Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was one of the greatest preachers of the early church. As a young man, he studied and taught rhetoric and served as an orator in the imperial court. After his conversion to Christianity, however, he devoted his keen mind and rhetorical skill to proclaiming the gospel in the North African church. While we know Augustine today mainly as a writer of theological treatises, in the fourth century he was best known as a gifted preacher. His first biographer once commented that those who heard him preach in the church benefited even more than those who read his works.
One of the more striking features of Augustine’s preaching is his use of questions. His sermons are full of challenging questions about Scripture. One example is his sermon on John 14:15–16, where Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Augustine asks his congregation how the disciples could love Jesus and obey his commandments prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is the one who empowers love and obedience. Notably, Augustine doesn’t offer a quick resolution to this question. Instead, he invites the congregation to think through the question with him. He wrestles with the question out loud and grapples with some potential yet ultimately unsatisfying resolutions. In doing so, he lets the congregation in on his theological reasoning.
Augustine does eventually offer resolution, stating that while the disciples already had a measure of the Spirit that enabled them to love and obey, they would receive a greater measure of the Spirit after the resurrection. The point of this sermon was not just to give the answer at the end; it was to invite the congregation into a contemplative reflection on Scripture—a reflection that would form their minds and hearts.
From Augustine’s example, we can draw four conclusions that are relevant for preaching today.
1. The use of questions results in deeper preaching. Augustine preached to a diverse congregation in North Africa. Many in his audience had little or no education. Even so, he did not underestimate the theological capability of his people. The questions he asked pushed them to think carefully about their faith, and especially the nature of God. By raising good but accessible questions, Augustine preached up to his people, helping them come to a deeper understanding of truth. This approach is a welcome corrective to contemporary preaching that too often errs on the side of the pragmatic and superficial.
2. The use of questions enables personal engagement. When Augustine posed a difficult question, a healthy tension arose in the sermon. This tension helped captivate the audience and involve them personally in the preaching event. Augustine often urged his listeners to pray for understanding as they reflected on the question. By posing difficult questions, instead of giving easy answers, Augustine allowed the sermon to become something that both the preacher and the congregation owned, by moving the listener from a position of passive consumer to active participant.
3. The use of questions forms the mind to think rightly about the things of God. Augustine could have easily presented truths to his audience in concise points. However, he chose to present truths through a rigorous process of questioning. One reason for this was that preaching, for Augustine, was about nurturing the formation of his people rather than simply imparting information. By thinking through difficult questions with his congregation, he trained them in how to read Scripture and conceive of God’s nature and work in orthodox ways. Moreover, he conveyed to them the positive role that questions play in the process of gaining wisdom.
4. The use of questions turns the sermon into a contemplative practice. When Augustine posed challenging questions in his sermons, he attempted to lead his congregation into the contemplation of God. Contemplation involves directing the gaze of the mind toward God. The sermon’s questions were meant to focus the mind on God, purge the mind of misconceptions about God, and lead the mind to a greater apprehension and love of God. For Augustine, then, the preaching event was not simply a means to an end: it was an opportunity to perceive God, a foretaste of the lasting contemplation of God in the life to come.
Augustine offers a question-oriented model of preaching that is deep, engaging, formative, and contemplative. In a contemporary culture that is oversaturated with information, this model reminds us that the ability to ask good questions while preaching is vital for shaping people who both know and love God.