Preaching is enjoying a resurgence in the American church. There was a period not long ago when counseling seemed to replace preaching as the integrating function of the pastor. During this interval some institutions with outstanding traditions in homiletics went so far as to drop the subject as a required course.
This renewed interest in preaching is likely the result of a new awareness on the part of clergy of the power of preaching to minister to a whole congregation rather than to a select few. New forms of preaching have played a role in the revival along with the rediscovery of some old truths.
Perhaps as much as anything else the revival has been stimulated by the success of preaching techniques in other social realms. It is ironic that the power of rhetoric in the secular world seems to have reawakened the church to its proper function in the Christian mission. The small group approach met many needs but it was still the ability to persuade masses that altered social policy.
Events of the sixties and seventies compelled the church to reexamine the power of the spoken word. Any historian of the Civil Rights movement knows that the successful rhetoric of that revolution was born in the pulpit. The searing eloquence of black prophets stirred their followers and angered their adversaries. Their spoken rhetoric and acted rhetoric could not be ignored. Social reformers took scathing prophecy out of the churches and into the streets and onto the campuses.
Christian rhetoric had exercised power in the streets and public forums before the first buildings for Christian meetings were ever constructed but comfortable, conformist churches forgot this legacy. The locale shifted from lecture hall to the television screen and sometimes to street protests but the essence remained unchanged.
The architects of contemporary activism boldly adopted the fervor and skills which characterized the early Christian movement. The elements of personal confrontation and radical demand, so prevalent in the New Testament, were the trademarks of political and social revolutionary groups, but were rarely found in our religious sanctuaries until very recently. The rich veins of classical rhetoric mined and refined by the Fathers of the church had been traded — in many pulpits –for a mess of insipid pottage and moldy bread.
The social revolution of the sixties thrived on its discovery of man’s receptivity to ideas imbedded in forms palatable to modern man’s connotative, cognitive, and affective aspects. The “New Right” learned from their adversaries and have employed the same techniques to dominate American politics and religion in the eighties.
Emotional language, dramatic image, symbolic action and cogent arguments have been resurrected as conscious tools of persuasion. Strong sensory appeal, pounding rhythm and passionate language are moving people to reorient themselves and to structure their society. In The Rhetoric of Our Time, Mary Edwards tells us, “The agitator in society deliberately tries to select the diction, the imagery, the syntax that will move his audience emotionally and intellectually to call for change ….”
Contemporary political rhetoric has a less flamboyant style from that of the sixties but is built on the same fundamental principles. Preachers struggling to awaken loyal, drowsy, Sunday morning congregations should take some lessons from television and the daily newspapers.
The “great communicator” sits in the oval office. National polls indicate that a majority of Americans do not approve of major programs of the Reagan administration, yet he enjoys almost unprecedented personal approval that he uses to keep his goals alive. Rhetoric is effective and setting the course for American society.
Jesse Jackson’s success in the Democratic primaries shocked many people. Is there any doubt that this black candidate with such small financial resources used his oratorical skills to excite persons of all colors? His campaign rallies are reminiscent of camp meetings.
Mass-media religionists use rhetorical skill to influence national policy far beyond what their numbers justify. The faces of Jimmy Swag-gart and Jerry Falwell have appeared on the covers of the most popular national news publications. According to Time magazine, the televangelists have met the yearning of Americans for “meaning and moral anchorage.” Why them and not us? Is it message or method?
The saddest result of the failure of mainline churches to use proven communication and rhetorical principles is our failure to reach people for Christ. A recent study of world-class cities — cities with populations over a million — indicated a rapid decline of professing Christians. Researcher David Barrett reported that, if present trends continue, the number of these cities with a minority Christian population will more than double by the year 2000. Meanwhile many of our brightest ministers sit aloof to the use of mass media and disdain persuasion as a part of evangelism while we lose the world for Christ.
Shall we sit idly by and bemoan our fate or enter the fray? As Augustine urged Christians of the fourth century to utilize all ethical means available to them to counter false prophets, we should equip ourselves to counter evil and communicate good news in our time. Augustine wrote in On Christian Doctrine:
Who dares say that the defenders of truth should be unarmed against falsehood? While the proponents of error know the art of winning an audience to good will, attention, and open mind, shall the proponents of truth remain ignorant? While the sophist states facts concisely, clearly, plausibly, shall the preacher state them so that they are tedious to hear, hard to understand, hard to believe?
While the one attacks truth and insinuates falsehood by fallacious argument, shall the other have too little skill either to defend the true or to refute the false? Shall the one, stirring his hearers to error, urging them by the force of oratory, move them by terror, by pity, by joy, by encouragement, and the other slowly and coldly drowse for truth?
Those who abandon rhetoric to the modern medicine men surrender to the advertisers, politicians, and religious demagogues the cumulative knowledge of the centuries regarding what motivates and attracts people. Rhetoric is inherently an indifferent instrument which may be employed for justice or injustice, for good or evil.
