of the week on which the Lord rose from the dead) and of multi-lateral exhortation and edification (cf. Hebrews 10:24-25) came to be replaced by unilateral "sermons." These "sermons" were not just a setting forth of Greek-influenced theology. They were in fact external copies of the rhetorical manner of the most popular Greek philosophers of the day. It's not just what they said, it's the entire presentation and format that was carried over from paganism. The "sermon" has been one of the practices most destructive of the full functioning of the Priesthood of All Believers, and it would have been so even if the content of the sermons had not been syncretistic.

Bible students know the great conflict between pride and Christian service. The Apostle Paul spoke often of his own resistance against the words and systems of men, which exalt the speaker and not the Word; which purportedly have a form of Godliness, but by relying on the wisdom of men, denies the power of the Holy Spirit's testimony to the Word.

The Bible speaks quite seriously to those academes who are ever learning and yet never coming to a knowledge of the Truth. "Education" has meanings quite different for the Christian than for the Humanist. Yet Christians still look up to the University for its standard. We want to know what the Humanists are doing so we can align our activities with theirs. We want to be "respected" by the University.

Early Church fathers, many of whom were converted from Greek Humanism, found it difficult to shed the "respect" they had gained from fellow Humanists. The Humanists had power. They had influence. They were as gods. And Christians often fell prey to the Tempter's seductive invitations to academic godhead. This is the origin of the "sermon."

Education: Rome and the West

To help us understand the origin of the "sermon," Hatch gives us in some detail the features of the post-apostolic age:

The most general summary of those features is, that the Greek world of the second and third centuries was, in a sense which . . . has tended to prevail since then, an educated world. (p. 25)

But as we demonstrated in our Home School Curriculum booklet on Geometry, the Greek notion of education was terribly abstract and irrelevant. The philosophical trends toward intellectualism which had begun five centuries before were quite evident in the post-apostolic Greco-Roman world:

It had become no longer enough for men to till the ground, or to pursue their several handicrafts, (etc.). The word sophos [as in philo-sophy], which in earlier times had been applied to one who was skilled in any of the arts of life, who could string a bow or tune a lyre or even trim a hedge, had come to be applied, if not exclusively, yet at least chiefly, to one who was shrewd . . . or knew the thoughts and sayings of the ancients. (p. 26)

The great volume of the writings of the Greek philosophers of centuries past had combined with the fact that the Greeks were under the political domination of the fourth beast of Daniel, the Roman Empire. Freedom was gone, but the books remained. Abstraction resulted:

She could acquiesce with the greater equanimity in political subjection, because in the domain of letters (i.e., the writings of the philosophers) she was still supreme with an indisputable supremacy. It was natural that she should turn to letters. It was natural also that the study of letters should be reflected upon speech. For the love of speech had become to a large proportion of Greeks a second nature. They were a nation of talkers. They were almost the slaves of cultivated expression. Though the public life out of which orators had grown had passed away with political freedom, it had left behind it a habit which in the second century of our era was blossoming into a new spring. Like children playing at "make-believe," when real speeches in real assemblies became impossible, the Greeks revived the old practice of public speaking by addressing fictitious assemblies and arguing in fictitious courts. In the absence of the distractions of . . . keen political struggles . . . these tendencies had spread themselves over the large surface of general Greek society. The mass of men in the Greek world tended to lay stress on that acquaintance with the literature of bygone generations, and that habit of cultivated speech, which has ever since been commonly spoken of as education. (pp. 26-27)

"Education." Ha. As we have pointed out in our Home Schooling newsletter, pagan "education" is rooted and grounded in irrelevance and abstraction; it is the antithesis of practical Christian Dominion.

And if you like "cultivated speech" you'll love the sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the other great liberal preachers who have mastered the liberal arts of the Pagan University. But don't expect to gain from them True Wisdom, that is, knowledge in practical application of Biblical Law in every area of life.

