Succinctly, “topoi” are mental places where a speaker can go to develop content and/or make an argument. The word “topoi” is the Greek word for “places” and the classical rhetorical theorist encouraged their students to run through a series of mind generating “topoi” when called upon to speak in impromptu situations.
Some topoi are unique to a culture, a profession, an era, or an area of life. For instance, in America, the concept of “freedom” or “tolerance” permeates our culture. Because those beliefs or values are part of our culture, a speaker can argue from and/or develop a point using them — NOT propounding them, but using them – arguing from them – developing a point leaning on those values which are already accepted by the audience.
Likewise, there are some “topoi” that such as “personal responsibility” or “the sanctity of life.” These beliefs or values may or may not be part of any group within America, but are part of the Christian “sub-culture.” Therefore, one can argue from and/or develop a point using them — not contending for them, but using them – arguing from them – developing a point leaning on those values.
“Topoi” are NOT argued, but argued FROM. The topoi are already assumed and accepted by the listeners. One is leaning on the topoi in developing the content and/or making an argument.
For example, the concept of “Obedience” carries a lot of weight within the Christian community. “Obedience” is an assumed or accepted truth by a congregation . . . .
- We have kid’s songs about this truth (O-B-E-D-I-E-N-C-E).
- The first book of the Bible addresses the obedience to God’s first commandment to Adam & Eve.
- There are a good number of biblical characters who failed in obeying the Lord — Moses, Joshua, Achan, Saul, David
- The Ten Commandments are about obedience.
- There are many well-known passages which speak about obedience.
- The New Testament speaks about obedience to parents and employers.
- God’s people are called upon to be obedient to the laws of the government.
- Add in all the passages about the opposite of obedience, rebellion.
There is no lack of clarity about the Christian’s responsibility to be obedient and the existence of repeated warnings about being rebellious.
Because that belief and/or value is held as part of the Christian community, it can be argued from and/or content can be developed using it.
This accepted truth (obedience) can be used to . . . .
- further or advance
- develop or elaborate
- argue from
. . . . another point (which is different from the accepted actual biblical concept called obedience).
The passage may be addressing a variety of particular biblical truths which are far different from the concept called “obedience.” The passage may be addressing “eating meat offered to an idol – Romans 8, or the deceitfulness of riches – I Timothy 6:10. Nevertheless, the “topos” of “obedience” can be applied to it to develop, drive, elaborate, advance the point which is being made.
Topos: Which we will call — “Obedience”
Passage: Proverbs 24:17-18; 25:21-22
Subject: Retaliation (The subject could just as easily be sexual morality, tithing, lying, unrighteous anger, pride, etc.)
“Now you can resist hearing that truth. You can walk away and disregard it. You can permit your anger to fester and grow to where you just want to strike back — Or you can just do what you know you ought to do, and you know the Lord says is the right thing to do — give him/her bread and refresh his/her soul.
That is what the Lord says we are to do when we are slighted, offended, abused, used.
Now, we either fall in line with what the Lord says about revenge, or we refuse to trust Him to deal with wrong-doing — we rebel against what we clearly know and understand He teaches about responding to wrong-doing and wrong-doers. He says, “Vengeance is mine” – not yours.
We either act like we believe that truth, or we say in word and action that we know better. We refuse to listen and decide to take things into our own hands.”
√ The point being made in the “content” is not a discussion of the role of obedience in Scripture, but is about doing what the Lord says, obeying what the Bible teaches about retaliation.
√ The point being made in the “content” assumes that we value or believe that God’s expects us to be obedient to what He says in the Scriptures – in this case, obedient to what God says about revenge/retaliation.
√ The “content” is not a presentation about what the Bible teaches about obedience, but what the Bible teaches about retaliation.
√ “Obedience” is being used to drive the passage’s argument — that God’s people are not to retaliate.
√ Obedience is assumed. It is not being argued. What is being argued is the sinfulness or wrongness of revenge and/or retaliation.
NOW, any preacher might well create any or all of the “content” as stated above.
However, it is not until one grasps that “obedience” is a “topos”/ “place” where a speaker, preacher, or teacher can mentally go to develop content and/or drive an argument, that one sees the usefulness of the “topos” and how it can be employed with many other and different passages and messages.
As with all rhetorical techniques, many a speaker-preacher employs them. Many (and I would argue “most”) of the rhetorical techniques laid out in these hundreds of articles are NOT unused, but they are UNidentified and UNexplored.
The fact that they are NOT unused is supported by the fact that I am able to continually provide examples from a variety of speakers and preachers.
Nevertheless, the fact that various rhetorical techniques can be exemplified from a variety of speakers does not mean that this-or-that technique was used knowingly by that speaker.
It is the conscious awareness of what we are doing and/or other speakers are doing which gives a speaker the ability to “reproduce” it, even when dealing with a passage or topic that is totally different.
Simon Vibert (author of “Excellence in Preaching”) makes this statement . . . .
The third thing preachers need to learn is what motivated the writing of “Excellence in Preaching,” namely that we learn much from preaching by listening to good preachers. Apart from the obvious fact that preachers need to hear God’s word explained and applied for their own spiritual health, the language of mentoring and modeling is important here. My prayer and hope is that good preachers will notice and appreciate the things good preachers do: not to mimic but rather to observe and learn.
It is also when one “knows” what he/she (or another) is doing, that variations of a technique can be generated and added to the mental repository of available developmental options.
For instance, let’s add a twist to this “topos,” which we are calling “obedience.” We will also change up the biblical passage and therefore the subject in order to illustrate how the topoi work across different passages.
Variation: Obedience & Managing the Consequences
Passage (N.T.): Romans 12:3 — (or I Corinthians 4:6; James 4:6; I Peter 5:5; . . . .)
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.”
or (“And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.” — I Corinthians 4:6)
Subject: Pride (The subject could just as easily be sexual morality, tithing, lying, unrighteous anger, retaliation-revenge, etc.)
“It is the sin of the Devil — pride. Thinking that you are the center of your universe, your world. You don’t have to hear Paul’s words, but He is speaking a truth which he himself learned and which was the same humility which marked the Lord Jesus in His coming, in His life, and in His death.
We can either listen to what God says about humility — We can either follow and obey the words spoken by Paul to the Roman believers and the pattern given us by our Lord, or we can suffer the consequences which pride generates in the lives of people.
When we begin experiencing the consequences, we will find our selves managing, not obeying — managing the results, the consequences, the outcomes, the domino effects of pride — which cascade when pride pushes over the first of a series of aftereffects.
“Manage” is what happens when pride takes over, when we refuse to listen to – we refuse to hear – we refuse to see what pride does in the life. “Manage” is what happens when pride begins to rule your life and when you will not obey . . . . “