There is much that the student of preaching can learn from the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was a good model for personal Christian faith and conduct and for professional preaching performance. He demonstrated an art that can be studied and practiced.
Paul claimed his past for Christ and his future. He did not discard the developed knowledge and skills that were acquired before his encounter with the Lord.
Christians can learn from Paul how to handle their pasts. A person can hide the past but he or she cannot hide from the past. Each individual is a product of his or her experience. We should learn from the past and use it in building the future. We should reflect on what we have learned formally and informally.
What did you learn intentionally and what just happened? How did those who influenced you get your attention and make an impression? What would have made learning easier for you? What can you learn from your mistakes and your successes that will help you deal with others? The unexamined life is a bundle of wasted resources. That which we practiced that was harmful to ourselves or others should be turned over to the grace of God and that which can be utilized in Christian service should be turned over to that purpose.
Paul had a personal experience with Christ which transformed his life. It was an experience which originally had to be interpreted for him (Acts 9:3-19; 22:1-13; 26:9-23; Gal. 2:11-15) but which became the source of life and ministry for him.
Paul’s preaching contained a strong confessional element. He bore witness to what he had seen, felt and learned of Christ, and of the effect of that knowledge on his life. Paul never hesitated to tell people how God had made Himself known to him and what God had done in his life (Mark 5:19). He shared with others his former misconceptions and how his mind had changed.
Every preacher should have an experience to share. It does not have to be dramatic or sudden, but it should point to the realization of Jesus as the revelation of God and Christ as the agent of justification and reconciliation. Paul’s preaching was powerful because he did not just know about God, he knew God. The knowledge which he had acquired about God as a Pharisee was given new meaning by the infusion of the Holy Spirit.
Effective preaching has the character of witness.1 It is the witness of the proclaimer and the witness of the community of faith.
Paul utilized all the knowledge and truth God had made available to him: that which came through the study of books, that which came from teachers, that which was observed in life, that which was intuitive and that which came by way of special revelation. He never rejected knowledge in favor of ignorance nor did he demonstrate any fear of truth that came from non-Christian sources.
God is the creator and His imprint is on the natural order, including the human psyche. When a person is baptized, all of his or her skill should be baptized. The world of the Christian is not divided into sacred and secular; all should be sacred.
Paul had a strong sense of divine call to his mission. He believed he had been set apart to preach the gospel and commissioned to proclaim it to the Gentiles. Paul understood the Damascus Road experience as a call (Gal. 1:15; 1 Cor. 1:1) and he believed that others were called to preach (Rom. 10:14-15). Paul’s call had all the characteristics of the classical prophetic call (Isa. 49:1ff; Jer. 1:4-10; Isa. 6:8-9). One must be careful not to confuse the nature of the call experience with the call, but one needs a sense of vocation to find the strength for the task.
The work of preaching has in both Catholic and Protestant traditions been affirmed as a spiritual vocation. The call may be an impulse affirmed by the church, or a sense of compulsion ignited in a dramatic experience. The consciousness of a call may come gradually or suddenly. It should have both intellectual and emotional content and should evoke a response of willing commitment. “Preaching,” Karl Barth wrote, is
the attempt by someone called thereto in the church, in the form of some portion of the biblical witness to revelation, to express in his own words and to make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God as they are to be expected here and now.2
One would be hard put to find a better capsulization of the preaching of Paul or his theology of preaching for the church. The call was incentive, power and witness for Paul and should be for all who preach.
“Church” as community of faith was important to the work of Paul. Ananias was instrumental in the call experience; Paul was nurtured among believers. Barnabas watched his growth and was used to call him to Antioch at the right time and the church at Antioch commissioned him and supported his work.
Before the New Testament was canonized, Paul proclaimed the witness to the revelation of God. He expressed the revelation in words appropriate to each congregation and he proclaimed the reconciling power of the gospel.
The community of faith is usually instrumental in the call of an individual and should provide nurture for the development of gifts. Preaching is not a lone ranger activity — proclamation is the proclamation of the church. Antioch provided a material and spiritual base for Paul and each minister today needs a home base.
Paul believed God worked through the preaching event to effect salvation. Paul had a very high view of the power of the proclaimed gospel. Preaching should never become routine or an empty ritual for preachers. Redemption is present in the words of preaching. The gospel includes claim and promise and evokes faith in those who will receive it.
Again, the preacher should not think in terms of a solo performance. The preacher plays a role in an event which is best orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. If preachers do not have excitement and anticipation for preaching events, they cannot expect positive attitudes from congregations.
