I now own all seven volumes of Hughes Old’s magisterial series on The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. At more than 4000 pages I’ve only read a small fraction of the work, but what I’ve read has been consistently edifying and fascinating. For the most part, Old finds something to like in most preachers (it would be hard to write 4000 words if you disliked most of what you were reading and hearing). But he does not like everything in the history of Christian preaching.
On a sermon from Harry Emerson Fosdick, the liberal’s liberal, Old writes:
One can well imagine that his congregation was completely satisfied that their preacher had made the doctrine of the divinity of Christ personally relevant. Others, however, might wonder if the God who is totally other had in fact been totally ignored (Vol. 6, 546).
About Norman Vincent Peale, the popular preacher of positive thinking (and, gulp, an RCA minister), Old says:
The embarrassing thing about his ministry is that he won such an enormous following preaching from the pulpit of such a historic church (Vol. 6, 5730)
We know that Peale never made any attempt to expound a text of Scripture in his sermons (Vol. 6, 574).
So Old is not a cheerleader for any and every kind of preaching. Which is what makes it all the more interesting to read in this last volume his take on contemporary preachers.
On Sinclair Ferguson:
As I have said several times, I am not in the business of handing out the senior preaching prize, but there is no denying it–the preaching of Sinclair Ferguson is exemplary no matter on which side of the Atlantic one considers the question. (Vol. 7, 135)
On Tim Keller:
The sermons of Tim Keller are oratory, not literature. One gets the impression that as informal and charismatic as his preaching may be, the preacher has a sense that it is through the preaching of the Word of God that the church is built up, nourished, reformed, and enlivened. There will be those who will insist that no one brought up in the postmodern age can possibly listen to such preaching, but obviously they are wrong. (Vol. 7, 152).
The most striking chapter I’ve read so far is on John MacArthur. Old notices time and again how MacArthur never “has the least shadow of doubt but that these miracles took place exactly as they are recorded.” He comments, perceptively, that MacArthur has no interest in defending the accuracy of the Bible. “He simply assumes is is all quite reliable. This basic assumption that the text of Scripture is reliable is part of the foundation of his effectiveness as an interpreter” (Vol. 7, 555).
One gets the impression that while listening to MacArthur’s sermons, Old is forced to wrestle with his own view of Scripture and the supernatural.
The place where I have always had the greatest trouble is the whole matter of exorcism. I really do not believe in Satan, demonic spirits, and demon possession. Maybe I ought to, but I don’t. I am willing to agree that I may have been too strongly influenced by the intellectual world in which I was brought up to fully grasp the full teaching of Scripture, but that is the way it is. What is more than clear to me after listening to these sermons is that those who can take the text the way it is seem to make a lot more sense of it than those who are always trying to second-guess it. Surely one of the greatest strengths of MacArthur’s preaching ministry is his complete confidence in the text. (Vol. 7, 556)
I was surprised, saddened, and a little confused by that paragraph, but I suppose Old it at least being honest. It’s safe to say MacArthur isn’t the ultimate example of preaching for Old, and yet he can’t get away from his simple allegiance to the text and the sense of divine authority that comes as a result. When he comes to summarize MacArthur’s preaching, it’s as if he can only find one thing he likes about it. But that one thing is enough.
Why do so many people listen to MacArthur, this product of all the wrong schools? How can he pack out a church on Sunday morning in an age in which church attendance has seriously lagged? Here is a preacher who has nothing in the way of a winning personality, good looks, or charm. Here is a preacher who offers us nothing in the way of sophisticated homiletical packaging. No one would suggest that he is a master of the art of oratory. What he seems to have is a witness to true authority. He recognizes in Scripture the Word of God, and when he preaches, it is Scripture that one hears. It is not that the words of John MacArthur are so interesting as it is that the Word of God is of surpassing interest. That is why one listens. (Vol. 7, 557-58, emphasis added)
And all the plain looking, personally dull, oratorically deficient stick-to-the-Bible-and-nothing-but-the-Bible preachers said, “Amen.”