It’s More Than “This or That”
The Topoi* of “Degrees”
If there is any concept which past and present homiletical teachers know little to nothing about because of their lack of a classical rhetorical background (see our first post), it is the use of “topoi.”
Simply, “topoi” are ways to generate content in a speech or in an argument.
They help you mentally generate ideas. They help generate ways to develop an idea, an application, a principle, a truth, a point, an illustration, an introduction, or an argument.
Last time we examined the “topoi” called “what” & “where.”
Let me identify another “topoi” — a second “place” to . . . .
- help build content,
- develop an idea,
- expand a concept,
- broaden an application,
- push an argument,
- add meat to the bone
- flesh out a biblical principle
- broaden the understanding of a biblical truth
- generate content beyond the main points**
. . . . It is the topoi called — “DEGREES.”
In exemplifying this “topos”, we are going to use Congressman “Trey Gowdy.” I use him as an example because just this week I heard him use the “topos” of “DEGREE.” As I heard him use it, I again was reminded how little those who spend their lives in public speaking understand what he just did!
Here is what Trey Gowdy said — after he was asked about that endless narrative revolving around President Donald Trump’s and/or his advisors’ involvement with the Russians during the 2016 campaign. . . .
We have to determine whether it was . . . .
Conspiracy . . . . or
Collusion . . . . or
Contact . . . . or
Did you see how Gowdy laid it out? Not in “this or that” terms, but by laying out varying degrees from the most serious to the bottom — the accidental.
Unfortunately, some Bible preachers/teacher/writers see with a “this or that” vision when in fact what they are looking at or talking about has more possible “layers” than just either-or.
Yes, there are “this or thats” in the Bible — just like pregnancy — saved or lost.
However, can I also suggest that there are even degrees of “lostness?”
Some are hardened, incalcitrant sinners (i.e. Pharaoh – but notice that not all of his servants-advisers were as incalcitrant as he himself was – Exodus 8:19). Some who are not saved are
- just “ignorant” – such as Cornelius and need more knowledge
- “religious” – spiritual things matter to them — such as Nicodemus
- “almost persuaded”
- doubters – not sure they believe
- believers – but help my unbelief
In fact there are differences among those who are saved – though all are saved.
With the saved . . . . Not all are the same, though all may be saved. . . . When one of your children begins thinking about this young man or lady as a life partner — hopefully the only question is not “this or that” — “saved or lost.”
With some of those who are saved it’s . . .
- full steam ahead
- struggling with living for the Lord
- lack assurance of their new found faith
- mature – solid pillars of God’s building
- yet carnal
- Spiritually minded
- He’s still working on me
- I’ll never win this battle
“Degrees” – Sample Generating Statements: The following statements are but some of the thought-provoking sentences which can begin the process of generating thoughts in regards to the topoi called – “degrees.”
- Not all of us are at the same place when it comes to?
- Perhaps you are not in that class — on that level yet, but want to be when it comes to ________.
- You are not there, and you are not sure you want to put forth the effort to get there. You know that there is a price to get there in your life.
- You are not in this deep today, but you are on the edge of moving into . . . .
- You were fighting and winning when you were first saved, but now
- You know that you are not a believer, but have been . . . .
- Saved, but . . . .
- Saved, but not . . . .
- A believer, but still . . . .
- A believer, but you know that you need to . . . .
i.e., Like Samson/Lot, a believer, but you find yourself pulled away from holy living by your drive of the sensual. You are not lost, but you are still fighting the flesh — (or using other examples to point to recognition / or popularity / or attainment / or the material)
All the SAMPLE statements above (and others could be added) are designed to remind us that not everything falls into two categories.
- Our audience is not monolithic.
- Our audience is not only saved and lost.
- Our audience is more complex than we sometimes think about when we preach.
- Our audience reflects a spectrum of different shades and colors.
- Our audience can be a different levels of sinful thought or behavior.
- Our audience may be more like “an onion” when it comes to the spiritual or unspiritual.
Let’s play with Gowdy’s Degrees . . . .
Some of God’s people are . . . .
