top of page
  • Mandla Mkhwanazi

Rhetorically Speaking: Responsible Use of Rhetoric in Preaching (Part 2)

The responsible use of rhetoric in preaching that is advocated for herein is one that is primarily concerned with describing the author’s primary rhetorical objective in a particular section, and how the author sets about achieving this objective. The objective is achieved by the use of various rhetorical strategies, types or nature of arguments, and the employment of rhetorical techniques the author uses to enhance his objective. Let’s use 1 Corinthians 13 as an example to illustrate.

First Corinthians 13 has one dominant rhetorical objective, which is addressed from four supportive rhetorical strategies, otherwise known as the demarcation of the section. It may be demarcated in the following way: (1) 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:3; (2) 1 Corinthians 13:4–8a; 1 Corinthians 13:8b–13. Each section contains a type of argument used to enhance Paul’s main objective in 1 Corinthians 13, and all of 1 Corinthians 13 is replete with rhetorical techniques. All this is due to the grandeur of its language.1

To persuade you to plumb the grandeur of the language of 1 Corinthians 13, in particular its rhetorical form, this article will share with you the main thought of 1 Corinthians 13 (the dominant rhetorical strategy), the types and nature of arguments Paul uses to enhance his main objective, and the rhetorical techniques used to enhance the effectiveness of his communication. This will not be an exhaustive treatment of the use of rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 13, but an urge geared towards persuading you to use rhetoric responsibly in your preaching (or studying).

The Main Thought of 1 Corinthians 13: Dominant Rhetorical Strategy

The main thought of 1 Corinthians 13 is to persuade the Corinthians to be united in their practice of spiritual gifts, to desist from practising spiritual gifts in futility—that is, without love—to present the exact practical effects that proceeds from exercising spiritual gifts in love, and climaxes with persuading the Corinthians of the cessation of spiritual gifts. In relation to the latter, Paul not only disillusions the Corinthians of the inadequacy of practising spiritual gifts without love, but evokes a sense of anticipation of something greater and permanent as compared to the temporaneous nature of spiritual gifts.

This dominant thought of the passage was first identified by Fee2 when he stated that “the greater urgency of this present argument is with the ‘only-for-the-present’ nature of the gifts, not with the permanence of love—although that is always lingering near the surface. Love is scarcely mentioned (vv. 8a, 13 only); the fact that the gifts will pass away forms the heart of the entire argument (vv. 8-12).” Paul arranges his argument in such a way that what he introduces last forms the climax of the entire argument. To get to the climax of the argument, he raises scenarios first and heightens the importance of each, in rhetorical gradation fashion,3 until he reaches the pinnacle of the argument.

How Does Paul Set about Achieving this Objective?

Paul litters 1 Corinthians 13 with four main rhetorical arguments. Rhetorical arguments derived from Scripture are easy to identify. We know of them, but we scarcely refer to them as such or expound their effectiveness or their use to enhance the author’s main objective. For example, Snyman4 examines 1 Corinthians 1:1 and identifies what he defines “as an argument based on divine authorisation” from the words “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” We know from other passages of Scripture that, to be an apostle, he must have been called by Jesus personally.

However, this is not the only reason Paul inserts this in the letter opening. It becomes apparent, when reading 1 Corinthians, that his apostleship was questioned by his opponents. This type of argument is highly effective because he relies on it to argue for his divine legitimacy as opposed to his opponents. This means the Corinthians must listen to him and believe his words because he is divinely authorised. To argue against him is to argue against the one who authorised him.

He refers to his divine authorisation in 1 Corinthians 4:1 by using the rhetorical technique called periphrasis, or circumlocution, to intentionally omit the mention of his opponents because he does not regard them as divinely authorised.5 In 1 Corinthians 4:4–6 he argues that the Lord, who is qualified to judge, has judged him qualified to be an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 9:3 he gives a defence of his apostleship based on the divine mandate he had. He argues boldly in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38 that his words are the Lord’s commands. In 1 Corinthians 15:9–10 he reiterates that he was divinely authorised to be an apostle. You may not pick up initially in the very first verse of the book why Paul begins by stating that he is divinely mandated. Hence Witherington6 explains that, whenever Paul’s authority was challenged, he inserted in the epistolary prescript an emphasis of the divine legitimacy of his ministry.

Anti-Pauline view of things was one of the major contributing factors to the strife in the church. One of those areas was in the area of spiritual gifts. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1987),7 and so does Smit[J. U. Smit, “The Genre of 1 Corinthians 13 in the Light of Classical Rhetoric,” Novum Testamentum, 33(3):193–216.] claim that according to some within the Corinthian community, Paul was not competent enough to deal with the spiritual phenomena. Hence Paul begins his explanation on the spiritual phenomena in 1 Corinthians 12:1–3 by alluding to the fact that the Corinthians were ignorant, probably duped by anti-Pauline advocates; and concludes in 1 Corinthians 14:37–40 by declaring confidently that the true sign that one is truly on the right path concerning the pneumatic, lies with recognising that Paul’s authority is Jesus’ authority. Failure to recognise that Paul’s teachings on the pneumatic is tantamount to the teachings of Jesus, leads one to remain in a state of ignorance (1 Corinthians 12:1), and worse, being ignored by God (1 Corinthians 14:37–38).

Love as the Only Motivation for the Proper Use of Spiritual Gifts

Paul does not wish for the Corinthians to remain in a state of ignorance; therefore, he proposes to show them a way of practicing spiritual gifts that far surpasses the way they were practicing spiritual gifts and the way the anti-Pauline proponents advanced. His way is the way of love which he calls “a far more supreme way.” This way of love will act as an antidote to dispel divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 12:4–7), will lead to practicing spiritual gifts in a mature way (1 Corinthians 14:20–25), and causes one to excel in the practice of spiritual gifts in a way that edifies the church (1 Corinthians 14:12).

