What does it take for a man to be prepared to preach? What makes a preacher? There are many answers to this question. Some think through this question in weekly bites: the preparation it takes to put together a sermon. Some think through this question in seminarian terms: the theology and formal education necessary to be able to exegete and read the original languages. Some think in terms of skill: how good of a speaker is the man? All of these have some weight carried in the assessment of what it means to be prepared to preach, but what did the Early Church think when it began to contemplate a man’s preparedness to preach? Was it merely his education? Did they merely think through the preparation or skills necessary to form a good sermon? Or did they see the preparation to preach as a life lived in community with the church? What we find with a close reading of the ancient church is a view of preparation that spans more than a week, more than skills, and even more than theology. Rather, the Early Church ensured that men were prepared to preach by giving their whole lives to mentoring and being mentored, through a process of education and preparation, by other pastors in the context of the local church. Today many in the church might find this odd. Our culture is a seminary culture. Men go off to be trained and then go off to another church to pastor. It is not the church that makes the preacher, but the schools. The men of the Early Church would have a hard time understanding the separation that has been made in recent years between the preparation for preaching and the church—in particular the pastoral leadership of the church. What might we be able to learn from the post-apostolic patristic age in this regard? How might a study of the Early Church help us move forward with a mentorship-based understanding of preparing a man to preach? Where do we even start in such a study?
A Faithful Churchman
Cyprian of Carthage was born around A.D. 195 to a prominent family in Carthage. This means that he was educated in both classical and religious literature, most likely with a focus on rhetoric. After his conversion in 246, he was ordained two years later during the persecutions of Emperors Decius and Valerian. From his post as Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian mentored many men for the ministry and trained many in preaching. Although all the ways in which Cyprian will mentor others will be followed by those after him, one aspect of his mentorship shines above the others: Cyprian modeled the ministry had those under him involved in its work. According to Edward Smither, “Virtually every member of the clergy, including presbyters, was at some point involved in carrying letters for Cyprian.” What does carrying letters have to do with preaching? Furthermore, Cyprian involved those under his mentorship in the ministry itself, including: “presiding over worship, hearing confession and restoring the lapsed, preaching and teaching, and participating in councils.” In Cyprian’s 41st letter, he clearly states his desire “to advance everyone who is suitable, humble and meek to the duties of the ecclesiastical office.” We see Cyprian take his time in mentoring the man Aurelius, first giving him opportunities in service to the church as a reader of the Word in the liturgy. This gave Aurelius experience in liturgical worship and in speaking in front of great crowds. He proved himself both a humble and able servant in the work and so Cyprian writes, “Such a one was deserving of the higher steps of clerical ordination and a greater promotion not so considered for his years but for his merits. But in the meantime, it seemed right for him to start with the office of reading. Know, therefore . . . that he has been ordained.”
What does carrying letters, participating in church councils, hearing confessions, or reading Scripture in the liturgy have to do with preaching, and how do these works prepare a man to preach? Following the Decius Persecution (249-250), the church become embroiled in controversy over what to do with the lapsed—how to restore those who sacrificed to idols to keep themselves from harm or even death during the persecution. Cyprian sought a more gracious way of restoration through repentance, writing two treaties on the matter and many letters. In the midst of this controversy and the Valerian Persecution (257-258), Cyprian taught his disciples this truth: before you’re a preacher you are first a churchman; before you can love to preach to the church you must first learn to love her—in restoration, in persecution, in disagreement. Therefore, before they preached, Cyprian had his disciples love and serve the church. Whether that was smaller tasks like carrying letters, or more important pastoral work like hearing confessions.
For Cyprian of Carthage, what it meant to prepare a man to preach was not so much his skills, but his merit as seen in his love for, and service to, the church. A preacher must be prepared to carry out the duty of preaching by first emulating a heart for the church. As has often been said, they won’t care what you say until they know that you care. Service to the church shows the church that the preacher cares. On the other hand, it also gives the man experience being involved in the other aspects of pastoral ministry. A pastor is never just a preacher, but he is always a pastor, and a pastor is always a churchman. Many men today see preaching in their churches as if they are merely guest preachers. They think they want to become pastors but they really only want to be preachers; men of high honor and the spotlight. So instead of getting to know their church, and seeing that as integral to their preaching, they work on the sermons and neglect to love and know the church to whom they preach. For Cyprian, this was not so. Carrying letters, going to church councils, hearing confession, these were the many ways that Cyprian mentored men to be better preachers because they were precisely the means by which the men would be better churchmen.
