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A MIRROR FOR THE CHURCH: Preaching in the first five centuries

by
02 November 2006

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Eerdmans £13.99 (0-8028-2866-3); Church Times Bookshop £12.60

WHAT an excellent topic - a survey of preaching in the early Church. A pity, then, that the book is so uneven. The reader plunges straight into Peter's "sermon" in Acts 2 and Paul's Areopagus "sermon" in Acts 17; but Dunn-Wilson does not take seriously enough the possibility that Luke has done more than put his own gloss on the actual words of Peter and Paul. There is also the matter of whether preaching is directed within the faith, or outside it - in other words, whether it is for the purpose of conversion or edification.     

Such a distinction would have been helpful in the early chapters, on the New Testament, where the preaching is mainly not actual sermons, but homiletic fragments or epistles for reading aloud. And although it is important to under-stand how letters might be read out in churches for theological and ethical guidance, he slides too easily from "epistle" to "epistolary sermon".

This book has a flavour of the pulpit about it - imaginatively attributing motives, feelings and emotions to preachers and their listeners. It is written in the historic present tense, which emphasises the oratorical style. But it is also staking a claim to be serious scholarship, with a substantial bibliography, extensive endnotes, and citation of Greek. These strands do not always mesh convincingly.

There is no consistency about the quotation of Greek - sometimes it is transliterated or translated, sometimes not. In a long list of disadvantaged groups to which Jesus spoke, "slaves, children, women, even prostitutes, social outcasts such as lepers and tax-gatherers", the Greek word for the latter, but none of the former, is pointlessly given in brackets.

The book is also peppered with otiose references to classical writers, from Aeschylus to Juvenal.

The homiletic style of Dunn-Wilson's argument does no favours to a reader who wants to distinguish preaching as liturgical exposition from preaching as mission. Where it does score is in its understanding of preaching as a living form of religious and pastoral expression - the sections on Basil of Caesarea, on Ambrose as a theoretician of preaching, and on Augustine and John Chrysostom are typical.

The importance of apostolic credentials to the early Fathers is touched on; the content of early post-apostolic preaching (still not clearly distinguished from other writings) is surveyed, including the apologists' dialogue with pagans.

I was glad to have this book drawn to my attention, and to have read it; and I was even gladder to finish it and put it away.

The Revd Dr Hammond is Rector of Gamlingay and Everton in Ely diocese, and Dean-elect of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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