Simplicity and love in preaching
I have been reading Henry Chadwick’s biography of Augustine of Hippo, and was encouraged by a number of things. One was Chadwick’s observation that, ‘All the masterpieces on which later centuries looked back were without exception written during his busy life as bishop, not while he was a leisured young ‘don’.’ Let’s beware of the idea that long leisurely withdrawal from active pastoral work into the groves of academe is the ideal context for scholarship.
Another is Augustine’s splendidly clear attitude towards teaching the uneducated. Of whom there are plenty. Echoing 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Augustine wrote to a friend, ‘Educated Christians like myself expect God’s grace to prefer people of greater natural ability, higher standards of behaviour, and superior education in the liberal arts. In fact God mocks my expectations.’
So how are we to preach and teach to ‘simpler’ people? Augustine wrote a short treatise ‘On Catechizing Simple (i.e. less educated) People’ in reply to this question from an intellectual deacon in Carthage. He gently chides his intellectual friend on feeling frustrated at having to teach below his natural level of sophistication. If we really love people for whom Christ died, he says, we will gladly sacrifice our own intellectual satisfaction for the sake of their understanding.
And in fact it will do us good, for just as when we show a visitor around a landscape with which we are over-familiar, we ourselves notice the beauty of it afresh, so when we teach Christian truths to others. In Augustine’s words, ‘Is it not a common occurrence with us, that when we show to persons, who have never seen them, certain spacious and beautiful tracts (i.e. views), either in cities or in fields, which we have been in the habit of passing by without any sense of pleasure, simply because we have become so accustomed to the sight of them, we find our own enjoyment renewed in their enjoyment of the novelty of the scene?’
Chadwick writes about Augustine’s attitude to the arts of oratory: ‘Ciceronian eloquence has three aims: to instruct, to please, to move, and has three styles for doing this – simple, or florid, or pathetic. The Christian orator alters the order of priorities; it is more important to instruct and to move, and only lastly to please. Elaborate language and convoluted sentences will defeat the object, and therefore a Christian teacher should use direct speech, and take the Bible as a model for form as well as the source of his content.’
And again, ‘In his own preaching Augustine … is careful to avoid long sermons with complex sentences. Nothing is said indirectly or ironically, or to entertain. His eyes are not on his script or notes if any, but on his hearer’s faces, and he is ready to stop or to shift the direction of his discourse immediately if he is losing their attention.’ ‘His directness to his flock is a consciously adopted simplicity which knows just what effect monosyllables may achieve.’
Let’s hear it for simple, loving, clear preaching and teaching.
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