A Mature Christian
Basil of Caesarea was born in A.D. 330, over a hundred years after Cyprian of Carthage. Born into a prominent family, Basil is most known as being one of the Cappadocian fathers; three men who wrote highly influential theological works on the Trinity. But Basil was also a mentor. While Basil followed all of Cyprian’s mentorship methods, the most important aspect of mentoring for Basil was the relationship between mentor and disciple. Philip Rousseau, in his massive tome on Basil, even makes the case that, “Basil was much more concerned with the relationship between superior and subject than with the structure of authority itself.” For Basil, the superior (mentor) was a man of twofold passion: one to God in being a disciple of Christ and one to his subject (mentee/disciple) in being a ‘nurse’ “in the sense of one who offered nourishment,” opening for the disciple “not only the Scriptures but his very soul.” Basil believed that there was a very clear and biblical “hierarchy of spiritual authority in the mentor-disciple relationship [and] demonstrated this authority in his correspondence with other clergy in a persuasive, exhorting, and even disciplinary manner.” However, Basil was far more concerned to open his soul to his disciples and build a paternal relationship on love and not simply authority. For instance, in writing to his disciple Amphilochius of Iconium, Basil encourages Amphilochius to come to him since “instruction on how the Christian should live is not so much in need of speech as of daily example.” Later in this letter, Basil speaks of the mentor as a “man who knows much both from the experience of others and from his own intelligence, and is able to offer it to those who come to him.” Basil’s homily on Psalm 33 speaks of the disciple as “formed by [his mentor] and brought into existence just as an infant is formed within a pregnant woman.” This is the mentor-disciple relationship that Basil saw as of first importance in preparing a man to preach.
How does a mentoring relationship help prepare a man to preach? Basil saw his pattern of mentoring as one in which the Lord Jesus Christ first set with his own disciples. Basil, therefore, saw this relationship as the essential way to make mature Christians who would be prepared in character to preach the Word of God. Since the earliest days of the church, formal education was not enough. Experience in serving the church, as seen in Cyprian’s mentorship, and a relationship with an experienced and mature Christian leader are both necessary. Seminary may teach us by words, but a mentor’s teaching by experience, for Basil at least, was of utmost experience. Basil sought men out—young men like Amphilochius. He called these men to himself and built a relationship with them in which he taught them theology, preaching the Christian life, and brought them to maturity. Before a man can be a preacher he must first be a Christian of exemplary maturity, and such maturity is brought about under the shepherding care of a mentor. Christian maturity is a necessary requirement and preparation for preaching. The mature Christian will have the mind and self-control to handle the text properly, being guided by it and not his emotions or desires; the mature Christian will have the will and strength to proclaim the Word of God even in the midst of adversity; the mature Christian will know how to apply theology for the sake of the church and not for the sake of his own ego. But a mature Christian cannot make himself. The church makes mature Christian, and in particular, a pastor’s mentorship makes a mature Christian who is prepared to preach God’s word. A pastor is never just a preacher, but he is always a pastor, and a pastor is always a churchman. A churchman well prepared is first a Christian well matured.
An Educated Theologian
Ambrose of Milan was born in A.D. 340 and appointed bishop of Milan in 374. While Ambrose is most known for his discipleship of Augustine, Ambrose was a mentor of multiple clergy and men throughout his territory. In fact, of Ambrose’s 91 surviving letters, 43 were written to clergy, most of which were being devoted to theological questions. 2 letters dealt with questions on the interpretation of Scripture and how the Scriptures were written; 11 letters dealt with exegetical questions, the law, and Ephesians; 8 letters were written on the nature of the soul, Paul’s death, and creation; 1 was written to Sabinus on the days of creation and Arianism, and 1 was written to Constantius on circumcision. Besides just his letters, Ambrose also wrote books that his disciples would no doubt have read. Books like On the Mysteries dealt with baptism and the Lord’s Supper while referring to the clergy and their role at least five times. One of these books was On the Duties of Ministers in which Ambrose set out “to teach you, my children.” It was here that Ambrose offered careful advice: “A bishop’s special office is to teach; he must, however, learn in order that he may teach . . . men learn before they teach, and receive from [God] what they may hand on to others.” This gets at the heart of Ambrose’s mentorship: training in theology.
