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Half a century ago Andrew Blackwood lamented that “expository preachers and sermons, rightly or wrongly, have been known for tameness, sameness, and lameness.”1 More recently, Christian columnist Terry Mattingly observed: “In most congregations, the word ‘sermon’ means a verse-by-verse explanation of scripture, perhaps enlivened with occasional illustrations from daily life. Thus, most people hear academic lectures at church, then turn to mass media to find inspiring tales of heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy, sin and redemption, heaven and hell.” 2

Earlier generations of preachers were taught to avoid biblical texts containing “elevated emotional character.” Austin Phelps in the nineteenth century explained, “The aim of the rule was to insure simplicity in all the labors of the pulpit.” 3 For too many preachers the distance from simplicity to apathy (meaning the lack of pathos, i.e., emotion) was a small step.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke directly to the problem: “[The] element of pathos and of emotion is, to me, a very vital one. It is what has been so seriously lacking in the present century, and perhaps especially among Reformed people. We tend to lose our balance and to become over-intellectual, indeed almost to despise the element of feeling and emotion. We are such learned men, we have such a great grasp of the Truth, that we tend to despise feeling.” 4

A perceived overemphasis on the intellectual dimension of preaching has created a backlash in contemporary homiletical literature. Homiletician and pastor Frank A. Thomas wrote, “It is precisely because so much of Western preaching has ignored emotional context and process, and focused on cerebral process and words, that homileticians most recently have struggled for new methods to effectively communicate the gospel.” 5 Lucy Lind Hogan and Robert Reid concurred then pinpointed the direction that modern approaches to preaching are taking. “[W]e would suggest that most of the strategies of preaching that have been proposed in the last quarter of the twentieth century are still reacting, in part, to a previous generation’s overemphasis on logos. Many of the approaches that have been labeled the New Homiletics have distanced themselves from logos by emphasizing pathos in their interest to create an affective experience for listeners.” 6

Unfortunately, recent attempts to enhance the listener-appeal of preaching by returning to the study of rhetoric and related communication theories has resulted in an undermining of the authority of the biblical text. Expository preaching has given way to existential concerns. The purpose of this article is to consider how the existential-emotional dimension of the actual biblical text as intended by the author and informed by his setting should affect the sermon.

The Bible pulsates with emotion. Few sermons that attempt to expound a biblical text ever seem to lay a finger on its pulse. Often the emotions provoked by the typical sermon, whether topical, textual, or expository, fail to grow out of the text. The preacher who desires to exegete the Scriptures accurately and attractively can do so by giving greater attention to the emotional dimension. The inspired text itself can establish the parameters for the emotional content and delivery of the sermon, meaning that the emotions of the sermon are informed by careful exegesis. An introduction to the classical rhetorical concept of pathos as dissected by Aristotle will prove invaluable in helping the preacher to identify his text’s emotions and in suggesting ways to arouse them within the listening congregation.

Pathos in Aristotelian Rhetoric

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion.” Under the heading of “artistic means” he included the character of the speaker as perceived by the audience based upon his speech (ethos), the emotional disposing of the listener in some way (pathos), and the argument itself (logos).

He identified the character of the speaker, i.e., his ethical appeal, as “the controlling factor in persuasion.” 7 He said this not to depreciate the importance of logos but out of his observation that hearers are less likely to believe a speaker on disputed matters, regardless of how logical his arguments, if he exhibits a poor ethos. Similarly, he noted that hearers give differing judgments dependent upon their emotional state.

Having observed that “we do not give the same judgment when grieved and rejoicing or when being friendly and hostile,” Aristotle instructed the speaker to seek to arouse those emotions that would favorably dispose his audience toward himself, his client, or his idea, or that would lead the audience to view his opponent with disfavor. The most obvious contemporary application of Aristotle’s theory is when prosecutors and defense attorneys make their closing arguments to the jury. Each side deals with the same set of facts but from distinctly different points of view, hoping to move jurors accordingly.

The ancient rhetorician proceeded to discuss seven pairs of emotional reactions toward which a speaker might attempt to move his audience. His list, which should be taken as suggestive rather than exhaustive, included anger and calmness, friendliness and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindliness and unkindliness, pity and indignation, and envy and emulation.

