Rhetoric & Homiletics: Effective Preaching Demands Understanding This Concept!

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. . . . . . I’m Lost!

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The unique created ability of “men” alone, in distinction to all the animal world, is the ability to engage propositional speech. Mortimer J. Adler [1] wrote an interesting and valuable book on that unbridgeable difference, titled – “The Difference Of Man And The Difference It Makes.”

Adler makes the argument and takes the position that what cannot be accounted for by “evolutionary theory” is the ability of mankind to engage in propositional language.  Animals cannot communicate in a way that is even close to human beings.  The sum of his argument is found in his statement that animals have no “history.”  That is, they cannot and do not pass on past truths to the next “generation.”  A beaver never passes on its experience and history.  After a flood washes out a dam, reconstruction begins as it had in the past.  Then, the next generation of beavers makes its dam in the same manner as the past generation.  If they do meaningfully “learn” anything, they do not pass on that information from generation to generation.  Beaver dams never develop to where they are less and less likely to wash out.

In contrast, human beings learn and are able to pass on that information to the next generation through the use of propositional language.  Human beings pass on  truths and principles orally and through the written word.  The entire animal world engages in no such endeavor.  They “communicate” – emotively and instinctively, in the exact same way that the previous generation of its “kind.”  A dog never thinks, “I’m going to find another master who feeds me better than this dry dog food.”

As speakers and preachers, we have a meaningful and significant confidence in language’s ability to communicate ideas, truths, and principles. Without a second thought, we believe that we can use words to change the way people think and act.

Briefly review the many biblical references to the nature of the spoken Word which support that confidence!

• God spoke the world into existence.
• The Word became flesh.
• We preach the “good-news.”
• The prophets spoke the Word of the Lord.
• God spoke in times past in divers manners.
• “General Revelation” is God speaking through the natural world.
• You have heard it SAID
• “went about preaching”
• Divine Inspiration

Human beings cannot “think” without “words.”  Limit vocabulary, and you limit thinking.  That is why babies, amazingly, learn language, from the most basic beginnings – from “daddy / mommy” to understanding simple phrases such as “come over here” / “now smile for the birdie.”

The entire story of “Hellen Keller & Annie Sullivan” revolves around Sullivan’s grasp for Hellen’s need to develop some language ability to lead a productive life.

A “dictionary” contains thousands of words, many of that communicate subtle distinctions.  While “synonyms” as words that are similar to the meaning of other words, they are words which carry subtle distinctions.  Words upon words, because of fine line differences of meaning.

Eskimos have many words to describe “snow” because their experience demands those distinctions. While those living in other places in the world, with far different experiences with “snow,” do not require all those different words. The words, the number of words, partially reflect the experiences and the need to make such distinctions.

The ability to engage in “speech” also gives “human beings” the ability to distort truth and reality.  By misnaming, propaganda is created.  The distortion of words produces lies, revisionists history, confusion, false narratives, folk tales, false prophets, and myths.   

The power of “speech” underlies the preaching and teaching of biblical truths and principles.  It is the Lord’s unique gift and method for changing the minds, hearts, and actions of other men and women in God’s world.

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When our speaking is not
going somewhere,
we are confusing,
and we are
on the verge of
losing the audience!

Language Is Linear:  Language and communication have a flow, a logic, a movement which is directional.  When it is not directional, going somewhere, we are confusing and on the verge of losing the audience!

Anyone who has studied “human language” realizes that language is linear.  Language moves logically from one sentence to another.  Sentences are strung together in a manner that connects the previous thought with the next thought.  That is why “transitions” and “connectives” play such an essential role in communication.

Language also follows a “grammatical formula or syntax.  The sentences must follow a grammatical arrangement to be understood.  When that grammar is violated, confusion follows.

However, the grammatical demand is not as intense with the spoken world. Vocal tones, inflections, visual facial and bodily clues, pause, intonations, eye contact, pitch, gestures, etc. all provide a substitute and/or a permitted violation of those grammatical rules. That is why you can detect someone who is reading a speech from one who is speaking directly to an audience. Public address or preaching are allowed to break syntax and grammar.

Nevertheless, the language is still linear.  It is moving in a direction and to a determined end.  It is all connected.  When the connection is lost or non-existent, confusion results and interest is lost – “Where are you going with all this?”

Even in general conversation, there is a clear movement of words and thought.

For instance during a family conversation around the dinning table . . . .

