Prof. Cory Griess, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of First PRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Reformation’s return to faithful preaching

On the inside cover of my Bible is a short quotation that I penned there as a young man from a speech Prof. H. Hanko once gave. It reads, “Preaching is heavenly, that is why the Devil always tries to destroy it.” Besides instilling in me both wonder and fear as I contemplated the ministry, the statement succinctly captured the reality Prof. Hanko was expressing in the whole of his speech. From biblical times to today, there is an attempt to destroy faithful preaching, and behind the attempt is always the Devil himself. The Devil is no fool; he knows what faithful preaching is and how God uses it. Destroy faithful preaching, destroy the heavenly kingdom in this world.

There is a myriad of ways to attempt to cut off the golden tongue of heavenly preaching. In the medieval period the Devil’s tactic was to push the church down the road of trusting in herself above the Word of God. Sometimes we have the impression that there simply was no preaching in the medieval period, but that is a misconception. There was less preaching to be sure, especially as the mass became the center of worship. But more than that, the problem was that the preach­ing that was there was not founded upon the Word of God. A medieval preacher could make as the text of his ‘sermon’ an implication of a scripture passage (but not the passage itself), a quotation from one of the church fathers, an aspect of church tradition, or even a quote from a philosopher! Preaching was no longer heavenly.

The sixteenth-century Reformers understood that preaching into which God infuses heavenly power is preaching that is an explanation and application of the heavenly Word of God come down to us on the earth. Thus, the formal principle of the Reformation, sola scriptura, came to greatest expression in the preaching of the Reformers. Powerful sermons rang throughout Europe, expounding God’s Word, unleashing a pure gospel, and bringing heads, hearts, and hands into submission to God’s heavenly rule. As the Reformers marched through passage after passage of Scripture, unfolding rich truths phrase by phrase, the gates of hell were not allowed to prevail against the heavenly church.

Andreas Hyperius and his preaching book

Yet, surprisingly, none of the Reformers whose names you know ever wrote a book teaching preachers how to preach—not Luther, not Calvin, not Zwingli.1 The first man to do so was a Reformer whom you have probably never heard of, Andreas Hyperius (1511-1564). Hyperius produced a textbook titled, The Practice of Preaching,2 which was used of God (and still is being used of God) to ensure that the preaching of the church remained heavenly.

Andreas Hyperius was born in Dutch West Flanders in 1511, two years after the birth of John Calvin.3 The two reformers lived and worked contemporaneously, dy­ing only three months apart in 1564. Although he spent most of his working days in Lutheran lands, Hyperius loved the biblical doctrine of predestination that Calvin taught. Consequently, Hyperius himself taught Calvin­istic doctrine as professor of historical, systematic, and practical theology in Marburg. Like Calvin, Hyperius was constrained to stay in a place through which he had only intended to pass. After stopping in Marburg on his way to Strasburg (where he intended to visit Bucer), he was prevailed upon to stay and assist the Reformation movement in that city. Hyperius spent his entire career in Marburg. Though not as well known as he should be, Hyperius was a brilliant theologian. Calvin him­self highly commended him and his work. Beza praised him for his theological acumen and especially for his contributions to Reformation preaching. According to Achelis, Hyperius’s “efforts in…the homiletic depart­ment are almost epoch-making, and become the basis of Evangelical [Protestant] sermon formation.”4

Hyperius’s six important contributions

In the remainder of this article, let’s look at six important contributions Hyperius made that encouraged heavenly preaching then, and still encourages it now.

First, Hyperius codified in a textbook the Reforma­tion commitment to preaching and applying Scripture alone. For Hyperius, the Word of God alone has the heavenly power to “conduce to the salvation and rec­onciliation of man to God.”5 The minister must there­fore “produce out of the fountains of the Scriptures” the content of the sermon, and then apply it “to the present state of things and matters incident.”6 How important in our day that the ministry retain this conviction! In the evangelical world, movie clips, skits, and more take the place of the preaching of the Word, as though these things will be the power to save and preserve God’s people—another front of the Devil’s attack on heavenly preaching. May there never be such a lack of conviction regarding the power of the proclamation of heaven’s Word among us! The result would soon be a famine of the same.

Second, Hyperius taught future ministers that the Word of God must be preached with “plain and perspic­uous [clear] speech.”7 Preaching is heavenly when the sermon allows the Word of God to come through to the people of God clearly and powerfully. There is always a temptation for ministers to use the pulpit to show off their intelligence and ability to discuss complex matters. In fact, shortly after Calvin’s death in Geneva, there was a complaint there that ministers trained in Geneva were preaching above the people’s heads. They would make their text one word from the Bible so that they could show off how much they could say about it. The sermon would quote philosophers and poets, so that finally ser­mons “distanced themselves in every way from the solid simplicity of the Scriptures…turning the presentation of the Word of God into futile gibberish.”8 The solution for the masters in Geneva was to teach preaching by use of Hyperius’ textbook!