To explain how the emotions might be aroused, Aristotle found it necessary to divide the discussion of each emotion under three headings. Illustrating how he would proceed, he said, “I mean, for example, in speaking of anger, what is their state of mind when people are angry and against whom are they usually angry, and for what sort of reasons; for if we understood one or two of these but not all, it would be impossible to create anger [in someone].” Staying with anger as an example, Aristotle taught that to provoke anger within an audience (the “subject”) the speaker must make them feel slighted (the “reason”) by a person (the “object”) who unjustifiably belittled, injured, or showed contempt for members or friends of the audience.

Aristotle contended that intensity of emotion depended upon proximity. The nearer the “object” or more direct the personal involvement, the more intense the emotional response will be.

Pathos in the Biblical Text

Haddon W. Robinson once said, “Exegesis and hermeneutics should . . . be reflected in the sermon’s mood. While the emotion of a writer may be more difficult to pin down than ideas and their development, every passage has a mood. . . . A true expository sermon should create in the listener the mood it produced in the reader.” 8

Since Schleiermacher, students of biblical hermeneutics have been aware of their need to account for the emotional dimension of their text. James I. Packer pointed out that “a genealogical line runs from Schleiermacher to the new hermeneutic.” 9 Although a sharp critic of the new hermeneutic, Packer suggested that one of the few positive contributions of the philosophy has been to draw attention to the more dynamic elements of the biblical text. 10

Grant Osborne argued for the importance of an emotionally sensitive hermeneutic in his acclaimed textbook on hermeneutics. He wrote, “[W]e must also recognize the important place of emotive or expressive speech in the Bible. Certainly the emotional feeling within an epistle is an important aspect of its total meaning. In fact, it could be argued that the true meaning is lost without the portrayal of the emotions to guide the interpreter. There is no depth without the personal element, no grasp or feel for a passage without the underlying tone. This is especially essential for the preacher, who wants to lead first himself and then the congregation into the intensity of the text, to awaken those slumbering passions for God and his will that were so essential to early Christian experience but often have been set aside by the pressures of modern life.” 11

Not all passages are suited to feel, of course, but many are. 12 Where does one look for the feelings of a text? How are emotions triggered by and developed within a biblical text?

Text Selection

The greater the affinity of the circumstances of the text to those of the contemporary audience, the greater the emotional response will be. Hearers with whom some element of the text resonates will need little inducement to listen and react. Conversely, a lack of personal connection places the text in an abstract realm. The preacher who perceives that his text fails to connect emotionally with his audience will likely attempt to develop a principle out of the text and then relate that to his hearers’ situation.

Preachers should cultivate a sensitivity to the general emotional aura of their preaching texts. Those who skip from one text to another each week will have an easier time matching biblical texts to congregational concerns and feelings. Those who preach consecutively through an extended text week after week will need to dig deeper in order to connect emotionally the Bible and the audience.

Grammatical Construction

In passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 the author uses highly emotive language, words like “dishonor” (v. 5), “shame” (v. 6), and “contentious” (v. 16). 13 Paul made an unabashed play on Philemon’s sense of pity in Philemon 9. Passages like these that wear their emotions on their sleeves indicate more clearly the mood in which they should be preached.

Historical Context

Other passages prove adept at hiding their feelings. In these one may need to pay close attention to the historical context of the passage. Louis Berkhof classified psychological interpretation as a sub-division of the historical. 14

Ronald J. Allen maintained that interpretation may be “heightened” and the “full force of a text” might be communicated if the hearers understand the situation of the text. 15 He suggested that among other questions the preacher might ask, “What would it feel like to be in that situation?” Is it important for the congregation to experience the atmosphere of the situation in order to appreciate the full force of the text? What does one see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in the text? 16 Vivid descriptions may then assist the preacher in creating these impressions. 17

Literary Genre

Literary criticism may illumine the emotional element in other biblical texts. 18 As in art, the form in which a thought is cast often reveals the attitude of the originator. 19

To identify the form of a text influences how one listens to it and leads to a greater appreciation for its content. For example, a funeral dirge causes the hearer to receive the content differently than a heroic narrative. 20

Character Development

Characters identified within the biblical text provide another potential source of emotional insight. These three-dimensional persons with mind, emotions, and will, often invite the reader to feel their pain and experience their joy. When the inspired writer gives details to indicate the emotional state of a character, the preacher should take advantage. These details may well be the way that the writer chose to lead his audience to identify with the character. 21

