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Why look for the living among the dead?

Last week I was pleased to be part of the Dead Preachers Society Conference in Eastbourne.

The idea arose from a visit to New Orleans Baptist Seminary, where every two weeks in term time a group of students meet at 6.30am to discuss a dead preacher.

We gathered in Eastbourne to consider how we could learn how to preach better in the present by thinking deeply about the past.

The “dead” preacher I particularly focused upon was Augustine of Hippo.

This 5th Century theological giant has been something of a travelling companion for me over the past 20 years. I have been enriched by his meditative spiritual autobiography Confessions, stirred by his magisterial City of God, instructed by his On Christian Teaching and inspired by his numerous volumes of sermons (I post daily on Twitter from the sermons @JohnDavidWoods1).

James KA Smith in his book On the Road with Augustine speaks about the importance of having a historical focus if we are to be sure-footed in the present and ready to step into the future,

“Do you know how a boatman faces one direction, while rowing in another?”

To reflect on and learn from the great preachers of the past does not mean living in the past, rather it helps us stand on the shoulders of giants so that we can understand Scripture better and see further.

Learning from the ancients helps us to see that Christianity does not begin with us. Our faith has deep roots and we can learn a great deal from those who were historically closer to New Testament times and unincumbered by some of our contemporary preoccupations.

What excites me about reading Augustine is that he has the same message but is willing to be innovative with his method of communicating it.

Contemporary preaching can take a route 1 approach to biblical interpretation. The assumption is that there is only one meaning of any given text. Most of the time this can be a helpful and safe rule of thumb. Yet we can tend to forget that New Testament preachers and writers did not always take this approach (for example, Paul’s unusual use of the story of Sarah and Hager in Galatians 4:21–31).

Augustine and many of the early church fathers were willing to read Scripture through a variety of different lenses. This leads to creative and fresh readings of Scripture that shape sermons that come at the hearer from unexpected angles.

Recently I have been thinking about how Psalm 23 turns from the dominant image of the Shepherd that occupies verses 1–4, to the image of a table that is introduced in verses 5–6.

I then began to think about where I had seen these two images in another passage of Scripture. My mind was drawn to Luke 15, which also begins with the image of a shepherd and ends with a table laid out for a homecoming feast when the lost son returns home.

Far too often preachers approach Scripture with our minds made up, rather than allowing Scripture to guide and shape us.

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