What We Believe
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The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part Four)

Dennis E. Johnson

Ordained Servant: October 2014

Knox 500

Also in this issue

John Knox and the Reformation of Worship[1]

The Sursum Corda is Catholic, Part 1

How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Holy Sonnet XV

Do Presbyterians Lack Joy?

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, by Hughes Oliphant Old. Volume 7: Our Own Time. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, xx + 714 pages, $55.00.

This multi-volume survey of the history of “the reading and preaching of Scripture” in the church’s corporate worship spans over three millennia (from Moses to the present). Because its 4,000+ pages demand careful reading and reflection, this review has appeared piecemeal over the last couple of years. Part One, covering the first three volumes (the biblical period, the patristic age, the medieval church), appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Ordained Servant. Part Two, reviewing volumes four (the Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism and Catholicism) and five (the era of “moderatism, pietism, and awakening”), came out in February 2013. The third segment, which appeared in March 2014, addressed only volume six (“the modern age,” from the late eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century). Now at last we reach the final volume, which surveys preaching in “our own time,” the closing decades of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first. Dr. Old completed the writing of volume seven in January 2008, two years before its publication and six years before this review.

The survey and analysis of preaching in our own time continues the author’s aim to give us a catholic perspective on the church’s preaching and worship. This volume, like its predecessors, includes preaching from a variety of theological and ecclesiastical traditions. Individual chapters are devoted to the mainline Protestant denominations in North America, to a “new breed” of American Presbyterians, to recent homiletical trends in the Roman Catholic church, to African-American preaching, to charismatic churches, to Anglican and Church of Scotland preachers, and to evangelical megachurches. Geographically, too, Dr. Old strives to introduce readers to preaching in the global church, surveying the ministry of the Word in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and East Asia. A special treat is derived from Dr. Old’s personal friendship with Romanian poet/professor/preacher Joan Alexandru: in one brief (seven-page) but moving chapter, he recounts the role that a single sermon, preached by Alexandru in December 1989, played in the liberation of Romania through the fall of the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Dr. Old has lived and ministered in the context of mainline Presbyterianism, but he is well aware of its weaknesses and appreciative of the strengths to be seen elsewhere in Christ’s church. The opening chapter is entitled, tellingly, “The End of the Mainline.” It profiles the preaching ministry of Henry Sloan Coffin and James A. Forbes Jr. at Riverside Church in New York City, Fred Craddock of Candler School of Theology, Fleming Rutledge and Stephen Bauman in historic Episcopalian and Methodist New York City congregations, and Methodist Bishop William Willimon. With the exception of Rutledge and Willimon, who dare to affirm and proclaim (rather than demythologize) such historic biblical doctrines as the resurrection of Jesus and to carefully expound biblical texts, Old finds mainline preaching sorely deficient in content. Though he appreciates mainline preachers’ effectiveness as communicators, he critiques their existentialist hermeneutic and liberal political agenda, citing, for example, Coffin’s sermons advocating acceptance of homosexual relationships and attacking opponents of abortion, preached and then published over thirty years ago (1982) in The Courage to Love. Dr. Old finds Coffin’s handling of biblical texts unpersuasive, and he suggests that “prophetic” preaching such as Coffin’s emptied mainline pews because “the problem was the message” (15). Readers of Ordained Servant would no doubt join me in concurring with Dr. Old’s diagnosis . . . until he goes on to explain that Coffin’s message was “not the right word for the right time,” but an outdated expression of liberal social conscience during an era of political conservatism (16–17). Although Dr. Old’s irenic and empathetic spirit is admirable, I hope (and, from other comments elsewhere, expect) that in his heart of hearts he could not envision a “right time” at any point in history for a Christian preacher to dismiss biblical ethical standards or fundamental gospel truths, as Coffin’s preaching did.