Smither’s reading of Augustine’s Confessions leads him, right so, to write, “Augustine found it difficult to find a time when Ambrose was not occupied. Thus, the two ended up having very little personal contact.” How, then, is Ambrose considered a mentor of Augustine? Through his sermons. “Although Ambrose was the only one speaking, the sermon became a quasi-dialogue. As Augustine assimilated Ambrose’s teaching, the sermon served as a catalyst for Augustine’s ongoing commitment to seeking truth.” Even in his distant mentorship of Augustine, Ambrose was a mentor-theologian. As quoted earlier, Ambrose saw the preacher as a theologian, and preparation to preach as centrally taken up in theological education. It is not enough for a man to love the church well or to be skilled in oratory. He must be a man of theological acumen; he must know how to rightly handle the Word of God; he must know how to guide the flock in the whole counsel of God. Furthermore, although there were many avenues for a man to be trained in rhetoric and even Christian theology (the School of Alexandria being one), Ambrose saw the church as that which trains its pastors to be theologians. Preachers must not know theology for theology’s sake, but for the sake of the church, and therefore it is incumbent on the church to be the means through which the preacher learns theology. In our seminary-age, this patristic idea has fallen on hard times, but as Seminaries like Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary continue to push for intentional mentorship in the church, they push for a return to a better, pre-modern notion of theological preparation for the preacher and pastor. A preacher is first a churchman well prepared as a Christian well matured in both life and theology.
A Biblical Exegete
Cyril of Alexandria was born in A.D. 376 and was appointed Bishop of Alexandria in 412. Cyril is most known for his writings and work against Nestorian heresies at the Council of Ephesus and the time surrounding that council. But over 75% of Cyril’s writings were commentaries. Most of these commentaries were written for the churches and, by extension, their pastors and those under the mentorship of Cyril. In his introduction to Cyril’s Glaphyra, Gregory Hillis writes, “It is indeed likely that Cyril wrote this commentary, as well as his other commentaries on scripture, primarily to educate and train clergy in the proper interpretation of scripture.” In mentoring the clergy under his guidance, Cyril teaches them that Christ, through Scripture, feeds them with spiritual food, “the revelation of divine mysteries and the knowledge of all virtue,” so that they can then “feed those people under their authority with teachings that lead to life.” Cyril’s focus throughout his commentaries is to teach preachers the hard labor of properly reading and interpreting scripture, “So much labor and sweat are necessary on the part of those tending the spiritual flocks in order to take the word out from its obscurity . . . and bring it up into the open, and so to set it forth clearly for the life-giving benefit of their listeners.” What is this life-giving clarity brought forth from the obscurity of Scripture (in particular, the Old Testament)? Hillis rightly concludes, “Cyril’s emphasis in the Glaphyra and elsewhere” is “on the absolute importance of comprehending the Christological import of the Hebrew scriptures, and particularly on the role bishops play in aiding their flocks to see and understand the deeper meaning of the scriptures” which is this Christological import. Cyril believed that the primary job of the preacher was “to draw out the Christological nuances” of the Scriptures “not immediately seen by the faithful.” This is how Cyril mentored those under his care: teaching them how to read, interpret, and preach the Word in a Christ-centered and God-glorifying way for the sake of the church’s edification and growth in holiness.
This is an emphasis, as already stated, that is found throughout all of Cyril’s writings and commentaries. Cyril believed that the preacher must be prepared to preach the word faithfully, and to preach the Word faithfully, according to Cyril, is to preach the Word—Christ himself. Therefore, preachers are not prepared to preach merely by theological education, skill, or even a holy Christian life. Preparation for preaching is inherently the work of exegesis, and in particular: Christological, redemptive-historical exegesis. It is not enough to know theology; one must be able to read and interpret Scripture theologically in light of the gospel of Christ, and then one must be able to preach that Christ of Scripture. A pastor is never just a preacher, but he is always a pastor, and a pastor is always a churchman; a churchman well prepared is first a Christian well matured in both life and theology; a Christian well matured in life and theology must approach the pulpit as a Biblical Exegete, empowered by the Spirit and prepared to proclaim Christ from all of Scripture.