To identify with every character in a text then preach messages from the same passage on every point-of-view therein opens the door too widely for subjectivity. Authorial intent deserves greater respect. At the same time, the preacher would do well to guard against identifying with the hero or victim in every passage. Humility produced by a sincere understanding of personal depravity demands that the hearer also see himself occasionally as the villain and victimizer. David did not fully grasp the significance of the parable that Nathan shared about the stolen sheep until he identified with the thief. 22

Aristotelian Contributions

Generally, Aristotle’s insights on the role of pathos in oratory help the preacher by reminding him that the judgments of people are not entirely rational by nature. Emotions play a role in their formation. Both the inspired writers and their original audiences had feelings about whatever issue or situation the biblical text addressed. Those feelings created an atmosphere within which the writer wrote and the audience received.

Specifically, a synopsis of Aristotle’s insights on how specific emotions function gives the preacher a starting point from which he might attempt to identify the emotions within his text. Following a careful study of the text’s history and grammar, as well as an appropriate consideration of the distinct features of its genre, he might ask, “To which particular emotion do these verses appeal?”

An emotionally sensitive study of the passage might uncover multiple emotional elements. Robinson observed, “As there are dominant and supporting ideas in a passage so, especially in larger passages, major and minor moods occur.” 23 He further asserted that the dominant mood of the text should mark the spirit of the sermon. 24 The preacher is ready to craft a message that is emotionally faithful to the text when he can answer the question “what is the primary emotional catalyst to which the biblical writer appeals in this passage?”

A few specific biblical examples might prove helpful at this point. When Judah begs Joseph to arrest himself and allow Benjamin to go free, he plays upon Joseph’s pity (Gen. 44:18-34). The wise man Agur draws attention to the actions of four small creatures in order to arouse appreciation and emulation (Prov. 30:24-28). Jesus tells about a prodigal son and his boorish brother to move His pharisaical audience to feel shame over their reaction to His acceptance of sinners (Luke 15:11-32). He recounts a conversation between Abraham in paradise and a rich man in Hell in order to shake the confidence of His hearers who believed wealth signified divine favor (Luke 16:19-31). Paul cites at least three reasons why the believer can overcome temptation so as to instill confidence within the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor. 10:13). The list could go on.

Pathos in the Sermon

Regarding the Pathos of the Speaker

Classical rhetoricians disagreed on how the pathos of the speaker related to the emotional impact of his speech. Aristotle said, “[A]n emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments.” 25

Although Aristotle may have overstated the point, the speaker’s emotional state is an important part of the pathos of the preaching event. His perceived state can either facilitate or hinder the audience’s experiencing the emotions that he hopes to evoke. If not careful, the preacher can subtly bend the emotions of the text and thereby misrepresent elements of the text in his sermon. 26

Preaching, to adapt Phillips Brooks’ time-honored definition, is the filtration of truth through personality. How the preacher feels about his text will influence how he preaches it and how the people react emotionally and otherwise. As the preacher begins to feel the spirit of the text, he is at a pivotal point in his sermon preparation. While recovering the mood of the text, he is establishing an emotional framework within which he will recreate the text for his audience and preach his sermon.

In that moment when the text impresses him emotionally, he will recall related thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This process of association is entirely appropriate if one accepts Robinson’s definition of expository preaching as being the communication of a biblical concept first applied to “the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers.” If the preacher is fatigued, in pain, at odds with another, or otherwise emotionally distracted, he may find emotional interaction with the text difficult, if not impossible. Even if he succeeds in experiencing the emotions of the text, he may fail to express them and elicit them from others because of an impersonal approach, authoritarian stance, nondescript language, or rushed delivery.

Affecting the Pathos of the Audience

Donald Miller described the ideal sermon with the following, “The final form of the sermon should seek to convey the emotional mood of the passage on which it is based, in the hope of touching thought with emotion which will lead to action.” 27 Expository preaching should seek to create within the hearer the same emotions as found in or demanded by the biblical text. The objective is to move the hearer so that he will think, feel, and live in ways that are consistent with the text. Just as the text dictates the message, it dictates the mood. As the preacher will want to guard against an eisegesis of meaning, so he will want to guard against an eisegesis of mood.

