Rhetoric & Homiletics: Another Example Of A Vital Concept


Understanding the classical concept of “topoi” is extremely beneficial in sermon preparation.  It has enormous potential and usefulness in developing your sermon.  It offers you the means to mentally generate sermonic content and approach during preparation.

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Topoi Illustrated Again:

As I listened to Rand Paul interviewed by debating George Stephanopoulos, [1] I was reminded of the “topoi.”

Aristotle, along with other classical theorists, identified the concept of “topoi.” I say “identified” because the concept of “topoi” has always been employed by those who live in the world of words. Speakers across the spectrum used and use them, but it was not until the classical theorist identified their use and usefulness that they were properly understood.

As previously stated, an individual can use a concept without knowing or understanding what they are doing or how it operates — i.e., One may understand nothing about the physics of a “lever,” yet employ the principles in everyday life and living. “Topoi” or “places” are mental places where your mind can go when preparing your sermon. Perhaps, the simplest way to think of “topoi” is that they are “repeatedly used brainstorming avenues of thought.”

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Pencil V1

The simplest way
to think of “topoi” is
that they are
“repeatedly used
avenues of thought.”

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“Topoi” are generally accepted statements, acknowledge truths, or lines of argument.    Aristotle would teach his students to call up these “topoi” in the courtroom or the political forums.  The one that Rand Paul used may help you grasp the concept.

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Example: (Forget The Politics!)

George Stephanopoulos: “A threshold question for you, this election was not stolen, do you accept that fact?” the host asked.

Rand Paul: “Well, what I would say that the debate over whether or not there was fraud should occur. We never had any presentation in court. Most of the cases were thrown out for lack of standing, a procedural way of not hearing it. A law was changed in secretary of state, not the state legislatures . . . .There’s still a chance that those actually work their way up to the Supreme Court.”

GS: “I have to stop you there. No election is perfect, but there were 86 challenges filed by President Trump and his allies in court, all were dismissed. Every state certified the results after counts and recounts. The Department of Justice, led by William Barr, said there’s no widespread fraud. Can’t you just say the words this election was not stolen?”

RP: “What I would suggest is, is that if we want greater confidence in our elections and 75 percent of Republicans agree with me is that we do need to look at election integrity and we need to see if we can restore confidence in the election.”

“There are two sides to every story,”

GS: “Sir, there are not two sides to this story,”– (drawing a laugh from Paul.)
“This has been looked into every single state.”

RP: “George, where you make a mistake is people coming from the liberal side like you, you immediately say everything’s a lie — instead of saying there’s two sides to everything” Historically what would happen if I said I thought there were fraud, you would interview someone who said there wasn’t. Now you insert yourself in the middle and say the absolute fact is everything I’m saying is a lie.”

There were lots of problems, and there were secretaries of state who illegally changed the law, and that needs to be fixed, and I’m going to work hard to fix it. I won’t be cowed by people saying, ‘oh, you are a liar.’ That is the problem with the media today,” They say all Republicans are liars and everything we say is lies. There are two sides to every story.  Interview somebody on the other side.”

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As soon as Rand Paul says, “instead of saying there are two sides to everything,” George Stephanopoulos faces an uphill battle BECAUSE it is just common knowledge, a generally accepted truth, an accepted belief that there are always two sides to everything.

We learn that “truth” in life, and it is reiterated over and over to us as we live life.  How many times have you watched a “true crime” story which LEANED ON THAT BELIEF as part of its approach?  The story had you convinced that the person was innocent or guilty, and then it all turns upside down when the other side is presented.

That “truth” is what upsets those who hear Christians say — “There is only one way, and His name is Jesus.”  When it comes to biblical truths, there is no other side.  However, there is another side when it comes to all else — even when it comes to understanding a difficult passage of Scripture — “whosoever will” & “predestination.” [2]

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How Do You Use That “Topos?”: “Two-Sides.”

#1) Place that topos in your mental toolbox — “two-sides.”  That tool can be one of many on a list of possible topoi, or it is mentally available to you as a speaker because you now have identified it and/or used it so often.

#2) While working on a sermon, think about whether you can use it or not as you develop the message.

#3) Now, “topoi” do not need to be only used in an argument, such as made by Rand Paul.  It also has usefulness in sermon preparation.  Its potential sermonic usefulness is going to be . . . .

  • for an introduction
  • as a transition for moving between points
  • in developing a particular point
  • supporting a different understanding/interpretation of a passage
  • in developing an application

#4) Let’s Give It A Try . . . .

“Every man is right in his own eyes” — We know that!  The passage teaches that we as believers are prone to see ourselves in a more positive light than is accurate.  If you have ever done any marital counseling, you know that there are two-sides.  None of us is 100% right!  That is why we need to — you need to — ask yourself, what could I have done better to avert or avoid that situation.  What part did I play in it?  Maybe you only contributed 10-20% — but you played a part, and the percentage you may be willing to accept is probably skewed as well.

♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦

There is another side to seeing this passage.  I know that it talks about “bearing all things” when someone has mistreated, offended, or hurt you or your loved ones — but let me flip the coin to the other side because there are two sides to this truth — How about the possibility that you are the mistreat-er, the offender, the abuser, the hurt-er.  There are two sides to this truth!

♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦

Forget this “right and wrong” — the “black and white” way of thinking about life.  Life an living, and biblical living, is not so clear cut in many many situations.  Yes — there are right things, and there are wrong things — Lying is wrong! [3]  However, there is more than one side to living out biblical truths and principles.  The Christian life is two-dimensional — three-dimensional — it requires thinking through more than one-side, but the two sides of the truth that is taught here.

Mind Generating Wording: 

Key Wording: “There’s Another Side!”

“But that’s not the end of the story.  There is far more regarding what is about to take place.  Notice how the story and the thinking change when you see what happens.”

“While some have taught that this passage teaches _______, there’s another way of understanding this passage.  There’s another side.  Let me provide a different understanding of this passage, and why the passage supports it.”

“There is more to the passage, and what follows will present yet another side of the truth.  Paul doesn’t leave you with those words; he is going to bring in yet another side of that truth.”

“That is one side of the biblical account, but there is more, and the more may change your thinking about it.”

“Biblical truths and principles have more than one side.  “Speak the truth,” but do it “in love.”  “He was all human, but He was all God.”  “Baptism does not save, but saved people ought to be baptized.”

“Now, let’s flip the coin over.  People are more complex than some might like to believe.  There is more to what the Bible teachers about ________”

“The Christian life is two-dimensional — three-dimensional — it requires thinking through more than one-side, but two sides of the truth taught here.”

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1. I have no interest in the political aspects of this example.  It is illustrative of a key classical rhetorical concept whether you agree with George or Rand.

2. I’m not getting into that discussion either — but there are two several sides.

3. While purposefully making statements that are knowing untrue for personal gain or benefit is wrong, is it wrong not to say all that is on your mind, or in your realm of knowledge, when asked.  As a pastor, I have been asked questions that I answered in a way that avoided speaking the truth to the fulness of my knowledge — “Are Mr. & Mrs. Jones having marital problems?”  I have purposefully and knowingly dodged answering that question in a way that could be said to have misled the questioner – in a subtle way that did not say “yes” because of the way I answered it.

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