A Mentored Disciple
No consideration of mentorship in the patristic age would be complete without reflecting on Augustine. From the moment he was appointed presbyter in A.D. 391 until his death in 430, “Augustine had relationships with hundreds of clergy in Hippo, in the provinces of North Africa, and beyond.” What we see in Augustine is a summary of the above mentorship methodologies. Like Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine involved “his personal disciples in the work of” church councils, sent them to churches where there was no bishop and put them to work in counseling, preaching, and presiding over the sacraments. He involved them in the worship assembly, the work of the clerical monastery, writing, church councils, and even his own travels related to church business. According to Smither, Augustine taught his disciples love for the church in preparation for preaching to and for the church. Like Basil, Augustine built a mentor-disciple relationship with those under his guidance, eating meals with them and talking about the things of God. Possidius wrote that Augustine’s “real delight was to speak of the things of God . . . at home in familiar converse with his brothers.” Augustine sought to build a relationship with his disciples and bring them to maturity in the faith and life of Christian godliness.
Like his own mentor, Ambrose, Augustine also sought to educate the men under his guidance. Of the 236 letters written during his time in Hippo, “One hundred contain a definite quality of mentoring about them. Twenty-one were written to spiritual leaders who were serving in Hippo or who had left the clerical monastery to serve elsewhere in Africa.” Furthermore, during his time in Hippo, Augustine wrote 8 theological or exegetical works “for the express purpose of resourcing members of the clergy.” Augustine was a disciple of Ambrose who discipled as Ambrose discipled. He wrote letters and books, resourcing his disciples with theological and exegetical content so that they would be better prepared to preach theologically sound doctrine.
Finally, like Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine sought to teach his disciples how to interpret and read Scripture. His commentary on Romans, according to Paula Fredriksen, was a record of his dialogue with clergy in Carthage during a reading of Romans in 394-395. Augustine wrote To Simplicianus answering theological questions and addressing interpretations of Romans and Kings. Augustine’s On Teaching Christianity is his clearest resource to his disciples in preaching. It is of no surprise, then, that its purpose, according to Augustine himself, was so that the reader “who is in possession of the rules which I here attempt to lay down, if he meet with an obscure passage in the books which he reads, will not need an interpreter to lay open the secret to him, but, holding fast by certain rules . . . will arrive at the hidden sense without any error.” Augustine saw it as of utmost importance that the man of God who preaches must be prepared to do so through a proper reading of the Word he intends to preach. The preacher, therefore, must be a mentored disciple—of Christ and of a faithful pastor-theologian.
What does it take for a man to be prepared to preach? What makes a preacher? For the fathers of the Early Church, it takes mentorship. Mentorship in the work of serving the church including preaching), mentorship in the Christian life, mentorship in theology, and mentorship in exegesis. As the Early Church saw it, a man will not be prepared to preach unless he is prepared by God through the mentorship of a man God has already prepared. The church today has largely pushed preparation off to the seminaries. In our world of rush and hurry, the church has been far too hasty in putting men in the pulpit before they’ve been properly made fit to preach. Did they study for the sermon? Do they speak well? Do they know theology well enough? These are the question most often asked in preparation for preaching. Does he love the church? Does he love God? Does he love theology for the sake of his pursuit of God and the edification of other believers? Does he love the Scriptures and the Christ revealed in them? Does he love to disciple and be discipled? These are the questions the Early Church asked as they judged a man’s fitness for preaching. These are the questions, we should seek to ask today. A pastor is never just a preacher, but he is always a pastor, and a pastor is always a churchman.
This post is authored by Cody Edds. Cody Edds is pursuing an MDiv at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is a member of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Lookout Mountain, TN. Cody and his wife Amber live in Fort Oglethorpe, GA with their son Zechariah. They are expecting their second son Daniel in May 2022.