To influence the emotions of his hearers in a textually appropriate manner, the preacher must start in his study with a thoughtful analysis of his audience. Because, as Aristotle observed, emotions exist in a continuum, preachers must ask certain questions about their audience. In what general emotional state will the people enter the preaching hour? What might their initial reaction be when they hear the Scripture read or the subject announced? How should the sermon engage the hearer initially so as to lead him eventually to feel what the text intends? How does his emotional state need to be adjusted in the course of the sermon?

Illustrations and images are tools commonly used to clarify biblical concepts. They can also enhance the emotional dimension of the text. The most effective illustrations are those that lie closest to the hearer’s experience. Aristotle’s conception of proximity applies here. The nearer to the hearer the object or personal relationship (whether actually or perceptually), the more intense his emotional reaction will be.

The speaker’s tone, rate, and stress in voice will influence his audience’s emotions, so, too, will his body language. If he will allow his message to saturate his mind and spirit to the point that he incarnates his sermon, voice and gestures will come naturally and appropriately. In such a state, the preacher will need to exercise special control over how deliberately he shares the descriptive portions of his message. Aristotle’s admirer, the Roman rhetorician Cicero spoke of the importance of deliberate description, allowing concepts time to crystalize in the imagination and emotions of the hearer. 28 Hearers can grasp facts quickly. Feelings take longer to develop.

Speaking of description, it is through the use of careful description that a speaker evokes an emotional reaction from his audience. To say, “Doesn’t it make you angry when . . .?” is to recognize an emotional state. To describe vividly a condition that provokes anger, that is, to tap into a value that has been violated, is to cause the hearer to experience anger. Instead of referring to emotions, the preacher should seek to recreate them by use of empathetic imagination and careful description. 29

The preacher walks a tightrope in his sermon’s introduction. He must avoid sensationalism, lest he raise congregational expectations higher than he can reach; and he must guard against tedium, lest he desensitize the congregation to what follows. Robert Dabney suggested: “In warmth of tone the introduction should bear a due relation to the state of feeling which, at the beginning, prevails among the hearers. It should not be in strong contrast with theirs, so as to place the speaker out of sympathetic harmony with them, and yet it should suggest at once a progress toward a higher stage of emotion.” 30

Aristotle noted that speakers develop their arguments using enthymemes (i.e., rhetorical syllogisms) and examples. The former appear in deductive arguments, the latter in inductive arguments. Fred Craddock, the late Ralph L. Lewis, and most modern homileticians have made much of induction, and rightfully so. A sermon’s form is important. It can sustain or squelch interest. When hearers cease to be interested, they are unlikely to be moved. H. Grady Davis claimed: “The aim of preaching is to win from men a response to the gospel, a response of attitude and impulse and feeling no less than of thought. Since form does its work immediately and at deeper levels than logic, persuades directly and silently as it were, form has an importance second only to that of thought itself.” 31

When preachers think about the place of emotion in the sermon, their thoughts naturally turn to the conclusion. Aristotle wrote, “The epilogue (that is, conclusion) is made up of four things: disposing the hearer favorably toward the speaker and unfavorably toward the opponent; amplifying and minimizing; moving the hearer into emotional reactions [pathe]; and [giving] a reminder [of the chief points made in the speech].” 32 The great concern of all preachers at this point is that they move the hearer without manipulating him. If a preacher uses the conclusion to reinforce emotions developed in the biblical text and aroused in the sermon, he is not manipulating the hearer when he returns to these emotions in the conclusion. To seek to arouse emotions outside of the text or that have not been previously explored, however, may prove manipulative.


Emotional and emotionally provocative speech flow from the heart, the deep, inner recesses of the soul. Elwood Murray remarked, “Speech is a phase of personality. In many respects speech and personality are one and the same thing. Genuine speech improvement depends upon personality development.” 33 The expository preacher who moves among his people, who has had his personality shaped in community with others, will naturally experience and express emotion outside of the pulpit. He should carry that same personality with him into the pulpit, an interactive, holistic personality. The better the person he is, the more open his heart, the better the speaker he will become.

