THIS anthology is a selection of representative sermons designed to enrich the total picture of Christian life in the West from the early third century to the Reformation. Sermonic materials constitute a rewarding and almost untouched resource for the study of every kind and degree of Western life. Unfortunately, authorities on Christian life and institutions have largely neglected these materials or at lest provided almost no firsthand acquaintance with them. Yet the character of the Christian West is laid bare in the revealing sermons of Christian preachers such as the well-known Bernard of Clairvaux and the far less famous, but equally devoted, Raoul Ardent. Raoul’s excoriation of unworthy ministers of the Gospel; his call for Scriptural preaching; his repudiation of mere fabulists; his emphasis on preaching the Scriptures as the preparation for the final great judgment of all mankind; above all, his flaming, consecrated zeal tell us at least as much of European Christianity as the history of Abelard’s misadventures or the vision of Piers the Plowman. The life of great and small, often unconsciously depicted in such sermons, is the common life of Western Christianity.
There is no significant preaching in the postapostolic period until the third century. The period of major patristic significance is from the third through the sixth century. Here we encounter the Scriptural and theological innovations of Origen, the social sensitivity of Chrysostom, the catholicizing gospel of Augustine, and the traditional sweep of the first Gregory.
With the coming of the six hundreds and on into the eleventh century, there is current an age of sermonic sterility and uninspired preaching, in spite of certain noticeable exceptions. The work of Bede, Maurus, and others like them is largely a diminished copy of Chrysostom, Augustine, and Gregory I; although in them, as in the Blickling homilies and in Aelfric, for instance, there are certain distinctive 2 traits easily discernible. Both sermons and sermon manuals exhibit almost slavish dependence on the great leaders of patristic homily.
Bourgain sees in the eleventh century some signs of a recovery. Any fair-minded critic must acknowledge the basic contribution of a great reform spirit like Peter Damian, the edifying power of Anselm, and the wholesome appeal of Ivo of Chartres. With the twelfth century, a period of many distinguished preachers was definitely ushered in. A roll of names including Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter of Blois, and Innocent III cannot easily be ignored. Yet these men, distinguished in their own right, are probably not yet symptomatic of any great homiletic renaissance or a sufficiently widespread preaching mission. The twelfth century was characterized by renewed appeals to the Episcopacy to perform its preaching responsibility and to authorize the services of others properly prepared. Councils and synods were also clearly disturbed over the preaching need which so far surpassed the preaching resources available to meet that challenge. Preaching, still generally supplied by Episcopal and monastic leaders, was all too far removed from parish needs and everyday spiritual demands.
The thirteenth century, however, was certainly the age of genuine preaching revival. Loyal Churchmen in councils like that of the Fourth Lateran in 1215, and in the West with increasing unanimity, recognized the sure signs of unchecked decadence and the need of both intensified effort and better homiletic form suited to the new times. The thirteen century was the age of continuing heresies and their challenge to the Church. It witnessed the last upswing of carefully planned papal crusading. And out of it came the reform program of the more conscientious bishops. Indeed, reform was the more urgent in view of the impact of emerging towns upon the economy of feudalism and the rise of new schools, forerunners of the universities.
The Mendicants appeared as the most significant response to the current need. Franciscans and Dominicans represent a new stage in preaching mobility, universality, and affinity with people’s joys and woes. Mendicant innovations in preaching came not so much in relation to an isolated art of rhetoric as in answer to the mounting pressures of faith, heresy, inquisition, the university curriculum, and 3 the poignant appeals of the world’s little people. The friars also came into roving proximity to parish Churches and monastic communities long undisturbed. Largely owing to the Mendicants, the thirteenth century witnessed a renaissance of popular sermon illustrations as well as a creative invigoration of liturgy, together with preaching forms lending themselves to the discussion of politics, economics, and social life at large.
It was an age of real issues in which some aspects of the problems then provoking university debate were often wrestled with by a semiliterate or ignorant cleric who had never been to the schools himself; but who felt, nonetheless, the inevitable impress of their discussions upon him and his people. It must not be forgotten that the Church’s increasing organizational demands and its ever-growing canonical requirements filtered down to the little priest and the little people, however humble they might be.
The Mendicants were the best trained and the greatest public preachers in the days of their prime. But in the time of their decline they were the most adept in victimizing the common people. The animadversions of John Wyclif on fourteenth-century Minors, as well as his implied appreciation of quite different Franciscans in earlier eras, are quite well known. Indeed, Wyclif, the inescapable critic of the Franciscans, was the reincarnation of much of their idealism. There is a new Biblical emphasis in Wyclif, which may be traced through the Franciscans to an apostolic urgency; so that his best corrective for Franciscan decadence was just such a note of far-flung evangelism as Francis had struck in his peripatetic followers.
The development of the preaching function was accompanied by the gradual emergence of preaching manuals.
Origen was one of the first to deal, though not formally, with the principles and problems of the preaching art. He believed in utilizing non-Christian rhetorical principles for Christian ends. These he coupled with vigorous insistence on the high character of the preacher. He stressed study as an indispensable means of securing the divine message and made much of historical, moral, and allegorical interpretations of Scripture. Origen’s influence on succeeding interpretations of Scripture cannot easily be overemphasized. Another patristic leader who left no well-wrought discussion of homiletic theory, but who deeply influenced some of those who did, 4 was Gregory Nazianzen. His Flight to Pontus was mainly a work on pastoral responsibility, rather than a sermon manual. Certain sections in it, however, not only inspired devoted and common-sense attention to the preacher’s art, but also gave rise to famous and often retold stories concerning the preacher’s temptation to adopt the tricks of the professional orator. Chrysostom, in his similar discussion On the Priesthood also addressed himself, though briefly, to sermonic form and content. Especially fruitful suggestions are to be found in books four and five in which he stresses the value of hard study and the necessity of preaching to please God rather than men.
Augustine was to exercise an almost unique influence in this area. The secret of it is, perhaps, best evident from his work On Christian Doctrine. Here, as in other discussions of the patristic period, the Christian rather than the non-Christian audience was kept especially in mind. The first three books are given over to the problems of Scriptural exegesis. Book four examines the possibilities of interpreting the Scriptures through the rhetorical art. Augustine particularly stresses the sense and degree in which the Christian teaching of the Scriptures involves the preaching function. He calls attention to the irony of leaving rhetorical aids to be cultivated by the non-Christian when they may well make a real contribution to the cause of Christ and lodges a cogent plea for teacher-preacher refutation of error and the propagation of truth in terms of different hearers and occasions. Preachers are responsible to arouse, instruct, and move people to wholesome action. Preaching content is to be balanced and made even more effective through the proper utilization of form, style, and delivery. Clarity and flavor are indispensable if hearers are to be edified. Preaching is never successful unless the hearer, once properly disposed through good instruction, and captivated in interest, is also impelled from within to an active commitment of life. Both floridity of style and unrelieved severity are to be avoided. And above all things prayer must precede delivery of the message, which must proceed from God himself if it is to edify at all. Augustine’s never-ending refrain trumpets the impossibility of succeeding through external eloquence when the failure of positive Christian living is in evidence.
With a few exceptions, from the fifth to the twelfth century there is no outstandingly careful exposition of the theory of preaching. 5 But during the next two centuries, sermon manuals undergo a decided change. The transition to the sermon of organized form, with its integral attachment to the new disciplines of the schools, is definitely reflected in the sermon books. It is these, of course, that are designed to help to produce the more systematically constructed, scholastically oriented sermons. The preaching aid of Peter Cantor, for example, compares instruction to a building in which reading constitutes the foundations, disputation makes up the walls, but preaching — ranking above both of these — seeks to protect the faithful against every evil.
Guibert de Nogent is often remembered for the famous passages in his autobiography regarding his own education and that of his age. Less known is his writing in the field of Christian rhetoric. By no means a formal manual, A Treatise on the Method of Preparing a Sermon is rather a preface to De Nogent’s commentary on Genesis and, as such, it is properly concerned with methods of Scriptural interpretation. In addition, however, it gives much useful instruction in homiletic procedure. He treats, especially, the responsibility for preaching and the fate of those who refuse, thus, to help to save sinners. Their purported reasons for not preaching, or for preaching badly, are, to him, no better than poor excuses. Learning and teaching Holy Writ are here made the first objectives. Prayer is, of course, to precede the sermon. Prolixity in speaking is to be avoided at all costs. The unlearned are to be edified and illumined; the educated must be roused to greater thoughtfulness and aspiration. Scriptural interpretation involves the historical, allegorical, tropological (or moral) and anagogical (or spiritual) methods. The moral application is found to be especially useful in fostering Christian experience. The preacher must warn against vices and preach the virtues with the aid of his own example. He must also give proof of high homiletic artistry. The suffering on earth and the fear of hell, together with the anticipated rewards of the hereafter, are to be stressed as incentives to a better life in the present.
Alain de Lille’s Summary of the Preaching Art is sometimes called the most important work on homiletical theory since Augustine. Reminiscent of Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory the Great, and Chrysostom, the work is particularly noteworthy as depicting the passage from the nonscholastic to the scholastic age of sermonic theory and practice. 6 Preaching is defined as “open and public instruction in morals and faith, promoting the information of men, and proceeding from the path of reason and the fountain of authorities.” This is explained in such fashion as to place the accent upon edification and the common needs of Christian men. Preaching is based, first of all, on the authority of Scripture, especially that of the Gospels and the Epistles. Preachers are required to make an unselfish proclamation of God’s word for the sake of human salvation. As usual, audiences composed of the faithful rather than non-Christian groupings are under consideration. But model sketches and outlines are given in detail and various types of audiences and the approaches best suited to each of the many kinds of hearers are exemplified.
The net objectives of twelfth-century preaching theory may be said in summary to be the stressing of definition and purpose with precision; dispensing of moral and religious instruction in keeping with irreproachable ministerial character; having regard for the varied needs of widely differing individuals and groups; interpreting the Scriptures with at least some flexibility of method and due regard to illustrative appeal; developing the message in harmony with the dignity and restraint expected of God’s mouthpiece; and avoiding at all times the pitfalls of self-centeredness.
