>Charlie Dennison On The Rhetoric Of The Bible

>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.


Evangelical Eloquence – Introduction to Sacred Rhetoric

>How important is gospel communication? The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.17-19 states,

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Many use this statement by Paul to suggest that it is wrong to teach and learn communication skills in order to communicate the gospel–they suggest that that is falling prey to using eloquence that robs the cross of its power and wisdom from the world that will be destroyed.In the Introduction to his classic work on sacred rhetoric, R.L. Dabney confronts this notion by suggesting a difference between art and artifice. He suggests that “Art is but the rational adjustment of means to an end. . . . it employs proper menas for a worthy end; it is but wisdom in application, (15). For Dabney, describing preaching as the “art” of speech communication of the gospel is not the same as saying that preaching is to utilize lofty speech or sophistry, for that is “artifice,” not “art.” “Artifice is fasle; it adopts deceitful means for a treacherous end,” like “when the cunning seducer prepares a seeming attraction which is not indeed real, to inveigle his prey into the snare, this is artifice, (15). But not only does “artifice” include using tricky tactics to get people to agree with the speaker, it also includes the pathos of the fine arts, “in which the end of the skill employed is only to gratify the taste, and not to evoke practical volition, (15).

For Dabney, then, referring to preaching as an art, is not to suggest that preachers should use tricks, fanciful language and or sophisticated arguments to simply get people to agree with them or to create an experience that merely flatters one’s taste; for when he does so, he violates his responsibility to his office and contradicts the very notion of preaching itself. Rather, because the preacher has been called by God to communicate the truth of the gospel with oral communication, then, the preacher should utilize means that help him accomplish his duty:

But I assert none the less that, since this duty is to convey gospel truth effectively to other souls, and since there are adapted means by which this end may be the better accomplished, there is a true art of preaching, which is not only lawful and hones, but sacredly obligatory.

Dabney’s point here is that the preaching of the gospel is itself a means that God uses for the nourishment of faith in his covenant people and for creating faith in the lost, and as such, it is imperative for the preacher to use the proper means of communication. As Dabney points out, the preacher does not have the choice between using a means and not using one, but rather, the real choice is between “art wise and art foolish, art skillful and art clumsy,” (17).

Sacred rhetoric helps the unclear to become clear. And this is quite important, since “the state of the pulpit may always be taken as an index of that of the Church. Whenever the pulpit is evangelical, the piety of the people is in some degree healthy; a pervision of the pulpit is surely followed by spiritual apostasy in the Church,” (27).

So in light of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1.17-19, how should the preacher utilize effective means (art) for communicating the gospel without utilizing eloquent wisdom that empties the cross of its power? Dabney suggests that in the history of gospel preaching, there have been three stages that serve to help illustrate the proper and improper rhetorical art, and these stages help provide the preacher a guide.

The first stage is the proper stage for gospel preaching. In it, “scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb . . . they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy spirit has presented them, without seeking any other from human science.” By this Dabney draws our attention to the reality that the scripture itself comes with its own means of presentation. The Bible is not a random collections of words–but the Spirit has communicated God’s revelation with a form. We must study the Bible, not only for its content, but also for the form in which that content has been communicated. Faithful preaching and sacred rhetoric that is in keeping with Paul’s instructions utilizes the means of communication found in the Bible for communicating the message of the Bible. (I will have more to say about this stage later, so check back!)

However, there are two other stages, both of which the preacher should avoid. The second stage is a hybrid of the first and third stages. In it the doctrines of the Bible are taught using the methods developed by human wisdom “moulded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” This kind of preaching attempts to maintain the correct teaching of the Bible, but rather than using the rhetoric of the Bible, it utilizes the popular communication styles of the culture. Let me provide an example. Many today believe that preaching itself has become outmoded because we live in a culture that is image oriented. Mere spoken words do not communicate to today’s culture, so we need to find other creative, image-based means to communicate the gospel. In essence, this method, although well-intentioned, falls into the trap that Paul says we are to avoid. The preaching of the gospel is foolishness to those who are not meant to receive it. We are not called to smooth out the foolishness by utilizing means that are culturally driven instead of the means found in the Bible itself. According to Dabney, this is important, for when one tries to teach the truth using culturally based communication styles, the result is that the truth will ultimately be lost, which leads to the third stage.

The third stage is to be avoided at all costs, for the third stage is when not only are “the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word,” (28). The point: one cannot separate the message from the media. If one attempts to utilize the media of the culture, the message will soon begin to correspond to the message of the culture, as well.

In this Introduction, Dabney helps the preacher and the person in the pew have a better understanding of the importance of communicating the gospel well and the proper place to ascertain the form of that communication–the Bible. The preacher, no matter how gifted he may be, must study and learn the art of sacred rhetoric, for the sake of being faithful to his own call and for the sake of those listening to him. There is an art to sacred rhetoric that does not empty the cross of its power and is not based in the culture of the world that is passing away. In the words of Dabney:

Let us, my bretheren, eschew the ill-starred ambition which seeks to make the body of God’s truth a “lay figure” on which to parade the drapery of human philsopophy. May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress!


