>What is the relationship of preaching and rhetoric? In Homiletics, or the study of preaching, what principles should drive the way the preacher communicates the scripture? Many have taught that in Homiletics, the preacher should borrow the standards, or principles, of classical rhetoric and apply them to the preaching task. But this raises an important question: just how sufficient is the Bible? Do we have to go outside the Bible in order to learn how to effectively communicate the Bible? Is the effective communication of God’s word dependent on man’s communication theories and devices? Or, is the scripture sufficient for not only providing us the right content for sermons, but also the means by which that content will be effectively communicated?
Charlie Dennison offers his perspective in his lecture “The Bible and Rhetoric,” “I don’t think the Bible is interested in [the science of public communication].” What we find in the Bible is God’s sovereign, preserved speech, in which he discloses himself to his people that they might by his grace partake with him in a transcendent bond of perpetual fellowship. Preaching, therefore, is communicating not ideas that we hope lead to good morals and ethics (classic rhetoric) but a person and an event by which this perpetual bond will come about. Therefore,
Because the event of God’s self-disclosure is central to biblical or Hebraic reality, rhetoric within the Christian context could never be summarized by the traditional categories of classical rhetoric. . . . Biblical reality must first of all be proclamation. Proclamation not of an idea, but of an event. Not of a thought in someone’s head to be argued for or defended, but an event most certainly having taken place.
The rhetoric of the Bible is not about getting people to believe ideas, it is about proclaiming the certainty of an event that centers in the event of God’s self disclosure–principally his final revelation of his ultimate saving act as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Central and foundational to this self revelation of God is a covenantal dimension that is lost and nonexistent in classical rhetoric as it treats persons as if they exist in a vacuum of the here and now. Yet, the rhetoric of the scripture is inherently covenantal an intrudes itself upon the listener with a completely different way of thinking, so that the consciousness of the audience is to be drawn into the event–because covenantally the audience was there and must learn to find their lives there in the event of the intrusive saving act of God, especially as it is realized in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–to which all of the Bible points. So that now, although I am separated from the historical event of Jesus by almost two thousand years, covenantally I can say with the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2.20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Was not Paul himself absent from the crucifixion and resurrection historically just as I was? Yes, but not covenantally and redemptively. By faith both Paul and I (and all who receive and rest Christ by faith) are united and bound up with Christ and his story. The Bible is the history of God’s event and action of redeeming a people for his glory through Christ–all the Bible is Christ’s story–all the Bible is your story.
The rhetoric of the Bible is to get you to find yourself there and then to live by faith in light of it. The rhetoric of sermons, therefore, should be the same as the rhetoric of the scripture. This is not a baptized version of classical rhetoric, for it is classical rhetoric’s opposite.
Classical rhetoric keeps the audience outside of the text–which is the complete opposite intention of the text. It leaves the audience in a position to read about what happened in the past and how others lived in those events. The audience is left outside looking in, with no other action to take than from a supposed position of neutrality to either accept what happened and try to emulate or not emulate the persons involved and discover principles that can be practiced, or, to reject what happened and not care. Classical rhetoric does not allow the audience to connect with the Bible’s rhetorical intention, which is to covenantally draw the audience into the story–into the life of Christ himself, and to live by faith in Christ.
This does not mean that the pastor is not responsible to still communicate clearly and accurately; it does not mean that the pastor is not responsible to communicate passionately; it does not mean that the sermon is not supposed to have movement and can just be running commentary and rambling on about historical details or cultural insights. Sermons should have a main idea that is developed, that is unified, that is clearly set forth, that has movement that drives to a climax and conclusion. But not because secular philosophers and communication experts say it, but because this is what we see in the redemptive-historical pattern of the revelation of God. And the purpose is not to teach ideas to merely persuade persons to action–but to proclaim the event of revelation itself and draw the audience into the event to strengthen their faith that they may walk in the confidence of the gospel. And that communication should be shaped not by the clever and eloquent techniques and devices of sophists, but by the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A gospel shaped proclamation (humiliation that leads to exaltation because of union with Christ in his humiliation and exaltation) of the gospel is the Bible’s rhetoric for effectively drawing the Christian into the gospel into order to believe it and live by it. Not only is the gospel to be proclaimed in the content of what is said–but in the manner in which it is presented. The pastor should be so bound up with Christ and find his life hidden in Christ, that even his method of argumentation, his rhetoric, preaches Christ.
Dennison closes with this summary of the Bible’s rhetoric,
[The Bible] co-opts rhetoric and transforms it into an extension of the biblically declared saving work of God, where the event of God’s accomplishment dominates all ideas about that event. The Bible, therefore, intends its presentation to bring the hearer into the direct and spiritual contact with God’s saving act. . . . The message and the method in the Bible’s rhetoric are so intertwined that in the end, the method itself communicates the message. The world’s rhetoric, for all its artistry and scientific precision, in the end, by contrast, too often comes off only transparently contrived, but anemic, if not vacuous.
This lecture is a must listen for everyone, pastor and lay person alike. For not only does it speak to the rhetoric that should be used by the minister in the pulpit, it speaks to the rhetoric that the congregation should expect to hear from the minister. Ultimately, it will transform how we read and understand the Bible itself.