Rhetoric in Preaching

As we breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end of the party conference season, it is worth reflecting on the importance of rhetoric in public speech. Perhaps we agree with one half of the definition of rhetoric:

Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content

But anyone involved in public ministry needs to remember the other half:

The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

edconfThis has been very evident this week. Whatever the merits of their respective content, there was a marked contrast in the delivery by David Cameron and Ed Miliband. In his interview on Radio 4, Miliband used endless parataxis (‘and…and…then…and…’) whereas Cameron used much more hypotaxis (‘Because… after…whilst…’) and it was much more effective. Surely we want our language to be effective and persuasive—and we might even want to take up Nick Baines’ challenge to redeem what is often (in public discourse) the corruption of language.

Apart from anything else, we live in an age where rhetoric is making a serious comeback:

  • The increase in radio listening, this year believed to be up by 9%.
  • The effect of the previous Labour Government’s initiatives in numeracy and literacy. I was amused by a conversation with the Head Teacher of my children’s school last year when I asked about my children’s awareness of different genres of writing. ‘It is all about meta-cognition!’ he replied; in their literacy strategy (developed in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University), they are developing skills in genre recognition by focussing on reading and writing a different genre of literature each half term. Thus at age nine the pupils are overtaking most graduates in their understanding of what Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee identify as a key element of biblical literacy.[i]
  • Actual use of the internet as an interactive medium, which, despite the importance of picture and video material, is very often text based. Children asked to ‘research’ a subject on the internet are very often engaged in activities that in practice look very similar to reading an article in an encyclopaedia, and adult usage often makes high demands of literacy. The growth of blogs, in particular, has led to a veritable explosion of verbiage; from an academic and a ministry perspective, I simply find I cannot keep up with all that is being written.
  • The extraordinary rise of stand-up comedy in the last few years, a form of entertainment entirely dependent on the crafting and use of words. To those objecting to the form of the monologue sermon as unsustainable in the contemporary context, I point out that people will pay very good money to listen to 90 minutes of monologue at the Apollo Theatre in London! There might be problems with many monologue sermons, but stand-up comedy says that the problem does not simply lie in the monologue form itself!
  • The return of rhetoric within political speech, the prime example here being that of Barak Obama. Writing on the day Obama was due to give his Inaugural Presidential Speech, Razia Iqbal quotes Tony Blair’s former speech-writer Philip Collins: Obama at his absolute best “combines a poetic form of expression with a poetic compression of meaning, while rarely straying from ordinary language. His speeches do take wing, but the flight comes from the rhythm of the sentences as much as the elevation of the language”.[ii] Obama’s speech on that day is replete with classical techniques and strategies of rhetoric.[iii] You could observe similar moves in Cameron’s ‘unscripted’ speech outside Number 10 when he became Prime Minister.

If we want to engage persuasively with our congregations in our preaching, and if this is the world they are living in, we need to reflect on the language we use..

A rediscovery of rhetoric

Paul Scott Wilson, in his masterly introduction to The Practice of Preaching, argues that preaching must be engaging and persuasive—but not in the first instance for practical reasons. Rather, he argues that theology itself is rhetorical because it is relational, in that it seeks to be a place of encounter between God and his people.[iv] Anthony Thiselton says something similar in the opening of his recent The Hermeneutics of Doctrine. The early creeds were never mere statements of propositions to which the church gave intellectual assent; they were always expressions of ‘dispositions’, fundamental orientations which affected the whole of life.[v]

If theology is rhetorical, in the sense that its goal is ‘faithful persuasion’, Wilson argues that homiletics must also be rhetorical, since it is the ‘completion’ of theology:

I believe that the sermon is not the dilution of theology; it is rather the completion of theology, made complete through Christ speaking it and constituting the church through it. We might even say that the church is most truly the church when it is preaching in worship, for it is through the Word and sacrament that salvation comes to the world, and it is through our lives being transformed in the cruciform image that our acts of justice, mercy, peace, and love are begun once more in power.[vi]

Against an ‘old homiletic’, propositional approach to preaching, Wilson believes that preaching is ‘never simply the exchange of information from preacher to congregation’ (p 77), but must involve persuasive engagement. In doing this, preaching must rediscover Aristotle’s ancient rhetorical categories of logos, the appeal to rational argument and facts, ethos, the integrity and character, even plausibility, of the speaker, and pathos, or emotional appeal.

Our preaching must be experienced as integrating head, heart and soul (or loosely: logos, ethos and pathos). Homiletical theology is not an intellectual exercise that results in the cool dispensing of knowledge over a prescription counter; it involves our entire lives in devotional purpose.[vii]

Interestingly, some of the examples of the recovery of the importance of language in culture appear to have discovered this very thing. In ‘observational’ comedy, one of the most prominent forms of contemporary stand-up, the rational facts of a situation (logos) are extrapolated into a reductum ad absurdum; as a result, the comic is left in an absurd situation, with which we sympathise (pathos); and all the while the comic uses various devices to establish rapport with the audience (ethos)—the comic is very much ‘one of us’ and even (in a sense) goes through these experiences on our behalf.


Proponents of the ‘new homiletic’ have argued for a more radical rethinking of the sermon as a performative engagement. But the need to rediscover rhetoric is more fundamental and all-encompassing; contemporary preachers need to develop basic skills of communication, ‘asking alliteration’s artful aid’ (as I was once taught)[viii], structuring in threes,[ix] creating narrative tension by delayed resolution—and so on. I found the experience of giving two-minute ‘Pause for Thought’ talks on Radio 2 transformative of my preaching, since it demanded a scripting and crafting of language that a 30-minute sermon never asked for. So I require all those studying homiletics at St John’s to preach a two-minute sermon to their peers. Discovering how much you can say in such a short time when you take care, they then sometimes wonder why they ever needed 20 minutes or more!

Given the sense of growing hostility to Christian faith, the importance of good, persuasive, engaging preaching is not just about satisfying religious consumers in the supermarket of faith. Increasingly, Christians in the West need to have good reasons for what they believe, and encouraging faith involves continually making a persuasive case for trusting in God.

(For further material on this, see my chapter ‘The Future of Language in Preaching’ in The Future of Preaching)

[i] In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth London: Scripture Union, 1983 and later editions, the entire framework of which is genre recognition. I am aware that this growth in literacy is very uneven, given the continuing poor levels of attainment particularly in areas of social deprivation. Rather than uniformly increasing literacy, Government education policy could be seen to have both increased but also polarised literacy, with certain social groups becoming more literate but a continuing underclass remaining functionally illiterate.

[ii] Quoted in Razia Iqbals’s BBC blog from Tuesday 20th January 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/raziaiqbal/2009/01/the_power_of_language.html accessed in March 2010.

[iii] Both transcripts of the speech itself and analyses of its features are plentiful on the internet.

[iv] Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, chapter 3 ‘Theology and Rhetoric.’ Revised edition, 2007.

[v] Anthony Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2007 chapter 1.

[vi] The Practice of Preaching, p 70.

[vii] Ibid, pp 79–80.

[viii] See the section ‘How to give a talk’ in David Watson, Discipleship, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.

[ix] From Barak Obama’s Inaugural Presidential Address: ‘Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered… all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance… the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…For us, they packed up…/For us, they toiled…/For us, they fought and died… we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world… This is the price…/ This is the source…/This is the meaning…’ and so on!


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