This volume’s cover photo of Billy Graham leads us to expect a substantive discussion of this most widely recognized—globally recognized—evangelist of our time. Chapter two is devoted entirely to the ministry of Dr. Graham. Although Dr. Old acknowledges, “If I am to be completely honest, I have to admit that Billy Graham has never turned me on, to use a slang expression” (82), he fairly sums up and frankly admires Graham’s biblical convictions regarding our universal need of salvation from sin, God’s provision of salvation through “the blood sacrifice of Christ’s atonement” (68), the reality of coming final judgment, and the imperative of faith in Christ, which initiates a new way of life as a follower Jesus. Old also appreciates the populist flavor of Graham’s “Bible belt oratory,” which communicates across both generational and educational boundaries in both urban and exurban contexts.

Ordained Servant readers will be especially interested in chapter three, “A ‘New Breed’ of Presbyterians,” where we meet names familiar to most of us: Sinclair Ferguson (then pastor of First Presbyterian Church [ARP] in Columbia, South Carolina); Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City; and, perhaps less known in the OPC, Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church (PCA) in Franklin, near Nashville, Tennessee. In a footnote, Dr. Old explains that “to preserve at least a certain amount of objectivity” he will not discuss his own family’s pastors at Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, James Montgomery Boice and his successor Philip Ryken (87). Along with these pastors in confessional Presbyterian denominations, Old groups pastors such as Earl Palmer and John Huffman in the more evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church USA. The affinity that Dr. Old discerns among these preachers, despite the theological distance between their denominations, is that they exemplify a robust confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and a bold readiness to “push back” against the anti-supernaturalism of the existentialist mainline. These “new breed” Presbyterians are conversant with the issues raised by modern biblical criticism but not cowed by them; and their pulpit ministries exemplify a rebirth of consistent expository preaching in extended lectio continua series—a rich legacy from the patristic and Reformation eras that fosters Christians’ and churches’ spiritual vitality and evangelistic witness. Noting that many of these preachers, such as Keller, expound God’s Word at length each Sunday, “typically forty or forty-five minutes” (149), Old concludes with evident pleasure, “Strong expository preaching as well as strong doctrinal preaching are beginning to fill the pews that the fifteen-minute homilies of a generation ago succeeded in emptying” (172).

In a footnote at the start of this chapter (87), Dr. Old notes that he has been informed of a resurgence of expository preaching among Baptists, “especially Reformed Baptists.” I am more than a little surprised, therefore, by the omission of such preachers as John Piper, who pastored Bethlehem Baptist Church from 1980 to 2013 and authored many books extolling the supremacy of God; and Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Access to an abundance of resources about our contemporaries in the pulpit demanded hard choices, no doubt, about whom to include and to exclude. But I would have thought that the influence of Piper, at least, to draw young evangelicals toward an appreciation of God’s sovereign grace would have warranted at least honorable mention.

Chapters four and five lift our sights beyond the borders of the United States, introducing us to “Protestant preaching in Black Africa” and then to the role of preaching in disseminating liberation theology among the Roman Catholics of Latin America. Dr. Old profiles Presbyterian preachers in Kenya and Anglicans in Uganda and Nigeria, primarily offering biographical sketches but occasionally analyzing specific sermons. In some sub-Saharan African voices, he hears a Christianized Marxist political agenda; in others, he hears the gospel of God’s grace in Christ; in still others, he hears a bracing call to moral integrity and to the resistance of syncretism with indigenous African religions. In Zambia, we meet Conrad Mbewe, “the African Spurgeon,” who still today proclaims God’s sovereign grace in Christ to the congregation of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka. Calling attention to the theological substance of this pastor in southeastern Africa, Dr. Old devotes several pages to Mbewe’s sermon series on justification, the foundational doctrines of the faith, and Romans.

