Today the word ‘homiletics’ primarily describes an academic field of theological enquiry involving the study of preaching – its history, theology, and practice – and the analysis of sermons – their composition, delivery, and reception. The term ‘homiletics’ is drawn from the Greek homilia, meaning ‘conversation’ or ‘discussion’, the Latin cognate of which is sermo, from which the term ‘sermon’ is derived. Originally, ‘homiletics’ and ‘homiletical’ were employed to refer not to the academic study of preaching but to the practice of preaching, to aspects of the actual event of crafting sermons and delivering them in worship or other settings. The continuing use of the word ‘homily’ to refer to a sermon is a legacy of this earlier use of ‘homiletics’. While contemporary homiletics as a theological academic discipline is found in a variety of religious traditions – Judaism and Islam, for example – the vast majority of homiletical literature has been generated by the Christian tradition.
Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina christiana) is generally considered to be the first sustained and comprehensive work in homiletics. We can already discern in this very earliest treatment a tension that has continued to be felt through the history of homiletics, namely the question of whether preaching is mainly a form of public speaking like all others (with the exception that it involves religious themes), or whether it is a unique and theologically shaped form of address. Augustine provides some comfort to both sides of this debate. On the one hand, as a teacher of classical rhetoric before becoming a pastor and a theologian, Augustine discusses preaching by employing the larger and familiar rhetorical categories outlined by Cicero (106–43 BC), such as speaker, hearers, and style of speech. On the other hand, Augustine considers the NT to be the speech act par excellence, and he employs the rhetorical styles and strategies of the biblical writers as a way to correct and finally to transform the ‘secular’ and morally neutral Ciceronian rhetoric.
This tension between preaching as a form of public rhetoric and preaching as theologically governed speech can be seen partially as the result of underlying currents in the developing Christian Church. Because Christianity originated as a movement within Judaism, the earliest Christian preaching modelled itself on images of inspired prophetic address in the OT and on the methods of biblical interpretation and application found in synagogue preaching more than it relied on the canons of classical rhetoric. The idea of preaching as charismatic, biblically shaped speech can be seen in the account of Jesus’ preaching in Luke 4 and in the reports of sermons in the book of Acts (e.g., Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2). While these are surely the literary creations of the author of Luke to Acts, they almost certainly reflect the basic patterns of early Christian preaching in terms of direct address, biblical citations, and call for faithful and ethical response. The letters of Paul, however, already display some features of Greek rhetoric, and as the Church became Hellenized and then Latinized, the marks of classical rhetoric increased in its preaching. As preaching became more and more formal, took its place as an element of stable liturgy, developed as an instrument for the building up of congregations, and became a practice that needed to be taught to larger and larger numbers of clergy, the more rhetorical features and categories assumed prominence.
In the medieval period, the ingredients for the later academic discipline of homiletics began to take shape, as evidenced by the appearance of a burst of homiletical textbooks, collectively called Artes predicandi, providing practical counsel on sermon structure and content. One of the earliest of these, and in many ways the most influential, was Alan of Lille’s (ca 1125–1202) The Art of Preaching, which appeared around 1200. By the middle of the thirteenth century, homiletics was established as an academic discipline in many European universities. With the reorganization of theological curricula that occurred in universities in the early nineteenth century, under the influence of F. Schleiermacher and others, homiletics became, along with liturgics, catechetics, poimenics (pastoral care), and archagics (mission), a branch of practical theology, that is, theology reflecting on the work of the Church and its ministry.
The continuing influence of rhetoric upon homiletics can be seen in the fact that many teachers of homiletics in the nineteenth century, especially in the English-speaking world, were known as professors of ‘sacred rhetoric’. In the latter part of that century, however, homiletics experienced something of a crisis when classical rhetoric gradually disappeared from university curricula. Deprived of its traditional academic conversation partner, and relegated to the region of practical theology, which was increasingly viewed as ‘applied’ theology rather than a generative theological field, homiletics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became preoccupied with matters of technique and nuts-and-bolts practicality. Increasingly, the homiletical literature became dominated by books of practical advice written by practitioners, and original theological and theoretical research in the field declined.
At least five developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, have reinvigorated the discipline of homiletics. First, there has been a move from classical rhetoric to hermeneutics as an academic framework for reflection on homiletics. The theology of K. Barth, with its strong emphasis on preaching as an event of the Word of God and with its rejection of rhetorical strategies in sermons, had an enormous impact on homiletics. Even among homileticians who did not embrace the full array of Barthian claims, the idea of preaching as an event of biblical hermeneutics took root. Sermons, instead of being viewed as religious content arranged in patterns derived from rhetoric, could be understood to be reverberations generated and shaped by encounters with the biblical texts themselves. Subsequent developments in biblical interpretation, such as the so-called ‘new hermeneutic’, with its emphasis upon the eventfulness of biblical language, and literary and rhetorical criticism, have furthered the connection between homiletics and biblical hermeneutics.
Second, homiletics began to incorporate literary theory and poetics. In the last third of the twentieth century, homiletics, especially in the USA, began actively to engage literary theory as a way of fashioning a new kind of effective preaching. Inspired by thinkers such as NT scholar A. Wilder (1895–1993), whose work emphasized literary imagination and the rhetorical inventiveness of early Christian preaching, homiletics initiated experiments integrating sermons with features of other literary genres, especially narrative, parable, poetry, dialogue, and short stories. The result was that sermons broke out of traditional patterns (‘three points and a poem’) and assumed a wide variety of creative forms.
Third, homiletics has seen a new emphasis on the hearer. Recent homiletical theory has afforded a much larger place to the role of the hearer and to the process of listening to sermons. This began in the 1940s and 1950s essentially as an attempt to factor into the equation of preaching insights gained from psychology. It was realized that listeners to sermons were not clones of each other or blank tablets upon which the sermon could be inscribed, but highly individual, and in some ways idiosyncratic, processors of information. More recently, however, psychological motifs have been supplemented, and to some degree replaced, by sociological and cultural themes. Homiletics has increasingly recognized that most congregations, as homogenous as they may appear, are in fact composed of clusters of listening groups, marked off by age, gender, ethnicity, class, and other social constructs. The effect of this new framing of the preaching context has been twofold. First, many homileticians today encourage preachers to assume multiple approaches to sermons in terms of language, theme, and structure in order to address the multiplicity of the hearers. Second, some homileticians have fashioned the image of the ‘roundtable pulpit’, that is, preaching that involves not just one-way proclamation but occurs in the midst of congregational conversation and response.
Fourth, homiletics has been influenced by conversation with communication theory. In the middle of the twentieth century, some homiletical theories began to be developed around scientific ‘source–channel–receiver’ concepts of human communication. More recently, these approaches have advanced and expanded into explorations of the impact of electronic media upon how hearers participate in the event of preaching and also into experiments in the use of media in sermons. A recent challenge to homiletics has been the rise of the internet age and the alteration this has inevitably brought to the ways that hearers receive and process communication.
Fifth, homiletics has benefited from the fact that in the last half century practical theology has been able to break free from the label ‘applied theology’ and redefine itself as a generative field of theology, one that studies theologically laden and historically shaped religious practices. One result of this development is that preaching is no longer viewed as merely the practical product of wisdom developed elsewhere but rather as a living expression of theological activity performed ‘on the ground’. Also, homiletics as a theoretical and academic discipline is now taught at the research level in a number of universities and theological schools.
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