While Paul corrects the Corinthians, we should bear in mind that love, not regulation, is what Paul proposes as the proper motivation for the use of spiritual gifts. Since this is a correction of probably one of the major theological views and most important to the Corinthians, Paul has to navigate the correction in a skilful, winsome way. He thus does so utilising his rhetorical prowess to not devalue the spiritual gifts the Corinthians cherished highly, but to add value to the understanding and use of spiritual gifts.

Paul’s Use of Various Rhetorical Techniques to Persuade the Corinthians to Adopt his Far More Supreme Way of Using Spiritual Gifts

Paul begins by using himself as an ethical example for the Corinthians to imitate. It is widely considered that he uses irony or hyperbole, although some scholars argue for the realistic as opposed to the hyperbolic interpretation, in 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:3. The hyperbolic interpretation is largely based on the interpretation of the use of a series of four third class conditional clauses “if” (ἐὰν), plus a contraction conjunction “and if” (κἂν) at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13:3 to make it five conditional clauses as alluding to an uncertain and unlikely condition.

What Paul does in these verses is to cause the Corinthians to think of what would become of a divinely called apostle, an ethical example, to practice spiritual gifts without love. Not only will the practice amount to nothing, but Paul as the practitioner himself will amount to nothing. He is disillusioning the Corinthians with the hope of causing them to shun such a practice.

He enhances his argument with the use of other various rhetorical techniques such as explicit contrasting, the use of conspicuous words and metaphors, binary, parallelism, repetition, rhythm, antithesis, etc. This is only in 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:3, which means there are more in the rest of 1 Corinthians 13. I will not expound all of the techniques, but will zoom in on a two of these with the hope of showing you how to responsibly use them in your preaching or studying of rhetoric.

The first is the use of conspicuous words and metaphors. According to Smit, there are eleven conspicuous words and metaphors in 1 Corinthians 13, but in 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:3 we find four. Regarding conspicuous words, they are either New Testament hapax legomenon, or used in no other way any New Testament writer uses them save Paul. The purpose is clear that Paul aims to be unique, but not for the sake of uniqueness. The reason is that Paul wants to explicitly demonstrate (δείκνυμι [1 Corinthians 12:31b]) the proper motivation of the use of spiritual gifts to draw the attention of the Corinthians towards the supremely excellent way of practicing spiritual gifts as opposed to the anti-Pauline, loveless way. So you turn only to Paul to understand the words and metaphors used in 1 Corinthians 13. This does not jettison the doctrine of scriptura scripturam interpretatur, but affirms sacra scriptura sui ipsius interpres in context.

The second is the use of parallelism. Parallelism is a well-known, according Kaiser and Silva (2007),8 “literary technique that inverts the elements into two parallel phrases” or the inversion of the order of repeated words such as the form in 1 Corinthians 12:31:

(a) verb “desire” (ζηλοῦτε)

(b) object “the gifts” (τὰ χαρίσματα)

(c) comparative apposition “the superior” (τὰ μείζονα)

(c) comparative apposition “far more supreme” (ὑπερβολὴν)

(b) object “way” (ὁδὸν)

(a) verb “I will show” (δείκνυμι).

When one observes the artistic beauty of parallelism in a text, you cannot resist its beautiful craft. However, the beauty of parallelism should not be observed without searching through it the author’s aim by using it. If you pay careful attention to why the author uses parallelism, that will point you to the author’s objective in that particular section. Snyman9 convincingly points out a two-fold aim of Paul’s use of parallelism in 1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:3. The first aim is to be gracious. Paul is in the midst of correcting the Corinthians to use spiritual gifts in love, to reject anti-Pauline views, and to be united as a church. Parallelism then, with its beautiful craft, has the ability to charm and soften the correction in a winsome way. The second aim is to stir and appeal to the emotions of the Corinthians to be drawn to something appealing and beautiful, to affectionally desire the greater way of practicing spiritual gifts in love that Paul proposes in 1 Corinthians 12:31b.


Space does not permit to further illustrate how to use rhetoric to enhance the effectiveness of your preaching and to expand on some of the rhetorical techniques to show you how they enhance the effectiveness of the main point of the passage. What I have hopefully achieved in this brief article is to urge you not only to observe the use of rhetoric in the text, but to get behind the rhetoric to discover the author’s objective through the use of rhetoric and how it serves the authorial intent of the passage. Essentially, the steps you follow are (1) identify or observe the rhetorical device used in the text, (2) what it means and why the author uses it in that particular section while dealing with the main point of the passage, and (3) so what?

  1. David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

  2. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

  3. The arrangement of the argument from the lesser to the greater. There is a build-up that compels the reader to anticipate the culmination of the argumentation.

  4. A. H. Snyman, “Persuasion in 1 Corinthians 1:1–9,” Verbum et Ecclesia, 30(2)1–6.

  5. A. G. White, “The Rod as Excommunication: A Possible Meaning for an Ambiguous Metaphor in 1 Corinthians 4:21,” Journal of the Study of the New Testament, 39(4):388–411.

  6. Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).

  7. E. Schüssler-Fiorenza, Rhetorical Situation and Historical Reconstruction in 1 Corinthians. New Testament Studies, 33:386–403.

  8. W.C. Kaiser & M. Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: A Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

  9. A. H. Snyman, “Remarks on the Stylistic Parallelism in 1 Corinthians 13” in J. H. Petzer & P. J. Hartin, A South African Perspective in the New Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 202–213.

Author: Tsholofelo Kukuni


6 views0 comments
bottom of page