Homiletics (Gr. homiletikos, from homilos, to assemble together), in theology the application of the general principles of rhetoric to the specific department of public preaching. The one who practices or studies homiletics is called a homilist.
It may be further defined as the study of the analysis, classification, preparation, composition and delivery of sermons.
The formation of such lectureships as the Lyman Beecher course at Yale University resulted in increased attention being given to homiletics, and the published volumes of this series are a useful source of information regarding the history and practice of the discipline.
Since the nineteenth century, homiletics has taken its place, especially in Germany, as a branch of pastoral theology. The "Standard Dictionary" defines Homiletics as "that branch of rhetoric that treats of the composition and delivery of sermons or homilies".
Many differ from this definition, and maintain that homiletics is distinct from rhetoric.
The first form of preaching was largely the homily.
Christ himself preached and commissioned His Apostles to do so. His preaching included two forms of sermon, the missionary and the ministerial (to which correspond the magisterium and the ministerium of the Church), the former to unbelievers, the latter to those already in the Christian faith. Of the latter we have a striking example in the discourse after the Last Supper, John, xiv-xvi.
It cannot be said that His preaching took any definite, rounded form, in the sense of a modern sermon; His aim was to sow the seed of the word, which He scattered broadcast, like the sower in the parable. His commission to His Apostles included both kinds. For the former or missionary preaching, see Matt., xxviii, 19; Mark, xvi, 15; iii, 14; Luke, ix, 2. St. Paul's sermon referred to in Acts, xx, 7-11, is an example of the second kind of preaching. In this the Apostles were supported by assistants who were elected and consecrated for a purpose, for example, Timothy and Titus; as also by those who had been favoured with charismata. The homily referred to in Justin Martyr's "Apology" is an example of ministerial, as distinct from missionary, preaching.
In missionary preaching the Apostles were also assisted, but in an informal way, by the laity, who explained the Christian doctrine to their acquaintances amongst unbelievers who, in their visits to the Christian assemblies, must have heard something of it, v. g., cf. I Cor., xiv, 23-24. This is particularly true of Justin Martyr, who, wearing his philosopher's cloak, went about for that purpose. The sermons to the faithful in the early ages were of the simplest kind, being merely expositions or paraphrases of the passage of Scripture that was read, coupled with extempore effusions of the heart. This explains why there is little or nothing in the way of sermons or homilies belonging to that period. It also explains the strange statement made by Sozomen (Hist. Eccl., VII, xix), and by Cassiodorus in his "Tripartite History", which Duchesne apparently accepts, that no one preached at Rome. (Sozomen wrote about the time of Pope Xystus III) Thomassin's explanation of Sozomen's statement is that there was no preaching in the sense of an elaborate or finished discourse before the time of Pope Leo -- with the exception, perhaps, of the address on virginity by Pope Liberius to Marcellina, sister of St. Ambrose, on the occasion of her taking the veil, which is regarded as a private discourse.
And the reason for this he attributes to the stress of persecution. Neander (I, 420, note) says of Sozomen's statement: "The remark could not extend to the early times; but suppose it did, it meant that the sermon was only secondary. Or the fact may have been that this Eastern writer was deceived by false accounts from the West; or it may have been that the sermon in the Western Church did not occupy so important a place as it did in the Greek Church."