Much of the excitement which attends accounts of Paul’s preaching can be attributed to the missionary character of his ministry. Paul took on the difficult task of presenting the gospel to people who had not heard it before. He set out to tame hostile intellectual, moral and spiritual environments as some love the challenge of taming undeveloped lands. He went to busy places where there were many people who had not heard the gospel. This does not mean he was engaged in mass evangelism for he often worked one on one or in the midst of a small group. He did, however, put his leaven in large loaves.
Paul worked in the epicenters of the society of the first century. Paul penetrated population centers that promised a great harvest for carefully planted quality seed. He spoke in whispers or shouted as the occasion demanded. Like Jesus before him, he preached to one or many, by exposition of scripture, interpretation of history, analysis of the human condition or in public oration. He went to where the people were and looked to the spread of the gospel.
The biblical record of Paul’s preaching and the preaching of the epistles demonstrate the strong influence of classical Greek rhetoric. Paul’s performance and analysis lends itself to categorization according to the ancient canons of rhetoric: subject matter (invention), organization, style, mastery and delivery. Contemporary critics of the ancient art of persuasion react to misapplication and unethical use. The technique is morally neutral; whether it is used according to Christian principles and how they may serve as standards or tools for the modern preacher. Preaching is defined by content and subject matter as the most important of the rubrics. Invention is an appropriate label for this aspect of communicating the gospel.
Paul invented the particular form of Christian rhetoric which we call Christian preaching. He had only the example of Jesus and the apostles. He synthesized the Greek and Jewish preaching traditions to create Christian preaching.
Aristotle identified three modes of proof for use in the speaker’s invention: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos, or character, Aristotle believed, “is the most potent of all the means to persuasion.”3 Being a preacher is more than a role. It is a state of being. Augustine observed that “the life of the speaker has greater weight … than any grandness of eloquence.”4
Paul preached out of his experience of living through the work of the Holy Spirit. He reported the continuing leadership of the Spirit on his work. He demonstrated the Christian life in his work and interpersonal relationships. The effective preacher will back up his or her words with a distinctive lifestyle.
Paul continued to work on personal spiritual development throughout his career. He wrote to the Philippians from a prison cell that he was not perfect and pressed “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:12-15).
He made prayer an important part of his testimony and teaching. Contemporary preachers must give a high priority to prayer. A life of prayer is essential to effective preaching. By “effective” I mean true to the gospel, not necessarily popular.
Knowledge, integrity, and goodwill are the personal qualities that Aristotle believed move listeners. The effective preacher must be broadly educated and trained to synthesize and utilize knowledge in the service of God. Augustine turned to the writings of Cicero to note that “eloquence without wisdom is often extremely injurious and profits no one.”5
Paul used every resource at his disposal to accomplish his purpose. He utilized literature, history, philosophy and even the natural science of his day in the service of the cross. Paul drew on his Jewish and Graeco-Roman education for communicating God’s truth.
Integrity may suggest the proper use of knowledge as well as the spiritual wholeness of the preacher. Plato contended in his dialogues that the rhetorician must be a good person who knows the truth and how to divide it.6 The preacher should be among the most diligent of scholars and the most educated of all people. The preacher must be trained in how to think and how to ask the right question, that all of life may be a search for truth. Integrity emerges from the being of the preacher.
Preaching cannot be separated from the character of the preacher. The preacher’s credibility is rooted in what is perceived as personal spirituality. Paul not only had integrity but also made it known in such a way as to try to affect the perception of his character. Integrity must be visible but not in a self-serving, egotistical manner.
The preacher should be adept at cross-cultural communication that recognizes educational, cultural, economic, ethnic, and religious differences. Pathos may best be understood in terms of empathy. An audience will respond favorably to a speaker who convinces them that he or she shares their struggles, feels with them. Paul was a master of this.
A pastor has a tremendous advantage over most speakers because of the extended and durable relationship which is possible with the audience. Preachers who want to know what they should preach — that is, what the people need to hear — should immerse themselves in the lives of the congregation. Paul lived with the people in order to identify with them.
We cannot expect to communicate with people we do not understand. We must seek to learn value systems and how they were derived. Before we can speak in terms of “satisfying” needs, we must know those needs, as well as goals, successes, and failures.
Contact must be established on a human level on the “I-Thou” basis rather than the “I-it” basis upon which so many pastor-lay relationships rest. An I-Thou relationship requires a willingness on the part of preachers to expose themselves to the needs of others.
The world with which Christ is concerned is the world of people. Directly and through all means available we must seek to include the world of labor, the world of the student, the world of the ghetto, the world of entertainment, the worlds of business, government, and sports. Too long we have insisted on playing on our own field, by our own rules and calendars. We have limited our witness to regularly organized church programs at assigned times. Instead of going into the world, we have dared the world to come to us.
