A Mirror for the Church: Preaching in the First Five Centuries
David Dunn-Wilson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 224 pages.
David Dunn-Wilson, professor emeritus of theology at Kenya Methodist University and Methodist minister for over forty years in Britain, Central America, and East Africa, examines preaching in the first five centuries of church history. Dunn-Wilson seeks to allow the sermons to speak for themselves, revealing the preachers, their congregations, their social contexts, and their contemporary theological issues.
A Mirror for the Church is divided into eight chapters, each representing a period of the early church. Missionaries, Dunn-Wilson’s designation for Peter and Paul, were traveling preachers whose sermons are found in the book of Acts. The sermons of the pastors, of whom Paul is again chief exemplar, are available to us as the pastoral epistles of the New Testament. The early fathers also wrote epistolary sermons meant to be circulated among congregations needing help in facing the power of evil, martyrdom, and doctrinal and ethical issues. The apologists, including Origen with nearly two hundred surviving homilies, struggle with the question of how much classical philosophy is to be used in refuting heresy, primarily Gnosticism. The ascetics and mystics, including the Egyptian preachers, Theodoret and Pseudo-Macarius, encourage asceticism as a means to piety and mysticism. With the liturgists, preaching becomes part of liturgical drama in grand cathedrals. The theologians, including the Cappadocian Fathers and Leo the Great, preach to correct confusion in theology and in conduct. The opening seven chapters seem to extrapolate both congregational response and sermon content from the writings of the preachers rather than presenting evidence from the sermons themselves.
The finest chapter (including nearly a third of the book’s content) focuses on the homileticians: Ambrose, Augustine, and John of Chrysostom. Here for the first time the author moves beyond summary of writings, theology, and audience to analyze the sermons and the homiletic theory of these preachers. The story of preaching seems to come alive. According to Dunn-Wilson, all three preach to increasingly sophisticated, affluent, and diverse congregations as they speak to the great pastoral issues of the day, economic disparity and sexual license. Ambrose instructs preachers to address difficult subjects with plain and simple words. Augustine addresses true doctrine with attention to rhetorical style. Chrysostom calls for deep study into the Scriptures.
The text will appeal to the church historian and historical homiletician who may wish to measure postmodern preaching against the sermons of the early church. Nearly half the book is composed of endnotes, bibliography, and index. Dunn-Wilson concludes with a brief chapter considering how the twenty-first century preacher, herald, proclaimer, and interpreter of a fresh Christology, might preach from within a pluralist context. Though the book is written in a readable style, this reviewer has the sense that, had the author engaged the actual sermons of the earlier eras as completely as he did those of the homileticians of chapter 8, a more dynamic book would have been the result.