For some pastors today, the thought of employing rhetoric in their preaching is like a dentist using mercury to make his fillings: it’s an outdated practice that might even be hazardous. For others, rhetoric is something like shaving with a straight-razor: a cool thing that your grandpa did, and maybe you wish you could as well, but it’s lost on you. Whatever your relationship to rhetoric might be, my goal here is to demystify it for you a little bit.
Let’s start with a definition. Simply put, rhetoric is the art of public speaking. In a sense, it is the craft in “the craft of preaching.” Or if you want to sound fancier, defines rhetoric as: bene dicendi scientia, “the knowledge of speaking well.” Quintilian himself is among the cast of characters, together with his fellow Roman, Cicero, and those polymathic Greeks, Plato and Aristotle (with a few lesser-known players besides), who make up the classical rhetoric all-star team. When you append the adjective classical to rhetoric, you are simply referring to the art as it was developed by these fellows and their Greco-Roman compatriots, going back to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
Like any millennia-old field of study, rhetoric has developed and adapted in different times and places. Nevertheless, the classical tradition has continued to shape the discipline. It’s sometimes said that contemporary philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. In a similar vein, we might say that contemporary rhetoric is a series of footnotes to Aristotle. The classicist George Kennedy writes, “What we mean by classical rhetorical theory is this structured system [of techniques] which describes the universal phenomenon of rhetoric in Greek terms.” In other words, the classical tradition has furnished us with a vocabulary and conceptual system for understanding rhetoric in every age, including our own.
Nevertheless, some might well wonder why we would take the time to attend to the antiquated public speaking techniques of the ancients. What relevance could classical rhetoric have for contemporary preachers? Much in every way, as we’ll see, but here are a couple of quick responses.
First, the time may be especially ripe for once again plundering ancient spoils (as Augustine might put it). The word from everywhere is that we are living in a “post-literate” age. At least since Neil Postman’s seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death, preachers have been recognizing (and wringing their hands about) the attenuated attention-spans and insufficiently verbal capacities of the people in the pews—not to mention the person in the pulpit (see Why Johnny Can’t Preach by T. David Gordon). Granting this state of affairs, there is a benefit for us post-literates to learn from some of the wisdom of our pre-literate forebears. For contemporary preachers, an especially fertile source of such ancient wisdom is classical rhetoric.
Granting this state of affairs, there is a benefit for us post-literates to learn from some of the wisdom of our pre-literate forebears. For contemporary preachers, an especially fertile source of such ancient wisdom is classical rhetoric.
And secondly, it’s worth noting that many of the greatest preachers of the Early Church not only employed the art of rhetoric in their preaching but were themselves teachers of oratory: Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa among them. David Dunn-Wilson, an expert on early Christian preaching, notes that “for the great preachers [of the Early Church] who were trained as rhetors, it seemed natural to transfer their skills to the pulpit.” And if it is not already a rule of thumb then it should be one: if it was good enough for Augustine, then it’s good enough for me. So yes, for these and other reasons this ancient discipline still has contemporary relevance.
Conceding the potential practical application of classical rhetoric, some pastors (especially those of us of the Lutheran persuasion) might level a more significant theological objection to the whole rhetorical enterprise. The objection goes something like this: isn’t the Word of God sufficiently potent, independent of its rhetorical packaging? Don’t we believe that it “never returns void”? And didn’t St. Paul himself say that he didn’t preach “with lofty speech or wisdom”? What say ye, fancy pants rhetoric man? This is an important objection (though the name-calling is unnecessary) and worth addressing.
Let’s go to those aforementioned words from First Corinthians. Paul writes, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2.1-2). Here, in his pithy prose, Paul lays out the impetus and agenda for the Church’s preaching ministry: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This proclamation runs counter to the empty resonance of rhetoric, the “lofty speech” of sophists in every age.
The Apostle continues:
“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2.3-5).
Paul could hardly be clearer. Preaching is ultimately not a matter of persuasive words but an all-powerful Word; it depends not on the machinations of men but the mercy of the Spirit, working through the trembling tongues of preachers who know all too well—from both theological conviction and personal experience—that we are not “sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3.5). This is most certainly true.
And yet, the Apostle who famously disavowed rhetoric as so much homiletical window-dressing is also universally recognized as being himself a masterful rhetorician, such that there is an entire field of New Testament studies known as Rhetorical Criticism that exists simply to dissect and detect his oratorical operations. As Cicero once said of Plato, “It was when making fun of orators that he himself seemed to be the consummate orator.” In other words: Paul, methinks thou doth protest too much.
And yet, the Apostle who famously disavowed rhetoric as so much homiletical window-dressing is also universally recognized as being himself a masterful rhetorician.
To be sure, there are dangers in the preacher’s use of rhetoric (the phrase “empty rhetoric” exists for a reason). Just as Paul eschewed the pandering of the hucksters of his day (known as “sophists”), so also preachers today must resist the urge to compromise substance and theology in favor of style and pop psychology. We have inherited the dynamic gospel of God; we ought not surrender it for the middling musings of men.
But as Luther astutely observed, if a harlot shamefully wears gold jewelry that doesn’t make the gold any worse for being worn. On the contrary, Luther says (in good classical fashion), abusus non tollit usum: “abuse does not negate proper use.” Moreover, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession—composed by that devoted student of rhetoric, Philip Melancthon—reminds us that “Christ’s kingdom allows us outwardly to use legitimate political ordinances of every nation in which we live, just as it allows us to use medicine or the art of building, or food, drink, and air” (Ap AC XVI.55). Rhetoric, like air (!), is a good 1st Article gift that preachers can and should avail themselves of—without (as Paul rightly warns us) lapsing into its misuse.
And in the final analysis it isn’t a matter of whether you use rhetoric, but how. Inasmuch as your preaching is still public speaking (let’s hope), you’re going to get rhetorical. It is part-and-parcel of the divine Word becoming incarnate in human words. We aren’t homiletical Docetists. By divine arrangement, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20).