Preaching and the Two-Kingdoms

In the fourth chapter of Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Gordon advocates that “Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ,” (70). Gordon goes on to fill out his understanding of Christ-centered preaching when he says, “Even when the faithful exposition of particular texts requires some explanation of aspects of our behavior, it is always to be done in a manner that the hearer perceives such commanded behavior to be itself a matter of being rescued from the power of sin through the grace of Christ,” (71). He suggests that rather than divorcing behavior from the gospel, that as the “people’s confidence in Christ grows, they do, ordinarily and inevitably, bear fruit that accords with faith,” (78). He then goes on to poetically encourage ministers to feed their people full of the gospel:

Fill the sails of your hearers’ souls with the wind of confidence in the Redeemer, and they will trust him as their Sanctifier, and long to see his fruit in their lives. Fill their minds and imaginations with a vision of the loveliness and perfection of Christ in his person, and the flock will long to be like him. Impress upon their weak and wavering hearts the utter competence of the mediation of the One who ever lives to make intercession for them, and they will long to serve and comfort others, even as Christ has served and comforted them. (78)

The point is that it is only Christ-centered and saturated sermons that can feed and nurture faith in the souls of believers.

Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which has exactly the opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking potshots at what is wrong with our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ. (76, emphasis in original)

In the quote above, we find Gordon’s four failed alternatives to Christ-centered preaching: 1) moralism; 2) How-To; 3) Introspection; and 4) Social Gospel/So-Called Culture War. I found his comments concerning all the categories enlightening, but especially the fourth. In his discussion, Gordon does an excellent job of laying out a clear and easy to understand perspective of preaching that corresponds to the spirituality of the church, or the Two-Kingdom theory–that there is a distinction between the city of God (the church) and the city of man (culture).

Gordon argues that preaching should be done in light of keeping the two kingdoms separate and realizing that preaching is attached to the city of God and not the city of man. He supports this position with two main arguments. First, he makes a Natural Law argument that preaching that is devoted to commenting on what’s wrong with our culture and what ought to be done to improve it either by individuals or even worse by the coercive power of government is wrong because it is out of step with the nature of our country. The beauty of the work of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic is that they created a form of government founded upon a commitment to liberty. So important was liberty to them that it was more important than any good thing that individuals or a coercive federal government could force on persons.

The American Republic was designed in such a manner that it could have avoided the extremes represented today by secularist France and religious Iran. . . . The American Republic was designed to enforce neither, but permit both. The so-called culture wars in that Republic today are therefore due to a failure to believe in liberty, and a trigger-happy willingness to coerce others. (85, footnote 14)

In addition to this Natural Law argument, he second argument is biblical-theological. He notes that many in our churches love to live in imagined and self-made worlds of good guys and bad guys, and to think that they are part of the good guys. The problem with this is that Genesis 3 instructs that in Adam, we are all sinners and revolt against the reign of God and that each of us, therefore, prefer our own wills to the will of God. The Bible goes on to teach us that now we are dead in our sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2) and are utterly incapable, in and of ourselves, of changing our situation and our behavior. This inability is also true for government. The government cannot change us or rescue us from our revolt; education cannot enlighten our darkened minds; not even the church can deliver us from our darkened understanding that considers our own way better than God’s way; and surely coercive human governments cannot cure souls. The only answer is Jesus: “Only the God-man, the last Adam, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice and present intercession at the right hand of God, can rescue any of us from our revolt,” (86).

Because his words are so clear and helpful, here is a lengthy sampling:

So the one inadmissible thing to a culture warrior (that cultual change is out of our hands) is the basic subtext of everything the Bible teaches.

The culture warrior refuses to acknowledge that true and significant cultural change can happen only when the individual members of the culture have forsaken their own self-centeredness, and have revolted against their revolt against God. Worse, the culture warrior assumes that coerced change in behavior is desirable–that if we can pass a law that outlaws sin, this will somehow make people and culture better (when, in fact, we just become more devious and learn how to evade detection, adding deception to our other sins). Culture warriors are not content with the two legitimate ways in which humans may exert influence on the behavior of others; through reasoned discourse and the power of example. The power of example is too costly and too slow, and besides, we don’t wish to be around unbelievers much anyway. And reasoned discourse is beyond the capacity of most of us today; most could never explain convincingly to another why one behavioral choice is wiser than another. So we resort to coercion: using the coercive power of the government to enforce external compliance to the ways of God.

Such a view is so contrary to everything the Bible teaches that its prevelance must be accounted for as a kind of blindness that is due to misplaced partriotism. . . . The particular blindness of the culture warrior is that he permits himself to think God is pleased by coerced behavior; by requiring people to say “one nation, under God” even if they do not yet believe in God (which strikes me as an instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain). The culture warrior’s religion and his patriotism are in conflict. His Christianity teaches him that God is not pleased with mere external confession of insincere religious faith; but his patriotism just cannot accept the fact that his culture is movinging in directions of which he disapproves.