The chapter on liberation theology in Latin America shows empathy for the economic disparities and political injustices that have made Marxist activism attractive to such Roman prelates as Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo of Mexico, Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, and Cardinal Eduardo Pironio of Argentina. Yet, despite the grave societal problems that liberation-theology preachers seek to address, when their preaching replaces exposition of God’s Word with naked polemical assaults against “North American imperialism, enemy of Central America,” the title of a sermon by Arceo (246), Dr. Old concludes, “I find the good bishop seriously lacking” (255). In Dr. Old’s estimation, Archbishop Romero stood out as a conscientious interpreter of Scripture who rejected Marxism’s reductionistic diagnosis of Latin America’s ills in merely materialistic terms as well as its merely political-military prescription for those maladies, calling hearers to spiritual (as well as social) liberty through Christ.

Chapter six opens with the observation that one effect of the Second Vatican Council’s reform of Roman Catholic worship was a reemphasis on the preaching of the Word, which had been largely marginalized by the mass. Although appreciating Vatican II’s desire to bring the proclamation of the Word back to its rightful place in worship, Dr. Old finds the quality of biblical interpretation in the sermons he samples uneven. He surveys preachers and theologians serving Roman Catholic congregations and institutions in Washington, DC; Trenton, New Jersey; Berkeley, California; Detroit, Michigan; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is surprised to encounter a sermon in which Jesus’s transfiguration is made the grounds for a summons to oppose the death penalty (331); a Lenten sermon in which a summons to rigorous Sabbath observance “manage(s) to crowd out John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8,” the Gospel and Epistle readings assigned for that Sunday (337); and an Easter sermon in which, “instead of proclaiming that Christ is risen, the preacher begins by remarking that we don’t have to believe this” (342). Much of the blame, though not all, Dr. Old lays at the feet of the practice of lectionary preaching, which works against reading and preaching biblical texts in their contexts and leaves preachers free to pick and choose among Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle readings for a particular Sunday.

The chapter on “black preaching” in the African-American church demonstrates the soundness of Dr. Old’s conclusion that “it is a magnificent art form” (355), distinguished by oratorical skill in delivery, a sense of biblical typology in its content, and a love for Jesus in its piety. Analysis is given to the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr., Evangelist Tom Skinner, and T. D. Jakes, as well as other pastors with whose names I was not previously acquainted. The sensitivity to redemptive typology that Dr. Old found in this preaching especially intrigues me. His summary of a sermon by African Methodist Episcopal Minister William Watley in Newark, New Jersey, on David and Goliath almost led me to dismiss it as the predictable “be like David” moralistic exhortation, but suddenly Pastor Watley stressed that none of Israel’s great leaders down through history—neither Abraham nor Moses nor Joshua nor Gideon nor any other commander—could slay the giants that threaten us. “So,” Pastor Watley concluded, “God, in the wisdom of divine providence, sent the supreme giant slayer, whose name was Jesus.” I look forward to reading the sermon in full to see how the preacher brought his congregation from David to Jesus, but I resonate with his Christ-centered homiletical instinct!

The chapter on “the Charismatics” introduces the ministries of preachers well-known (Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Jack Hayford) and lesser known (Tommy Barnett, Frederick Price) outside charismatic circles. The inclusion of Sister Aimee, who died in 1944, technically trespasses the chronological boundary of “our own time,” but it sets the backdrop for successors who followed her lead by skillfully exploiting communications media to disseminate their message. In this chapter, Dr. Old’s inclination toward irenic appreciation was working overtime to give the benefit of the doubt to these effective communicators, despite weaknesses for which he had critiqued others more sharply. He concludes, for example, that McPherson “preached a simple gospel of the love of Christ to a very specific people at a particular time” (404), even though the cross of Christ and atonement for sins are strangely absent both from the articulation of the “foursquare gospel” (401) and from Old’s summary of Sister’s entertaining preaching style. Price’s serious effort to exposit biblical texts using the exegetical resources accessible to him is praised (435), while Hayford is critiqued for being “too confident that what comes off the top of his head is the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (443). Hayford preaches from his own religious experience, and Dr. Old recognizes that this focus on the preacher’s subjectivity can be unedifying. Yet he concludes that, as Hayford does it, “there is something very right about this . . . a balance between preaching as Word of God and preaching as personal witness” (446). A most gracious conclusion, but not altogether persuasive.