As already observed, the enlarging ministry of preaching was considerably met by the services of Dominicans and Franciscans. With a revitalization born largely from the newly developed halls of Paris and Oxford, and other like schools, these mendicant brethren proceeded not only to preach as few men had preached before them, but also to systematize the rules governing the expression of ideas that were at once academic and popular. Their response to this task spelled the rise of an unusually fruitful library on the art of sermon preparation and delivery.
The Thomas Aquinas (Pseudo) Tractate, translated by Caplan,1 may profitably be outlined as a fair indication of the subjects discussed in medieval sermon books. In addition to the mastery of materials which comprise the content of preaching. art and method are also enjoined. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, as well as Cicero, are cited to this end.7
Preaching is defined, almost exactly in Alain’s words, as “open and public instruction in faith and morals, devoted to the informing of men, and proceeding from the path of convictions and from the source of authorities. It will be open preaching, since, if it were secret, it would be subject to suspicion and would seem to let loose heretical dogmas. It will be public, because it is to be set before the many, not one individual. If it were set before the one, it would properly be, not preaching, but doctrine. In this way, preaching is instruction in faith and morals.”2 Every sermon has a principal and an instrumental cause. The prayer of the preacher is made to the Lord of Glory, who is the principal cause. The preacher is the instrumental cause, when his tongue is put at the disposal of the Lord. The author of this manual is interested not only in the principles of action with their many applications, but also in the artistic presentation which helps to make the sermon more effective. Methodology, involving physical gestures as well, must be taken into account.
The writer now proceeds to the discussion of the sermon as such. The theme is properly the beginning. It must be taken from the Bible, be clear and of the proper length, and be well expressed. The four parts of a sermon, as the anonymous author describes them, are: (1) theme; (2) protheme or prelocution; (3) division or distinction; (4) subdivision or subdistinctions. These are all illustrated and discussed in detail.
Farsighted preachers are to be careful when in their pulpits. There must be proper reverence for the Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, his mother. The name of God, Christ, or the Virgin must never be mentioned without suitable adjectives. Conducting oneself frivolously or presumptuously is shameful. Raising doubts or questions without resolving them is unthinkable. Care must be taken to end a phrase as vigorously as one begins it. Speaking complete words, intelligently and slowly, is to be commended. Each should conduct himself with gravity as being truly in the presence of Christ. Undue haste is to be avoided in thought and delivery. Let the preacher exercise restraint in looking about. It is best to avoid specific allusions to given personalities in matters involving severe correction. Verbosity is to be avoided always. Undue literalness in translating 8 paraphrasing the Latin for vernacular purposes is most unfortunate. The preacher is never to forget that the Word of God provides the means of the hearer’s coming into Christ’s Kingdom. In this way Christ instructs us. Hence, knowing his will for our salvation is to be followed by our doing it. “Therefore let us in deed fulfil what we are shown we must do and emulate.”3
This is the end of the tractate proper, to which there is appended a partial form of the “preaching tree.” “Preaching is like a real tree. As a real tree develops from root to trunk, and the trunk grows into main branches, and the main branches multiply into other branches, so in preaching the theme develops into the protheme or prelocution as root into trunk. Then the prelocution or protheme grows into the principal divisions of the theme as the trunk into the main branches. And the principal branches should . . . multiply into secondary divisions, that is, subdivisions and subdistinctions, and finally expand as the example in the tree below shows. Its theme is divided into three parts; each part is divided into three members; each member can be amplified by several of the nine methods above described, as will stand out more clearly on the tree below.”4
Modern homiletic procedure seems to have little, if anything, superior to these medieval sermon manuals.
The fact that most sermons have come down to us in Latin proves neither that these were, in every case, delivered in that tongue; nor, for that matter, that they were developed after the exact pattern of their final transmission to us. There is every evidence that Thomas Aquinas and, more especially, Anthony of Padua put real life into the turgid outlines that now, alone, are left. The popular sermons of Anthony, as well as the vernacular sermons of Bernardine of Siena, are happily commented upon in contemporary literature and, as regards Bernardine, preserved to us in a large collection. True as it probably is that most of the preaching from the sixth to the thirteenth century was to people in religious houses and, therefore, most likely given in Latin, it is equally true that to some extent even in this period, and from the thirteenth century on, in an increasing degree, some homiletic appeal was made to the unlettered faithful as well as to the heretic and pagan. This was surely not exclusively 9 in the language of the Church or according to the formulations of the schools, however much the scholastic stamp once imparted to a preacher would continue to leave some imprint on his popular ministry.
One may safely generalize to the extent of saying that many sermons were delivered in the vernacular by educated men to uncultivated people. In some cases, written as well as preached, in the language of the people, these sermons were, in the main, not preserved to posterity in other than a Latin form. Perhaps the preacher spoke from a Latin outline in the language of the region and then recorded his sermon in an expanded manuscript of scholastic language and character. Or, he may have improvised in the vernacular and then written out his message more carefully in the same language in which it was spoken. It is quite reasonable to suppose that Bernard of Clairvaux left a considerable body of French sermons just as Gerson did much later. In both instances it seems likely that the people’s language was deemed an unworthy medium by later editors who promptly translated them into the language of scholars. At least there is virtually no unchallenged French sermon of Bernard remaining to us and all too few of the versatile Gerson, who, like Bernard, was a preacher to all kinds of the common people as well as to priests, monks, university gatherings, kings, and councils.
From the apostolic age to the twelfth century, the prevailing homily type was an informal discourse employing a doctrinal interpretation of Scripture without necessary introduction or divisions. Not infrequently, the Biblical passage incorporated in the liturgy for a particular day of the Christian year was used. The expositions might proceed according to a sentence-by-sentence treatment of the text, or by discussing an entire Gospel, or as an exhortation devoted to a single idea, perhaps a paraphrase of certain vices or virtues. Origen, Gregory, Bede, as well as the missionary preaching of Boniface, offer conspicuous instances of this kind of preaching.
Beginning in the twelfth century, on the other hand, and reaching its apogee in the thirteenth century, the characteristic preaching form was as definitely organic as that of the preceding times had been inorganic. In it, sermons, properly called, predominated over, though they did not entirely replace, the homily as such. In these sermons the Gospel was expounded according to a far more systematic 10 method, with divisions and developments of a frequently intricate kind. Preachers such as Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, and Thomas Aquinas lead out in the treatment of this form.
The danger of stereotypes issuing from scholastic forms with their subtleties and multiple divisions is not hard to see. Yet the more exaggerated defects inherent in such types appeared in Latin sermons delivered only to the educated; and in some cases, at least, the scholastic or artistic sermo was essentially a preparatory Latin sketch “to be clothed at actual delivery into the language of the people.” Indeed, authorities on the history of preaching point out that by the side of the scholastic type there existed unto the end of the Middle Ages the “Sermon to the People.” This Biblical or purely exegetical form of preaching never went entirely out of style.
Even the contention that the scholastic sermon per se was never properly delivered except to a school or university audience does not preclude the verifiable implication that the influences of the scholastic sermon were felt also in popular circles. The Mendicants, as we have said, adapted seemingly inflexible forms in a most resilient fashion to the cosmopolitan as well as the pastoral groups to which they ministered. It is not strange, therefore, that the great majority of sermons delivered within the ordinary domain of the pulpit, as the preachers in this anthology will show, should be devoted to the feasts of our Lord and the principal feasts of the saints.
In spite of many differences in content and structure, the common basis of patristic and medieval sermons is in the Scriptures. The Bible is unquestionably central in Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine. And even in the period of homiletic decadence from the sixth to the twelfth century, one observes a large degree of dependence on the earlier patristics for Biblical usage as in practically all else.
There are those who say that medieval preaching was devoid of any genuinely Scriptural quality. Such generalizations are as distorted as those which make Bernard of Clairvaux’s Bible mastery or Gerson’s Scriptural concern in any sense typical. One must keep constantly in mind the ends sought and the methods employed by medieval Bible preaching. The very real virtues and marked limitation of medieval Bible usage among preachers is put into perspective by researches in manuscripts and printed works like those of Deanesly and Smalley.11
Miss Deanesly’s researches are convincing both as to the existence of Bible sermonizing in the Middle Ages and the limitations of its character and amount. She readily admits that there was considerable use of the Bible on the part of medieval preachers. She believes, however, that this was largely concentrated in the hands of a relatively few university graduates and scholars. Where used by others, the Bible as preached was largely drawn from and interpreted by homiliaries, preaching manuals, and the like. Wyclif was particularly stern in his denunciation of such secondhand utilization of God’s law. There was almost no use of translated Bible materials by great scholar-preachers before Wyclif. What bishops and priests insisted upon from the early Middle Ages to the Reformation was the teaching of the faith rather than the expounding of the Bible.
Nevertheless Miss Deanesly does not neglect the demand for more Bible use by such great reforming bishops of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as Grosseteste, Peckham, Quivil, and Thoresby, just as she indicates the Bible translations before Wyclif which may be cited. As to the passionate concern of Grosseteste for Bible preaching, she says: “He also stated frequently in ordination sermons that the cause of the evil condition of the Church was the failure of the clergy to preach the gospel of Christ.”5 She quotes him directly to the effect that though “ ‘the instruction of his flock was the first duty of a parish priest,’ ” yet “ ‘to-day there are many pastors, bound to feed their hungry flock with the Word of God, who have no food to do it with: for there are many who do not know how to explain to the people a single article of the faith, or commandment of the decalogue.’ ”6 Grosseteste’s own Episcopal constitutions show his concern that the Commandments be taught together with the fundamentals of Christian piety.
