Rhetorically Speaking: Responsible Use of Rhetoric in Preaching
As the proverbial saying goes “a little Greek is a dangerous thing.” I think Hebrew scholars would argue the exact same thing about a little Hebrew. 1 Word studies, knowing about parsing verbs, declining nouns, tenses, aspect, etc. is not tantamount to reading the original languages syntactically. To understand these languages really well, we have to get to a level of reading them without translation and understanding them not through the lens of other languages. It requires hard work, honesty, and humility to understand and use Greek and Hebrew responsibly.
Similarly, a little rhetoric is a dangerous thing. Preachers of the Bible cannot avoid the fact that the biblical authors used rhetoric in their writings. This means that, if we are going to stay faithful to the authorial intent of the passage in our preaching, we have to take into account rhetoric as it presents itself in a text of Scripture. However, just as those who do not understand the original languages, or those who use little understanding of the original languages to interpret the text, tend to inadvertently impose an understanding of the original languages on the text that was never intended by the original author, we sadly have preachers who impose rhetoric on the text that was never intended by the author. If they don’t impose rhetoric, they ignore it.
A Dire Use of Rhetoric
This is a lament Tolmie2 raises in his quest to urge scholars of rhetoric to not impose ancient, classical, Greco-Roman rhetoric on the text because:
there is no scholarly consensus whether the biblical authors relied on classical rhetoric to write their texts;
a detailed overview of existing rhetorical analyses of scriptural texts that are based on either classical or modern rhetorical approaches shows that scholars apply contradictory rhetorical categories on the text, which casts doubt whether the original authors utilised such an approach; and
if the biblical authors used classical rhetoric technically, then it makes the biblical texts susceptible to criticism through a foreign or extrabiblical standard of interpretation and it means lay church members for whom the Bible is written will be left clueless about the meaning of the use of rhetoric in the text.
Therefore, the only logical conclusion one can reach is that the biblical authors adapted the utilisation of rhetoric, and the descriptive analyses of the author’s intentional use of rhetoric can be constructed from the text itself, a position this article advocates for. However, as Witherington 3 rightly diagnoses the problem, commentators—and might I add preachers—who are unfamiliar with rhetoric offer no comprehensive explanation of the rhetoric used in the text. Rhetoric is scantly discussed, which consequently limits it to the identification of rhetorical techniques and rhetorical stylistic devices such as metaphor, rhetorical questions, chiasm, parallelism, etc.4 Even seasoned commentators such as Fee5 and Thiselton6 offer no comprehensive analysis of how these rhetorical techniques and stylistic devices function to enhance the author’s message that he intends to communicate to the audience.
Towards a Solution
If there is such a dearth of rhetorical understanding among scholars, how much more does the lack of skilfulness in rhetoric affect preaching today? The same question can be asked about the dearth of understanding of the original languages. The danger, of course, is that this ultimately leads to departure from authorial intent preaching in contemporary evangelicalism. We do not want to depart from biblical exposition to experience-based, pragmatic, topical preaching,7 or, even worse, the abuse of the word of God due to a lack of understanding the role of rhetoric in the Bible. After all, the aim of this article is to empower the preacher to use rhetoric responsibly so that his preaching may be enhanced. Regarding the role of rhetoric, Meynet8 argues that biblical rhetoric is tantamount to letting the text speak for itself and to trust in its own logical presentation of the author’s persuasion. He further explains that “like all other exegetical approaches, the aim of rhetorical analysis is to understand the texts.”
The second part of this series will attempt to demonstrate from 1 Corinthians 13 how preachers can effectively utilise rhetoric in their preaching, deducing rhetoric from the text itself. We can all agree that 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautifully crafted piece of text. However, its magnificent beauty has resulted in this chapter used in ways Paul never intended for it to be used. Lacking of all is that the depth of Paul’s rhetorical prowess in this chapter is rarely plumbed or understood in contemporary evangelical preaching. So, how can we responsibly use rhetoric in our preaching using 1 Corinthians 13 as a case study? Stick around for part two.
Author: Tsholofelo Kukuni