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7. Of the Construction of the Sermon

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XII. Of homilies

7. Of the Construction of the Sermon

In the middle ages it became customary for the preacher to draw his topics of discourse from Aristotle; but this strange custom has not the least authority from the practice of the early fathers. Not only did the Bible furnish them their text and subject of discourse, but, as has been already observed, they confined themselves strictly to the duty of expounding the sacred Scriptures. "To the word and the testimony," says Augustine, "for I perform the office not merely of a preacher, but of a reader also; so that this my discourse may be supported by the authority of the sacred word. If my recollection fails me, far be it from me to build upon the sand by human reasoning. Hear, therefore, the gospel according to John: "Verily, verily, I say unto you," etc. 

Nothing like the modern division of a sermon into separate heads was formally practised by the ancients. This mode of division was borrowed from the schoolmen. But the ancient fathers confined themselves strictly to their text, and contented themselves with the explication of it, or quickly returned to it again, if at any time they allowed themselves in a digression.

It was a fundamental principle with them that the truths of Christianity possessed their own intrinsic force, and needed not the aid of eloquence or of art. It was also their usual custom to speak extempore. And for this twofold reason their sermons were generally devoid of ornament. The ability to speak extemporaneously as occasion might require, and without previous study, was indispensable to an acceptable discharge of the duties of a preacher. His popularity was proportionate to his success in this art of speaking. For this reason the fathers were influenced to cultivate this art with so much success, that even as late as the fourth and fifth centuries, they fancied themselves to be assisted by the miraculous gifts of the Spirit "I could not have spoken thus by myself," says Chrysostom, "but God, foreseeing the result *, dictated those words," Augustine and Gregory the Great also express similar sentiments. At the same time it is sufficiently evident that they did not so rely upon the aid of the Spirit as to excuse themselves from careful study, and from preparation according to the best of their ability. They expected his aid rather as a blessing upon their labors and studies, and in answer to their prayers.

Whether the fathers spoke wholly without notes, it is not so easy to determine. No general rule prevailed on this point Many examples may be found in which the sermons of celebrated preachers were read – in some cases indeed by the deacon, (on whom it devolved to conduct the meeting in the absence of the regular preacher,) but in others, they were either read or dictated by the author himself. Augustine, in one of his sermons, complains that he is embarrassed by his notes, and entreats the audience to aid him by their prayers: 'Quoniam video dispulationes graphic, ceraque ligari, etnequaquam sumus idonei lectitare, adjuvaie me ipsum, quaeso, intercessu vestro.' Gregory the Great also complains of the difficulty of speaking from his notes, and of inattention and want of interest on the part of his hearers, and for these reasons resolves to speak without notes, contrary to his usual custom. The prevailing mode of speaking, however, was evidently without notes.

The speaker usually began with a short invocation to God for his aid, and closed his discourse with a benediction: Peace be with you, or something to that effect. Every address, says Optatus, is made to begin and end with God. But long and formal prayers, such as in modern times precede and follow the sermon, were not offered in that connection. To every sermon whether in the Greek, Syriac, or Latin church, there was affixed the customary doxology: To God through Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord who lives and reigns with him, world without end. Amen. We subjoin, as quoted by Bingham from Ferrarius, the prayer which St. Ambrose was wont to offer for himself before rising to address the assembly.

"I beseech thee, O Lord, and earnestly entreat thee, give me an humble knowledge which may edify. Give me a meek and prudent eloquence, which knows not how to be puffed up, or vaunt itself upon its own worth and endowments above its brethren. Put into my mouth, I beseech thee, the word of consolation, and edification, and exhortation, that I may be able to exhort those that are good to go on to greater perfection, and reduce those that walk perversely to the rule of thy righteousness, both by my word, and by my example. Let the words which thou givest to thy servant, be as the sharpest darts, and burning arrows which may penetrate and inflame the minds of my hearers to thy fear and love." 

Serm. 121. Comp. Tractai. 15. in Joann.: Tractat. 36, 40.

Augnstiii do Doctr. chr. lib. iv. c. 15: Serm. 46: de Temp. Serm. 15: de verb. Apost.: Gregor. M. 19. in Ezecb. p. 1144.

Serm. 6. De Sanctis.

Chrysost. Horn. 4, 11, 12, 13, 20: 3d. in. Ep. ad Coloss.: Apost. Constit. lib. viii. c. 5.

Opiat. Milevit. de Schism. Don. lib. iii. fin. 7.

Bingham. Vol. vi. p. 490.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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