“Always Sweet”: Augustine the Preacher

It has been estimated that Augustine of Hippo Regius (354-430) preached somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 sermons, many of which were recorded by notarii, that is stenographers, and some of which he dictated for distribution. In his sermons Augustine was well aware that a preacher must not only teach (docere) but also delight (delectare) [David Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church: Preaching in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 2005), 93]. Augustine was well fitted for such a role because of his literary training. He appealed to intellectuals because of his vast knowledge of Roman history and classical literature. But it is noteworthy that he also had time for those who were not learned. He used words that they could understand and asked them sometimes in the middle of the sermon if he had “expounded the text too hastily” (Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 93).

He was often transparent in his preaching, apologizing when he felt he had not done justice to a text and promising to return to it later. And unlike classical speakers who rarely regarded brevity as a virtue, Augustine never forgot that the congregation had to stand during the preaching and so he would apologize if his sermon was too long (Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 93-94).

He was a master of similes:

  • “Hope” is like an egg;
  • The Scriptures are likened to “the hem of Christ’s garment”;
  • Human life is like a leaky ship;
  • And human beings are “frailer than glass.”

He drew his imagery from diverse sources: the law-court, the realm of the gladiator, farms, doctor’s surgeries, orchards, athletic contests (Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 94).

At the heart of his preaching, though, was the exegesis of Scripture, a task that he loved, for “the words of the Lord,” he said, “are always sweet” [Hom. 75.1, on 1 John 5:2 (cited Dunn-Wilson, A Mirror for the Church, 94)]. He knew much of the Scripture by heart, and quoted it from memory when he was preaching, which he usually did extempore. On his love for and respect for Scripture, see Sermon 162C.15: “Let us treat scripture like scripture, like God speaking.”