Archbishop Peckham, in his letter describing the chief abuses with which the Church of his day was afflicted, describes the sixth of these as involving small esteem for the contents of the Gospels: “ ‘For according to the doctrine of saints, a bishop’s office consists chiefly in the doctrine of the Word of God, whence the episcopal order is called by the holy Fathers, the “order of preachers”: yet in celebrating 12 elections or conferring dignities, no mention is made of the office of preaching; and since in this respect no question is asked as to what the gospels say, but as to what the common gloss clamoureth, the commandments of God are made of none effect for the traditions of men. Hence the study of wisdom is everywhere forsaken, and all men run after those branches of knowledge which bring worldly reward.’ ”7 In his constitutions of 1281 Peckham sought to forestall that ignorance of priests and clerks conducing to the errors of the faithful with the command “ ‘that each parish priest, four times in the year (that is, once in each quarter of the year), upon one or more holy days shall himself or by his deputy explain to the people in the vulgar tongue . . . the fourteen articles of the faith, the ten commandments of the decalogue, the two precepts of the gospel, the seven works of mercy, the seven mortal sins, the seven principal virtues, and the seven sacramental graces.’ ”8 And he followed this with a Latin exposition and summary of the principles to be inculcated. Similar to this development was Bishop Quivil of Exeter’s program of 1287 which he enforced with specific requirements for observance and penalties for infraction.
Nevertheless, the most representative Latin and English manuals do not, in any precise fashion at least, impose on the parish priest the duty of teaching his parishioners from the Bible itself. The parish clergy seem, generally, to have conceived it as their proper function to administer the sacraments, instruct in the faith, and inculcate the virtues. There is little evidence that they felt impelled to go beyond this to the immediate study of the Latin Biblical texts for themselves or to the incitement, through the translation of Scriptural portions in their sermons, of Bible study on the part of their people. The evidence, in truth, shows pre-Wyclifite Bible reading by lay people to have been negligible. A survey of educational resources, including instruction books for educated laity, indicates that “well-born lay people who could read were thus almost as dependent as the illiterate upon services, plays, and the coloured windows and carvings of churches, for their actual knowledge of the Bible.”9
The massive contribution of Wyclif and his Lollard followers in recommending the practice of Bible preaching and in helping “Goddis 13 Lawe” to become a reality in popular reading cannot be overestimated. Wyclif’s writings show in what large degree he returned to Biblical habits resembling those of the patristic period and in what sense his edifying Bible usage was both similar and unlike that of Raoul Ardent, Bernard of Clairvaux, Guarric of Igniac, Gerson, and others of a genuinely Biblical persuasion.
In his book On the Truth of the Holy Scriptures Wyclif declares that Scripture as a whole, as well as the various parts of it, witnesses to the one great truth, regardless of the different senses according to which it may be interpreted. Christ’s law is far superior to any tradition that the Church can set forth. All Christians, particularly priests and bishops, are required to study the Holy Scriptures. It is on these that the salvation of the faithful wholly depends. Therefore, the first duty of bishop and priest is to preach the Gospel. And the whole dignity that pertains to such officials comes from their performing this duty of Scriptural proclamation — not from any reputation or worldly power. Origen, among others, is cited to this end.
Wyclif is exercised to prove that the preaching of God’s Word is a holier work than the celebration of the Eucharist. Whatever the theory generally expounded, the prevailing practice of the Middle Ages runs counter to this assertion. It is interesting to observe that Bernardine of Siena, in one of his sermons, presents a not too dissimilar viewpoint. It is imperative for the priest to preach the Holy Gospel. This is another of the endlessly recurring admonitions to the curate to do his duty, which in this case is like that of the bishop; namely, the preaching of the Gospel unto soul salvation. Wyclif is not afraid to state quite flatly that reading Holy Scripture renders superfluous the Missal, Antiphonary, Psalterium, and other liturgical books. Knowing the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer by no means makes up for the lack of Gospel preaching. Wyclif realizes all too well that his position is diametrically opposed to the existing practice. Yet this fiery, medieval preacher of reform stands by his contention that only a sermon in the mother tongue of a people is truly edifying.
The story is the same when once consults the English as well as the Latin sermons of Wyclif. Almost no emphasis is more prevailing than the stress laid upon the necessity of preaching by a good pastor. 14 That this function is not, and was never intended to be, limited to the bishop is one of Wyclif’s most vigorously pressed asseverations. His themes, texts, and treatments are almost one continuous diapason on the primacy of God’s law. Next to a just life itself, nothing that a pastor can do is more important than this same proclamation of the Gospel. It definitely transcends the significance claimed for the sacraments. Furthermore, Wyclif defends his convictions with quotations drawn from such great pulpit orators as Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory I, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Grosseteste. The whole meaning of the Church and its prosecution of the Kingdom task are summed up for Wyclif in terms of serving the Gospel Word. He believes that nothing is clearer in the early Church Fathers than their insistence upon Gospel preaching as constituting the high road to the love of God and the path to service of fellow men. One can hardly read John Wyclif in intimate association with other medieval sermon makers without observing the degree and extent of the priority which he gives to the Scriptures as compared with his contemporaries’ own limited emphasis. Furthermore, as none before him, he makes expanding use of translated Scriptures in representative sermons even as he inspires his followers to the production of a truly vernacular Bible.
Wyclif’s reaction to the preaching of the Church generally, and to that of the Franciscans, especially, is seldom balanced or fair. He is customarily anticipating actions on the part of the Minor Brethren and the hierarchy that do no credit to them. Consequently, he is in no position to observe the real contributions that they make, not only to popular ministry but to Biblical orientation as well. If their preaching methods lend themselves to excessive storytelling, his own Gospel interpretation is all too literal and inflexible on many occasions. Nonetheless, his total contribution to Biblical preaching in the Middle ages stands out in bold relief. And its sweeping evangelical admonitions are undeniable.
It is interesting to note that among those who came after him, not only the Lollards with their understandably large emphasis on the Scriptures, but also such great conciliarists as Gerson and D’Ailly, as well as popular Franciscans of later generations like Bernardine of Siena, gave large place to the Gospel Word. The fiery English evangelist was perhaps no more dedicated in his stressing of the 15 Scriptures than was Bernardine on the one hand, and Nicholas of Cusa on the other. It is a truism to remark that Savonarola’s whole proclamation was centered in Biblical preaching. In practically all of these, however, preaching of the Gospel is subordinated to primarily liturgical ends as that of Wyclif never was.
In the ministry of the patristics, and in that of the Middle Ages, the plan of redemption constitutes the main subject of good preaching. The Gospel of Jesus continues to be presented as the good news of God’s coming Kingdom. Increasingly, the Church is considered under the aspect of an institution founded by the Master and committed by him to his vicar, Peter. To this apostle and his successors, the way to the Kingdom is pointed out, and the food of the Kingdom is entrusted. They, as a true priesthood, have the keys of heaven and distribute the bread of everlasting life. They have, therefore, both the duty to dispense sacramental graces and the obligation to proclaim these as the sole way of salvation. Liturgy and preaching are inevitably joined.
Preaching calls on Christian men and women to pursue in the present world, with the saving and sustaining power dispensed in the Church’s liturgy, the way of private and social virtue that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the liturgy of the Mass, the lessons from the Old Testament, the Epistle, and the Gospel witness to the vital selectivity of the worship service, which has gradually evolved in terms of the liturgical calendar. Readings, prayers, hymns, and sacramental celebration serve to weld the members of the Church militant, dormant, and triumphant into a unity of undefeatable life. Saved humanity enters with the Trinity and the angels into one time-transcending, history-outlasting community. Small wonder that, already in the later patristic age, Bible preaching falls increasingly into the pattern being set up for the Lord’s days and those of the saints. And it is less remarkable still, that, in the Middle Era, preaching takes on the form of instruction in the symbol, the sacraments, and the path leading away from the vices into the Christian productivity of the virtues.
In the Middle Ages it was necessary to aid the priest-preacher in his own spiritual growth as well as to foster his usefulness in the care of souls. To this end the Church developed various books including portions of the Scriptures, together with selections from the 16 homilies of other preachers who had taught Scriptural truth in the intimate context of liturgical celebration. Some of these books, like the breviaries so happily introduced by the Mendicants, placed in productive juxtaposition with hymns, prayers, and Scriptural lections, the homilies of a Chrysostom, an Augustine, a Bede, or a Bernard. Through other aids, such as the invaluable manuals produced to assist the literate priest in his task of instruction, the primacy of saving liturgy and the necessity of cultivating the moral virtues were enjoined.
The councils, moreover, from the ancient period to the Protestant Revolt sought to make every priest, when so authorized by his bishop, and every monastic or mendicant preacher within his stated limits, a potential proclaimer of the Creed, the all-importance of the sacraments, and the indispensability of the virtuous life. Charlemagne’s renaissance, so frequently misinterpreted as being a largely secular revival of learning, is properly seen in his capitularies as developing a training program for monks and secular clergy, and through them a revival of religious life, however elementary, for the populace at large. These legislative fiats sought to raise the clergy to a place of minimal learning from which they could teach to the people the Credo, the Pater, the sacraments, certain rudimentary homilies, and a not-too-infrequently encountered probity of life. This required liturgical reforms, architectural planning, and a revival of preaching. Such preaching neither appreciated nor anticipated the inculcation of the naked Gospel, as Wyclif later called for it; but it did make a place for the Commandments and the more obvious teachings of the Gospel as incorporated in the Mass.
In the long night of preaching from 600 to 1200, the minister often failed to declare the evangelical truth as the apostolic and patristic Fathers had done; he lapsed, also, from his instruction of the people in the fundamentals of Christian worship. When, however, the twelfth and thirteenth century revival came, the reassertion of the priest’s duty as preacher of the Word and administrator of the sacraments came once more to the front.
That able bishop of Rome, Innocent III, had inaugurated his administration with a sermon replete with Biblical phraseology and calling for the feeding of Christ’s sheep with the Bread of the Eucharist. His manual on the sacrament of the altar, like that of John 17 Beleth, gives a dignified, beautiful exposition of the Church’s liturgical functions, the proclamation of which is the priest’s major purpose in preaching. Once again the preaching of the Word is discussed and practiced with high conviction as being the way of salvation that Christ had willed.
