The Inheritance of Patristic Writings,
by Timothy Baker
Medieval preachers grounded the literary and moral theory of their sermons on patristic works of theology and rhetoric, including guidance for the composition and delivery of sermons. Moreover, medieval authors drew heavily on patristic sermons, exegesis, and theology for the basis of their own thought and works.
Early church fathers, conscious of the grave importance of their vocation, augmented the Great Commission – Matthew 28:16–20: “go, therefore, and instruct all nations… teaching them to observe everything whatsoever that I commanded you” – by supplying guides designed to enhance the preacher’s ability to fulfill Jesus’ exhortation. These patristic works were the ancestors of the artes praedicandi, “arts of preaching,” a genre well established from around 1200 onward.
Two patristic authors whose works carried a considerable degree of influence – Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great – advised on both the style and the content of effective Christian preaching. Augustine argued, in De doctrina christiana (4.4.6), that the Christian orator’s task is two-fold. By explaining biblical signs, the preacher ought, on the one hand, educate his audience regarding what is good (bona docere) and, on the other hand, teach his listeners to eschew what is evil (mala dedocere). Houghton MS Riant 90, ff. 183r-187r contains a schematic guide to De doctrina christiana, probably designed for fifteenth-century German friars. Gregory the Great, rather than stressing the teaching of theological orthodoxy, focused his preaching advice on the uprightness of the priest’s character and on his unimpeachable Christian morality. Thus, in his Liber regulae pastoralis (Pastoral Rule), Chapter 3, Gregory emphasizes the preacher’s identity as pastor, the shepherd of his flock, who must conduct his life in a manner that is consonant with his words so that the “flock, which follows after the voice and manner of the shepherd, may move forward more through [the pastor’s example] than through [his] words.” Both Augustine and Gregory emphasize that preaching must be grounded upon a keen knowledge of the audience. When offering his message, the preacher must remain constantly aware that different types of people hear the same words differently.
The form of the patristic sermon varied as did the terminology for sermons – homilia, exhortatio, admonitio, tractactus, sermo. By the fourth century, the term sermo came to predominate somewhat; but by the twelfth century, it far outnumbered other terms. Patristic preachers, generally bishops, practiced both the line-by-line explication of Scripture (or “homily”) and the more loosely constructed thematic discourse (or “sermon”). Sermons could reach different registers depending upon whether the preacher was speaking ad populos (to the people) or ad clericos (to other members of the clergy). In either instance, the multifaceted role of the preacher developed in patristic preaching envelops a range of possible interpretations of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew. Indeed, for these formative Christian thinkers, the ideal preacher must familiarize and educate listeners regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture, and he must guide the congregation in right actions through words and deeds in addition to his other tasks. Looking ahead, we may see that these key elements of patristic preaching, and the methods behind their effective accomplishment, will be disseminated widely during the Middle Ages thanks to authors such as Rabanus Maurus and the legislation of the Carolingian reform.
Medieval sermon writers relied not only on patristic preaching guides, but on the entire corpus of patristic writings at their disposal. In addition to De doctrina christiana, other works by Augustine were influential, e.g., City of God, his commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, the Gospel of John, and his letters, sermons, and numerous works against heresy. Houghton MS Richardson 26, a twelfth-century manuscript from the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, contains six works by Augustine, including his Sermo de pastoribus (serm. 46) (CPL 284) and his Sermo de ovibus (serm. 47) (CPL 284). Houghton MS Richardson 14 is a twelfth-century copy of Contra Faustum from the abbey of Pontigny; its numerous marginal notations reveal the readers’ interest in the great doctor’s arguments against key tenets of contemporaneous as well as of fourth-century heresy. Notes in the center of folio 108r call the readers’ attention to “the defense of both testaments against the pagans,” and Augustine’s assertion that “God as the creator of the world is found in the heathens’ books.”