Even the Puritans, avid disciples of Ramus and classical Logic, were masters in form, sometimes over substance. Their sermons lasted hours, and paid homage to much in Greco-Roman thought. (See Robert Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric (1870), pp. 5-6, where he finds "exceedingly instructive: Aristotle's Rhetoric. Cicero, De Oratore" etc. Note also C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students 2:137-143 [thirty hand-gesture diagrams for easy imitation].) None of these fine men assert that content is unimportant; all have a qualitatively different speaking style behind a pulpit than they do in normal relationships, and this manner is deliberately, self-consciously cultivated and practiced. Working-class men who don't have time to practice gestures or adorn rhetorical flourishes are led to believe they are unqualified to mentor a younger believer, and the growth of the Body is left to "trained professionals." ["Don't try this at home!"]

Greek education has some terribly striking parallels to modern education.

It was, indeed, not so much analogous to our own as the cause of it. Our own comes by direct tradition from it. It set a fashion which until recently has uniformly prevailed over the whole civilized world. We study literature rather than nature because the Greeks did so, and because when the Romans and the Roman provincials resolved to educate their sons, they employed Greek teachers and followed in Greek paths. (pp. 27-28)

For our purposes, the most notable parallel between Greek education and modern education is in the Seminary. There we find the study of the theologians (and sometimes the Bible) and the arts of the preparation of "sermons." This parallels the two main elements of Greek education: Grammar and Rhetoric.

"We are given over to Grammar," says Sextus-Empiricus, "from childhood, and almost from our baby-clothes." [p. 28; compare 2 Timothy 3:15, where the word is best translated "infant."]

The main subject-matter of this literary education was the poets. They were read, not only for their literary, but also for their moral value. They were read as we read the Bible. They were committed to memory. The minds of men were saturated with them. A quotation from Homer or from a tragic poet was apposite on all occasions and in every kind of society. (p. 30)

Grammar was succeeded by Rhetoric -- the study of literature by the study of literary expression and quasi-forensic argument. (p. 30)

A student's education in Rhetoric was finished when he had the power to talk off-hand on any subject that might be proposed. But whether he recited a prepared speech or spoke off-hand, he was expected to show the same artificiality of structure and the same pedantry of diction. (p. 32)

As far as Logic was concerned, it was almost natural to a Greek mind: Dialectic was but the conversation of a sharp-witted people conducted under recognized rules. (p.33)

Logic, in the form of Dialectic, was common to Philosophy and Rhetoric. Every one learnt to argue: a large number learnt, in addition, the technical terms of Philosophy and the outlines of its history. Lucian tells a tale of a country gentleman of the old school, whose nephew went home from lecture night after night, and regaled his mother and himself with fallacies and dilemmas, talking about "relations" and "comprehensions" and "mental presentations," and jargon of that sort. . . .(p. 32)

Can you imagine a more hideous existence than this? Here is a society of slaves, themselves fed by slaves, who spend their day pretending to be free and responsible, endlessly babbling in the language of pagan philosophers. Someone send me to Patmos!

Those who didn't feel competent to engage in it, paid to watch it. Yet the philosophies of the pros were not better than the hearts of the amateurs and spectator-masses.

It had shared in the common degeneracy. It was not the evolution of a man's own thoughts, but an acquaintance with the recorded thoughts of others. It was divorced from practice. It was degraded to a system of lectures and disputations. (p. 33)

And just as in our day, the Universities, although they really only copy what is done by others, are held forth as the pinnacle of greatness.

It was taught in the same general way as the studies which preceded it. But lectures had a more important place. Sometimes the professor read a passage from a philosopher, and gave his interpretation of it; sometimes he gave a discourse of his own. (p. 33)

It may be inferred from the extant evidence that there were grammar-schools in almost every town. At these all youths received the first part of their education. But it became common practice for youths to supplement this by attending the lectures of an eminent professor elsewhere. They went, as we might say, from school to a University. (p. 35)

Then, as now, some students went, not for the sake of learning, but in order to be able to show off. Epictetus draws a picture of one who looked forward to airing his Logic at a city dinner, astonishing the "aldermen" who sat next to him with the puzzles of hypothetical syllogisms. (p. 37)