In the Franciscan and Dominican traditions, creative innovations were to be introduced into the liturgy. Papal privileges permitted them to preach in dioceses that might otherwise have been closed to them. But Francis and many of this followers in lay exhortation, as well as priestly predication, were to make cultic preaching their great joy in an attempt at world rescue and soul redemption. No one ever believed more enthusiastically than Francis that the greatest event in cosmic history retranspired as often as Christ, in fullest self-surrender, gave himself into the hands of the ministering priest through the eucharistic sacrifice. And Francis, who had learned so much of the Gospel in the liturgical services, and who continued to venerate the officiating priests, however great their faults, for the reconciling service they performed, paid reverent homage to the Lord’s body as few have ever done. This he did while admonishing all who preached to people anywhere to advance man’s salvation by proclaiming the unconditional necessity of drawing upon the eucharistic graces. More than anything else, his writings are full of the worship to be accorded the Lord in full keeping with the Church’s institutional procedures. Next to this, which in itself calls for complete surrender of the self in a positive spirit, comes his plea for a pacification of the world through annunciation to it of sacramental redemption. For this reason he wishes preaching to be direct and edifying in its every effect on the present life, in order that all men may be led to make better preparation for their felicity in the great community of heaven.
And the Dominicans, well versed from their inception in the liturgical services expected of canons, gave themselves, together with other Mendicants, to an apostolate for the liturgical Church. The disciplined themselves to refute error, propagate truth, and proclaim salvation. They conceived of themselves as the defenders of Peter’s vicar on earth and the preachers of rational truths, gained in the schools, to people on every hand. This ministry they discharged, frequently, in the vernacular language.
In the entire range of the Middle Ages, preachers differing as 18 widely in personality as Bede the Venerable and Eudes de Châteauroux celebrated man’s companionship with the saints and angels as they paid homiletic reverence to the feast of All Saints. Impassioned as in the former, scholasticized as in the latter, the preaching plea is the same: let us live, now, the good life that is required of those who would join the heavenly host in praising God at the feet of Jesus, with the joys of the Spirit, forevermore. In walking that toilsome, narrow trail from earth to heaven, every human soul must have proclaimed to him the sacraments which Christ had instituted and with which his Gospel is redemptively bound. So thought the uncounted millions of the faithful throughout the course of the Middle Ages.
Even Wyclif himself, with his frequent departure from the Church’s sacramental doctrines and his restiveness over a form of preaching too little based on the independent Scriptures, produced his great sermons in relation to the seasons of the liturgical year. To read any one of the preacher’s manuals such as the Christian Mirror or the Priestly Mirror is to realize how much allied in the better priests’ minds is their sense of cultic obligation and opportunity with their urgent call to preach the will and Word of the Master. The anthology which follows finds it meaning largely within this realm of thought, being, and action that is the liturgy.
If God be worshiped in sober truth and heavenly things be given their due regard, a decided concern for the duties of neighborliness on every hand will naturally ensue. The preaching of the apostolic age and the Kingdom proclamations of the patristic era were in agreement on this point. In the Middle Ages something of the forthrightness and stark challenge of Jesus’ message was lost in the institutional accommodations of a hierarchical Church. Nonetheless, the haunting insistence of the Master that the Kingdom must be preached and the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven continued to have its subtle influence upon the leaders of the pulpit. However much the social applications of Christian teaching might be directed into narrow and stereotyped channels of thought, this same requirement that present society be answerable to the ultimate demands of the eternal world was at least nominally granted. Rationalizations there might be in the manner of making Christ’s teachings 19 both real and reasonably comfortable; complete capitulation there could never be to the non-Christian assertion that devotion to religious truth requires nothing but the private, good intentions of individual men and women.
Consequently, it is not at all strange to discover that medieval preaching, as well as patristic homiletics, reserved a large place for the inculcation of social as well as private Christianity. Though one may read exhaustive treatises and many sermons which apparently have no appreciation of this larger sermonic obligation, the pertinent fact remains. Within the rigid framework of its social presuppositions, medieval Christendom did stand for the co-ordination of inward religious experience on the part of the individual and outward mobilization of group energies for the sake of all people everywhere. And it is a peculiarly inspiring discovery to find that not only the great preachers but the more obscure and frequently more conscientious ones dwell at some length upon man’s individual soul in relation, first, to his eternal destiny, and, second, with regard to his present duty to his fellow man.
Even such emperors as Charlemagne, who feel themselves under the spell of princely duties conceived to be consummately Christian, seek to impress upon their priestly subordinates the necessity of social ministry. What Charles desires, above everything else within the circle of a caesaropapist theory and practice, is that preachers call upon their people to respond more vigorously in the support of the Church’s worship and more responsibly in the direction of their neighborly duties to one another.
We may count it one of the great virtues of medieval life and thought, whatever its manifold defects, that it insists on thinking about the individual and his God in terms of all the faithful and their common Father. Preaching and living on the part of the clergy must, therefore, be of such a nature as to press home the lesson that Christ died to save all men, with joyous anticipation of their eternal companionship in the heaven that God has willed. Preaching to the individual, therefore, cannot be an isolated and detached experience. Before the person can realize both his opportunity and his obligation to serve God and fellow men, he must see something of the wide-reaching implications of his life with other sons of God. Aelfric, for 20 instance, and twelfth-century homiletists, both declare the responsibility of laymen and secular rulers, as well as of professional religionists, to be their brothers’ keepers.
If such a socializing religious experience with all of its personalizing effect was to become a deepening reality, the minister of preaching, who was at the same time the administrator of the sacraments, must make it real to the common man’s imagination. If such preaching was to be at all effective, it must speak something of the common man’s language; it must tug away persistently at his average aspirations and his mediocre ideas.
Whether the ministry of the Gospel be that of Wyclif, who apparently challenged the very foundations of everyday Christendom in the process of seeking its redemption, or the work of Gerson, who pleaded for reforms that would further unify the Church in an age of inglorious schism, the story was essentially the same: great masses of Christians were being called upon, not only to stand against evil in the abstract, but also to declare themselves for transforming principles of life. The pertinence of Bernardine of Siena, as well as that of Girolamo Savonarola, lies precisely in that they both insisted upon going directly to the people with a message which they believed the Lord had meant the people to receive. Both achieved remarkable success in rallying the average citizenry not so much to themselves as to the heart-warming issues of Christian life that manifested themselves in the most commonplace experiences of daily routine.
Of course, there were preachers who did not feel it their primary obligation to consider the people at all. It was much easier and more spectacular to make of themselves exhibitions of rhetorical fluency and institutional success. Some forgot, completely, the admonitions of Augustine and Gregory to put the needs of people first and to speak primarily to their hearts in terms of a demanding Gospel. But there were many who remembered this great necessity of proclaiming Christ to all the people and who also felt free to innovate with regard to methods and procedures best adapted to this end. In spite of the thousands of lines of medieval sermons which apparently have no concern with the ordinary man and woman, there were probably countless ministers of the Gospel who considered it imperative, not only that they be understood, but also that they be regarded as humble leaders in the way of the Master. As already 21 noted, some of the most highly scholastic sermons had possibilities for popular orientation that must not be overlooked.
When a preacher of genuinely impassioned, Christian motivation spoke to the average representatives of his world, he was not mainly erudite or speculative. As a rule, he was not so much systematic in his presentation as he was moving in his appeal for action. Frequently enough he tried experiments in popular delivery and sermonic procedure, and some of these ventures quite obviously yielded poor returns. What we know from a vast mass of sermon materials is that preachers among the Mendicants, as well as some others, found sermon illustrations of a rather obvious kind virtually indispensable to their needs. What the preacher needed was not merely to speak a language or dialect that people could understand; he must make an impact upon the inner consciousness which would not too rapidly give way to lethargy and forgetfulness. Stories of every kind — some of them hardly in keeping with the minister’s profession as a follower of Jesus — were consistently utilized. The work of a man like Jacques De Vitry shows how effective a general principle could become when illumined by even a hoary illustration or when enlivened by the humorous proddings of a fundamentally sincere, yet always ingenious, storyteller.
By far the most fruitful field of exploitation in the whole area of popular preaching in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the extended use of sermon illustrations or pertinent examples. A rough classification of examples on which the preacher drew most heavily would include: (a) the Bible, chiefly the historical books; (b) the lives and writings of the Fathers and other sayings of well-known religious people; (c) the lives of the saints; (d) secular legends and stories dealing with both men and events; (e) tales and fables; and (f) the highly personal experiences of the preacher himself, especially his meeting with people in his travels.
Although the authors in the patristic age made large use of sermon illustration, it was, of course, reserved to the preaching revival of the twelfth century to restimulate and refurbish the stock of examples already at hand.
Abelard knew how to draw upon classical references for anecdotes just as he knew how to utilize the stories of the early Fathers. Exempla are a part of his equipment for helping readers to seize 22 the doctrinal point. Alain de Lille brings the first formal appreciation of the new role which the exempla may assume in the employ of the pulpit orator. He recommends the use of exemplum to stimulate the faithful and to join things more familiar with those not quite to readily understood.
Jacques de Vitry, however, is the master of sermon illustration. This thirteenth-century religious leader, who had a wide knowledge of people in many lands, knew human nature firsthand. He traveled widely over Europe and the Near East, he had come to know not only the eccentricities of the common man but the peccadilloes of the great as well. His appreciation of the common life did not stop, by any means, with a knowledge of how to preach to average citizens of France or Italy. He felt it incumbent upon him to speak with as much concern for the rich man’s soul and the bishop’s spiritual needs as for the ineffable longings of a humble peasant. For him, therefore, common life meant not something that was mean or low — such as the status of a slave — but, rather, the Christian aspirations and the human failings that united all conditions of men, whatever their social position or their place in the sinful history of man as a race.
In order to meet these varying spiritual conditions he made himself, first of all, an indefatigable student of how people reacted to varied experiences on every possible occasion. He filled his memory, not only with the stories handed down through the past and the illustrations preserved in old, moth-eaten volumes, but also with the events that had transpired in his own colorful life in France, Italy, and Palestine. Thus he approached the solutions of Christian problems as a preacher who was at one and the same time a pastor of humble men’s souls and the able administrator of a powerful diocese. Rising to be a cardinal, he never cased to be a peculiar combination of fearless critic and prophet, on the one hand, and ecclesiastical opportunist, on the other. He found himself utterly disgusted with the professional religionists of his day and said so quite plainly. Just the same, he was, himself, as any human being must be, guilty of some lapses from the highest ideals which he preached. What makes him important is not that he set himself up as a spiritual model, or that he became a statesman of the Western Church. It is, simply, that he brought his vast store of knowledge about people and 23 things vividly within the sphere of effective preaching and living.
