Although he accorded theology the highest place in the rank of academic studies and spoke of “the most divine knowledge,” Aristotle was not a Baptist. He was not Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran or any of those other things we label church goers. The man did not even know Jesus. How could he? After all, the master thinker that Thomas Aquinas refers to simply as “The great philosopher,” lived more than three centuries before the Bethlehem babe was born.
Nonetheless, the towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy and who made lasting contributions to logic, mathematics, physics, biology, politics, medicine and a host of other fields, has a valid place in our preaching. If you would like to preach like Paul, we need to come to our message by way of Aristotle. So I encourage you to consider making room for him in your pulpit. He has a theory of what is good communication that can help us as we declare our message of the gospel.
What does this man, who died about 10 generations before Jesus was born, have to say about Christian preaching? Aristotle would summarize his advice to preachers (interestingly enough) using three points that he defined in these three words: logos, pathos and ethos. These words, as the legs on the proverbial three-legged stool, are mutually dependent on one another. For a sermon to reach full effectiveness, all three must be present; indeed, they often will exist in tension to give our preaching balance.
These three words encapsulate three important parts of public speaking from Aristotle’s pen when he systematized his thoughts on popular discourse. To become an effective communicator of the gospel, logos, pathos and ethos will come into play each time you preach. Before you dismiss him with your memories of how these words might have been translated in your first Greek class, consider how Aristotle broadened their application in ways that can be especially beneficial for preachers.
When someone within earshot says logos, I immediately respond, “I remember that means ‘words.'” That is true. I do not always quickly remember the Greek word logos is bigger than words alone. It is also the root of our English word logic. It was more than words alone that Aristotle had in mind when he spoke of logos. Words alone are not enough for powerful speakers.
Effective communication, according to Aristotle, does not begin until our words sound logical or reasonable. Effective preaching must, therefore, make sense to our listeners. Hence, when we preach, we need to ask ourselves not only what the words mean and if they make sense to us, but if our words make sense to our listeners. This eliminates the use of much of the technical-theological jargon that sometimes worms its way into our sermons.
Added to logos in Aristotle’s rules for communicators is pathos. Pathos, we learned in first year Greek class, speaks of emotion. Once again, however, the master philosopher of ancient Greece was thinking more broadly and deeper than many modern homileticians.
Usually we think of pathos as being limited to passionate emotional appeals. For Aristotle, however, pathos speaks beyond mere emotion to mutually identified emotion. An example would be former President Bill Clinton telling his listeners, “I feel your pain.” When we preach with pathos or feeling, we are hoping the congregation not only will be touched by believing we feel its pain, but also will reciprocate and feel our pain. In this way, the emotion is mutual.
When we introduce pathos into our preaching, we are hoping the people who hear us will begin to feel as passionately about our subject as we do. How can we do this? Through the use of mutually sensitive metaphors or stories that evoke a bond between our audience and us. Now, with logos and pathos in tension in our preaching, we are speaking to heads and hearts.
The final leg on Aristotle’s three-legged communication stool is ethos, the root of our modern word ethics. Ethos speaks to the preacher’s character. It is, in some ways, the hardest of Aristotle’s three principles of public speech for us to accomplish—first, because we live in the proverbial goldfish bowl where we seem always to be under observation. This never has been more true than in this era of openness and instant communication. Perhaps this is why Jesus says we are not without honor except among the folks who know us best (
The second reason ethos is our toughest Aristotelian speech principle to accomplish is there is a sense in which ethos does not belong to the speaker as much as to the audience.
I find myself wondering if Paul, who once studied under Gamaliel and surely studied Aristotle there, was thinking about Aristotle when he told the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not only in word (logos), but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (pathos). You know what kind of men we proved to be among you (ethos) for your sake” (
Paul was telling the Thessalonian Christians that when he was among them they could see and hear that what he said not only made sense and was passionate, but it was proven credible by how he lived among these people. That is how it was for Paul and how it must be for all of us who preach.