- conspiratorial – Ahitophel with Joab
- colluding with – Saul with Witch of Endor
- have contact with – Gehazi with Elisha
- “coincidence” has put you there – Ruth & Naomi
Some who know not Christ as their Savior are
- conspiratorial – no intent to repent
- colluding with the enemy
- have had purposeful contact with God’s people
- you think that “coincidence” has put you there
How did David get into this situation? As he is approaching the city of Ziklag, the city is on fire. God’s people get into these situations for various reasons . . . . With some of God’s people it is . . . .
- conspiratorial – they have joined the enemy
- began with colluding with the enemy – they got deeper and deeper, and it all started because they began colluding with
- the initial contact with _____ is what started the whole process.
- what most would call “coincidence” — which put you there — now what do I do?
With David, it wasn’t that he — in his mind – no longer wanted to serve the Lord — he wanted to join the enemy. He wanted to and even was serving the interest of Israel, while feigning allegiance to the Philistines.
But neither was it coincidence with David, but it was purposeful contact that led to this day. David moved tot he land of the Philistines to avoid Saul, and found it necessary to collude with the Philistines
As you are working on a message or speech, if you need help you can “mentally-flip-through-a-list” of these various topi **
“Degree” is just one of them and a very useful one that will also help you identify with your audience because they are really at various levels in their lostness or Christian life. By speaking of “degrees” you communicate that you understand where people are in life and living.
Over time, after using these various “topoi,” your mind will begin to fall into a pattern of automatically thinking of these various topoi and how to use them as you work on . . . .
- your introduction, or
- the development of a biblical concept, or
- the applications of your message, or
- fleshing out of a principle, or
- the main points, or
- illustrating an idea, or
- concluding the message, or
- developing a main point**, or
You can “brainstorm” using this topos called — “Degrees” — are there degrees of . . . .
Example: Here is an example from Andy Stanley’s message titled — “The Trouble With Religion.”
When I first heard this message and picked up on his use of Degrees, I thought he should have and could have done a little more with the “degrees,” while still recognizing that he was wise in recognizing “degrees.”
He calls up the sin of homosexuality. Notice that he recognizes that this sin is not . . . .
- “homosexual or not homosexual”
- “this or that”
but Andy Stanley recognizes different levels, layers, AND he is also saying to the audience that he recognizes “one size does not fit all” — that there are also some who are struggling with it and are on different levels . . . .
- just — in it
- used to struggle — but now your in it
- again struggling
- given up hope of getting out of it
- feel uniquely (ashamed) wrong / strange
“So you’re here tonight and in the struggle with homosexuality
but you don’t just struggle with it — you’re just “in it”
you used to struggle — now you’re in it
then you struggled
then you’re in — and out — in and out
and you know what — you feel incurable
and you feel like — because — partly because the Christian society — that there’s something uniquely wrong and uniquely strange about that temptation
and you are just — out.
Oh my friend — if you trust in Jesus Christ as your savior — you’re as
in as me
and Mother Teresa
and Chuck Swindoll
— Andy Stanley
* If you want to read more about the rhetorical techniques which all revolve around the concept called “topoi” you had better get ready to dig deep into the three books which Aristotle wrote called “Rhetoric” and/or his work called “Topoi.”*
I hope that I can present a simplified understanding of “topoi” in the coming weeks which you can use in your message preparation. The classical rhetorical concept called “topoi” is one of the most valuable, yet untapped concepts by public speakers and public speaking teachers.
** sometimes the actual passage you are preaching or teaching provides two, three, four main points which all answer the question what, or where, or why. No surprise in many cases since the Scriptures are arguing a case either through a narrative or through a grammatical argument.
i.e. — “This passage is going to lay out for us where jealousy comes from (see example on King Saul).”
or another example . . . .
“This passage is going to reveal the two/three prominent “whys” of hatred, and anger. Why anger and hatred can so dominate the heart and life of an individual (You could probably go to the account of Absalom / Cain / King Saul / or Joseph’s brothers– “They are found in Joseph’s two dreams”).