The State University was a concept not unknown to the Greco-Roman world:

[T]eaching had come to be a recognized and lucrative profession. This is shown not so much by the instances of individual teachers, who might be regarded as exceptional, as by the fact of the recognition of teachers by the State and by municipalities. (p. 37-38)

A "sermonette" from one of these professional philosophers after dinner was . . . much in fashion. . . . They were petted by great ladies. They became "domestic chaplains." (p. 40; cf. 2 Timothy 3:5-7)

Reformed "preachers" will obviously take exception to being compared to these philosophers or to their twentieth-century Fosdickian counterparts. To be sure, Reformed preachers who emphasize Biblical doctrines are less involved with the Rhetoric than with the truth. But if Greek forms tend to vanish with a resurgence of Biblical truths, we may be sure that with a radical application of Biblical Law the "sermon" would vanish altogether. The defenses of the kind of Berean Bible study (Acts 17:11) which purveyors of Reformed monologues would call "group grope" are plentiful, but because the authors of these works are not part of "our camp" we tend to overlook them. But they are there, and the Biblical case for the involvement of all the Priests in the study of the Word is irrefutable. Some of the relevant Bible passages are found in "The Elder's Checklist."

Sermons and Sophists

sophist \'sae-fist\ n
1 cap : any of a class of ancient Greek teachers of rhetoric, philosophy, and the art of successful living prominent about the middle of the 5th century b.c. for their adroit subtle and allegedly often specious reasoning
2 : philosopher, thinker
3 : a captious or fallacious reasoner

As the church was institutionalized and "Constantinized" under Roman Emperors following Constantine and the syncretistic church fathers who preceded him, such practices as household communion and household churches vanished. They were replaced by the dispensing of Christian truth and graces by the real priests. These same Greek-influenced officials replaced Berean Bible Study by lectures, known as sermons. They copied the sermonic style of the Greek philosopher-lecturers.

Literary education was not an end in itself, but a means. The end was moral training. It was imagined that virtue, no less than literature, could be taught, and Homer was the basis of the one kind of education no less than of the other. All imaginative literature is plastic when it is used to enforce a moral; and the sophists could easily preach sermons of their own upon Homeric texts. It was from Homer that moralists drew their ideal: it was his verses that were quoted, like verses of the Bible with us, to enforce moral truths. (pp. 53-54)

Hatch gives several examples of Christian writers who followed "not a Hebrew but a Greek method," (p. 69) and the parallels in Van Til's A Christian Theory of Knowledge (chap. 4) are striking:

The earliest methods of Christian exegesis were continuations of the methods which were common at the time to both Greek and Graeco-Judean writers. They were employed on the same subject matter. Just as the Greek philosophers had found their philosophy in Homer, so Christian writers found in him Christian philosophy. (Id.)

The rubber exegesis the Greek sophists used on Homer was likewise used by syncretistic Christians on the Bible. "Philo virtually makes the Old Testament teach that which Greek philosophy, based on autonomous human experience, had taught" (Van Til, CTK p. 73).

But of special note to us is the manner in which these sermons were delivered. The modern sermon surely has its origin in the Greek lecturers.

Of the manner of the ordinary discourse there are many indications. It was given sometimes in a private house, sometimes in a theatre, sometimes in a regular lecture-room. The professor sometimes entered already robed in his "pulpit-gown," and sometimes put it on in the presence of his audience. He mounted the steps to his professorial chair, and took his seat upon its ample cushion. He sometimes began with a preface, sometimes he proceeded at once to his discourse. (p. 94)

It was a disappointment if he was not interrupted by applause. . . . These were the common cries; others were not infrequent -- "Divine!" "Inspired!" "Unapproachable!" They were accompanied by clapping of the hands and stamping of the feet and waving of the arms. (p. 96)

They made both money and reputation. The more eminent of them were among the most distinguished men of the time. They were the pets of society, and sometimes its masters. they were employed on affairs of state at home and on embassies abroad. There were sometimes placed on the free list of the city, and lived at the public expense. (p. 97-98)