Strictly speaking, De Vitry is not very adept in the clarification of preaching principles. He is much more effective when he is carrying out these same principles in practice. Nonetheless, he does theorize at some length as to what makes an effective preacher. These professional discussions on preaching technique are to be found in the various prologues to his different classes of sermons. For instance, in the introduction to his Sermons for the Church Year he is concerned to know what is actually the basis of the true sermon, just as he wishes to uncover the qualities of a good preacher and the method of adapting a given doctrine to different hearers or social conditions. Naturally, in such a connection he does not pass over the exemplum. He definitely recommends the use of stories drawn from the lives of the Fathers as well as the exposition of certain spiritual qualities symbolized by inanimate objects. He holds that a story about certain properties of stones or animals may be more effective in teaching the spiritual truth to relatively ignorant people than a long drawn-out disquisition.
Furthermore, in the Prologue to his Series of More Popular Sermons, he stresses much the same idea but emphasizes even more forcefully the versatility of preaching when it is buttressed by examples. He says that one may well use them to stimulate the piety of the simple faithful. And these require something more than abstraction and platitude. If one wishes to interest lay hearers of any kind, the exempla are necessarily called for. They even have their uses when one wishes to keep an illiterate from going to sleep or to arouse some poor soul who has pretty well started on the way to somnolence. It is in a connection such as this that he descends to bathos when, pausing in the midst of his sermon, he shouts, “That sleepy old woman back there will never know what I am about to say unless she wakes up.” One must, however, not jump to the conclusion that Jacques de Vitry was merely a cheap sensationalist in his preaching methods. As a rule, he was not; though, like most effective speakers, he violated, at some time or other, practically all his own rules for preaching. He was doubtless sincere when he warned his preaching brethren against vain and inept historiettes, that is, those fables and poetical curiosities which edify little and merely pique the interest to no good purpose. He was unalterably set 24 against all buffoonery and obscenity; so much so that one is more than mildly surprised upon hearing some of his own stories, which certainly pass well over the line of our own sense of delicacy. Here, however, one must remember that customs and modes change and that our age is inclined to regard as obscene some things that were not only tolerated but quite acceptable in De Vitry’s day. He may not have been prudish; he certainly was not hypocritical in his standards of morality. And when he spoke directly to a situation, he was frank first and delicate afterward.
Anyone who has studied at some length, not only the manifold stories that he told, but the contexts in which they appear, will be in position to understand the words of an ancient manuscript which declares that by his preaching word he moved the whole of France as no one had ever done before and as no one has done since. One cannot well deny his sincere interest in the spiritual needs of the various congregations that he addressed. Furthermore, he thought of them, not merely as so many people, in the mass, but, surprisingly often, as a highly varied community of unique personalities. He knew, likewise, that, in many instances, what was required was the edification of the simple and uninformed, rather than the further instruction of the learned. Inasmuch as he was, himself, a forthright person, he found it hard to tolerate other preachers who merely made a show of their professional craftsmanship when they should have been ministering to the need of human souls. With a pertinence that requires little commentary, he pointed out that what a sick man needs is not an eloquent physician but one who is prudent, benign, and who knows how to cure. Furthermore, he was quite well aware that the preacher’s business was not to add further befuddlement to people’s already confused minds, but, rather, to bring some light to their gathering darkness. He was, therefore, an advocate, both in his theoretical sections and in his actual preaching, of direct, sententious, and, it must be admitted, a sometimes racy style of preaching. As already indicated, he did not believe in letting a good story go to waste. It is remarkable, just the same, to observe how few stories he mutilated by overtelling them.
Naturally also, the stories that he told, the length of time that he required in the telling, the niceties or the crudities of style, and the every modification of the preacher’s art are determined by the 25 circumstances of the groups and the individuals that made a claim on his heart. One is quite prepared to hear him say, therefore, that Latin is all right for preaching to those in convents or learned gatherings, but that the vernacular in its most malleable form is required for the uninstructed. Furthermore, he realizes, as does every good preacher, that the poor, uninstructed soul must be ministered to in terms of conceptions and truths that are a clear to the heart as vigorous motion is to the eyes. Lucidity and starkness of imagery are, therefore, prerequisites in the rhetorical style of that minister who would speak to the unlearned. For this and like reasons, it is increasingly apparent why De Vitry followed no absolute formula in approaching his preaching problem. Sometimes he used a particular formula; sometimes he did not. On occasion he made a short story out of the very narrative that was highly expanded under different circumstances. There was no set number of major narrations that he felt called upon to inject into a given sermon. It has been estimated that De Vitry, like other good preachers, improvised and modified on the spot.
If one turns to an actual sermon such as that which is included in the selections that follow, he gets a ready appreciation of De Vitry’s vitality, as well as a reasonable perspective on his many faults in preaching. Certainly, he limited himself to no given number of stories as such. In a real sense, every sermon that he preached was an artfully constructed combination of life stories. This is quite apparent when one consults his famous sermon to husbandmen and vinedressers. Like many people who are a bit hard-pressed to find a theme for the very sermon they are to preach, he goes back to the Book of Zechariah to find the words: “I am . . . a husbandman; for Adam is my example from my youth,” and he couples with this the very pertinent admonition to sow the seed in the morning and not to cease in the evening. From this rather neutral beginning, De Vitry produces a fairly characteristic address which is thoroughly in keeping with the problems of working people, particularly farmers and keepers of vineyards. Here he has a good opportunity to declare, by way of introduction, that preachers as well as farmers ought always to be diligent in sowing the seed; and that, just as the farmer pauses to ask God’s blessing before he puts the grain in the soil, so the preacher properly calls for the divine fructification of 26 that seed which is the Word of God. Of course, a good farmer does not cease working simply because the weather is bad; nor does any good Christian slacken his efforts because of adversity.
Continuing in the same context, De Vitry points out that labor in the fields is a natural consequence of the sin of Adam. But whatever may have been the reason for work in the first place, it certainly has an honored status in the world as it is presently organized. Actually, those who work with their hands with good Christian intent are no less worthy than Churchmen who perform their high office in the regular ecclesiastical routine. Speaking, as he is, to laboring people, De Vitry is not slow to point out that many a humble peasant in his unrelieved routine may be serving with greater genuineness than some people who follow more ostensibly religious vocations. But just at the point when his hearers are sensing a comforting note in the preacher’s refrain, a salutary jolt is administered to them. It is very foolish for them to work solely for a physical sustenance without proper thought to the kind of life which brings eternal as well as temporal reward. The preacher reminds his hearers that it is nothing less than stupid to have a single return from one’s labors when he may just as well have a double increment.
The worker must remember that both his hands are needed; one must be used for laboring and the other for giving. Priests and monks may work with their hands and draw support from the responsive earth. But they may not enter into secular negotiation. On the other hand, the average workman must see to it that his everyday affairs do not crush out his interest in the support of the Church and her servants. It is nothing short of sacrilege to withhold tithes from the Lord’s minister. Some of the laity are actually known to divert such proper income from the clergy to themselves. They should remember that a layman cannot celebrate the sacraments. After all, the priest ministers in a way that the poor laborer never can. And each must see to it that he supplements the labors of the other in serving the Lord.
Such a context gives a fruitful opportunity for De Vitry to draw upon his store of examples. He has no trouble in remembering stories of people who would not pay their tithes and, also, of good poor people who gave until it hurt. One of his illustrations must have occasioned great joy to his laboring audience when he proceeded 27 to tell about the stingy knight who affected to be a very generous person but was shown by his bumbling servant to be the very opposite. Another castigated the penuriousness of a certain woman named Bertha, who, having the keeping of the household budget and the oversight of her husband’s resources, shut out all consideration for the poor and prepared only for her own selfish future. Then she died, and her husband was asked to contribute to the surcease of her soul. But he, now preoccupied with the approach of a second marriage, merely took liberties with a French proverb in saying, “Bertha had all my goods in her power; let her have all that she did for her own soul.” The preacher was not at all above delighting people of one class with stories of the foibles that plagued another social grouping. He gives the impression that he could go on for hours with stories of miserly folks who even hoard food and clothes until they become good for no one, rather than give them to the destitute. This, in turn, gives De Vitry opportunity to remind his hearers that genuine alms are required of rich and poor. Jesus himself finally surrendered his very life for the salvation of mankind. Jacques’ hearers were certainly not offended when he told stories of those who defrauded the indigent. Yet, he made them see quite soon that this might have reference to themselves and not just to some hypothetical rich man. Leviticus and Deuteronomy were very stern in their denunciation of such people. The Gospel was even sterner. And, speaking as he was to a laboring audience, he found or made opportunity to remind his listeners that fraud can be practiced by workers and employers alike. With no very startling social theories advanced, he calls upon all classes to remember the social responses that the Bible, the Fathers, and current Christian tradition demand of them.
In such a free-ranging analysis of one of De Vitry’s popular sermons and with regard to many similar productions, one is impressed with certain outstanding points. There is, first of all, the timeliness of his approach to the specific audience that he addresses. Not everything he says is in perfect order; it may not be told with complete propriety. But, throughout, there is a certain saltiness and pithiness that laboring people could hardly have found tiresome. There are few long, involved stories. Some of the exempla are much more direct and convincing than others. Some are certainly time-honored 28 in the memories of his hearers. Others may have prompted his listeners to remark that the preacher had found at least a few new stories. A mixture of appeal is provided in the same sermon. Much Scriptural quotation, considerable narration, more than a trace of humor, some parental chiding, and quite a lot of inspiration go side by side. What did it matter that some farfetched deductions were introduced, or that good taste was not always preserved in patristic fashion? The preacher was a real man preaching to real people. The understood what he was about, and they could never completely forget the pertinence of his message to their lives. Which of them would challenge his peroration on the preciousness in God’s sight of honest, God-fearing laborers and the true dignity accorded the work of their hands?
What De Vitry was doing in France, Eudes de Cheriton was doing in a somewhat similar way in England. Among other things, he selected well over a hundred moral fables and supplied, in a sermon book, scores of homilies suited to the festivals of the Church year and of the saints. Like De Vitry, he realized the great usefulness of sermon illustrations when dealing with popular audiences. At times, he was much more concise and also more highly stylized in his treatments than the great cardinal. Some of his works were admirably suited to expansion by an average preacher.