After the age here described preaching was on the decline in the West, partly because of the decay of the Latin language (cf. Fénelon, "Dial.", 164), and in the East, owing to the controversies on Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Macedonianism, and other heresies. But still preaching was regarded as the chief duty of bishops; for instance, Cæsarius, Bishop of Arles, gave charge of all the temporal affairs of his diocese to deacons, that he might devote all his time to the reading of the Scriptures, to prayer, and to preaching. The next great name in preaching is that of St. Gregory the Great, particularly as a homilist. He preached twenty homilies, and dictated twenty more, because, through illness and loss of voice, he was unable to preach them personally. He urged bishops very strongly to preach; and, after holding up to them the example of the Apostles, he threatened the bishops of Sardinia in the following words: "Si cujus libet Episcopi Paganum rusticum invenire potuero, in Episcopum fortiter vindicabo" (III, ep. xxvi). An edict was issued by King Guntram stating that the assistance of the public judges was to be used to bring to the hearing of the word of God, through fear of punishment, those who were not disposed to come through piety. The Synod of Trullo laid down that bishops should preach on all days, especially on Sundays; and, by the same synod, bishops who preached outside their own diocese were reduced to the status of priests, because being desirous of another's harvest they were indifferent to their own -- "ut qui alienæ messis appetentes essent, suæ incuriosi". At the Council of Arles, in 813, bishops were strongly exhorted to preach; and the Council of Mainz, in the same year, laid down that bishops should preach on Sundays and feast days either themselves (suo marte) or though their vicars. In the Second Council of Reims (813), can. xiv, xv, it was enjoined that bishops should preach the homilies and sermons of the Fathers, so that all could understand. And in the Third Council of Tours (can. xvii), in the same year, bishops were ordered to make a translation of the homilies of the Fathers into the rustic Roman tongue, or theodesque -- the rustic Roman tongue being a species of corrupt Latin, or patois, understood by the uneducated (Thomassin, "De Benef.", II, l. III, c. lxxxv, p. 510). Charlemagne and Louis the Pious were equally insistent on the necessity of preaching. The former went so far as to appoint a special day, and any bishop who failed to preach in his cathedral before that day was to be deposed. Pastors, too, were ordered to preach to their people as best they could; if they knew the Scriptures, they were to preach them; if not, they were at least to exhort their hearers to avoid evil and do good (Sixth Council of Arles, 813, can. x).
It has been commonly said by non-Catholic writers that there was little or no preaching during that time. So popular was preaching, and so deep the interest taken in it, that preachers commonly found it necessary to travel by night, lest their departure should be prevented. It is only in a treatise on the history of preaching that justice could be done this period. As to style, it was simple and majestic, possessing little, perhaps, of so-called eloquence as at present understood, but much religious power, with an artless simplicity, a sweetness and persuasiveness all its own, and such as would compare favourably with the hollow declamation of a much-lauded later period. Some sermons were wholly in verse, and, in their intense inclusiveness of thought, remind one of the Sermon on the Mount: --
The characteristics of the preaching of the time were an extraordinary use of Scripture, not a mere introducing of the Sacred Text as an accretion, but such a use as comes from entwinement with the preacher's own thought. It would almost appear as if many preachers knew the Scriptures by heart.
In some cases, however, this admirable use was marred by an exaggerated mystical interpretation, which originated in the East and was much sought after by the Jews. Secondly, power on the part of the preachers of adapting their discourses to the wants of the poor and ignorant. Thirdly, simplicity, the aim being to impress a single striking idea. Fourthly, use of familiar maxims, examples, and illustrations from life -- their minds must have been much in touch with nature. And, fifthly, intense realization, which necessarily resulted in a certain dramatic effect -- they saw with their eyes, heard with their ears, and the past became present.
Scholastic philosophy supplied an almost inexhaustible store of information; it trained the mind in analysis and precision; whilst, at the same time, it supplied a lucidity of order and cogency of arrangement such as we look for in vain in even the great orations of Chrysostom.
Philosophy regards man only as an intellectual being, without considering his emotions, and makes its appeal solely to his intellectual side. And, even in this appeal, philosophy, while, like algebra, speaking the formal language of intellect, is likely to be wanting from the view-point of persuasiveness, inasmuch as, from its nature, it makes for condensation rather than for amplification. The latter is the most important thing in oratory -- "Summa laus eloquentiæ amplificare rem ornando." Fénelon (Second Dialogue) describes it as portrayal; De Quincey, as a holding of the thought until the mind gets time to eddy about it; Newman gives a masterly analysis of it; his own sermons are remarkable for this quality of amplification as are those of Bourdaloue on the intellectual, and those of Massillon on the intellectual-emotional side, v. g. the latter's sermon on the Prodigal Son. Philosophy, indeed, is necessary for oratory; philosophy alone does not constitute oratory, and, if too one-sided, may have an injurious effect -- "Logic, therefore, so much as is useful, is to be referred to this one place with all her well-couched heads and topics, until it be time to open her contracted palm into a graceful and ornate rhetoric" . What has been here stated refers to philosophy as a system, not to individual philosophers. It is scarcely necessary to say that many Scholastics, such as Sts. Thomas and Bonaventure, were noted preachers. It is a pity, however, that St. Bonaventure did not treat a little more fully of Dilatatio, which forms the third part of his work "De Arte Concionandi".