Most of the early church fathers were men trained in philosophy and rhetoric. They used their wisdom in the service of the cross and led the church to amazing success in a hostile world. Anti-intellectualism and rejection of knowledge and skills from non-religious disciplines hinder our work in the world.
From the fifth century through the nineteenth, one could hardly separate the study of preaching from the study of rhetoric. It is generally conceded that Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana was a baptized redaction of Cicero’s De Oratore. Augustine’s pattern dominated rhetorical thought through the middle ages.
The rebirth of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries effected a revitalization of homiletics via the rediscovery of the great classical rhetorical works of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and others. The names of the great sixteenth century reformers are included among those indebted to the classical rhetoricians.
Homiletical bias dominated British rhetoric through the eighteenth century. Campbell, Blair, and Whately were all clergymen and instructors in the art of preaching. The familiar names of teachers of preaching in America — Wither-spoon, Broadus, Brooks, Channing, Porter — demonstrated in their writings their appreciation for, and indebtedness to, classical rhetoric.
Contemporary critics of the relationship of preaching and rhetoric have argued that the first is concerned with revelation, the second with persuasion. The implication is that the two are antithetical, but is that the case?
Is the revelation of God without purpose? Does it not have an end that involves a change of heart, mind, and behavior? If so, it has much in common with rhetoric.
Aristotle limited the province of rhetoric to those matters which are not subject to scientific verification. Aristotle was a man of science in his day and believed that ideally all a leader should have to do is to state the truth and prove it. He soon realized that human nature is not so rational and truth is not so easily ascertained or demonstrated. His study of people and society led him to conclude that certain skills result in human change and social development. His Rhetoric was a study of what motivates people to live as they do. The truth he discovered had to be packaged in a certain way to win acceptance and behavior modification.
Jesus had to do more than just state the truth. He presented it in arresting forms of story and action. Paul used commonly-accepted rhetorical techniques to convince the world to accept the revelation of Jesus.
Today, as in the time of Jesus and Paul, we are confronted with competing truths. The establishment of truth sometimes requires the discrediting of illusionary or false truth. At least since Kant, theologians have conceded the unreliability of rational proof for demonstrating divine existence and religious truth. Aristotle — and Kant for that matter — did not make the mistake of confusing “truth” with “fact.” There is truth which transcends fact.
Worthy of note is Aristotle’s choice of the Greek pistis for “proof,” the Greek word rendered “faith” in the New Testament. Rhetoric strives to evoke faith on the basis of probability. Revelation is disclosure of truth beyond facticity. It is disclosure for a purpose, a communicative act. Here exists another commonality with rhetoric. The preacher’s message is true but it cannot be confirmed by empirical means or by pure reason.
The use of the term rhetoric implies conscious communicative purpose. Edwin Black, a contemporary rhetorician, defines the subject matter of rhetoric as “… discourse that aims to influence men.” Marie Hochmuth Nichols defines rhetoric as “the theory and the practice of the verbal mode of presenting judgment and choice, knowledge and feeling.” Either of these definitions would be consistent with evangelical Christianity’s understanding of its mission.
Even more fitting is William Brigance’s statement that the purpose of rhetoric is “to energize thought and to humanize truth.” Brigance’s definition sounds like an echo of Philip Brooks’ definition of “real preaching” — that is, “truth through personality.” Rhetoric includes all the means that one might use to communicate truth, establish justice and create a community.
The task of the church is more than the nurture of believing individuals. The realm of proclamation should extend beyond the church. While preaching emanates from the fellowship of faith, its audience is the world.
The preacher does well to remember that, while the church is the context of support, the message is for the world. The world is God’s house and the church is only the servant (hopefully like Naaman’s servant, one with a prescription for healing) in the house.
Walter Brueggemann has observed in a recent book that “pastors are willy-nilly engaged in ‘world-making,’ a task that is much more-elemental and urgent than the ‘therapeutic’ and ‘managerial’ tasks often acknowledged.” God spoke and called the world into being and He gives to His spokespersons words that can give meaning to life in this world. So grand a purpose requires a grand strategy for transforming society through the power of proclamation.
Rhetoric is best understood in terms of intent. If the speaker or writer intends to move the audience to a new understanding or a new behavior, the work is rhetorical in nature. The proponents of story preaching leave the impression that narrative is the ideal vehicle for revelation and that it is a genre not to be confused with rhetoric. Rhetoric is thus relegated to nonfiction prose of the kind one hears in political oratory. This assumption has no more value than one that might argue that because apples are different than oranges they cannot be fruit.
Rhetoric has to do with function rather than kind. Indeed, literary critics such as I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke have played a major role in shaping modern rhetoric. Burke identified the basic function of rhetoric as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.” Wayne Booth’s offering of such works as A Rhetoric of Irony and The Rhetoric of Fiction provides insight to the use of narrative to impose an author’s concept of reality upon a reader.
