To what extent is the Pauline letter a distinctive form of Christian persuasion? It is in the area of inventio that we discover most clearly the distinctiveness of Paul’s preaching. Although Paul appeals to some of the common proofs of rhetoric, many of these similarities of argument are more apparent than real, for Paul’s relationship to his churches is central to his argumentation. Despite the apparent parallels to Paul’s mode of discourse in ancient letter writing and oratory, there is something very different about his letters.1 This distinctiveness may be seen, in the first place, in the relationship of the speaker to his listeners. In most of his letters, Paul identifies himself as an apostle, signifying his authority and indicating the nature of his persuasion.
Even in those letters where he does not make apostolic claims (Phil., 1 and 2 Thess., Philemon), he speaks in the authoritative tones of a father admonishing his children (1 Thess. 2:11-12). His “appeals” (parakalo 1 Thess. 4:1; 5:14; Philemon 9) and “requests” (epotomen 1 Thess. 4:1; 5:12) to the community are only polite substitutes for the commands that would be appropriate (cf. Philemon 8). His use of the imperative in all of the letters also reflects his authoritative role among the churches. This tone of authority distinguishes Paul’s persuasion, for he writes as a father who chooses to request compliance with his wishes rather than demand obedience from his children (Philemon 8-9).
In 1 and 2 Corinthians we gain special insight into the distinctiveness of Paul’s communication. In both epistles he specifically identifies himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1), and he regards himself as a father to his churches (1 Cor. 4:14-21; 2 Cor. 12:14-15). This relationship is central to his persuasion, for the dominant aspect of his persuasion is the note of authority that accompanies his role as apostle and father to his churches. Paul’s apostolic role is clearly indicated in the beginning section of 1 Corinthians. His thesis statement is “I appeal to you … by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:10). That is, he speaks on behalf of Christ.
His persuasion rests not on “plausible words of wisdom,” that is, oratorical proofs, but on the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). In 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Paul claims a privileged position that is rooted in “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden” (2:7), but that is now known among the “mature” (2:6). Paul’s gospel is not subject to normal rules of persuasion, for “God has revealed [it] to us through the Spirit” (2:10). Here, as George Kennedy has said, Paul appears to challenge the entire tradition of Greco-Roman rhetoric.2 Matthew and Paul “make extensive use of the forms of logical argument, but the validity of their arguments is entirely dependent on their assumptions, which cannot be logically and objectively proved.”3
His arguments can be evaluated only by those who have the Spirit of God. Where his hearers evaluate preachers according to their own criteria, Paul declares that he is nothing more than a diakonos (3:5) through whom they believed. He and Apollos are nothing other than uperetai kai oikonomoi (“servants and stewards”) of the mysteries of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1). Such mysteries are not subject to rational proofs because they are the revelation from God.
One notes the nature of Paul’s radical Christian rhetoric throughout 1 and 2 Corinthians. Although Paul often appeals to standard forms of argumentation, his privileged position as authoritative apostle is always evident. He is a father who admonishes his children (4:14), and he persuades with the paternal rights of discipline (4:21). Paul is a preacher who threatens to come “with a stick” (1 Cor. 4:21). In his instructions involving the man who is living with his father’s wife, he writes as one who has made a prophetic judgment (1 Cor. 5:3). Although he appeals to community values in 5:6b (“[d]o you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”) and to the kerygma in 5:7 (“our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed”), his arguments are reinforced by his personal authority when he writes with words of command (5:9,11) that dictate the community’s behavioral norms.
One may note Paul’s use both of standard forms of argumentation and of “radical Christian rhetoric” throughout the Corinthian letters. When he argues from his personal ethos, he transforms the concept of ethos by demonstrating that he embodies the “foolishness of the cross.” When he appeals, in Aristotelian fashion, to that which is “expedient,” he transforms this concept by indicating that expediency is defined by the interests of the community of faith.4 His frequent appeals to what the community knows5 may be understood in rhetorical terms as an argument based on the values he shares with the community.6 However, Paul is the interpreter of the community’s traditions. When he appeals to scripture (1 Cor. 14:21, 34) as the basis of his argument, he speaks from the privileged position of one who knows that scripture was written “for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11; cf. 9:10). As one who has been commissioned by God, he reveals a mystery (15:51) that provides the ultimate answer on questions involving the resurrection.
However, here also Paul speaks as the privileged interpreter of the authorities that are known to the community. In developing his argument from scripture and the traditions that are known within the community, Paul proceeds in a way that is in accord with Aristotle’s dictum that the basis of one’s argument is the ground one holds in common with the audience.7 However, in his apostolic role Paul is the privileged interpreter of the community’s traditions.