Paul invaded the daily lives of his congregations. He spoke boldly of their weaknesses as well as their strengths. He confessed his own sins and exposed his weaknesses to identify with and win their trust. Wendell Phillips observed that people are stimulated by incarnated word.
Truth never stirs up any trouble — mere speculative truth. Plato taught — nobody cared what he taught; Socrates acted, and they poisoned him. It is when a man throws himself against society that society is startled to persecute and to think.7
Involvement with people on the “gut” level will permit the pastor to see people in a new light and in turn to understand how their lives are determined. The typical congregation will respond to a sensitive preacher’s grasp of the human situation and the divine response to it. Speakers may expect to be received only to the degree they have reduced anxieties and plugged into the dominant attitudes of their listeners.
The authority of the preacher on a given occasion is directly proportionate to the degree of identification he or she achieves with the audience. We must know what makes them cry and what makes them laugh, what comforts them and what frightens them. Our sermons often apply salve where there is no pain. We scratch where there is no itch.
The relationship between speaker and listener is developed for the purpose of transmitting the logos. It is this third mode of proof that differentiates preaching from other forms of communication; the distinguishing factor is content, not method.
Preaching is not preaching unless it is rooted in the Word of God. Preaching cannot be separated from interpretation of scripture and theological construction. What is the revelation and how can it be translated into thought-forms meaningful to contemporary audiences are fundamental issues for the preacher.
Paul used scripture as a primary source of authority but not with slavish literalism. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he reinterpreted scripture in the light of the new revelation of Jesus Christ. Scripture was applied to his contemporary situation and that of his audience.
Paul had a dynamic view of scripture that made it a living word in the preaching event. Paul used typology to connect people and events of the past to later events, even current events. He did not strain to demonstrate historical connections but only to show dynamic analogy. The preacher explains implications of the scriptures.
Adequate treatment of logos requires not only knowledge of the subject, but also awareness of the structure of thought. How does the mind work? What convinces a person to want to change being and behavior? Speakers must not only have a clear purpose as to what they desire for the audience to believe or do but also a method to lead hearers to that conclusion or action.
Paul’s preaching demonstrates a careful analysis of each preaching context. He clarified issues and established these as a basis for action. The preacher should identify the problem, truth, or fact, discover the cause, and establish the consequences of the situation. Even the use of common sense would strengthen much of what is passed off as preaching. Let the preacher be warned that arguments must be suited to the audience, for in a rhetorical situation proof always resides in the minds of the audience.
The recognition of the interrelation of reasoning, emotion, and personal appeal is essential to effective preaching. A sermon at its best is a particular message from a particular person on a particular occasion for a particular audience.
The second canon of rhetoric is organization. The way an idea is presented can determine the success or failure of a sermon. Attention to such matters as establishing cause and effect, developing a logical climax, and presenting the most important points last can make a difference in audience response.
Ordering material in a coherent fashion will contribute to its retention. Writers such as Alan Monroe have suggested psychological patterns of organization modeled after John Dewey’s system of reflective thinking. The idea is that the sequence should follow the course that might be expected in the thought process of personal problem solving. Dewey outlined the process as follows:
Upon examination, each instance (of reflective thought) reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (1) a felt difficulty; (2) its location and definition; (3) suggestion of possible solution; (4) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (5) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.8
The most successful rhetorical act is one which leads the audience to arrive at the vision or decision you want to share. This may be accomplished indirectly leading them to journey where you have been. This pattern is a familiar one in a culture disposed to empirical method. Dewey related this method to scientific process.
It places before others a map of the road that has been travelled; they may accordingly, if they will, retravel the road to inspect the landscape for themselves. The scientific investigator convinces others … by placing before them the specified course of experiences, searchings, doings, and findings in consequences of which certain things have been found.9
Paul often began in the past and led them to the present, then pointed in the direction of the future. As we observed in the study of his pattern, he often used the classical syllogism to lead them to what became an inevitable conclusion.
Style is concerned with the material form, the symbolization of thought. Paul composed sermons for the ear and eye as well as the mind. He understood that the ear is for the preacher the gateway to the mind. His material is an excellent example of lively, picturesque language and vigorous rhythm. Language is symbolic action that requires careful selection of the words.
Paul used, as should we, imaginative, emotionally-charged language. His words could appeal to the senses and stir beautiful memories and inspiring visions of the future.
