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  #1  
Old Jun 25, '12, 6:46 am
exnihilo exnihilo is offline
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Question What is the history of the sermon/homily

I'm a Protestant. In some Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point of the worship service. I believe this would generally be the case for churches which do not have weekly communion. In these churches I think it fair to say that a worshippers opinion about the service and even the local church can often times center on the quality of the preaching. This got me to wondering about the history of the sermon/homily. What was the tradition in the church through the ages? I'd be specifically interested in the practice in the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages and the time around the Reformation.

One specific interest is how long were sermons? It seems to me that a Protestant tradition is to have sermons last forty-five minutes or longer. Was this ever a practice in the Catholic church or non-Catholic liturgical churches?

Another interest is the historic purpose of a sermon. Some sermons seem geared to explaining the Scripture that is read. Others seem more like a general call to faith (which gets a bit tedious if you are already a Christian).
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  #2  
Old Jun 25, '12, 11:09 am
Todd Easton Todd Easton is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

From the second century:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 67)

Last edited by Todd Easton; Jun 25, '12 at 11:20 am.
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  #3  
Old Jun 25, '12, 11:28 am
Todd Easton Todd Easton is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

The article on "Homily" in the Catholic Encyclopedia covers some of the history.
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  #4  
Old Jun 25, '12, 11:41 am
JonNC JonNC is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by exnihilo View Post
I'm a Protestant. In some Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point of the worship service. I believe this would generally be the case for churches which do not have weekly communion. In these churches I think it fair to say that a worshippers opinion about the service and even the local church can often times center on the quality of the preaching. This got me to wondering about the history of the sermon/homily. What was the tradition in the church through the ages? I'd be specifically interested in the practice in the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages and the time around the Reformation.

One specific interest is how long were sermons? It seems to me that a Protestant tradition is to have sermons last forty-five minutes or longer. Was this ever a practice in the Catholic church or non-Catholic liturgical churches?
Another interest is the historic purpose of a sermon. Some sermons seem geared to explaining the Scripture that is read. Others seem more like a general call to faith (which gets a bit tedious if you are already a Christian).
Regarding lutheran homiletics, just going on my own memories, while sermons seemed very long, I'm certain they have typically been about what they are now - generally 15 - 20 minutes. Some long-winded pastors can go longer, but with the return, here in America, to the historic Lutheran teaching of greater frequency of offering the eucharist, the pressure is to limit sermon lengths.

Most Lutheran pastors focus on one or more of the lectionary readings, or as the Church calendar guides, often the same thing, as was this past Sunday with the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

Jon
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“This also is certain, that no one should rely on his own wisdom in the interpretation of the Scripture, not even in the clear passages, for it is clearly written in 2 Peter 1:20: ‘The Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation.’
"The best reader of the Scripture, according to Hilary, is one who does not bring the understanding of what is said to the Scripture but who carries it away from the Scripture. "
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  #5  
Old Jun 25, '12, 2:43 pm
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Swiss Guy Swiss Guy is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by exnihilo View Post
I'm a Protestant. In some Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point of the worship service. I believe this would generally be the case for churches which do not have weekly communion. In these churches I think it fair to say that a worshippers opinion about the service and even the local church can often times center on the quality of the preaching. This got me to wondering about the history of the sermon/homily. What was the tradition in the church through the ages? I'd be specifically interested in the practice in the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages and the time around the Reformation.

One specific interest is how long were sermons? It seems to me that a Protestant tradition is to have sermons last forty-five minutes or longer. Was this ever a practice in the Catholic church or non-Catholic liturgical churches?

Another interest is the historic purpose of a sermon. Some sermons seem geared to explaining the Scripture that is read. Others seem more like a general call to faith (which gets a bit tedious if you are already a Christian).
And I thought Lutheran sermons were long!
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  #6  
Old Jun 25, '12, 4:12 pm
jschutzm jschutzm is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by exnihilo View Post
I'm a Protestant. In some Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point of the worship service......... This got me to wondering about the history of the sermon/homily. What was the tradition in the church through the ages? I'd be specifically interested in the practice in the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages and the time around the Reformation.

One specific interest is how long were sermons? ............
Catholic sermons are generally kept to 5-10 minutes. They are NOT the focus of the church service. Scripture, Thanksgiving and Eucharist ARE the focus.

