Augustine’s Theology of Preaching by Peter T. Sanlon

Shane Lems

Augustine’s Theology of Preaching, by Peter T. Sanlon. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014, xxxiii + 211 pages, $24.00, paper.

For good reasons many Christians are still interested in the writings of Augustine (354–430 AD). From The City of God to Confessions, Augustine’s works are still widely read, studied, and discussed. However, one aspect of Augustine’s life and ministry has been in some ways neglected: his preaching. Peter Sanlon noticed this neglect and has sought to remedy it in his 2014 publication Augustine’s Theology of Preaching. This book is basically an extended discussion about several aspects of Augustine’s preaching based primarily on his Sermones ad Populum (Sermons to the People) and De Doctrina Christiania (On Christian Doctrine).

Sanlon’s goal in Augustine’s Theology of Preaching is to explain the “undergirding theological convictions which shaped and informed Augustine’s preaching” (xvii). Sanlon argues that Augustine’s sermons were eminently scriptural. Furthermore, Sanlon notes, the concepts of interiority and temporality were the hermeneutical keys of Augustine’s preaching (xvii). By “interiority” Sanlon means the inner aspect of a person—the heart, the desires, and self-reflection. By “temporality” Sanlon means the flow and development of God’s plan for creation “from beginning to consummation” (86). The bulk of Sanlon’s book is devoted to showing how these two concepts often show up in Augustine’s preaching.

Augustine’s Theology of Preaching has eight chapters. The first two chapters cover the North African context in which Augustine preached and the oratory background of his education. I appreciated these chapters because they gave me a window into the North African ecclesiastical climate in Augustine’s day. In chapter 3 Sanlon explores De Doctrina, a book Augustine wrote to train preachers. One helpful aspect of this chapter was the discussion about Christ, the inner teacher. Because “we are blinded by disordered loves,” Augustine argued, we need Christ to help us understand Scripture and the world God created. “Only the Inner Teacher can so reorder inner loves that Scripture and creation are understood aright” (64).

Chapter 4 is Sanlon’s extended analysis showing how Augustine’s preaching had a focus on interiority (the heart) and temporality (the flow of history). This chapter also shows how Scripture shaped Augustine’s thinking and preaching in deep and substantial ways. Furthermore, in preaching Scripture, Sanlon notes, Augustine had a goal to change the listeners. I appreciated this chapter because I am very interested in these topics of preaching Scripture in a heart-felt way to the hearts of God’s people.

In chapters 5 through 7, Sanlon talks about several topics in Augustine’s preaching where interiority and temporality are evident. These chapters are “case studies” that display how the two main aspects of Augustine’s preaching show up in his sermons. Sanlon specifically examines these topics in Augustine’s preaching: riches and money, death and resurrection, and relationships such as marriage and friendship.

These “case studies” are very enlightening. Augustine’s views of these topics are quite insightful and penetrating on their own. But it is especially helpful to see how Augustine discussed these topics in light of the heart (interiority) and temporality (present and future). For example, Augustine preached, “If with the love of money you desire to bind your heart, you are planting for yourself many sorrows” (109). When he preached about death and resurrection, Augustine mentioned the death and resurrection of Christ with an aim to bring those gospel truths to the hearts of the listeners in a life-changing way. When explaining the Gospel story about Jesus’s resurrection, he preached, “So then, beloved, may we listen to these things, that those who live, may live on; that those who are dead, may come to life” (126). I should also mention that Sanlon’s discussion of Augustine’s preaching on relationships was excellent. In Sanlon’s words, Augustine taught that “Together … friends help each other seek after God” (164).

After chapter 7 comes the conclusion where Sanlon restates his main point: the hermeneutical keys to Augustine’s preaching were interiority and temporality. In this chapter there is also a very short take-away section where Sanlon explains how we can learn from these aspects of Augustine’s preaching.

Augustine’s Theology of Preaching is an excellent resource for those interested in patristics. But it is also an excellent resource for preachers. It is well-written, easy to follow, and very applicable for preachers today. Modern Christian ministers can learn much from Augustine about preaching God’s Word to his people. As Sanlon noted, Augustine “preached in a way that he hoped would enable ordinary listeners to make sense of their lives in light of God’s revelation” (147). That is what I want to do as a Christian preacher today! This book encouraged me to read Scripture more, mediate on in longer, and let it affect my preaching in an even greater way. And this book reminded me about the importance of the heart in studying the Word and in preaching it. In fact, this book even made me pick up my copy of some of Augustine’s sermons and start reading them for myself.

Shane Lems serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, May 2022.

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