The oral nature of preaching makes the choice and combination of words essential to effectiveness. The reader may pause and ponder; a difficult passage may be read again and again and every word analyzed. The listener, on the other hand, must hear aright the first time, and words must create vivid images which quickly form meaningful impressions in the mind. The speaker must choose precise, powerful diction in preference to the often abstract, denotative terms of the writers.
Since the Middle Ages it has been popular to refer to language as the “dress of thought,” but someone has suggested that it might be more appropriately termed “the incarnation of thoughts.” Language, if it is to be effective, must have inherent energy. Vividness and impressiveness are desirable qualities. Language that grasps and holds on to the hearer, dramatic language that will “catch the conscience of the king,” is the goal of the proclaimer. Paul did not shy away from strong, even provocative language when the occasion demanded it.
We know little about Paul’s delivery. The clues we have suggest that he was not a gifted orator in this regard. His critics believed him to be vulnerable at this point, “For they say, ‘… his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account'” (2 Corinthians 10:10).
It is interesting to note that Paul responds to the charge in terms of comparison. Paul may not have been as eloquent as Apollos but he enjoyed too much success not to have had some competence in this area. Certainly some preachers are more naturally gifted than others, but this fact does not excuse those with lesser gifts from working to be the best they can possibly be.
Effective delivery is essential to communication. Those who fill the air with “sound and fury signifying nothing” are no more to be discredited than the boring passionless mumblers. The Ad Herennium, the earliest manual for the public speaker, identified the basic elements of good delivery.
Vocal delivery requires conscious use of volume, stability, and flexibility. Physical movement “consists in a certain control of gesture and mien which renders what is delivered more plausible.”10 Hamlet’s advice to the players is applicable for the pulpiteer:
Speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it … I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently. … Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor; suit the action to the word, the word to the action….
Physical presence is an important factor in ethos as well as communication. The posture, muscle tone, facial expression, gestures, and movement of the preacher are as important as the language in transferring thought and more important in conveying feelings. Delivery and message are as inseparable in the moment of oral presentation as body and soul.
Delivery should be only a means to an end and is best when it is so integrated with the thought as to be indistinguishable from it. Rhetorical technique that draws attention to itself constitutes poor rhetoric. Delivery, however, is a kind of sieve through which thought is filtered. If it is clogged, nothing can pass through; if it is too open, impurities permeate the substance.
The speaker should visualize the speaking art as involving the whole person. Thought, language, voice, and body must all be coordinated. There should be consciousness of pitch, volume, and rate that will complement ideology. The necessary effort should be expended to develop clear articulation. Listeners should not be required to strain to hear but should be free to direct all their energy to apprehending intellectual content.
The final canon is one almost completely ignored today but of great importance in the first century — I refer to memory. Paul had to master and transport in his mind a great deal of material. It is unlikely that he ever read a speech in a public forum. He could speak on a moment’s notice as an opportunity presented itself.
The pastor is often given opportunity to express the Christian view at unexpected moments. The classical view of memory included a notion of information acquired, classified, and readily available. The preacher is expected to be a walking computer that can draw up biblical and theological knowledge at will. Moreover, clear images for translating that knowledge into relevant daily counsel are a tremendous asset.
Paul taught that the greatest resource for the preparation and delivery of sermons is the Holy Spirit. He testified to the reliability of the Holy Spirit as guide and support for those called of God to proclaim His truth. The Spirit inspired the writers of Holy Scripture and likewise inspires those called to interpret Scripture.
The Spirit will enlighten the mind of the preacher who allows time for prayer and meditation and who seeks the will of God. The Spirit preserves the tradition of the Church available in the great works of theology. The Spirit works in and through those who hear the preacher.
There are times when the Spirit overcomes the poor words of a lazy preacher and accomplishes a divine purpose in spite of the preacher. The Holy Spirit will work at every stage of preparation and in the preaching event if the preacher is sensitive to His presence.
1. See John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 85-110, and Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989).
2. Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 35.
3. Rhetoric, p. 9.
5. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), p. 121.
6. Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. E. Helmbold (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), and Phaedras in The Works of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: The Modern Library, 1928).
7. Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures, and Letters, ed. Theodore C. Pease, Second Series (Boston, 1891), p. 396.
8. John Dewey, How We Think (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1910), p. 72.
9. John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1925), p. 11.
10. Ad Herennium, trans. Harry Caplan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), voice-191ff.; physical-p. 201ff.
Raymond Bailey, Paul the Preacher (Broadman Press, 1991). All rights reserved. Used by permission.
There is much that the student of preaching can learn from the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was a good model for personal Christian faith and conduct and for professional preaching performance. He demonstrated an art that can be studied and practiced.