The “new age in Britain” (chapter 10) is represented by William Still (Church of Scotland); Anglicans John Stott, Richard Lucas, and (charismatic Anglican) Nicky Gumble; and Irish Presbyterian Trevor Morrow. Still, pastor of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, is introduced as “one of the most creative innovators of the late-twentieth-century pulpit” (449). Yet it turns out that his “creative innovation” is a return to “regular, systematic expository preaching” (451), a recovery of the Puritan plain style in which Scripture is shown to interpret Scripture (455–57). So it appears that “creativity” in our own time sometimes takes the shape of reviving the sound approaches to preaching that have borne fruit in past generations! Although three volumes of Still’s collected works have appeared, Dr. Old expresses the hope that the large cache of Still’s sermons in the Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Mississippi) library will eventually be published. John Stott’s Between Two Worlds is judged to be “far and away the most important book on preaching in our day” (461); and Stott’s thirty-year pulpit ministry at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, demonstrated the life-transforming power of his consistent exposition of Scripture, grounded in thorough exegesis. The discussion of Lucas’s fruitful ministry at St. Helen’s Bishopgate, in London’s financial district, is tantalizingly brief, especially for those who are familiar with Rev. Lucas’s friendship with Dr. Edmund Clowney and his initiative in founding The Proclamation Trust and the Cornhill Training Course for expository preachers.

The megachurch pastors whose preaching is surveyed include Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel, Lloyd Ogilvie of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, Southern Baptists Adrian Rogers (Memphis, Tennessee) and Charles Stanley (Atlanta, Georgia), Chuck Swindoll, and John MacArthur—but not, curiously, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Illinois or Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California). Despite vast differences in community contexts, demographic profiles, and ministry styles, Dr. Old finds a common thread in the pastors’ commitment to “a recovery of classical Christian preaching . . . systematic expository preaching” (494). Whether addressing unchurched young surfers and “Jesus freaks” (Old’s term), as Chuck Smith began to do in the 1960s, or Southern suburbanites, these preachers buck the trend toward shorter and shorter sermonettes, expecting and receiving from tens of thousands of worshipers rapt attention to expositions lasting forty-five minutes or more: “If you have something to say, people will listen” (495). Confidence in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, unreserved commitment to Scripture’s bold supernaturalism and God-centeredness, and insightful diagnosis of their hearers’ true and deepest needs are the hallmark of the megachurch preachers surveyed here. A statement from Ogilvie’s preface to the Communicator’s Commentary series seems to capture Dr. Old’s perspective: “A growing renaissance in the church today is being led by clergy and laity who are biblically rooted, Christ-centered, and Holy Spirit-empowered. They have dared to listen to people’s most urgent questions and deepest needs and then to God as He speaks throughout the Bible. Biblical preaching is the secret of growing churches” (506, citing Ogilvie, Hosea-Jonah, xi.) We confessional Presbyterians will have theological disagreements with these preachers (as, admittedly, we do with each other). Yet, when their message is viewed, as Dr. Old does, in the wider context of the various ways that God’s Word is being handled in our time, we can be grateful to God that such men, rather than protégés of William Sloan Coffin, are addressing congregations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Speaking of large congregations, the final chapter discusses preaching in “the young churches of East Asia,” concluding with profiles of several mega-megachurches that Dr. Old was privileged to visit in 1993. En route to Korea, the chapter introduces us to Japanese, Sri Lankan, and Chinese heralds of the gospel. Our author acknowledges that his “rapid sketch” (a mere 102 pages!) may be “fumbling and premature,” but his purpose is to make us aware of ways that Christian preaching is developing on that populous continent which has been dominated by Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, Islam and Maoist communism. Readers are introduced to Toyohiko Kagawa (1888–1960), Presbyterian evangelist and social reformer, whom Dr. Old credits with shaping the social conscience of Japan—a remarkable assessment in view of the minuscule minority of Japanese who profess faith in Christ. Two collections of Kagawa’s sermons in English translation enabled our author to explore his preaching in some depth. The evangelistic sermons that Kagawa preached during the Movement for the Conversion of a Million Souls (1927–34)—bold endeavor!—focused on Christ’s cross as God’s provision of substitutionary atonement for sinners and on how the cross summons believers to respond in devotion toward God and compassion toward the powerless and sufferers.