As for non-Catholic or more specifically non-Eucharistic churches.. yes, the sermon takes on more importance as the 'meat and potatoes' of the church service. However, that is not universally true, as in some Churches "Worship" aka singing and music is the focus of the service and the sermon itself, is still only 10-20 minutes long.

So outside of the Catholic church.. it is hard to generalize or come up with any objective standard for the rest of Christianity.

For information on the very early church.. I'd refer to the Didache - a late 1st century document containing instructions to the early Christian church on how to celebrate Mass/Gatherings.
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  #7  
Old Jun 26, '12, 7:06 am
exnihilo exnihilo is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by JonNC View Post
Regarding lutheran homiletics, just going on my own memories, while sermons seemed very long, I'm certain they have typically been about what they are now - generally 15 - 20 minutes.
That is more what I'm accustomed to with 15 minutes being more typical than 20.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Swiss Guy View Post
And I thought Lutheran sermons were long!
I believe Charles Spurgeon used to preach on average for an hour and he could draw many thousands of people.

Quote:
Originally Posted by jschutzm View Post
Catholic sermons are generally kept to 5-10 minutes. They are NOT the focus of the church service. Scripture, Thanksgiving and Eucharist ARE the focus...

For information on the very early church.. I'd refer to the Didache - a late 1st century document containing instructions to the early Christian church on how to celebrate Mass/Gatherings.
My real interest is how this might have changed over time. We tend to think things have always been like they are now. But according to this article on the frequency of communion during the Middle Ages the Catholic faithful and even saints did not frequently communion. In fact many communed as infrequently as modern Baptists! So I wonder what the homily length was over time, even in the early 20th century.
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  #8  
Old Jun 26, '12, 8:10 am
Contarini Contarini is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by exnihilo View Post
I'm a Protestant. In some Protestant churches the sermon is the focal point of the worship service. I believe this would generally be the case for churches which do not have weekly communion. In these churches I think it fair to say that a worshippers opinion about the service and even the local church can often times center on the quality of the preaching. This got me to wondering about the history of the sermon/homily. What was the tradition in the church through the ages? I'd be specifically interested in the practice in the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages and the time around the Reformation.

One specific interest is how long were sermons? It seems to me that a Protestant tradition is to have sermons last forty-five minutes or longer. Was this ever a practice in the Catholic church or non-Catholic liturgical churches?

Another interest is the historic purpose of a sermon. Some sermons seem geared to explaining the Scripture that is read. Others seem more like a general call to faith (which gets a bit tedious if you are already a Christian).
Good question.

I wouldn't say that the typical Protestant sermon is 45 minutes, but there are churches where that's true.

I'm pretty sure that early Christian homilies were long (I'd say off the top of my head about an hour), but I can't find documentation at the moment. And perhaps I have received an exaggerated impression. I tried cutting and pasting some of Chrysostom's homilies, in English translation, into a Word document and comparing with how long it would take me to give an academic paper of that length. Basically the ballpark at academic conferences is 12 double-spaced pages in 20 minutes. The longer homilies come out to about 15 double-spaced pages, which would be about 25 minutes. (Some of the homilies on John are much shorter.) That assumes of course that the Greek would take the same length as the English, that the speed of delivery would be the same, and most dubiously that what we have is the entirety of what was given. So I suspect that the actual sermons were considerably longer than this.

But without finding a good secondary source that estimates this, I don't want to be too positive.

I do know that late medieval sermons typically ran an hour or two, and were sometimes preached back to back. Historians have spoken of a "hunger for preaching" in the late Middle Ages. Of course, the average parish priest of that era typically couldn't preach at all--preaching was often done by mendicant friars or by folks who were hired just to preach. The most successful preachers were popular entertainers, and people were willing to listen to them for a very long time.

What I think we can say, based on early Christian preaching, is that most (not all) of it was exegetical. Of course, exegesis was very different--the lines modern theological education teach people to draw between theology, exegesis, and ethics did not exist in the early Church. (And there's a strong push to get rid of or at least weaken these boundaries once again.)

But the bottom line is that the common Catholic opinion "Protestants have long exegetical sermons because they don't have the Eucharist" is, as far as I can see, historically nonsense, theologically muddled, and practically pernicious.

Protestants (some of them) have lengthy, substantive sermons because they hunger for the Word of God. Catholics should too. Word and Sacrament shouldn't be played off each other. The Catechism calls for God's people to be fed richly in both ways.