In a discussion of the history of preaching, a reference to the mystics is called for. The tendency of mysticism is, in the main, the opposite to that of philosophy. Mysticism makes for warmth; philosophy, for coldness -- "Cold as a mountain in its star-pitched tent stood high philosophy." The next noted period in the history of preaching is the Renaissance. This period, too, is treated in its proper place. As to preaching, Humanism contributed more to oratorical display than to piety in the pulpit. The motto of its two representative types, Reuchlin and Erasmus, was: "Back to Cicero and Quintilian." Erasmus on visiting Rome exclaimed: "Quam mellitas eruditorum hominum confabulationes, quot mundi lumina." Batiffol says: "One Good Friday, preaching before the pope, the most famous orator of the Roman Court considered that he could not better praise the Sacrifice of Calvary than by relating the self-devotion of Decius and the sacrifice of Iphigenia." Fortunately, this period did not last long; the good sense of ecclesiastics rebelled against it, and the religious upheaval that soon followed gave them something else to think of. In the Reformation and post-Reformation period the air was too charged with controversy to favour high-class preaching. The Council of Trent recommended preachers to turn aside from polemics; it also pronounced that the primary duty of preaching devolved on bishops, unless they were hindered by a legitimate impediment; and ordered that they were to preach in person in their own church, or, if impeded, through others; and, in other churches, through pastors or other representatives.
The French preachers of the classical seventeenth-century period were, according to Voltaire, probably the greatest in pulpit oratory of all time. The best known were Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Massillon; Fénelon burnt his sermons. The first was considered to be the most majestic; the second, the most logical and intellectually compelling; the third, the greatest searcher of hearts, the most like Chrysostom, and, taken all in all, the greatest of the three. We are told that Voltaire kept a copy of his Grand Carême on his table, side by side with the "Athalie" of Racine. In this age Chrysostom was the great model for imitation; but it was Chrysostom the orator, not Chrysostom the homilist. Their style, with its grand exordium and its sublime peroration, became the fashion in the following age. The "Dialogues" of Fénelon, however, remained as a check. Of these "Dialogues" Bishop Dupanloup said: "If the precepts of Fénelon had been well understood, they would have long since fixed the character of sacred eloquence among us." Other principles were laid down by Blaise Gisbert in his L'Eloquence chrétienne dans l'idée et dans la pratique, by Amadeus Bajocensis in Paulus Ecclesiastes, seu Eloquentia Christiana, and by Guido ab Angelis in De Verbi Dei Prædicatione, all of which sounded a return to the simplicity of style of the Church Fathers.
The next important era is the so-called conférences in Notre-Dame in Paris, following the Revolution of 1830. The most prominent name identified with this new style of preaching was that of the Dominican Lacordaire, who, for a time, with Montalembert, was associate editor with de Lamennais of "L'Avenir". This new style of preaching discarded the form, the division, and analysis of the scholastic method. The power of Lacordaire as an orator was beyond question; but the conférences, as they have come down to us, while possessing much merit, are an additional proof that oratory is too elusive to be committed to the pages of a book. The Jesuit Père de Ravignan shared with Lacordaire the pulpit of Notre-Dame. Less eloquent men followed, and the semi-religious, semi-philosophic style was beginning to grow tiresome, when Jacques-Marie-Louis Monsabré, a disciple of Lacordaire, set it aside, and confined himself to an explanation of the Creed; whereupon it was sententiously remarked that the bell had been ringing long enough, it was time for Mass to begin (cf. Boyle, "Irish Eccl. Rec.", May, 1909).