This tone of authority is even more graphically demonstrated in 2 Corinthians, where Paul’s work is challenged by the “superapostles” (2 Cor. 11:5), who have made common cause with the opposition from 1 Corinthians. Here, as in 1 Corinthians (1:18- 25), Paul claims that his proclamation is a public spectacle that has life or death consequences (2 Cor. 2:14-17). As the minister of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), he is the counterpart to Moses, who has been made “competent” (2:16; 3:5) to deliver God’s covenant despite his own insufficiency. If the glory of his work is not widely acknowledged, it is not because of his own incapacity, but because his listeners are as blinded from hearing the word of God as Israel was blinded at the giving of the Mosaic covenant.8 In his capacity as God’s apostolic servant, he failed to keep a previous promise to visit the Corinthians because he wished to “spare” them (2 Cor. 1:23). He promises in the future, however, that he “will not be lenient” toward his disobedient children (2 Cor. 13:2), for he has taken on the prophetic role of Jeremiah insofar as he has been called for “building you up and not for tearing you down” (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10).
As 1 and 2 Corinthians indicate, Pauline preaching is the authoritative preaching of the prophetic tradition. Paul does not fight with the ordinary human weapons of rational persuasion. His weapons are mighty to God for the tearing down of strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4) in his quest to take every thought captive to Christ. If Paul is a model for preaching, he is the reminder that Christian speech rests ultimately on the apostolic authority that is mediated by the apostolic witness. The preacher, therefore, is not “one without authority,” but one who mediates authoritative instruction to the church. The preacher is the heir of the prophetic tradition, recalling the words of those who spoke only the words of God. Preachers do not speak for themselves, but they act as “stewards” whose task is to be faithful in upholding what has been given to them. The preacher functions as the emissary of the apostle, “explaining his ways” to the believing community.
Preaching, the Community and the Grammar of Faith
The setting of the Pauline letter is also a distinctive feature of his letters. Whereas Aristotle envisioned the setting of the law court, the democratic assembly, or the festive occasion, Paul writes “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1) and to other communities of faith. All of the letters, including Philemon, are written to churches and intended to shape congregational consciousness. The ekklesia is composed of those who have responded to Christian preaching and have come together as a community. One must recall that Paul’s address to these assemblies has no parallel in Greco-Roman rhetoric, for Aristotle did not envision the Christian assembly.9
Paul speaks to his communities in the most intimate familial terms, thus creating a consciousness among the listeners that they are bound to their founder and to each other by family ties. He addresses the Galatians in maternal terms: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). The familial and intimate terms with which he addresses the Thessalonians also indicate the nature of preaching to the corporate body. His absence from them was an occasion when “we were made orphans by being separated from you — in person, not in heart” (1 Thess. 2:17), and he describes his churches as his “joy” (1 Thess. 2:20) and his “boast” (2 Cor. 1:14).10 He recalls that he was, in his relation to them, gentle “like a nurse” (1 Thess. 2:7 [NW: Like a mother taking care of her children]). In his relationship to them, he was “like a father with his children” (1 Thess. 2:11).
The paternal image is pervasive in Paul’s writings. He employs the image in 1 Thessalonians to describe his role as the community’s teacher (2:11). In 1 and 2 Corinthians he employs the image to describe his authority to discipline (1 Cor. 4:21) and his reasons for not accepting financial support. As a father, he demonstrates his love by giving aid to his children (2 Cor. 12:14). Throughout Paul’s letters he addresses his readers in the language of family, addressing the readers as “beloved” and “brothers.” In the ancient world this language be- longed to the world of family. His common forms of address are “be-loved” (1 Cor. 10:14; 2 Cor. 7:1; 12:19; Phil. 2:12; 4:1), “brothers,” and “beloved brothers.”
He appeals not only to the intimacy of his relationship with Christians, but also to their intimate relationship to each other. One may note Paul’s appeal to Philemon’s intimate relationship with Christians. In the thanksgiving he says, “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 7). At the conclusion of the epistle, he says, “Refresh my heart in Christ” (v. 20). The familial language reflects Paul’s engagement with his churches. It explains also the passion with which he speaks of his churches.