Edwin
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  #9  
Old Jun 26, '12, 1:36 pm
JonNC JonNC is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Quote:
Originally Posted by Contarini View Post
Protestants (some of them) have lengthy, substantive sermons because they hunger for the Word of God. Catholics should too. Word and Sacrament shouldn't be played off each other. The Catechism calls for God's people to be fed richly in both ways.
Edwin
Edwin,
thanks for this.
I have been working as an Elder to get my parish to understand this. It shouldn't be "word or sacrament", it shouldn't even be "word and sometimes sacrament". It should always be "word and sacrament".

Jon
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“This also is certain, that no one should rely on his own wisdom in the interpretation of the Scripture, not even in the clear passages, for it is clearly written in 2 Peter 1:20: ‘The Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation.’
"The best reader of the Scripture, according to Hilary, is one who does not bring the understanding of what is said to the Scripture but who carries it away from the Scripture. "
Chemnitz
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  #10  
Old Jun 26, '12, 2:42 pm
Contarini Contarini is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

I should clarify that I actually meant "Catholics should hunger for the Word of God."

I'm not necessarily saying that long sermons are a good thing. I frankly rejoice in the relative shortness of sermons at my parish (about 15-20 minutes, I'd say) compared with the ones I heard as a child.

I suspect that if Catholics (and Episcopalians) had more hunger for the Word, we might have to have longer sermons. But maybe not--length per se isn't the point.

Edwin
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  #11  
Old Jun 27, '12, 6:59 am
exnihilo exnihilo is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

Edwin,

Thank you. I'm glad you saw this thread because I knew you'd have some excellent information and insights.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Contarini View Post
I do know that late medieval sermons typically ran an hour or two, and were sometimes preached back to back. Historians have spoken of a "hunger for preaching" in the late Middle Ages.
Very interesting. Do you see this as leading to an issue during the reformation? What I mean is it seems to me man values both change and tradition. Would any of the early reformers have looked to the longer length of a sermon as something important or as something to return to? Would reformers have viewed it as something that was considered 'authentic' Christian practice?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Contarini View Post
What I think we can say, based on early Christian preaching, is that most (not all) of it was exegetical. Of course, exegesis was very different--the lines modern theological education teach people to draw between theology, exegesis, and ethics did not exist in the early Church. (And there's a strong push to get rid of or at least weaken these boundaries once again.)
I'd be interested in what you mean by lines between these. I have no knowledge of modern or classic theological education.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Contarini View Post
But the bottom line is that the common Catholic opinion "Protestants have long exegetical sermons because they don't have the Eucharist" is, as far as I can see, historically nonsense, theologically muddled, and practically pernicious.
Very interesting. One problem I think many Christians suffer from is a desire to get done with God quickly on Sunday. I'm sure that is not a problem unique to Protestants or Catholics.
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  #12  
Old Jun 27, '12, 8:14 am
Contarini Contarini is offline
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Default Re: What is the history of the sermon/homily

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Originally Posted by exnihilo View Post


Very interesting. Do you see this as leading to an issue during the reformation? What I mean is it seems to me man values both change and tradition. Would any of the early reformers have looked to the longer length of a sermon as something important or as something to return to? Would reformers have viewed it as something that was considered 'authentic' Christian practice?
They weren't "returning" to anything, because late medieval Catholicism valued long sermons. Insofar as this was a "return" to the patristic emphasis on preaching, it was something that predated the Reformation and helped shape the Reformation. Zwingli, for instance, was hired at Zurich specifically as a preacher, not as a general parish priest. It was often folks with that kind of job who spearheaded the Protestant movement in various cities.

The common humanist criticism of more "traditional" preaching (the kind engaged in by the mendicant orders, who were the most popular preachers of the later Middle Ages) was that traditional preaching was basically a collection of entertaining anecdotes designed to get people to behave in a certain way (avoid some particular sin, go to confession, etc.). The humanists argued for more Biblically focused preaching, also with a very heavy moral focus (which they seemed to think was lacking in late medieval preaching, though I don't agree with that part based on the examples I've seen--I think in part the humanists generally had a very refined sense of humor and just didn't understand how sensational stories might be used to get people to think about a spiritual or moral issue).