But the real legatees of De Vitry’s preaching genius are to be found among the outstanding representatives of those Mendicants whose star he had seen rising both in the West and in the East. A onetime Master-General of the Dominican order was Humbert de Romans. His treatment of the use of exempla is found in his book, On the Education of Preachers, and in a more specific collection of such illustrations. As in previous instances, a wide variety of data is assembled for the purpose of illustrating effective preaching. This leads to a discussion of the sermon and of the sermon maker as well. Natural history and historical anecdotes find a large place in his repertoire. He is pleased to refer to the birds just as the blessed Anthony did; and he recalls the Master’s admonition to “consider the birds of the heaven and the lilies of the fields.” Such references to natural phenomena have their place, he believes, in the instruction, not only of the faithful, but of the infidel as well. At the same time, he remembers the excessive uses to which any good thing may 29 be put. He, therefore, advises sternly against mere trifles; the indiscriminating use of fables is specifically discounted. Above all things, the preacher out to know what illustrations to use and when to use them.
Humbert is at his best when he passes from the realm of general principles to the field of specific application. He is as devoted as anyone can possibly be to the necessities of human salvation. This causes him to be very much alert to the diverse requirements of different souls. Perhaps his most lasting contribution is to the exposition of common-sense rules that should govern the manner of using exempla. These are applied with proper consideration as to the preacher, the hearers whom he addresses, the veracity and authority of his sources, and the general edification that may be hoped for by so illustrating the sermon. It is especially necessary that those preachers should use the exemplum who are best fitted to narrate agreeably. Obviously enough, not everyone is suited alike, in his predilections and his equipment, to the utilization of this method. Humbert advises those who are so circumstanced to stick to another method which to them will be preferable.
As regards the listeners, it is imperative that the preacher know exactly what caliber of audience he is addressing. Perhaps his materials will help those who are learned but will fail to edify those who are not. Again, the good minister must have a sense of proportion as regards the number of examples that he brings to bear in a given discourse. He must be careful to choose only those illustrations which will carry an evident utility. Those which are merely superfluous are to be rigidly weeded out. It is better that a preacher employ no exempla at all than use them simply for effect. Considerable care should be exercised in assuring the competence of authorities who go surety for the illustrations used. Those drawn from the masters in theology, the desert Fathers and saints, the great doctors of the Church, the Bible, and famous philosophers and naturalists have a place of priority.
Outstanding in more than one particular is an English Franciscan, Nicole Bozon, who made special place for himself and the exemplum in England. He presented the tale at the very time when English was not yet in popular usage and when French was only gradually giving way to the new vernacular. He seems to have been a 30 popular itinerant preacher with a remarkable knowledge of people’s religious and moral views. From a variety of sources, he brought a kind of rude order into widely separated narratives which he thought useful to the popular mind. In some respects he was the imitator of Eudes of Cheriton in that he made available to those of limited intelligence the very materials best suited to their needs. Thus he found a way to leave fairly satisfactory moral implications through illustrative recourse to innumerable commonplace data of experience. He also enjoyed delineating what passed for the authoritative facts of natural history. As a good Franciscan, he was concerned with clarifying the significance of the sacraments and the devotional practices associated with them. He was anxious, also, that people live, in the strength of these same sacraments, a life that would best avoid the vices and most effectively conduce to the virtues. Hence, he found it particularly appropriate to use that exemplum known as the “moralité,” with its large use of bestiaries. He employed the widest-ranging adaptiveness of the ever-present fable.
Sometimes Bozon finds his point best illustrated through the properties, not only of an animal, but also of a plant, or a stone. For these he draws out the inevitable moral application implicit in it. With such illustrations there usually goes a battery of Biblical texts and secular authorities which he can support by the citation of fables and anecdotes without end. On occasion, the fables are made to accompany moralizations that directly proceed from the Bible itself. Whatever combination of curious lore he places before the preacher, his purpose is the same: he wishes to make easier, and more direct, the possibilities of edification.
Smyth has analyzed from the Meyer edition a number of the typical stories, with their particular narrations, that are most characteristic of Nicole. A staggering variety of homely tales which, in turn, place in relief some basic moral principle is found throughout Nicole’s work. For instance, the proposition may be advanced that the company of the rich is to be shunned by the poor. Whereupon it is pointed out that the moon always keeps herself at a respectful distance from the sun; so that, when the sun appears in the East, the moon places herself in the West, or when the sun goes to the West, the moon properly seeks the East. “Let simple folk do likewise: let them keep themselves from rich folk in order to avoid evils that 31 may turn to hurt, as the mouse said to the cat.” Precisely what the mouse said to the cat deserves a little narration all of its own, which Nicole obligingly gives. The story is such as to delight, not only most children, but a majority of humble-minded adults as well. Of course, it is supposed to clinch the contention already set forth.
Again, people are warned against pride by the reminder that the peacock has learned the means of avoiding such a vice. He, “after admiring his tail, casts his glance at his foot, and at once his pride is appeased.” Such stories as these and many others may not have the vogue today that they enjoyed in this English Franciscan’s time. They possess, nonetheless, something of a lasting fascination for hearers across the centuries; and, with slight alterations, they appear in a surprising number of instances, safely incorporated within our own storytelling stock.
M. Paul Meyer, in his learned introduction to his far less learned Franciscan friend, Nicole, insists that few works had such an effect on popular life in England at the beginning of the fourteenth century as this particular unliterary venture. However, farfetched his tales may be, and however ill-considered some of the moral implications of them may appear, one fact remains securely established: the populace of Bozon’s day liked to hear his stories, and they found their way into a continuingly large number of sermons preached by other men.
Whether one ranges through the representative collections of exempla provided by the Dominicans or reverts periodically to the companion series supplied by the Franciscans, he encounters a like condition. The Mendicants, with their resources of training and their cultivated interest in popular preaching, became increasingly noted for their aptness in all the forms of public persuasion. Unless one is prepared to spend unlimited time in surveying the works that they wrote, he must be content to select but a few of their more outstanding accomplishments. Salimbene, the chatty Franciscan of the late thirteenth century, and Voragine, the dedicated Dominican of the same period, with sis collected lives of the saints, together give us an expanding coverage on the total experience of medieval Christian people.
Salimbene, with all his loyalty to things Franciscan, is by no means averse to handing on stories from within his own fraternity 32 that have definite limits of edification. With apparently no conscious addiction of gossip, at least that of the more malicious sort, he does pick up and transmit from things seen, heard, and read, many examples that are far more fresh and entertaining that those more conventionally drawn from The Proverbs and the Fathers of old. Of course, he maintains a goodly store of time-honored stories. But he has a special section in his chronicle that deals with the doings of prelates; and in this particular area of discussion, he makes one feel at home, not only in the frailties and triumphs of the Franciscan world, but also in the whole psychological province of medieval Christendom. His chronicle thus becomes one serialized personal memoir in the grand manner within which the greatest possible diversity of experience and memories jostle about.
In the light of such a seasoned collector’s major interest, it is not difficult to see why Wyclif developed such an animus to the preaching methods of friars. He could not deny that they made some use of Scriptural material. But he was certainly right in assuming that Bible materials became badly mixed with secularized accounts in the hands of many a mendicant raconteur. His chief objection was that the Gospel was thus reduced to the status of a badly mangled and often positively misrepresented source, which frequently had no more authority than any other one of a dozen storytelling collections. In truth, Wyclif did not resent, in principle, the friars’ going to the people with a preaching message. He believed in doing just that, himself. He did resist what he regarded as being the defamation of Scriptural authority in the hands of ill-informed, undiscriminating examplemongers. Once having become a habitual critic of the mendicant methods of preaching, he became less and less able to see any good in their procedures. At the same time, he, for his part, presented a Gospel that was frequently so shorn of all illustrative embellishments as to lose something of the freshness and delight that Jesus himself had imparted to his own preaching through parable and metaphor.
Christian history demonstrates repeatedly that the Church, at its best, has been a self-criticizing institution. This healthful propensity has, in turn, led to the necessity of proclaiming frequent reforms. From the third century through the fifteenth, the masters of the pulpit not only found it their duty to look into their own lives and that 33 of their communities, but also to proclaim the will of the Lord where each was concerned. Since God’s purpose could never be worked out with perfection by fallible beings, these same divine behests must lead to the periodic resurveying and repurifying of Christian hearts, individually and collectively.
As a result, the concept of reformation has been a perennial resource in the armory of Christian preachers; it has also called for a special type of ministry in the pulpit. If life, as it is, is to be brought into judgment before the ultimate requirements of the eternal, it must be analyzed and resynthesized in terms of Christian ideals such as the Lord’s prophets are expected to make public.
Whatever may have been the tenderness of conscience or the annoyance with criticism on the part of Churchmen in any given age, the necessity for self-examination, repentance, and corporate, as well as personal, reformation continued to be emphasized. In addition, the opponents of Christian thought make their attitudes quite clear in a continuing barrage of invidious attacks. All too frequently, the truth of their criticism had to be acknowledged by the best friends of the Christian institution itself. In so far as a preacher was an honest servant of his Lord, he dared not quail at outside censure; he must call for inward purification and public rededication.
The words “reform” and “reformation,” therefore, have no merely specialized connotation of revolt against existing Churchly institutions. They suggest the continuing and unspectacular necessity of Christians measuring themselves against the absolutes of the Lord and reshaping their intentions and overt actions in the ways inexorably demanded by his prophets. In the Early Church and throughout the Middle Ages, this plea for reformation continued to be made. Origen exacted from his brethren new promises as to the clarification of intellectual issues and the reconsecration of the mind. Chrysostom not only sympathized with the members of his congregation when they sat waiting for the news of their emperor’s expected outburst of displeasure; he also held up in prophetic fashion the renewal of life demanded of those who truly repent of their sins and come once more, for forgiveness, to their Lord.