. . . Haven’t we already had a historical experiment that is precisely what the culture warriors want? Wasn’t ancient Israel a nation whose constitution demanded obedience to the revealed laws of God, and didn’t its executive branch use coercion to attain such obedience? Did Israel not, effectively, have the Ten Commandments in its courthouse? Yet which prophet ever had anything good to say about the nation? Indeed, as Jesus and the apostles more bluntly put it, which of the prophets did they not kill? If theocracy didn’t work in Israel, where God divinely instituted it, why do people insist on believing it will work in places where God manifestly has not instituted it? (86-88, emphasis in original)

Preaching that is biblical and apostolic will only be recovered through an enduring commitment to Christ-centered, expository proclamations of scripture to the church–not to the culture. There is a proper place for laws and government, but not as the answer for man’s rebellion against God’s rule and his perishing in sin–people need Christ. So give them Christ!

>"Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness"

>In a previous post I introduced T. David Gordon’s new book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. In the last chapter “Teaching Johnny to Preach,” he suggests that pastors (and everyone for that matter) should read verse in order to help develop better sensibilities of life. In making this point, Gordon references the 1940 Stone Lectures given at Princeton Seminary by Charles Grosvenor Osgood (later published as Poetry as a Means of Grace). In a footnote on page 100, Gordon quotes Osgood:

Vigor and grace beget vigor and grace. . . . A man in daily contact with say Johnson or Dante, or whoever his chosen seer may be, with their vigor, their wit, their imagery, their deep sense of the world’s tragedy, their struggle to turn it to account in terms of beauty or truth or behavior, will inevitably catch from them something of their sense, their feeling, their intellectual and spiritual thrust, which is bound to assert itself in the quality of his own expression and his ministrations.

So today I took his recommendation and spent some time at a local bookstore reading some verse.

Here is an excerpt from “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” by John Donne:

… I joy, that in these straits, I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What Shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection. . . .

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapped receive me Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.

What a beautiful presentation and application of the gospel.

>Do TV, Movies and the Internet Impact Preaching?

T. David Gordon has recently come out with a new book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Gordon wrote this book while on his deathbed with cancer. Thankfully, his cancer has gone into remission. The premise of the book is that there is a lot of bad preaching out there because ministers do not know how to read or write well anymore.

According to Gordon, the title is taken from some earlier published works, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It and Why Johnny Can’t Write: How to Improve Writing Skills. Gordon says that the theological corollary of the lack of these two fundamental skills manifest themselves in bad preaching, since preaching is essentially the product of these two activities.

Gordon suggests that these problems have developed because of the influence that the new image based and electronic media has had on American culture since World War II and how they have altered average Americans’ sensibilities compared to the typographical media age.

You can hear a good interview with T. David Gordon by the guys at the Reformed Forum here. I highly recommend listening to this interview, because he has as much to say to laypersons in the pew as he has to say to ministers in the pulpit. For example, Gordon mentions that the effect of the new electronic media is that it has created a culture that does not take things very seriously, but Christianity is terribly serious because it deals with the consequential things of life. The electronic media, especially T.V., does not deal with the consequential things of life, and on the rare occasion that it does, it deals with it inconsequentially. As a result of our living in a culture of indifference to the significant things of life, we miss (both ministers and laypersons) the consequential realities of life and of the scripture that deals with those consequential matters. Since the Bible confronts persons with the consequential things of life–sermons should confront persons about these significant realities. Tragically, the preachers of our day seem to be conforming their preaching to our inconsequential culture, and thereby, abdicating their opportunity, privilege and calling to be an alternative to it and to help their congregations alter their sensibilities and live in antithesis to it.

The bottom line: the media has shaped the messengers and those hearing the message. I highly recommend everyone (minister and layperson) reading this book, or at least listening to the interview.

If you are interested in getting the book, the guys at Westminster Bookstore have made it available for $5.99 (plus s&h).

The guys over at Mongerism Books have a special offer until March 25, 2009 where you can get the book for FREE if you buy $25 worth of books and type “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” in the customer notes at checkout. See here for details.

For other resources on this subject, see:

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
  2. Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures
  3. Interview with Gregory E. Reynolds on “Preaching in an Electronic Age” also done by the guys at the Reformed Forum.
  4. Gregory E. Reynolds, “Preaching and Poetry: Learning the Power of Speech” in Ordained Servant, April 2007
  5. Gregory E. Reynolds, “Preaching and Fiction: Developing Oral Imagination” in Ordained Servant, March 2007
  6. Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Wired Church” in Ordained Servant, June/July 2007
  7. A. Craig Troxel, “Why Preachers Should Read Fiction” in Ordained Servant, March 2007