Third, Hyperius helpfully applied sola scriptura not only to the content of preaching, but also to the form of preaching. For preaching to be heavenly, Hyperius be­lieved the Bible ought to tell us not only what to preach, but also how to preach it. Hyperius observed that many of the sermons recorded in the Bible had a central theme to them so that one main point was made. Likewise, the parables of Jesus and the epistles of Paul. Based on this scriptural observation, Hyperius taught ministers to have a theme for their sermons. The theme should be “a brief sum of the whole matter, whereof a man pur­poseth to speak, and even the argument and fountain of the whole oration.”9 He then said, in order to make the whole sermon a unity around that theme, the preacher must divide his sermon into [normally three] divisions that logically explain the theme. I would imagine this sounds familiar! But this was quite revolutionary for Protestant churches at the time. Calvin and the other Reformers did not have a theme and divisions for their sermons. Consequently, their sermons often did not have a unity to them. They could often be a collection of diverse thoughts with no harmonizing point. The fact that PRC preachers and many other preachers use a theme and divisions, in contrast to Calvin in this sense, is a direct result of the influence of Hyperius.

Fourth, Hyperius called for blood, sweat, and tears from the preacher, as he prepared his sermons for preaching and prepared himself to preach his sermons. Hyperius said the minister must “with great industry apply himself” to sermon making, since it is the heav­en-sent food for the souls of God’s people. 10 Indeed, Hyperius noted, there “is nothing more unseemly” than a minister who did not do the work necessary to pro­duce faithful and edifying sermons.11 But even after the sermon manuscript is finished, Hyperius said the minister must not stop working. He is not yet ready to preach the sermon he made. The preacher must prepare his own heart and mind to bring the Word of God. He must do this, Hyperius taught, by applying the passage to himself, praying the text, imagining the situation of God’s people in his own mind, and offering “fervent prayers” that the Spirit use the word that would soon be preached to bind God’s people to their Savior. 12 These things will prepare the preacher to speak as though life and death are in the balance (which they are). How important, coming out of an age of lazy priests! Yet, still today, may Hyperius be used to spare us from idle ministers who do not seem to understand the import of what they are called to do.

Fifth, Hyperius reminded preachers of the necessity of good applications. Hyperius believed sermons should be doctrinal, but at the same time they should drive the people of God to where that doctrine would lead them. He saw in II Timothy 3:16 the main kinds of applica­tions that ought to be in sermons: calling people to hold to truth and reject what is false, calling God’s people to a godly life and warning them of an ungodly life, and granting comfort to the flock. In all these a minis­ter ought to use repetition, gestures, silence, raising the voice, questions, hyperbole, and more to move God’s people at the level of mind and heart (should the Spirit be working) toward faith and hope and love.13

Faith…in Christ. Hope…in Christ. Love…for Christ, first of all. Because, sixth, Hyperius called for sermons that preached Christ as the great treasure of God’s church. Preaching Christ, or failing to do so, was what made or broke a sermon for Hyperius. A preacher could be less gifted than another, but if he preached “doctrine that is sound,” and if he “preached Christ,” “all is well, and God is to be thanked.”14 Even if we think it could be better, such preaching is heavenly, and thus powerful in the hands of the Spirit of Christ.

Hyperius taught true and faithful Reformation preaching in his textbook—the kind of preaching that will come under attack in various ways in every age. May there be in our day such heavenly preaching that is worth the Devil’s time to attack! For such preaching alone is used of God now as then to build and preserve His eternal and heavenly kingdom in this earth.

1 They wrote about preaching and commented on aspects of how to preach in various places in their writings, but did not write a textbook for teaching preachers. Melanchthon wrote a number of books on rhetoric that were applied to preaching, but among these was no true homiletics textbook.
2 Andreas Hyperius, The Practise of Preaching, Otherwise Called the Pathway to the Pulpet Conteyning an Excellent Method how to Frame Divine Sermons, & to Interpret the Holy Scriptures According to the Capacitie of the Vulgar People. First written in Latin by the Learned Pastor of Christes Church, D. Andreas Hyperius: and Now Lately (to the profit of the same Church) En-glished by John Ludham, Vicar of Wethersfeld. 1577 (London: Thomas East, 1577).
3 Gerhard Rau, “Hyperius, Andreas,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 299-300.
4 E.C. Achelis, “Hyperius (Gerhard), Andreas,” in Philip Schaff, Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc05/encyc05/Page_432.html.
5 Hyperius, The Practice of Preaching, 9a.
6 The Practice of Preaching, 139b. I have modernized the English in the quotations.
7 The Practice of Preaching, 15b.
8 Quotation of the Genevan Company of Pastors found in Karin Maag, “Preaching Practice: Reformed Students’ Sermons,” in Ned¬erlandsch Archief Voor Kerkgeschiedenis 85, no. 1 (2005), 141.
9 The Practice of Preaching, 21a.
10 The Practice of Preaching, 41a.
11 The Practice of Preaching, 16b.
12 Hyperius, The Practice of Preaching, 43a.
13 The Practice of Preaching, 49a.
14 The Practice of Preaching, 5a.