Such an able statesman as Gregory the Great by no means confined his attention to the running of papal estates and the dispatching of letters to ecclesiastical subordinates. His long sermons and commentaries 34 on the meaning of the Prophets and the Gospels had a decidedly reformatory tone. For him, as for his brethren throughout the Christian ages, to be a follower of Christ was to turn again and remake one’s life with the aid of Christ’s powers in one’s soul. Nor was reform limited to the great administrators of the See of Rome. Far away, in Celtic lands, fearless men like Columban called upon popes, themselves, to be true to their consummately pastoral responsibilities. The Holy Father was reminded in gentle words, but with stern undertones of spirit, that Irish Christians could subscribe only to such principles as they found rooted in the Gospel, regardless of any interpretations to the contrary which might emanate from Italy.
In that period of cultural transformation, known as the era of Roman disintegration and rising Germanic empires, new bases of life were being wrought out for peoples and kingdoms. All of this was being accomplished with the aid of preachers who dared to speak for old institutions as well as for new princes. In an age of missionization that found its centers both in Rome and among Irish apostles, Christian preachers went forth to speak clear and uncompromising words to Frankish kings, Thuringian tribesmen, and learned scholars in monastic retreats. The message that they carried emphasized the necessity of changing men’s individual and social lives with the clear mandates of the Old Testament and refurnishing the spirit according to the exacting requirements of Jesus’ own Gospel. However much people might seek to avoid the discomfort of being Christian in practice, as well as in theory, some preacher was always to be found who would tolerate nothing less than a full-fledged attempt at reform of life. Whether amidst the stark crudities of virtually primitive peoples or in the courts of Christian kings, the necessity persisted for the bold declaration of a reforming and redeeming evangelism.
Strange as it may seem, the Carolingian Renaissance finds its larger meaning in this very connection. Perhaps no man had ever sought more insistently and consistently than Charlemagne to construct an empire on the basis of power and domination. Perhaps, also, none had been more completely under the spell of an Augustinian concept of the true prince doing the will of an Old Testament God. However this may be, Charles called upon every cleric in his domain, whether secular or regular, to remember his primary obligation 35 as a harbinger of the Christian faith and a preacher of the Christian sacraments.
It is clearly apparent in many documents that emanated from the king himself that he proposed to insure reformation among clergy and people, in part at least, through preaching and teaching by qualified priests. Their charge was to make available to the people the essentials of the Catholic faith. The sacraments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the strengthening of spiritual and social life on the most elemental levels were to be incorporated without fail. When, therefore, Charles called the absence of such instruction to the attention of a leading bishop, he took for granted that this official would immediately prepare a directive to his clergy that should embody the essential principles at issue. A persistent note in the reform program of Charlemagne was his declaration that the proper balance of ecclesiastical life in the realm could not be maintained unless preaching and spiritual instruction were properly carried out.
But it would be quite erroneous to assume that Charlemagne’s realm was the only portion of Christendom that responded to the emphasis on preaching or that his was the only initiative directed toward homiletical reform and its proper objectives. In his own area, and elsewhere, there was a continuing tradition of reform-preaching that issued from both high and low ecclesiasts in their own right. Synods and councils, some of them, to be sure, in response to public pressure, sought to improve clerical morals and general Christian deportment by this means. And such representative gatherings of Church officials were not purely sporadic or regional. A study of conciliar canons shows that in even the darker periods of homiletic emphasis usually some attention was given to the potentialities of improved preaching as a means to more effective Christianization of life. Naturally we have much of our information from radical, or even outstanding, Churchmen. But there is good reason to believe that many humble-minded, conscientious preachers continued to feel a sense of spiritual vocation in the declaration of Christian principles.
If one looks to England in the tenth century, he is, of course, struck with the reform program being worked out by St. Dunstan. Archbishop of Canterbury in the last half of the century, he is rightly said to have been the greatest ecclesiastical statesman of pre-Conquest 36 England. There is clear evidence that he made genuine attempts to improve preaching as one means of raising the level of secular clergy and monastic leaders as well. His ultimate purpose, of course, was to make these leaders better able to direct the lives of their followers. It is, perhaps, no accident that in his period there was a revived interest in the Gospel and an increased activity in editing and paraphrasing Biblical materials. On the continent, reform movements such as those at Cluny and others within the scope of Hildebrand’s enlarging orbit necessarily depended much on improved Christian preaching. In this connection the name of Peter Damian cannot be forgotten. Although a man with numerous intellectual conquests to his credit, he deliberately set himself to a monastic vocation, partly in protest against the corrupt conditions within the Church of his time. As an associate of contemporary popes and in keeping with his own convictions, he continued to preach a stern reform program. His most famous denunciation of the clergy, known as the Gomorrah, is not pleasant reading now and must certainly have made many preachers uncomfortable in his own age. But bitter though his diatribes may have been, they were not limited to a purely negative interpretation of Christian life. What he sought was an improvement in the Christian experience of the clergy, first, and of the people, thereafter. If one reads contemporary accounts by other responsible Churchmen, he cannot possibly conclude that Peter was wholly misrepresenting current conditions.
One of the greatest of the twelfth-century reformers was Raoul Ardent. Raoul, himself, seems never to have counted the cost of frankness in denouncing wickedness high and low. But his preaching was not merely common scolding. It was definitely prophetic in that it brought Gospel judgments to bear upon every kind of dereliction and every form of spiritual inertia. As already indicated in another connection, his own conviction took the form of declaring for a more evangelical movement. One reason that he could rise above sheer denunciation to warmhearted charity was that he discerned in the Scriptures both the consequence of, and the cure for, defections from Christian rectitude. He asked repeatedly, in effect, what could be expected of the general Christian populace if preachers themselves were not evangelical in their source of inspiration or Gospel-rooted in the springs of their own lives. It is noteworthy that in the sermons 37 that he preached in the due course of celebrating the liturgical seasons of the year he found it perfectly natural to call upon priests and people for a better understanding and truer application of the Scriptures. In so doing he took his text from the New Testament and from the purported vicar of Christ himself — the one presumably seated first in the papal chair. Like Peter, he declared that nothing but disaster can be expected from a clergy that is more interested in mercenary gains than it is in the cure of souls. He must have wearied some people with his consistent rebukes of self-seeking prelates. He quoted, with Ezekiel and New Testament writers, the Lord’s terrible judgment of those pastors who refuse to feed their flocks. Clearly enough, the sheep do no follow bad shepherds; or if they do, they may be expected to come to some tragic end.
Like the greatest of his contemporaries, as well as some of later ages, Raoul was not content to substitute comfortable preaching with its vain fables and comedies for the stern fare of the Gospel. With Paul he would say, “We preach Christ crucified and risen from the dead.” He could not refrain from pointed remarks as to leaders of influence whom he knew who clearly spurned the way of the Holy Scriptures and went off into more pleasant homiletic bypaths. Nor did he hesitate to denominate them as the destroyers of men’s souls. But he was too fair to disparage only the minister who thus sought popular approval by recourse to superficial appeals. He also attacked the Christian public which preferred panderers to depraved tastes above honest distributors of spiritual food. Therefore, both the preacher and the hearer were subjected to a rigid excoriation if they in any wise came in this category. He never tired of asserting that the Scriptures are the only true light in a dark, sinful, and ignorant world. The Lord’s Word alone will serve to make men ready for the final accounting. Speaking to men of his own vocation, he called upon them not to seek the delights of this world. He would not have them be ministered unto but implored that they become ministers through a teaching and preaching profession to those whom they led. Thus, mercenary inclinations of any kind and ignorance of the Scriptures in any quarter were, for him, major obstacles to Christian reform. He himself preached a redeeming gospel and called upon others to preach likewise. In this he was striving, not for the hurt of any person, but with charitable concern for the spiritual health of all.38
Little need be said about the reform impulse in Bernard of Clairvaux. Perhaps he was, upon occasion, too much aware of his function as a reformer. Nonetheless, some of his most pertinent and gripping messages are addressed to regular and secular clergy who have the souls of people in their care. His discussions of preaching in general may be limited somewhat in their usefulness; his practice of the preaching art for the ends of purification and redemption on a wide scale is not to be undervalued.
When, however, the Middle Ages emerge into the mendicant era, a reformatory experience of enlarged character is at once evident. Francis is too modest to conceive of himself as a preacher in the fullest degree; though as a deacon he does perform many preaching functions. Nevertheless, he accepts the challenge for himself, as well as for his lay and priestly brethren, to minister to the needs of contemporary multitudes. In the areas of liturgical life already observed, he lays down wholesome rules for preaching as a means of clarifying the ends and methods of worship. His followers in the centuries to come were not always true to his conception of their immediate duties. But they did become, increasingly, a bulwark against heresy and a support to the Church in its program of Christian revival. However much they might employ new methods of illustration, and to whatever degree they made use of scholastic formulas in the preparation of their sermons, they ministered increasingly to people of scattered interests under almost every conceivable circumstance. The Dominicans, with a peculiar sense of preaching apostolate growing within them from their very inception, set out to defend the truth as the Church conceived it. As inquisitors against the heretics, as missionaries in the most widely separated corners of the Christian world, and as trained exponents of good doctrine, they sought to remove the stain of corruption within the Church and to replace it with a purified ecclesiastical life. Their influence, also, upon the people of eminence and the submerged classes in town and country made them invaluable agents of the institutional Church.