As to preaching at the present day, we can clearly trace the influence, in many respects, of Scholasticism, both as to matter and form. In matter a sermon may be either moral, dogmatic, historical, or liturgical -- by moral and dogmatic it is meant that one element will predominate, without, however, excluding the other. As to form, a discourse may be either a formal, or set, sermon; a homily; or a catechetical instruction. In the formal, or set, sermon the influence of Scholasticism is most strikingly seen in the analytic method, resulting in divisions and subdivisions. This is the thirteenth-century method, which, however, had its beginnings in the sermons of Sts. Bernard and Anthony. The underlying syllogism, too, in every well-thought-out sermon is due to Scholasticism; how far it should appear is a question that belongs to a treatise on homiletics. As to the catechetical discourse, it has been so much favoured by Pope Pius X that it might be regarded as one of the characteristics of preaching at the present day. It is, however, a very old form of preaching, as the name (from kata and heche) implies, i.e. the instruction that was given by word of mouth to the catechumens. It was used by Christ Himself, by St. Paul, by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, by St. Clement and Origen at Alexandria, by St. Augustine, who wrote a special treatise thereon (De catechizandis rudibus), also, in later times, by Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, who wrote "De parvulis ad Christum trahendis"; Clement XI and Benedict XIV gave to it all the weight of their authority, and one of the greatest of all catechists was St. Charles Borromeo. There is the danger, however, from the very nature of the subject, of this form of preaching becoming too dry and purely didactic, a mere catechesis, or doctrinism, to the exclusion of the moral element and of Sacred Scripture. In recent days, organized missionary preaching to non-Catholics has received a new stimulus. In the United States, particularly, this form of religious activity has flourished; and the Paulists, amongst whom the name of Father Hecker is deserving of special mention, are to be mainly identified with the revival. Special facilities are afforded at the central institute of the organization for the training of those who are to impart catechetical instruction, and the non-controversial principles of the association are calculated to commend it to all earnestly seeking after truth.
Practice preceded theory. Certain ideas are to be found in the Church Fathers, and these have been collected by Paniel in the introduction to his work "Geschichte der christlich. Beredsamkeit". The first to treat of the theory of preaching was St. Chrysostom, in his work "On the Priesthood" (peri Hierosynes). Inasmuch as this contains only reflections on preaching, St. Augustine's "De doctrinâ Christianâ" might be regarded as the first manual on the subject; its first three books deal with collecting the materials for preaching, "modus inveniendi quæ intelligenda sunt", and the last with the presentation thereof, "modus proferendi quæ intellecta sunt". He goes to the Roman pagan orator Cicero for rules in the latter. He makes a distinction, in which he evidently follows Cicero, between sapientia (wisdom) and eloquentia (the best expression of it). Sapientia without eloquentia will do no good; neither will eloquentia without sapientia, and it may do harm; the ideal is sapientia with eloquentia. He adapts Cicero's ut doceat, ut delectet, ut flectat, changing them to ut veritas pateat, ut placeat, ut moveat; and lays down these as the rules by which a sermon is to be judged. This work of Augustine was the classic one in homiletics.
Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141) in the Middle Ages laid down three conditions for a sermon: that it should be "holy, prudent and noble", for which, respectively, he required sanctity, knowledge and eloquence in the preacher. François Fénelon stipulated "must prove, must portray, must impress" (Second Dialogue).
St. Augustine's work "De rudibus catechizandis". St. Gregory the Great's "Liber regulæ pastoralis" is still extant, but is inferior to St. Augustine's; it is rather a treatise on pastoral theology than on homiletics.
Hincmar says that a copy used to be given to bishops at their consecration.
In the twelfth century Guibert, Abbot of Nogent (died 1124), wrote a famous work on preaching entitled "Quo ordine sermo fieri debet". This is one of the historical landmarks in preaching. It is replete with judicious instruction; it recommends that preaching should be preceded by prayer; it says that it is more important to preach about morals than on faith, that for moral sermons the human heart must be studied, and that the best way of doing so is (as Massillon recommended in later times) to look into one's own. It is more original and more independent than the work of Rabanus Maurus, who, as has been said, drew largely from St. Augustine.
Guibert's work was recommended by Pope Alexander as a model to all preachers. St. Francis gave to his friars the same directions as are herein contained.
To the same period belongs the "Summa de arte prædicatoriâ" by Alain de Lille, which defines preaching: "Manifesta et publica instructio morum et fidei, informationi hominum deserviens, ex rationum semitâ et auctoritatum fonte proveniens". He lays stress on explanation and use of Scripture and recommends the preacher to insert verba commotiva. The remarks of Cæsarius of Heisterbach (died 1240) have been collected by Cruel; his sermons display skill in construction and considerable oratorical power. Conrad of Brundelsheim (died 1321), whose sermons have come down to us under his cognomen of "Brother Sock" (Sermones Fratris Socci), was one of the most interesting preachers at this time in Germany. Humbert of Romans, General superior of the Dominicans, in the second book of his work, "De eruditione prædicatorum", claims that he can teach "a way of promptly producing a sermon for any set of men, and for all variety of circumstances. Linsenmayer, in his history of preaching, gives information about Humbert, who was a severe critic of the sermons of his time. Trithemius quotes a work by Albertus Magnus, "De arte prædicandi", which is lost. St. Bonaventure wrote "De arte concionandi", in which he treats of divisio, distinctio, dilatatio, but deals extensively only with the first.
