Rhetoric and Homiletics: Even if you don’t realize it, you use it all the time!

did you know

The article states that even if you don’t realize it, you use algebra every day.


“Just because there are no Xs or Ys in sight doesn’t mean you aren’t using Algebra every single day. . . . Did you know that today you used advanced calculus, geometry, and a whole truckload of maths we likely haven’t even discovered yet? . . . .When you throw a piece of paper into the trash can a couple feet away, how do you know that you don’t need to throw it as hard as you possibly can to cover the distance? It’s because you instinctively calculated the required trajectory, the air resistance, the weight of the piece of trash, and the force needed to make it to the trashcan.

Even if Bible teachers and/or preachers do not realize it, they employ rhetorical theory and concepts in every sermon or Bible lesson — and in counseling, seminars, congregational meetings, conferences, and/or staff meetings!

Some seek to make the case that there is difference between the concepts that govern “public address” and “preaching” — between a speech and a sermon.  Is there a legitimate and necessary differentiation between “a speech” and “the preparation and delivery of the sermon” (to use the title of John Broadus’ classic book)?

That question has been asked and “answered” over and over.  While there are those who argue against the application of rhetorical theory to preaching, there is not a speaker, writer, or preacher who doesn’t utilize the concepts taught in any communication course — effectively or ineffectively, knowingly or unknowingly.

“That’s just a lot of ‘rhetoric'” —  is the kind of phrase that seemingly marginalizes the use of rhetorical theory in preaching.

“We are not involved in ‘persuasion.’  That is the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God.  We just preach the Word and trust God for the results.”

“The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God.” — II Corinthians 10:4 — “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” — I Corinthians 2:4

The application of rhetorical theory to preaching has been examined and debated throughout the voluminous pages, which have rolled off the presses-of-homiletical-discussion. [1]

When I speak of “rhetorical theory,” I am not only addressing the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Quintilian, or the classic works of men such as Whatley, Blair, or Campbell, et al. (authors who were all classical rhetorical theorist as well as preachers). There are also numberless rhetorical studies that have been published in a variety of journals throughout the twentieth century to the present.

For instance, rhetorical studies examine which is more effective in presenting an argument — Should you begin with the strongest argument upfront, or should you make your strongest argument at the end. For example, Should those contesting the election results begin their argument with the charts showing the spikes of votes coming in at 3 am, or with an affidavit(s) from an individual as to what they observed.

You might not need to read that study to answer that question.  It might be intuitive or experientially instinctive in your thinking.  And indeed, it is! An empirical study does move such a question out of the realm of common experience or anecdotal evidence into the category of “scientifically verifiable.”  Being with your strongest argument and allow the weaker arguments to find additional strength from the strongest.

Interestingly, such studies are founded on and initiated by the human experience. The hypothesis is based on what seems to be humanly and experientially true, just not known to be “true.” That is precisely the point! You might not need to read the results of that study to answer that question. It might be intuitive or experientially instinctive. From its inception, Rhetorically theory was not the results of an experimental study, presented for peer review, presented in a rhetorical, psychological, or sociological journal, and having a .05 level of confidence.  Observation, repeated observation, along with personal “trial-and-error-marketplace-testing” all composed the words and works of the earliest theorist.

Rhetorical theory is merely the results of the observation and experience of ordinary but reiterative speakers who learn by experience.  Those who do not learn by such recurring experience become mediocre speakers and preachers — at best!

What preacher-speaker hasn’t learned that eye contact, or vocal variety, or movement, an illustration, saying the unexpected, gestures, etc., have an impact on the attention of the congregation-audience?   Have you said something that elicited an unexpected response and decided to used it/say it again because of that response — or have “pushed” what you were saying even further than you had planned because of the response you just received!  [2]

Rhetorical theory is merely the experiential or experimental delineation of how we were created, how the world of words (language) works in the human mind and heart. Rhetorical theory works because it is so in keeping with our humanity.

There are physical laws built into God’s world. You can learn those laws by taking a “physics” course and making your work easier and more effective. Or, over time, you have come to, and/or will come to, personally understand some of those laws experientially and experimentally (i.e. the physical laws of leverage). The laws are there to learn about in the classroom, or be personally discovered and/or unwittingly employed.

Likewise, the question is not whether we use various rhetorical concepts; we all do, consciously or unconsciously, purposely or accidentally. The issue is whether we understand how the world of words works and consciously and intentionally use those laws of humanity for the benefit of advancing the Gospel.

As has been often stated . . . “Like money or atomic energy, understanding the power of “the word” can be used for good or for evil.”

It has also been stated . . . . “Error is halfway around the world before truth has put its boots on!

  1.  Part of this debate centers around philosophical or ontological issues — How do we know truth?  Obviously, in the realm of “science” truth is known by observation and the scientific method.  However, when truth cannot be known — i.e. in a typical criminal setting like a courtroom — you must now make the argument as to what has happened —  What is the truth?  That is the realm of “argument.”  The “truth” is not known.  The “truth” of what has happened is argued, answered, bebutted, cross-examined, supported by evidence, etc.  -That is why the Scriptures state — “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.”

I will expand on that in the next post.

2. You do not need to know and understand what and why something is working to use it again consciously. If you do go “analytical” and examine what just happened, you can then consciously use it again in a different way!

rhetoric aristotle

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