Literary criticism enjoys the major focus of contemporary biblical studies; yet New Testament writers used literary devices only as a means to an end, a rhetorical end. The primary concern of the authors was effect. The first consideration in the selection of language, form, and format was “Will it work?” i.e., will it produce the desired effect? Again this is consistent with the best rubrics of rhetoric.
Herbert Wichelns, in a landmark American essay on rhetorical criticism, articulated this doctrine of effect:
It (rhetoric) is not concerned with permanence, nor with beauty. It is concerned with effect. It regards a speech as a communication to a specific audience, and holds its business to be the analysis and appreciation of the orator’s method of imparting his ideas to his hearers.
Certainly such a view does not exclude beauty or literary quality as a means of communicating the good news. Sensitivity to God’s creation and awareness of the human struggle and God’s grace in response to it has evoked great art in every generation. Even non-believers will not deny the majesty of biblical literature. The point is that for the preacher, art must always be viewed as a means of evoking the capacity for experiencing God’s presence and truth. The message should be enhanced by and not lost in form. Story is a wonderful tool of rhetoric, not a replacement for it.
Amos Wilder views the New Testament as having been shaped by a doctrine of rhetorical effect. According to Wilder, the proclamation of Christ and His disciples was directed to arresting the whole person; the media they used was designed to grasp the whole person, speaking to all aspects of being, including the cognitive, the affective, and the conative.
The earliest advocates of the way of Christ spoke to people in existential situations with specific needs. Wilder characterizes early Christian speech as “naive … extempore and directed to the occasion … not calculated to serve some future hour … dynamic, actual, immediate, reckless of posterity.”
Prose or poetry, fiction or fact may be used to achieve a rhetorical purpose. Rhetoric is defined not by form but by purpose. It is the intention of the writer or speaker that characterizes a communicative act as rhetorical. The preacher finds in the principles of rhetoric tools to achieve God’s purpose of revelation. Preaching is distinguished from other forms of rhetoric only by its unique message.
Knowledge of rhetoric can be an invaluable tool for the preacher who really wants to make a difference in people, community and the world. Some may have used sound rhetorical techniques without knowing it. For those persons these three articles may only provide some helpful handles and organization.
For others who have neither knowledge nor natural skill in the art, it is hoped these articles will be a beginning that will result in more effective proclamation of the gospel.
Classical rhetoric was divided into five divisions or canons. The first canon addresses the substance of the sermon. Inventio was the designation of the canon concerned with content. The four remaining canons all have to do with form: dispositio — arrangement, elecutio — style, Pro-nuntiatio — (sometimes actio) delivery, and memoria–memory. These categories remain useful for dividing the parts of rhetoric.
The five canons will be addressed in some detail in the next two articles in this series. For now let me offer an overview of the canons.
Subject matter includes all the modes of persuading people to accept a certain world view and behave appropriately in the light of that viewpoint. Modes of proof include factual evidence, testimony and appeals to reason and emotion.
Aristotle divided non-evidential persuasive means into three categories: the credibility of the speaker, the beliefs and desires of the audience, and rational argument. Certainly in preaching biblical authority plays an important role in the persuasive process and would form the basis for the arguments in a religious matter.
Arrangement assumes greater importance in oral communication such as preaching than it does in written communication. Logical arrangement allows the listener to follow easily. Narrative preaching often follows cause-effect sequence. Didactic preaching often follows the boring but effective formula of “telling them what you are going to tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
Arrangement should be determined by desired effect. Is the goal experience or memory? What should be the final impression left by the presentation?
Style has to do with language, which is the clothing of thought. Like all clothing it can attract or repulse. Some years ago Reuel Howe and Clyde Reid separately surveyed people regarding their complaints about preaching. Each list contained style criticisms.
Howe’s group cited too much formality and excessive theological jargon. Reid’s sampling objected to the use of complex archaic language, dullness (which can be a style issue), and general failure to communicate.
Sometimes people don’t understand and sometimes they are turned off. Appropriate language is essential to effective communication. Language too often disguises thought rather than communicating it.
Memory (or mastery of the subject) is a powerful persuader. It can play a tremendous role in establishing credibility. Mastery of the subject matter and the form will contribute immensely to overall effect. Many contemporary rhetoricians have dismissed this canon. Some would vigorously argue that it has no importance for contemporary preaching (in the last article in this series, I will present a different viewpoint on the subject). Memorization may not be necessary but mastery certainly is.
Delivery is the most observable of the canons to the average listener. One might wish that it were less important. Too often smooth talkers promote the false and take advantage of gullible listeners. On the other hand, speakers of truth may not get their message across because of poor delivery.
The best advice is still that offered by Hamlet to the players: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature ….” Delivery is always an important element in preaching. You may be a good person with great truth and wisdom but if you can’t communicate your message, neither character nor content benefit your audience.
The articles to follow in the next two issues will examine the canons as they apply to preaching in more detail.

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