In the works of the two humanists, Johannes Reuchlin (Liber congestorum de arte prædicandi) and Desiderius Erasmus (Ecclesiastes seu de ratione concionandi), the return is marked to Cicero and Quintilian. A masterwork on the art of preaching is the "Rhetorica Sacra" (Lisbon, 1576) of Luis de Granada, for modern use rather old. The work shows an easy grasp of rhetoric, founded on the principles of Aristotle, Demetrius and Cicero. He treats the usual subjects of invention, arrangement, style and delivery in easy and polished Latin. Of the same class is Didacus Stella in his "Liberdemodo concionandi" (1576). Valerio, in Italy, also wrote on the art of preaching. Another landmark on preaching are the "Instructiones Pastorum" by Charles Borromeo (1538-84). At his request Valerio, Bishop of Verona, wrote a systematic treatise on homiletics entitled "Rhetorica Ecclesiastica" (1575), in which he points out the difference between profane and sacred eloquence and emphasizes the two principal objects of the preacher, to teach and to move (docere et commovere). Laurentius a Villavicentio, in his work "De formandis sacris concionibus" (1565), disapproves of transferring the ancient modes of speaking to preaching. He would treat the truths of the Gospel according to I Tim., iii, 16. He also recommended moderation in fighting heresy. The same was the view of St. Francis Borgia, whose contribution to homiletics is the small but practical work: "Libellus de ratione concionandi". Claudius Acquaviva, General of the Jesuits, wrote in 163, "Instructio pro superioribus" . They were principally ascetic, and in them he regulated the spiritual training necessary for the preacher. Carolus Regius, S.J., deals in his "Orator Christianus" (1613) with the whole field of homiletics under the grouping: "De concionatore"; "De concione"; "De concionantis prudentiâ et industriâ". Much is to be found in the writings of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Francis de Sales, especially in his celebrated letter to André Fremiot, Archbishop of Bourges. Among the Dominicans, Alexander Natalis wrote "Institutio concionantium tripartita" (Paris, 1702).
In the "Rhetorica ecclesiastica" (1627) of Jacobus de Graffiis is contained a symposium of the instructions on preaching by the Franciscan Francis Panigarola, the Jesuit Francis Borgia and the Carmelite Johannes a Jesu.
The "Dialogues" of Fénelon, the works of Père Blaise Gisbert, Amadeus Bajocensis and Guido ab Angelis have already been referred to. In the nineteenth century homiletics took its place as a branch of pastoral theology, and many manuals have been written thereon, for instance in German compendia by Brand, Laberenz, Zarbl, Fluck and Schüch; in Italian by Gotti and Guglielmo Audisio; and many in French and English.
Some assert the independent character of homiletics and say that it is independent in origin, matter and purpose. The upholders of this view point to passages in Scripture and in the Fathers, notably to the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:4): "And my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in shewing of the Spirit and power"; also to I Cor., i, 17; ii, 1, 2; and II Cor., iv, 2; and to the testimony of Cyprian (Ep. ad Donat.), Arnobius (Adv. Nationes), Lactantius (Institutionum divinarum), and to Saints. Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom. The last-named says that the great difference may be summed up in this: that the orator seeks personal glory, the preacher practical good.
St. Paul's own sermons are in many cases replete with oratory, e. g., his sermon on the Areopagus; and the oratorical element generally enters largely into Scripture.
Lactantius, the Christian Cicero, regretted that there were so few trained preachers (Inst. Div., V, c. i), and Gregory of Nazianzus, as well as John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo, made use of rhetoric in preaching. Gregory of Nazianzus censured the use in the pulpit of the eloquence and pronunciation of the theatre. Demetrius, On Style, uses many of the tricks of speech.