A similar story of reformation by means of preaching must be told from the time of Roger Bacon in the thirteenth through the middle of the sixteenth century. Bacon is sure that preachers, too many of them formed in the crystallized mold of the schools, are not only badly prepared in Biblical studies; they also retail the same 39 old platitudes denied alike by true scholarship and personal experience. His own order and that of his Dominican brother have shown sad decay. In spite of everything that has been done, the whole clergy, including many representatives of Rome, are a stench in the nostrils of the Lord. Power politics dominate everywhere. The sacraments are dishonored. Christians are, in reality, inferior in their morals to the pagans whom they seek to convert. Certainly, some great cataclysm of life must come — and that very soon. Antichrist will appear on the scene with all the horrors foretold by prophets and sibyls of old; that is, unless some good pope or emperor will provide the needed impetus to thoroughgoing reform. The Church, if it is to be truly purged, must be stirred to a new purity from within. Roger Bacon, like many of those who are not themselves primarily answerable for preaching, is quite bitter about the way in which others do it. But he is surely right in assuming that those who have the best opportunities in training ought to give some of the best examples of the preaching art. He finds, on the other hand, that all too frequently the men who stir the people are poor, uninformed preachers not properly prepared to serve the needed cause. One need not go farther to sense the inclination on his part to call for a more effective predication based on good scholarship and Gospel nurture.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries experienced all the cumulative frustrations of the Great Schism. Yet Jean Gerson provided a new example of the effective minister prosecuting the reformation of Christian life. Together with his former teacher, Pierre D’Ailly, he bore much of the burden of the great councils, particularly that of Constance, which sought to unify the Church and to reform it in head and members. Having come from a humble station in life to the University of Paris, he distinguished himself as student, teacher, administrator, and finally as the leader of a large group of ecclesiastical reformers. Many of his greatest sermons were delivered in connection with the conciliar program. But his function was wider than even this noble attempt. He has every right to be known as the preacher to every man. Thus he preached before the king of France and ignorant peasants with the same Christian dedication and fervor. Youth and children were not forgotten in an age that very frequently passed them by. It is not unusual to have him pause in addressing 40 adults to bring in some reference peculiarly relevant to the needs of these young hearers. Out of regard for their religious problems he prepared a little pamphlet called Leading the Little Ones to Christ. He preached in Latin and in the vernacular on almost every kind of occasion.
Gerson’s preaching included a genuine concern for the truth in terms of versatile proclamation; a knowledge of Scriptures; spiritual-mindedness; an exemplary life evidenced in oneself; the hard-working preparation of the sermon, as well as an alertness to age-old human problems. Ever sermon grows out of a single emphasis designed to support the one true Gospel, the story of Christ’s love. In the life of Jesus he found every instruction for leading human beings to their heavenly goal. The love of God and Christ cannot but breed repentance in the human soul and so bring it to an amendment of life.
The most learned man of the fifteenth century was Nicholas of Cusa. Having played a chief role in the unification of his beloved Church and having come increasingly to support the papal point of view, Cusa made his whole Episcopal career a close-knit prosecution of the reform ministry. Few people knew better than he how savage were the onslaughts against the Church by its enemies from outside. Paganism was steadily encroaching upon the sacred preserves of the true Gospel. There was only one cure for this as Nicholas saw it. That was found in the interior renewal of Christian men and women and, through them, them, the remaking of the outside world, infidels included. People everywhere must be taught the duties of their Christian life and persuaded to accept the obligations that went with those responsible instructions. This meant teaching the faith to the clergy and prevailing upon them to implant it in the people. The progressive invasion of society by pagan ideas and customs must be checked through the preaching of the Word. Nicholas said, upon occasion, that preaching thus conceived might be even more important than the celebration of the holy mysteries. He stood consistently, however, for a reform of the liturgy and for a reconsecration of individual and social experience on the platform of Christian rededication. In his sermons as ordinarily developed, there are constituent parts directed to the learned, the untutored, and the more singularly devout. He takes every opportunity to explain the sacraments and to create renewed veneration for the liturgy. For him, there is no rigid separation 41 between the preaching of the Gospel and the proclamation of the sacraments.
One has difficulty in thinking of Cusa as a popular discourser. But sermons of a more flexible character he undoubtedly did preach — with what effectiveness is not always clear. He was not above piquing his people’s curiosity by legitimate means. He conceived some of his sermons serially and announced them in advance in order to bring his hearers back. On occasion, he utilized the form of dialogue to place in relief some dramatizable issue. He tried different methods for different groups and circumstances. He attacked superstitions, sorceries, and the causes of them, which lay, as he believed, in bad instruction and ignorance. But wherever he preached — whether to councils, university gatherings, popular assembles, or papal retinues — his prevailing emphasis was always the same; he sought wholesome and total reform in the life of the whole clergy and the entire people.
Savonarola ought, perhaps, to be mentioned in conclusion as an example of the manner in which a reformer may easily be implicated beyond his expectations in the difficult matters of everyday politics. One must not too readily exult at the effectiveness with which he chastised recreant popes, complacent Churchmen, and irresponsible civic leaders. He was not always able to exercise commendable restraint in exposing evil forces and wicked men. Some of his declarations have the sound of near fanaticism. But his main projection of spirit was in the direction of the purified Christian life. And, like Bernardine of Siena and Nicholas of Cusa, he could not dissociate the everyday affairs of the Church from those of society any more than he could ultimately retract his life convictions. Whether for good or ill, he took the Bible as his text and proceeded on the basis of it to his own death.
Thus, the Middle Ages make plain that the Church believes in the efficacy of good preaching and is not indifferent to the suggestions of pulpit reformers. This fact has official confirmation from the leading canons of the Council of Trent. Whatever may be said as to the ultimate structure of the Church and hierarchy there decided upon, the emphasis upon the preaching function as a means to reformation is amply clear.
In the selection of the sermons that follow, an attempt has been 42 made, first of all, to construct a genuine anthology. With the clear conviction that a few individuals, however outstanding, neither make the Church nor thoroughly reflect its life, an honest selection of representative thought and experience has been sought. Whole periods or groups have not been ignored simply because better preaching was found on the part of a select few in some other concentrated area. Nevertheless, unproductive periods have not been consciously presented as being otherwise. Great figures get their due, all the more, in company with lesser men who serve alike as foils to greatness and as reminders of a common, inescapable humanity.
In the main, however, the impossible but necessary task of culling out representative materials from fifteen hundred years of Christian history and testimony has been carried on with one basic intent. This has been the fervent hope that peoples of our own and later times may see the positive witness of these earlier Christians to spiritual values most deeply cherished and the faith most persistently held. The unity of their life passion has, of course, had to be rediscovered in a variety of expressions. Such consistency as may emerge is, one may believe, a tribute to the solidarity underlying earlier ideals rather than an evidence of editorial bias and inadequacy. In making selections, crudities and banalities serving no obviously good end have been arbitrarily exscinded. At the same time, a spiritual instinct has been followed which appreciates, not only the most exalted and noble utterances, but also the less impressive and sometimes more typical outpourings of the human heart. Some deeply edifying currents have coursed adequately through eight hundred words. In a number of instances a preacher or a type of preaching has required considerable space because of the intimate relationships sustained to Christian life as a whole.
Especial regard has been shown for preachers and their works that exercise continuing influence on Christian faith in the West. Naturally, an Origen and a Chrysostom introduced some debatable methods and qualities into their homiletic productions; but their spirit does not die. Some materials have been included that may not fit at all into the present styles of interpreting the Scriptures or the universe. But Basil and Innocent III, for instance, carry in a wrapping, however unacceptable, Christian treasures that must not be lost. Gregory I, like some others, is included not so much to demonstrate 43 that he was a great preacher as to present one who could not fail to prophesy when he felt the power of the Lord descending upon him. Bede the Venerable, whether or not the incontestable author of the selections attributed to him, was, in the spirit of his humility and the eloquence of his life, all that the anthology suggests. Anselm’s preaching may be a keen disappointment to some; but what he proclaims is, coupled with his meditations, prayers, and other works, still a call to the listening heart. Almost no one will wonder why Bernard of Clairvaux was generously represented. Those who have questions about his disciple Guarric will be happily surprised at the Scriptural vitality of his message. It can certainly occasion no amazement that the Mendicants are so lengthily reproduced. Undoubtedly, some of the best preaching, and probably some of the worst, came from them. Likewise, a view of university sermons being preached at Paris, 1230-1231, serves both to re-enforce and to refute the contention that academic life is sundered from the people’s needs. It is most heartening to hear the best leaders of Paris, and of the friars also, call for an inner reformation that shall place Christ once more in the center of Christian life — where he has always belonged.
Actually, the manner in which Jesus the Christ keeps re-emerging from the homiletic storehouse, in which he is often incarcerated and from which he is so frequently reappropriated, is one of the most instructive qualities that the anthology has endeavoured to preserve. It is well to be forewarned against such oversimplified issuance of his Gospel as his followers have often supplied. Augustine, Aelfric, Bonaventura, Eckhart, Wyclif, Gerson, and Cusa had widely differing interpretations of Jesus’ meaning for Christians. But they, and many others, did insist that Christians must deal with him as a perennial issue. And if, to some dedicated followers of their Lord, Wyclif and Savonarola seem bent, mainly, on razing Christ’s Church to the ground, these preachers of reform should be heard all the more willingly to learn if their stand was fundamentally for Christ or against him.
Unerringly, the selections here made reflect the Church’s genius as a worshiping body of the Lord. No truly representative passages could do otherwise. Furthermore, the gigantic issues of the relation of the preacher to Bible and cult are given some necessary clarifications — perhaps as much by unstudied indirection as by conscious 44 emphasis. There has been no awareness of special theses favored or particular individuals and groups placed in advantageous positions. In the anthology there appear the relatively obscure and the admittedly famous, the proud boast of a region and the cosmopolitan preacher, the institutionally courted orator and the suspect declaimer, the university man and the little curate, the fiery reformer and the mystic follower, the lumbering exhorter and the free-ranging evangelist, the people’s preacher and the comforter of popes and kings. From Italy, France, Germany, England, Syria, Africa, Palestine, and all points East and West they come. Furthermore, their testimonies are taken, not if they are eligible as men of letters, but if, with all their human failings and virtues, they in some way magnify their Maker and seek to follow the Christ. Temporizers and prophets may be among them. Better men may be left out than are included. But, in so far as their compiler has had the wisdom to discover them, they are representative preachers of a West that is long since past, speaking, however, unwittingly, to brethren of later times. If it be said that this is, in large measure, a book for preachers, the judgment will not be denied. The hopeful observation will be added, however, that a book so directly related to the pulpit ministry may well be expected to transmit the rich heritage of the Christian ages, not only to the preaching fraternity, but also to the peoples of every culture and every time.
1 Published in Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking. The Century Co., 1925. Pp. 61-90.
2 Ibid., pp. 72, 73.
3 Ibid., p. 88.
4 Ibid., p. 88. The original document illustrated the “tree.”
5 The Lollard Bible and Other Medieval Biblical Versions, by M. Deanesly. Cambridge University Press, 1920. Pp. 195, 196.
6 Ibid., p. 196.
7 Ibid., p. 184.
8 Ibid., p. 196.
9 Ibid., p. 209.