Dad:  Well, how was you day Jim?
Jim:  The professor didn’t show up for class, so we all went to the library.
Mom: Are you good at using the library?
Jim:  It was a little confusing at first, but over the semester, I have gotten better at it.
Dad: You know our neighbor, Mrs. Smith, was a librarian.
Mom: What is she doing now that she is retired?
Sally:  I think she operates a used bookstore in town.
Dad: Where in town?
Sally: Next to the town bank.
Mom: I need to open up another account at the bank – maybe I will stop by and take a look.
Dad:  What is the new account about?
Mom: I’m starting a Christmas fund for next year.
Jim: Speaking of Christmas – I need a new backpack for my college books.
Sally: How many books do you have to carry around?
Jim: Depends on the day of the week.
Sally: Well in high school, we have lockers we can stow our books.
Jim: Is Mr. Jones still the principle?
Sally:  No, he retired last year.
Dad: One more year, and I retire.
Mom: Next year, after you retire, we are going to go to Florida for a vacation!
Jim: Florida – isn’t that where there are no state taxes!
Dad: Taxes –  You know when it comes to taxes, President Reagan had it right when he said . . .

We have moved from – “Canceling a college class” to “President Ronald Reagan” and who knows what else such a conversation would move to!  Even in such a conversation, language is linear!  It is connected and moving in a direction.

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There Ia A Reason
That Our Language
Has Created These Words!

Effectiveness Requires Grasping Flow:  There is a reason that our language has created these words!

Language or communication is linear!  That is why language has words that are designated as “connectives,”” transitions,” and “conjunctions.”  These kinds of words are part of the language and are designed to show movement.

Connectives connect and relate sentences and paragraphs. They assist in the logical flow of ideas as they signal the relationship between sentences and paragraphs. In prose, the material is supported and conditioned not only by the ordering of the material (its position) but by connectives which signal order, relationship and movement.”

Transition words are used to link words, phrases or sentences. They help the reader to progress from one idea (expressed by the author) to the next idea. Thus, they help to build up coherent relationships within the text. . . . . English transition words are essential, since they not only connect ideas, but also can introduce a certain shift, contrast or opposition, emphasis or agreement, purpose, result or conclusion, etc. in the line of argument.”

“Conjunctions” is another word used to describe transitions.

Coordinating conjunctions are short and simple transitions that are composed of two or three letters . . . . For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

“Correlative conjunctions” . . . . Both…and,  / neither…nor, / either…or, / not only…but also…

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  • similarly
  • equally
  • in the same way
  • compared with
  • like / likewise

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  • first(ly)
  • finally
  • in the first place
  • then
  • to conclude
  • to begin
  • next

Likewise, when it comes to biblical passages, there is an argument being made and it is made in the same linear fashion.  “Connectives,” “transitions,” and/or “conjunctions” are all part of both the sermon and the biblical passage behind the sermon.  The biblical author is speaking linearly, and if a preacher-teacher-speaker does not want to lose his audience, he/she is also speaking linearly.

If you want to follow the argument of the author and the biblical passage you have to pay attention to the flow of thought as that biblical writer moves from thought to thought.  The author is not making a series of unconnected comments, but is making a point in a linear fashion.  Sometimes, it is a series of points, which then lead to yet another major point or argument.  What the author is not doing is making unconnected comments on various theological topics that are disjointed from each other or the passage.

There is an argument being made by the biblical writer which needs to be clarified and discerned “in the kitchen.” Then “in the dining room” the sermon, spoken by the preacher-teacher, also has a flow to it. That is why the sermon can take many different shapes and varies with speaker after speaker. The passage’s truths and principles do not change, but how the preacher-teacher goes about constructing the sermon does. The sermonic design changes from preacher to preacher as he explains and applies the biblical writer’s flow of argument.

Not only does the sermonic content change from preacher to preacher, but so does the flow of that content.  That is why a speech or homiletic’s teacher might suggest saying the same thing a different way — “Why don’t you say it this way so that your audience gets the connection.”

That is what makes preachers homiletically different.  That is why preachers range from “great-to-mediocre-to-terrible.”  The more effective preachers can bring an audience along the journey with them, without confusion and/or rhetorical murkiness.  That flow of sermonic thought can range from “terribly confusing-to-easy-to-follow.”

Gasping the nature of the various words which are part of language, and the role they play in understanding both a passage of Scripture and then in the sermon, is vital to becoming more rhetorically-homiletically effective.

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Here is a three-page chart put together by Cory Taylor,
adapted from Daniel Wallace’s book,
which helps understand the flow of argument
in New Testament Greek.
PDF Copy: Link

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Other Information & Links:

1. Adler is a Jewish Catholic.

2. Other Posts On Transitions




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