There were, of course, pagans created in the Image of God with the work of the Law written on their hearts who saw through these hypocritical sermons and criticized them. One was Epictetus, who addressed a young sermonizer in a dialogue in which he compares listening to a truly noble lecture as "a surgery:"

. . . when you go away you ought to have felt no pleasure but pain. For when you come in, something is wrong with you: one man has put his shoulder out, another has an abscess, another a headache. Am I -- the surgeon -- then, to sit down and give you a string of fine sentences, that you may praise me -- and then go away -- the man with the dislocated arm, the man with the abscess, the man with the headache -- just as you came? Is it for this that young men come away from home, and leave their parents and their kinsmen and their property, to say "Bravo!" to you for your fine moral conclusions? (p. 104)

The young sermonizer asks, "Well, but is there no such class of speeches as exhortations?" To which Epictetus answers,

Who denies it? But in what do exhortations consist? In being able to show, whether to one man or to many men, the contradiction in which they are involved. . . . [B]ut to show this, is it necessary to place a thousand chairs, and invite people to come and listen, and dress up in a fine gown, and ascend the pulpit -- and describe the death of Achilles? . . . Does a physician invite people to come and let them heal him? (Imagine what a genuine philosopher's invitation would be) -- "I invite you to come and be told that you are in a bad way -- that you care for everything except what you should care for -- that you do not know what things are good and what evil -- and that you are unhappy and unfortunate." A nice invitation! And yet if that is not the result of what a philosopher says, he and his words alike are dead. (pp. 104, 103)

The Hebrew prophets acted as Messengers of the Covenant, bringing a Covenant law-suit against people who had broken the terms of the Covenant. To "prophesy" is to set forth the requirements of God's Law-Word and apply them specifically to the disobedience of the Covenant vassals.

In passing from Greek life to Christianity, I will ask you, in the first instance, to note the broad distinction which exists between what in the primitive churches was known as "prophesying," and that which in subsequent times came to be known as "preaching." [Prophets] were not church officers appointed to discharge certain functions. They did not practice beforehand how or what they should say. . . . Their language was often, from the point of view of the rhetorical schools, a barbarous patois ["Black English" is a "patois"]. They were ignorant of the rules both of style and dialectic. They paid no heed to refinements of expression. The greatest "preacher" of them all claimed to have come among his converts, in a city in which Rhetoric flourished, not with the persuasiveness of human Logic, but with the demonstration which was afforded by Spiritual power.

In the course of the second century, this original spontaneity of utterance died almost entirely away. It may almost be said to have died a violent death. The dominant parties in the Church set their faces against it.

In place of prophesying came preaching. And preaching is the result of the gradual combination of different elements. In the formation of a great institution it is inevitable that, as time goes on, different elements should tend to unite. . . . Each of these was a function which, assuming a certain natural aptitude, could be learned by practice. Each of them was consequently a function which might be discharged by the permanent officers of the community, and discharged habitually at regular intervals without waiting for the fitful flashes of the prophetic fire. We consequently find that with the growth of organization there grew up also, not only a fusion of (these elements), but also the gradual restriction of the liberty of addressing the community to the official class. (pp. 105-108)

[This] constituted the essence of the homily: its form came from the sophists. For it was natural that when addresses, whether expository or hortatory, came to prevail in the Christian communities, they should be affected by the similar addresses which filled a large place in contemporary Greek life. It was not only natural but inevitable that when men who had been trained in rhetorical methods came to make such addresses, they should follow the methods to which they were accustomed. It is probable that Origen is not only the earliest example whose writings have come down to us, but also one of the earliest who took into the Christian communities these methods of the schools. [H]is addresses, like those of the best professors, were carefully prepared: he was sixty years of age, we are told, before he preached an extempore sermon. (p. 108-109)

The form of the [Christian and Greek] discourses tended to be the same: if you examine side by side a discourse of Himerius or Themistius or Libanius, and one of Basil, Chrysostom or Ambrose, you will find a similar artificiality of structure, and a similar elaboration of phraseology. They were delivered under analogous circumstances. The preacher sat in his official chair . . . the audience crowded in front of him, and frequently interrupted him with shouts of acclamation. The greater preachers tried to stem the tide of applause which surged round them: again and again Chrysostom begs his hearers to be silent: what he wants is, not their acclamations, but the fruits of his preaching in their lives [improved Rhetoric?]. (pp. 109-110).

