Every preacher should read Book IV of St. Augustine’s classic De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). Its 40-odd pages basically constitute the first homiletics handbook. And it is not dry. The great father of the Church comes in hot, shooting straight fire from the get-go.
And a word of caution, especially for folks like myself who can be tempted to put the rhetorical cart before the spiritual horse:
[The Christian orator] should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him.
Let the one who has ears to hear, hear—or shall we say, let the one who has lips to speak, drink.
Why should the devil have all the good rhetoric?
Augustine makes this last point not out of disrespect for oratory, however, but precisely because he holds it in such high esteem. Much of the burden of Book IV of De Doctrina is to make a defense of the Christian use of the tools of rhetoric. “Oratorical ability, so effective a resource to commend either right or wrong, is available to both sides,” he contends, alluding to the pagan opponents of the faith. “Why then is it not acquired by good and zealous Christians to fight for the truth, if the wicked employ it in the service of iniquity and error, to achieve their perverse and futile purposes?” His basic point, as I’ve written previously, is to ask: Why should the devil have all the good rhetoric?
One particular way in which Augustine exemplifies this is how he adapts Cicero’s functions of eloquence in order to set forth the Christian purposes of preaching and their corresponding styles. In my next post I’ll take up the style side of things, but here let me briefly touch on the aims of Christian oratory according to the Bishop of Hippo.
Why then is it not acquired by good and zealous Christians to fight for the truth, if the wicked employ it in the service of iniquity and error, to achieve their perverse and futile purposes?-St. Augustine
Instruct, Delight, Move
Augustine helpfully lays out his program with an ancient version of the subtweet, referencing Cicero without naming him: “It has been said by a man of eloquence, and quite rightly, that the eloquent should speak in such a way as instruct, delight, and move their listeners. He then added: ‘instructing is a matter of necessity, delighting a matter of charm, and moving them a matter of conquest.’” Don’t @ me, bro.
The first purpose of preaching, according to Augustine/Cicero, is to instruct. In this he follows St. Paul, who not only insists that pastors be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) but also that all Scripture is “profitable for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16). Patristics scholar Christopher Beeley, commenting on this first function in Augustine, remarks, “After all, people cannot believe in, hope for, or love what they do not know.”
So far, so good: any pastor worth his salt knows he needs to be teaching God’s people. Where things get spicier is with the second purpose: to delight. By delight Augustine means the means that preachers use to make the message more pleasurable for the hearers. Whatever isn’t strictly called for by the substance of the sermon—illustrations, analogies, wordplay, and so on—falls under this category. Preachers are like the sweet old waitress who once said to my son with Tennessee twang, “We aim to please, young sir.”
Augustine is careful to point out that delighting isn’t an end in itself; in a cage match between wisdom and eloquence, wisdom should always win out. Even so, delight serves an essential role in proclamation and should not be neglected or regarded as mere ornamentation. He writes, “A hearer must be delighted so that he can be gripped and made to listen.” A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
To instruct and to delight are essential but subservient to Augustine’s ultimate aim in preaching, which is to move. “When advocating something to be acted on,” he writes, “the Christian orator should not only teach his listeners so as to impart instruction, and delight them so as to hold their attention, but also move them so as to conquer minds.” He is wont to quote St. Paul: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
As preachers, this is why we oftentimes can’t tell the extent to which the message has hit its mark until days, weeks, or months have passed—sometimes longer. Neither attentive note-taking, nor appreciative head-nods, nor even sympathetic tears satisfy the purpose of preaching. Only lives that are changed by the Word working in the hearts of God’s people can do that.
The preacher’s prayerful aim
Let’s conclude by returning to Augustine’s admonition that preaching must be preceded by praying. All the purposes of proclamation are finally fodder for the pastor to lift up before the Father:
The speaker who is endeavoring to give conviction to something that is good should despise none of these three aims—of instructing, delighting, and moving his hearers—and should make it his prayerful aim to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience.
Next time I’ll offer up more from On Christian Teaching, since it is so rich with nuggets of pastoral and homiletic wisdom. But you don’t have to take my word for it: take and read a copy for yourself. Ba-dum-dum!
Augustine, On Christian Teaching, IV §69.
Generally speaking, the whole of On Christian Teaching makes a case for Christians “plundering the spoils of Egypt”—that is, repurposing pagan wisdom to Christian ends. See, e.g., On Christian Teaching, II §144-145.
Christopher Beeley, Leading God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 113.