Technically, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is located in South Asia, off the coast of India; but Dr. Old did well not to exclude its Methodist preacher, D. T. Niles, whose great-grandfather had been baptized by missionaries in 1821. Though unable to access sermons that Niles preached to Sri Lankans, our author devotes several pages to summarizing the missiological insights expressed by Niles in his 1957 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University, The Preacher’s Task and the Stone of Stumbling. Over a half century after Niles brought these addresses, evangelical missions continue to wrestle for clarity on such issues of contextualization, syncretism, and compromise. The summary of Niles’s remarks on why Christ, his incarnation, his death, and his resurrection must always remain a “stone of stumbling” to Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists was so tantalizing that I immediately went online to order a used copy of the collection.

For his survey of Christian preachers in China, especially under the current communist regime, Dr. Old was largely dependent on secondary sources such as David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing and the autobiographical The Heavenly Man by Liu Zhenying, also known as Brother Yun. Some sermons and sermonic materials from Wang Ming-dao (1900–1991) and Watchman Nee (1903–1973) are available in English translation, so our homiletical guide was able to summarize and assess the content and tone of these preachers’ ministry and piety under persecution. No doubt Dr. Old would concur with my sense that a more complete narrative of the preaching of the Word in China in recent times remains to be researched and written.

The final section of the final chapter narrates, with the flavor of a travelogue, worship services attended, sermons heard (via immediate interpretation), and interviews conducted during an extended visit to Seoul in 1993. The visitor spent time in large Presbyterian and Methodist congregations, as well as Yoido Full Gospel Church (reportedly the largest congregation in the world, at over 700,000 members). He observed the strong emphasis on prayer in the Protestant churches of Korea, the Presbyterians’ extended (year-long) and conscientious catechizing of new members, and the commitment to consistent expository preaching expressed by most of the pastors whom he heard and interview. (A notable exception was Sun-Do Kim of Kwanglim Methodist Church, who takes Harry Emerson Fosdick as his model, begins with his congregants’ life problems as his homiletical starting point, and critiques the negativity and fundamentalism of other Korean preachers.)

When Dr. Old asked Pastor Sang-Bok Kim of Hallelujah Church what produces effective preaching, the pastor gave two necessary ingredients: “That the preacher must speak from an unshakable confidence in the authority of the Word of God, and . . . that he must be unswervingly faithful to the text.” Our author concurs: “I think he put it about as well as I have ever heard it put” (666). Although a one-and-a-half-page conclusion follows this last sentence of chapter 12, the observation from Pastor Kim and its affirmation by Dr. Old aptly concludes this astonishingly vast—vast globally and temporally—survey of the reading and preaching of Scripture as God’s very Word, his Word of grace in Christ, in the worship of God’s people, under old covenant and new.

In these seven volumes Hughes Oliphant Old has given a priceless gift to the church and its preachers. His overview of the ministry of the Word in the midst of the church’s worship is by no means exhaustive; but it is astonishing in its scope, mind-expanding in its perspective, and highly motivating especially for those to whom God issues the high and humbling calling of heralding his glory and his grace in Jesus Christ the Lord. Soli Deo gloria!

Dennis E. Johnson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as a professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, October 2014.

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Ordained Servant: October 2014

Knox 500

Also in this issue

John Knox and the Reformation of Worship[1]

The Sursum Corda is Catholic, Part 1

How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Holy Sonnet XV

Do Presbyterians Lack Joy?

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