I will add only one more instance of the way in which the habits of the sophists flowed into the Christian churches. Christian preachers, like the sophists, were sometimes peripatetic; they went from place to place, delivering their orations and making money by delivering them. (p. 112)

It is not our purpose to perpetuate the Fundamentalist myth that everything a Humanist or a philosopher says is false. With the work of the Law written on their hearts we may expect a philosopher -- created in the Image of God -- to say something right sometime. And we have noted that some philosophers despised the worst of the peripatetic sophists. These wiser philosophers, more worthy of the name ("lover of wisdom"), are spoken of by Humanist educator George Dennison in his admirable book The Lives of Children (1969).

What is the social action of jargon? I have said that true communication is communion and change. Jargon is not innocent. The man who speaks it, who prates [it] in front of us . . . means to hold us at a distance; he means to preserve his specialty -- his little piece of an essentially indivisible whole -- precisely as a specialty. He does not mean to draw near to us, or to empower us, but to stand over us and manipulate us. He wishes, in short, to remain an Expert. The philosopher, by contrast, wishes all men to be philosophers. His speech creates equality. He means to draw near to us and empower us to think and do for our ourselves. (278-279)

Most believers do not feel that they are "competent to counsel" (to use Jay Adams' title, itself taken from Romans 15:14) or (to use Dennison's words) competent to communicate, commune with, and change. But true communication is not polished rhetoric following the forms of the Greek orators. True communication does not seek to maintain distance and a power position; it is a product of what we might call "Christian egalitarianism." Not a lowering of all men to the lowest common denominator, but the raising of all believers to the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). The true communicator is not afraid to have his student equal -- or even surpass -- his teacher. Christians should not feel that the Bible requires them to imitate the sophist philosophers. They can fulfill the Biblical requirements to "preach" and to "teach" by empowering others to Godly obedience through Biblical communication.

Summary and Conclusions

Hatch summarizes the sophists:

2. The stronger ground of objection to them was their unreality. They had lost touch with life. They had made philosophy itself seem unreal. "They are not philosophers, but fiddlers," said the sturdy old Stoic Musonius.4 It is not necessary to suppose that they were all charlatans. There was then, as now, the irrepressible young man of good morals who wished to air his opinions. But the tendency to moralize had become divorced from practice. They preached, not because they were in grim earnest about the reformation of the world, but because preaching was a respectable profession, and the listening to sermons a fashionable diversion. "The mass of men," says Plutarch,1 "enjoy and admire a philosopher when he is discoursing about their neighbours; but if the philosopher, leaving their neighbours alone, speaks his mind about things that are of importance to the men themselves, they take offence and vote him a bore; for they think that they ought to listen to a philosopher in his lecture-room in the same bland way that they listen to tragedians in the theatre. This, as might be expected, is what happens to them in regard to the sophists; for when a sophist gets down from his pulpit and puts aside his MSS., in the real business of life he seems but a small man, and under the thumb of the majority. They do not understand about real philosophers that both seriousness and play, grim looks and smiles, and above all the direct personal application of what they say to each individual, have a useful result for those who are in the habit of giving a patient attention to them." (p. 100-101)

Hatch summarizes the effect Greek Education had on Christianity:

