Rhetoric & Homiletics: A Critical Concept — Pt. #2

Aristotle Classical Rhetorical Theory — Pt. #2 / (Pt. #1)

Clarifying “Topoi”
An Example Of How It Works

The importance of identifying, categorizing, remembering, and/or cataloguing “topoi” was to provide a mental or actual “checklist” that one could mentally or actually rove through to generate thoughts which will help effectively communicate the truth(s) you are seeking to drive home.

The checklist is composed of potential ideas, ways of making the argument, illustrating, clarifying, explaining, developing, describing, arranging, emphasizing, analogically comparing, defining, contrasting, comparing, answering, illuminating, etc. — all which might be used with ANY message.

The checklist is not “passage” or “message bound” or necessarily limited to narrative or grammatical portions of the Scriptures.  I demonstrate that in a good number of my posts which seek to exemplify various “topoi.”  Go back to the one we mentioned in the previous post by Trey Gowdy and you will see an example of how to use the “topoi” he designed (*or see example below).

Once you have that “topos” in mind  — “Degrees” / “Degrees of Guilt” / “Degrees of Responsibility” — you can think about possibly calling it up as you layout, explain, describe, clarify, introduce, conclude, illustrate, develop, structure a sermon.  It may or may not work, or it may not work as good as another, but it offers a creative possibility for making the point of the message and/or passage.

When you are the “sole pastor” you do not have the “luxury” of having other pastors jump in and “brainstorm” — as to how you can go about developing a passage, or driving home a truth or principle within that passage.  What can you do?  Do what classical students were taught to do — go to those mental or journaled “topoi.”

Seasoned pastors do this all the time! — They are able to call up (“memoria”) from their storehouse of . . .

speaking experiences
past messages
previous thoughts
years of listening
time spent reading articles and books
time watching & listening to others
analytically thinking about this-or-that
past connective thoughts
related sermon messages
contextual understandings
retained cross-referenced passages
congregational suggestions – critiques
explanatory verses and passages in other portions
definitions and meanings
changed & corrected ideas about this-or-that passage

. . . . and bring it to bear in the message.

That is why it was the repeated practice of the classical theorists and their students because such a mental checklist could be used no matter what the speaking situation or subject given them was.  “Topoi” were to become “second nature” to them as they thought about their assigned subject and position on that subject.

A previously stated example of “topoi” is seen when it comes to asking someone to make up a poster about an upcoming event.  A seasoned, versus a novice “announcement-poster-flyer-maker” is manifested by what is typically not found on the flyer . . . .

You didn’t state the time!
Where is the location found?
Why would someone want to attend — there is no “hook.”

When (date AND time)
Who (is invited)
Why (why should you come?). . . .

. . .  are all parts of creating a flyer or poster — if you want it to be effective!

Those are the “topoi” — the categories of thought that ought to go through your mind when announcing an event and/or creating a flyer.

The “why” is typically weak, missing, or anti-motivational —  because no one has taken the time to really think through why someone should come and it becomes time and/or money poorly spent —  Ineffective Communication!

You see, even the “why” has a series of sub-topoi as to why people should or do attend an event.  The “why” spurs sub-topoi — What are the reasons people attend or avoid attending this-or-that?**

Any particular “topos” has the ability to spur on further “inventio” / creative or analytical thought.

That is the purpose of including . . . .

Key Illustrative Thoughts:

 . . . .  in our posted illustrations.  It gets you thinking down some possible other useful avenues for that illustration.



* An Example:

Gowdy describes the issue of “Presidential Collusion” this way . . . .

We have to determine whether it was . . . .

Conspiracy . . . . or

Collusion . . . . or

Contact . . . . or


Gowdy laid it out by citing varying or possible degrees — from the most serious (Conspiracy) to the bottom — the accidental (Coincidence).

√ Now take his thought process —  that “topos” he used / designed / created.
√ Give it a name so it can be easily mentally referenced.
√ We are going to call it — “Degrees” or “Degrees of Guilt” or “Degrees of Responsiblity.”
√ Now think about how it could be used in explaining, clarifying, developing, illustrating, introducing, concluding. . . . .  — the message you are working on!

√ Apply it to a passage of Scripture you are speaking on.
i.e. Luke 15
The three parables on lostness
Lost Coin – lost by inattention / neglect
Lost Sheep – lost by wandering
Lost Son – lost by rebellion

There are 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).

But there are also some who are not saved, who 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
  • wavering believers – but help my unbelief
  • confident believers — live or die, Christ!


√ Apply the topos of “degrees” to another passage of Scripture which is completely different in subject matter and content (off the cuff let me do that).

There are a number of different individuals which show up in this passage of Scripture, and each one bears a different degree of responsibility for what is happening – from complete complicity-to-“just happening to be there” when it all happens.

How about taking the book of Ruth

(We could also use this topos in thinking about other biblical accounts — right?  Because topoi are not passage specific — the account of  Joseph, Nehemiah’s wall building events, David-Jonathan-Saul-Joab-Bathsheba, Pharisees-Sadducees-Judas-Peter.

Ruth & Orpah

When things go wrong, and go right — it usually isn’t one person who is totally responsible for what happens.  There are degrees of responsibility and at different times in the flow of events.

Some are more responsible than others for how things turned out — both for the bad and the good


** Simply illustrated by using the negative — imagine giving an announcement or stating in a flyer that we are having a special speaker who will talking about how to face and work through marital crisis and failure — or — the causes of chronic depression and suicide.  Are you going?  Is the average person attending?


“Topoi” could be used to call up an argument to support a position (“law” –  legality), or could be used to suggest a possible solution to a problem (“politics” – socially).

AND . . . . likewise, topoi can be used to do both in the practice of “religion” — for the Scriptures seek to persuade and argue . . . .

positionally and problematically
legally (right and wrong), and socially (the good and best for of men and mankind)
for the right and true, and the answers to mankind’s social problems.

4 thoughts on “Rhetoric & Homiletics: A Critical Concept — Pt. #2

  1. Two things that helped me in later speaking. #1) I wrote a lot of songs and #2) I was on radio for a ” just a minute” program. I had 60 seconds to convey a thought with a very short story or illustration. Both had to have a “Hook”, rigid structure, and creative ways for the listener to identify and hopefully apply or come alongside what was being said. Great information here!


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