I think one of the great tragedies of the Reformation is that this approach to preaching came in large measure to be identified with Protestantism. As far as I know, the Tridentine Catholic approach was more to treat preaching as a form of catechesis/apologetics, explaining and defending Church doctrines and moral teachings. That's what Catholics seem to think of today as a "traditional" approach, and the difference between this and an exegetical approach is often defined in terms of "sermon" vs. "homily" (a distinction that makes no sense to a Protestant, and indeed not much sense to me on the basis of patristic homiletics).

Had the Protestants not "jumped the gun" and hastily assumed that their new-fangled exegetical methods trumped traditional doctrine, the "ressourcement" of the 20th century might have happened in the 16th. Anachronistic and nostalgic of me, no doubt.

But at least _now_ I hope Catholics don't throw out the concept of exegetical homilies just because the way these homilies have been done in the past 50 years is generally pathetic. I see calls online for Catholics to return to the more "traditional" approach of just expounding Church teaching.

Pope Benedict's homilies, meanwhile, stand as a splendid example of preaching inspired by the Fathers, preaching that is exegetical while also expounding and defending the doctrines of the Church. If he manages to set a trend in this regard, that may be his single greatest contribution.

Quote:
I'd be interested in what you mean by lines between these. I have no knowledge of modern or classic theological education.
I actually think this has something to do with the flaws in preaching since Vatican II.

Theological education in modern Western Christianity has become increasingly specialized, like everything else. One can blame the scholastics to some extent, maybe, and there are probably other turning points as well, but the one many Protestants point to most is the popularization of the German academic model in the late 19th century. This model divided theological studies into Biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, pastoral theology, etc., with the understanding that each of these disciplines had its own methods and integrity and shouldn't "contaminate" the others, although of course one could draw on the conclusions of another. In a Protestant context, there was a hierarchy in which Biblical studies were first, then church history, and systematic theology was supposed to draw on the conclusions of both. Albrecht Ritschl, one of the great 19th-century German scholars/theologians, divided up his own career this way, starting out as a Biblical scholar, then moving to church history, then doing theology. So it's not that the German Protestants didn't try to pull things together. Rather, the problem as I see it was that theology wasn't supposed to influence the "earlier" disciplines. You were supposed to do Biblical studies in a "scientific" way, based on the evidence, and then use those conclusions in your theology.

This method really, really doesn't work for Catholics, because Catholics reject sola Scriptura. So when Catholics became part of the academic "mainstream" starting in the 50s and even more so after Vatican II, the result was an even sharper distinction between the disciplines, if anything. If you do Biblical studies without input from theology and tradition, then you have two choices:

1. Modify Church teaching pretty radically, which is of course what some liberal Catholics call for; or
2. Separate Biblical studies entirely from theology, so that the results of Biblical studies have little to do with theology.

Catholic scholars like Fr. Raymond Brown struggled with the tension between these two unpalatable choices. I like Fr. Brown's work a lot better than most of the folks on this forum do. I think he did a valiant job trying to remain faithful to Church teaching while still doing sound academic scholarship and not making that scholarship totally irrelevant to church teaching. But there's a good deal of awkwardness inherent in the attempt.

I don't think the answer is simply to throw out historical-critical Biblical studies (or the corresponding kind of church history, which is more directly relevant to my own scholarship of course!). I worry that that's what, for instance, Scott Hahn and those who work with him are doing. That's not what I see Pope Benedict doing.

Rather, I'd suggest that historical-critical Biblical scholarship should be seen as part of Biblical scholarship but not the whole. Theologically based Biblical scholarship, drawing on the insights of historical criticism but not letting it call all the shots, is the kind of Biblical scholarship that then can provide a basis for theology--and preaching. (Many folks worry that this "corrupts" scholarship because there's a circle: you study the Bible based on theology and do theology based on the Bible. I think this is partly based on flawed epistemology, but is partly legitimate--hence the need to go on doing historical criticism as well, in my opinion.)

But Catholic preaching since Vatican II, at least in America, seems to have been paralyzed by this kind of disciplinary division. Preachers are supposed to comment on Scripture and apply it. But how? They've been taught in seminary that "Biblical studies" must be done on its own terms and not as a form of theology. So if they just expound the text as they've been taught it, they certainly aren't going to be teaching Church doctrine and they probably aren't going to be saying anything very relevant for the lives of the congregation.

I may be wrong about some of this--I'm making some huge generalizations perhaps based on insufficient evidence. But this is how I see it.

Edwin
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