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The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh

Andrew Hofer, O.P.


Fr. Andrew Hofer, O.P., earned his Ph.D. in Theology (History of Christianity) from the University of Notre Dame in 2010. A revised form of his dissertation, written under the direction of Fr. Brian E. Daley, S.J., was published as Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Hofer is currently associate professor of patristics and ancient languages at the pontifical faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, where he is also the director of the doctoral program and editor of The Thomist. He is editing The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Sermons and co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Deification and The Catholic University of America Press’s The Pastoral Theology of the Early Church.


Origen of Alexandria once asked in a sermon on Genesis 17, “What good is it if I should say that Jesus has come in that flesh alone which he received from Mary and I should not show also that he has come in this flesh of mine?”[1] Inspired by this question, I wrote The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh, foreword by Paul M. Blowers (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2023). It appears as the third volume in the new Patristic Theology series at The Catholic University of America Press. Guided by the threefold interlocking theme of Incarnation, deification through the virtues, and proclamation, the book is meant for all who are dedicated to receiving and sharing Christ the Word during this time of profound difficulties for so many Christians.

I was ordained a deacon by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, DC, in May 2021 and a priest by him in May 2002. Between those two ordinations, the Boston Globe released their highly influential reporting on clerical abuse in the Catholic Church. Since 2002, we have learned repeatedly of grave misconduct by leaders of many Christian communities. The Body of Christ on earth is hurting, and many people suffer for all sorts of reasons. Wars, forced migration, a global pandemic, social upheaval, family instabilities, and other terrible difficulties have altered how people think about life on earth. Many people are leaving the Church. To whom shall we turn? The Fathers of the Church preach Christ the Word.

Knowing that people treat physical illnesses in many ways, St. John Chrysostom says in On the Priesthood:

When all is said and done, there is only one means and only method of treatment available, and that is teaching by word of mouth. That is the best instrument, the best diet, and the best climate. It takes the place of medicine and cautery. When we need to cauterize or cut, we must use this. Without it all else is useless.[2]

Do we have a sense today of that kind of power in preaching? We Christians are to be branches on Christ the True Vine, like the apostles and evangelists who have gone before us. We are to have the Word in our own flesh.

This book reclaims patristic preaching first through a long introduction that sets up the book’s argument and indicates its primary audience of the Church and its secondary audience of the academy. Seven chapters treat early preachers under select themes both chronologically and systematically. The chapters are:

1. Origen of Alexandria: The Word in Our Flesh for Holiness

2. Ephrem the Syrian: The Word in Our Flesh for the Humility of Repentance

3. Gregory of Nazianzus: The Word in Our Flesh for Purification and Faith

4. John Chrysostom: The Word in Our Flesh for the Hope of Salvation

5. Augustine of Hippo: The Word in Our Flesh for Love

6. Leo the Great: The Word in Our Flesh for Love of the Poor and the Weak

7. Gregory the Great: The Word in Our Flesh for Acceptance of Our Weakness

The Power of Patristic Preaching concludes with a story about St. Ambrose of Milan, who preaches that “Christ wishes to suffer in his little servants.”[3] The conclusion also summarizes the seven chapters, and it applies their studies of patristic preaching to our flesh in the Church now.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship awarded me their Teacher-Scholar grant to write this book, which afforded the opportunity for me to research and write at Oxford University, as a visiting instructor of Blackfriars Studium, and at Yale University, as a Yale Divinity School visiting fellow during the 2019–20 academic year. I am grateful to the Calvin Institute and to many who supported me during the writing of the book. Paul Blowers concludes the book’s foreword in this way: “This is a book of retrieval and res­sourcement par excellence, and it will doubtless endure as one of the definitive works on early Christian preaching.”

Among the endorsements are these:

Far from being mere literary or rhetorical exercises, patristic preaching took shape in the sacred space of the liturgy and constitutes an integral aspect of the Church’s sacramental life and the Eucharist in particular. The Power of Patristic Preaching superbly draws out the sacramentality of the Christian message as an embodiment of the Word of God, as well as that same Word’s embodiment in the words and life of the preacher. The words of those transformed by the virtues communicate grace to their hearers and extend the transformative power of the sacrament beyond the boundaries of the liturgy. A remarkable retrieval of the spirit of patristic preaching, this book will be valuable for students and scholars of the Church Fathers, a vital resource for preachers, and of interest to all those seeking to deepen their knowledge and experience of Christian worship.

Very Reverend Archimandrite Maximos Constas, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Reading this very original book, I kept wondering why it has taken so many years for someone to write a thorough study of preaching in the early centuries of the Church’s history. Churchmen whom we know through their engagement in the great controversies of the early Church, Origen, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great, here make an appearance as they stand before the Christian faithful in Christian worship. Hofer’s deep knowledge of the Church Fathers allows him to show in fascinating detail how the Church’s early teachers, each in turn, made the words and images of the Scriptures a living voice in the basilicas of the ancient world. This is a book to be cherished for the long haul."

Robert L. Wilken, University of Virginia


[1] Origen, Homilies on Genesis 3.7 (SC 7bis, 140; Heine, 101 [alt.]).

[2] John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood 4.3 (SC 272, 144; Neville, 115).

[3] Sermon against Auxentius 14 (PL 16:1011B; de Romestin, 432 [alt.]).


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