The corporate nature of preaching is also evident in the liturgical elements that are present in Paul’s letters. This distinctive setting of Pauline speech in Christian liturgy is to be seen throughout Paul’s letters, for he speaks with a liturgical grammar that has no parallel in ancient speeches and letters. This distinctive grammar of faith may be seen in the fact that the Pauline letter begins and ends with a word of grace. Paul opens his letters with “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,”11 and he closes them with a benediction that also offers a word of grace. The benediction at the end of 1 Corinthians (16:23) is typical: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” More elaborate is the benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians (13:14): “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Paul’s opening and closing words are taken from the liturgy and reflect his preaching style.12
Klaus Berger has demonstrated that the words “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” are not merely a slight Christianization of the familiar Greek letter opening. The wish form that is expressed in the phrase “grace to you and peace” is deeply rooted in Jewish literature and liturgy. The best known of the Old Testament benedictions is Numbers 6:24, which expresses the wish for the divine blessing.13 Similarly, the phrase “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is distinctive in the Pauline correspondence. Berger has said, “For Hellenistic contemporaries this could only be a strange, archaic, unusual introduction to the letter. Here it is given because it is the apostle who writes.”14 The words constitute a word of blessing from one who has been authorized to transmit God’s grace and peace to his people. Undoubtedly, this form of benediction reflects the continuation of the Jewish blessing form in the early church. Thus Paul’s opening and closing benedictions are drawn from the liturgy of the church. Their presence in his letters suggests that his own preaching contained the homiletic benediction in which he expressed the wish for the divine grace and peace upon the community of faith.
Paul’s distinctive liturgical grammar may also be seen in the opening thanksgiving of his letters. Although one may point to parallels in ancient letter writing and rhetoric to the opening thanksgiving (or blessing), the significance of the parallels has been exaggerated. The thanksgiving was rare in the Hellenistic letter, and the resemblance to the opening of Greek orations is minimal.15 The thanksgiving, like the benediction, is rooted in Jewish liturgy. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a significant parallel to the thanksgivings of the Pauline letters.16 The blessing form in 2 Corinthians is also based on Old Testament and Jewish models.17 The thanksgiving of Paul’s letters reflects the Christian liturgy of his churches, which is indebted to the Jewish liturgy. One may assume that the opening thanksgiving in Paul’s letters offers a glimpse of the early Christian liturgy and that Paul is the preacher who leads the community in the liturgy. Thus the “social construction” in which Paul is involved includes the shaping of communal identity through the medium of benedictions and prayers.
Other liturgical elements are also commonplace in the Pauline letters. Doxologies, thanksgivings and petitions punctuate Paul’s speech. He frequently interrupts his discourse with the phrase “thanks be to God!” (Rom. 6:17; 7:25; 1 Cor. 15:57; 2 Cor. 2:14; 9:15). Robert Jewett has identified six such homiletic benedictions in the Thessalonian correspondence (1 Thess. 3:11, 12-13 and 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:16-17; 3:5, 16), each beginning with a stylized autos de theos or de o kurios and expressing a wish in the optative mood.18 Paul prays for reunion with his community (1 Thess. 3:11), for its sanctification (1 Thess. 3:11; 5:23) and growth in faith and love. Paul’s “grammar of faith” undoubtedly reflects his preaching, which in turn is influenced by the Jewish liturgy.
Preaching as Theology and Exhortation
As the continuation of his personal ministry among his churches, Paul’s letters all aim at the formation of communities who live “worthily of the gospel.” Indeed, although the letters vary in length and subject matter, all of them move toward a call for a change of conduct among the listeners supported with careful theological argumentation. The ethical exhortations, which are most often (but not always) found near the end of the Pauline letter, are not to be regarded as the appendix to a theological treatise, but rather as the climax of the argument in which theological argument provides the basis for change. Paul frequently introduces moral demands with words of request or speaks in the imperative mode, giving specific instructions on the moral implications of Christian faith. His use of lists of vices and virtues and his concrete demands reflect a preaching that calls for concrete change in the life of the community.
The fact that all of his letters employ theological argument in support of exhortation provides an important model for preaching that is often overlooked in contemporary discussions of preaching. Christian preaching not only forms the communal identity of the people but also gives specific instructions that indicate concretely how one lives the life that is “worthy of the gospel.”
Paul and Contemporary Preaching
The preaching ministry of Paul offers important insights for contemporary preaching. The Christian preacher is engaged in authoritative speech. This fact should raise questions about the exclusive reliance on inductive preaching, which is rooted in a non-authoritative understanding of preaching. The preacher takes on the role of Paul’s emissary, communicating and explaining the apostle’s words, re-presenting their persuasive power. Like the public reader of Paul’s letters, the Christian preacher acts in Paul’s absence, interpreting his words for the believing community. The authority does not belong to the preacher, but to Paul.