This is the feature of the Greek life into which Christianity came to which I first invite your attention. There was a complex system of education, the main elements in which were the knowledge of literature, the cultivation of literary expression, and a general acquaintance with the rules of argument. This education was widely diffused, and had a great hold upon society. It had been at work in its main outlines for several centuries. Its effect in the second century of our era had been to create a certain habit of mind. When Christianity came into contact with the society in which that habit of mind existed, it modified, it reformed, it elevated, the ideas which it contained and the motives which stimulated it to action; but in its turn it was itself profoundly modified by the habit of mind of those who accepted it. It was impossible for Greeks, education as they were with an education which penetrated their whole nature, to receive or to retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity. Their own life had become complex and artificial: it had its fixed ideas and its permanent categories: it necessarily gave to Christianity something of its own form. The world of the time was a world, I will not say lie our own world, which has already burst its bonds, but like the world from which we are beginning to be emancipated -- a world which had created an artificial type of life, and which was too artificial to be able to recognize its own artificiality -- a world whose schools, instead of being the laboratories of the knowledge of the future, were forges in which the chains of the present were fashioned from the knowledge of the past. And if, on the one hand, it incorporated Christianity with the larger humanity from which it had at first been isolated, yet, on the other hand, by crushing uncultivated earnestness, and by laying more stress on the expression of ideas than upon ideas themselves, it tended to stem the very forces which had given Christianity its place, and to change the rushing torrent of the river of God into a broad but feeble stream. (pp. 48-49)

Finally, Hatch concludes with these remarks on the Greco-Christian sermon:

Such are some of the indications of the influence of Greek Rhetoric upon the early churches. It created the Christian sermon. It added to the functions of church officers a function which is neither than of the exercise of discipline, nor of administration of the funds, nor of taking the lead in public worship, nor of the simple tradition of received truths, but that of either such an exegesis of the sacred books as the Sophists gave of Homer, or such elaborated discourses as they also gave upon the speculative and ethical aspects of religion. The result was more far-reaching than the creation of either an institution or a function. If you look more closely into history, you will find that Rhetoric killed Philosophy. Philosophy died, because for all but a small minority it ceased to be real. It passed from the sphere of thought and conduct to that of exposition and literature. Its preachers preached, not because they were bursting with truths which could not help finding expression, but because they were masters of fine phrases and lived in an age in which fine phrases had value. It did, in short, because it had become sophistry. But sophistry is of no special age or country. It is indigenous to all soils upon which literature grows. No sooner is any special form of literature created by the genius of a great writer than there arises of class of men who cultivate the style of it for the style's sake. No sooner is any new impulse given either to philosophy or to religion than there arises a class of men who copy the form without the substance, and try to make the echo of the past sound like the voice of the present. So it has been with Christianity. It came into the educated world in the simple dress of a Prophet of Righteousness. It won that world by the stern reality of its life, by the subtle bonds of its brotherhood, by its divine message of consolation and hoe. Around it thronged the race of eloquent talkers who persuaded it to change its dress and to assimilate its language to their own. It seemed thereby to win a speedier and completer victory. But it purchased conquest at the price of reality. With that its progress stopped. There has been an element of sophistry in it ever since; and so far as in any age that element has been dominant, so far has the progress of Christianity been arrested. Its progress is arrested now, because many of its preachers live in an unreal world. The truths they set forth are truths of utterance rather than truths of their lives. But if Christianity is to be again the power that it was in its earliest ages, it must renounce its costly purchase. A class of rhetorical chemists would be though of only to be ridiculed: a class of rhetorical religionists is only less anomalous because we are accustomed to it. The hope of Christianity is, that the class which was artificially elevated may ultimately disappear; and that the sophistical element in Christian preaching will melt, as a transient mist, before the preaching of the prophets of the ages to come, who, like the prophets of the ages that are long gone by, will speak only "as the Spirit gives them utterance." (pp. 113-115)

In conclusion, there can be no justification for dependence upon a class of professional orators. All are to study, all are to exhort, all are to teach. The Church needs mentors, not orators.

There is nothing sinful about listening to a Charles Swindoll or any other lecturer with an even greater adherence to Aristotelian laws of Rhetoric. But he is not a necessity, and a fellowship of believers is a true church of Christ without one. In fact, with the reduced chances for becoming dependant upon one man, and increased chances that they are able to search and apply the Scriptures for themselves, the informal "group grope" may be better off without the orator (Acts 17:11).

The Problem with Preaching
By David Allis
From the ‘Baptist’ – Magazine of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand, Vol 123 No 6 July 2007


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