As they drew their comments on emotional appeal to an end, Edward Corbett and Robert Connors wrote: “Making a conscious study of the emotions and being aware that we are appealing to someone’s emotions will not necessarily make us more adept at this kind of appeal. But a conscious knowledge of any art makes it more likely that we will practice the art skillfully. The person who learned to play the piano by ear will not be hurt by studying music; but that person might very well be helped to play better.” 34

A rudimentary knowledge of the dynamics of pathos can serve the preacher who wishes to bring his exposition of the Scriptures to life. Recovering the mood of the text, regulating his own emotions by submitting to those of the text, and recreating those emotions within the listening audience will influence what he says, how he says it, and how it is received. The resulting difference might be compared to listening to a song in “surround sound stereo” rather than from a static-filled transistor radio.

Put another way, rather than show his audience a pod race in the movie Star Wars Episode One, creator George Lucas put them in the cockpit by utilizing the best audio technology available. The experience made the movie. Similarly, the emotional experience can add an extra dimension to the expository sermon. People who hear such sermons will no longer need to look to mass media for inspiring tales of heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy, sin and redemption, Heaven and Hell.


Gregory K. Hollifield is Chaplain with Youth for Christ in Memphis, TN.


1. Andrew Watterson Blackwood, Expository Preaching for Today: Case Studies of Bible Passages (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1953), 94.
2. Terry Mattingly, “‘Star Wars’ film and Christianity–-an Unusual Connection,” The Commercial Appeal, 5 June 1999, sec. A.
3. Austin Phelps, The Theory of Preaching: Lectures on Homiletics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 92. Phelps continued by discussing the difficulties attending the use of such texts and situations in which they should be used.
4. D[avid] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 93.
5. Frank A. Thomas, They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching, with a foreword by Henry H. Mitchell (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1997), 5.
6. Lucy Lind Hogan and Robert Reid, Connecting with the Congregation: Rhetoric and the Art of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 41-42.
7. Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy, with introduction, notes, and appendices by George A. Kennedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 1.2.1. (To conserve space, further specific references to Aristotle’s work will be omitted. Most of these are in the immediate vicinity of 1.2.1.)
8. Haddon W. Robinson, “Homiletics and Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 813-4. Similarly, Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 93, wrote: “Our manner should reflect Scripture’s content. Because we convey meaning not merely by what we say but also by how we speak, accurate exposition requires us to reflect a text’s tone as well as define its terms.”
9. James I. Packer, “A Response to the New Hermeneutic,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 563.
10. Ibid., 570.
11. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1991), 99.
12. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 174; and Ronald J. Allen, Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson, 1984), 111.
13. Osborne, 99-100.
14. L[ouis] Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), 114.
15. Allen, Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching, 29.
16. Ibid., 35.
17. Ibid., 36.
18. Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 309.
19. Allen, Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching, 105-10.
20. The relation of biblical form to content has been developed in such books as Buttrick, Homiletic; Henry Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958); and Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
21. Greidanus, 177-8, 309. Greidanus cautioned that authorial intent should always guide hearer identification. Buttrick, 352, concurred.
22. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, eds., Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), s.v. “Hermeneutics,” by James A. Sanders.
23. Robinson, “Homiletics and Hermeneutics,” 814.
24. Ibid.
25. The Works of Aristotle, trans. multiple translators, vol. 9 of Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 659.
26. Haddon W. Robinson, The T.V. Farris Lectures on Preaching, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Memphis, TN, 22 February 2001.
27. Donald G. Miller, The Way to Biblical Preaching (New York: Abingdon, 1957), 51. Miller, 67, gave an example of how a proper understanding of a text’s mood influences the proper interpretation of its meaning.
28. Cicero De Oratore, The Loeb Classical Library, 2.51.213-5.
29. For a fuller discussion of the psychology involved in emotional provocation, see Edmond Darvil Benard, The Appeal to the Emotions in Preaching (Westminster, MD: Newman Book Shop, 1944); and Paul I. Rosenthal, “The Concept of Ethos and the Structure of Persuasion,” Speech Monographs 33 (March 1966): 117.
30. Robert L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 149.
31. Henry Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958), 5. See also, Greidanus, 18-20.
32. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 3.19.1.
33. Quoted in Robert Inman Johnson, “Speech Personality in Effective Preaching,” Review and Expositor 35 (October 1938): 404.
34. Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 84.

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