The analogies between Paul’s persuasion and Greco-Roman rhetoric remind us that Greco-Roman rhetoric was not an alien intrusion into Christian rhetoric, for it played a role in shaping Paul’s communication from the beginning. Moreover, deductive argumentation, which Paul shares with the rhetorical tradition, has a place in Christian preaching. Christian communication involves a variety of modes of speech, including both induction and deduction. The shaping of congregational consciousness requires that issues be argued and listeners be persuaded in order to determine the church’s identity and future course of action.
Although Christian preaching is never totally divorced from the modes of persuasion known within the culture, Pauline preaching is a reminder that our persuasion is never precisely the same as other modes of speech. Christian preaching involves an authoritative word from God that is mediated by the preacher. It shapes the consciousness of the listeners and leads them in doxology, prayer and praise. Preaching initiates the listeners in a new “grammar of faith” in which the congregation learns the words of prayer, praise and doxology. Preaching also creates and sustains a community consciousness in which individuals come to recognize that their identity cannot be separated from the corporate identity of the church.
Reproduced from Preaching Like Paul. (c) 2001 James W. Thompson. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
1See Anders Eriksson, Traditions as Rhetorical Proof: Pauline Argumentation in 1 Corinthians, CB 29 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1998).
2Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation, 17.
4Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 38.
5Cf. ouk oidate in 1 Cor. 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16.
6In addition to arguments based on what the community knows already, Paul also argues on the basis of traditions available to the community. Cf. 8:6; 11:2, 23-25; 12:2; 15:1-3. See also Eriksson, Traditions as Rhetorical Proof, 73-137.
7See Eriksson, Traditions as Rhetorical Proof 31. The truth argued in rhetoric can be persuasive only if it is acknowledged by the interlocutors and the truth is limited to what is accepted by both partners. “The speaker trying to persuade his audience is therefore dependent on the opinions shared by himself and his audience. Aristotle calls these opinions endoxai and understands them as those opinions that commend themselves to all or to the majority or to the wise — this is, to all of the wise or the majority or to the most famous and distinguished of them” (Top. 1.1.100b). The same insight is developed in the “new rhetoric” of Perlman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, who stress that the premises held by the audience are the necessary starting point for argumentation. See C. Perelman and L. Olbrechts-tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 65-74; cited in Eriksson, Traditions as Rhetorical Proof 32.
8Cf. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, 8: “The Christian orator, like his Jewish predecessor, is a vehicle of God’s will to whom God will supply the necessary words, and his audience will be persuaded, or not persuaded, not because of the capacity of their minds to understand the message, but because of God’s love for them which allows their hearts to be moved or withholds that grace.”
9Olbricht, “An Aristotelian Rhetorical analysis of 1 Thessalonians,” 225.
10Reinhold Reck, Kommunikation und Gemeindeaufbau, SbB (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1991), 212.
11Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3; cf. Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1.
12See Raymond Collins, “1 Thess. and the Liturgy of the Early Church,” BTB 10 (1980); 53, on the liturgical patterns in 1 Thess.: “If it is reasonable to suggest that ‘Grace to you and peace’ is a pre-Pauline liturgical formula which the apostle has taken over into his letter, it may well be that elements of a liturgical pattern have also been taken over in the closing of the letter (1 Thess. 5:23-28). It has been suggested that the grace-kiss-peace formulary is the conclusion to the liturgy of the word. This suggestion may be supported by an analysis of the prayer found in vv. 23-24; ‘May the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly.'” Cf. G. Wiles, Paul’s Intercessory Prayers, SNTSMS 24 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), 28-40.
13See Terence Y. Mullins, “Benediction as a NT Form,” AUSS (1977): 61-62.
14Berger, “Apostelbrief und apostolische Rede,” 99.
16James M. Robinson, “Die Hodajot-Formel in Gebet und Hymnus des Fruhchristentums,” Apophoreta, Fs. E. Haenchen, ed. W. Eltester and F. H. Kettler (Berlin: Topelmann, 1964).
17The form commonly begins with eulogetos and the praise of God, followed by the relative clause that describes the works of God. Cf. Gen. 9:26; 14:20; 24:27; Exod. 18:10; Ruth 2:20; 1 Sam. 25:32, 39; 2 Sam. 18:28; 1 Kings 1:48; 5:7; 1 Esd. 4:40, 60; 8:25; 2 Esd. 7:27; Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15, 16; 9:6; 11:14, 17; 13:18; LXX Pss. 17:46; 28:6; 40:13; 65:20; 67:19; 71:18; 88:52; 105:48; 118:12; 123:6; 134:21; 143:1.
18R. Jewett. “Form and Function of the Homiletic Benediction,” ATR 51 (1969): 18-34.

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