In the loose and often inaccurate usage of today, the word rhetoric has fallen into disrepair. To most people it suggests speaking or writing that is inflated, pompous, predictable, even deceptive. When we speak of “political rhetoric,” or “the rhetoric of Madison Avenue,” we convey a negative impression. This distortion is most unfortunate, for rhetoric is and has been for centuries an honorable art—the art of arranging language through the use of various options to achieve effective communication. In ancient Greece and Rome, the study of rhetoric accompanied the study of music and athletics in the training of the whole man. Some of the world’s wisest men have been teachers of rhetoric: Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine, for example, all formulated important theories on rhetoric.

To the discerning student, rhetoric is a serious discipline that teaches more than the narrow confines of grammatical correctness and accepted usage. It insists upon a conscious effort to use the language in the manner that will best achieve the intended results. It takes into account the living situation, asking as its most important question, “Who is speaking to whom about what?” Rhetoric weighs the value of each word, looking not only for its correctness but also for its appropriateness in advancing the speaker’s statement. Furthermore, rhetoric recognizes the originality of each individual and expects that his uniqueness will demand a unique manner of expression which, when it becomes clearly identifiable in its consistency, he can claim as his style.

All this is of supreme importance to the Christian because the Lord of the universe has chosen to reveal himself not only through nature but also through verbal communication. The rhetoric of Christian witness—in particular, the rhetoric of the Christian pastor—must be given careful thought, for the gift of speech is God’s testament to man that he has made him different from the animals. Speech is man’s exclusively, and it is not for nothing that we read, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the available means of persuasion” and said, “It is not enough to know whatwe ought to say; we must also say it as we ought.” His definition implies that there are methods and options from which we choose the most effective of “the available means of persuasion.” The Christian pastor, whose calling primarily is to persuade men, should study these options and learn to vary his methods of proclaiming the Gospel. He will find that the method appropriate in one given set of circumstances—one particular rhetorical situation, with its who-whom-what—is not necessarily appropriate in another. Within a single day he may need to play the role of a father speaking to children, a judge speaking to the accused, a teacher speaking to pupils, a salesman speaking to prospective buyers, and others.

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Before he can determine what role to adopt at a particular time, the pastor must consider whom he is addressing. Aristotle says, “Of the three elements in speech-making—speaker, subject, and person addressed—it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech’s end and object.” If the pastor speaks like a judge to an audience of children, he says nothing. If he speaks like a sentimental lover to an audience of sand hogs or steelworkers, he says nothing. He must discover the joy of recognizing his audience and the flexibility of adapting his presentation accordingly. So he perfects the instrumentality of his calling.

One role the minister must shun is that of an aloof and isolated personage gazing out at a society of which he is not a part. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson warned young preachers against this trait:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more.… A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.… The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life—life passed through the fire of thought.

The “fire of thought” tries out the dross of irrelevant and insensitive presentation, leaving refined the strength of the preacher’s essential truth, the message of God’s Word. But how is he to declare this truth? Aristotle offers three steps: “In producing a speech one must study three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the style or language to be used; third, the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech.”

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For the preacher today, as for the classical rhetorician, three appeals can produce persuasion: (1) the appeal to reasonable evidence, (2) the responsible appeal to emotions, and (3) the appeal of the speaker’s own character. The pastor should weigh his argument to provide a balance between his opinions and the other available means of confirming the truth of his message. It is not enough for a sermon to consist of a series of subjective statements supported by subjective illustrations. Truth is boundless, and in his book The Pattern of God’s Truth Frank E. Gaebelein urges us to recognize that “all truth is God’s truth. Only the lazy-minded need hesitate to look for reasonable evidence outside the limits of his own experience.”

Emotional appeal, responsibly presented, is also valid and useful. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not come to us in a vacuum-packed sterile container. It comes through the warmth of his love, communicated to us through the Scriptures and through the witness of those who share that love. Saint Augustine wrote the master-work on Christian rhetoric, his treatise On Christian Doctrine, in which he says:

It is the duty, then, of the interpreter and teacher of Holy Scripture, the defender of the true faith and the opponent of error, both to teach what is right and to refute what is wrong, and in the performance of this task to conciliate the hostile, to rouse the careless, and to sell the ignorant both what is occurring at present and what is probable in the future. But once that his hearers are friendly, attentive, and ready to learn, whether he has found them so, or has himself made them so, the remaining objects are to be carried out in whatever way the case requires. If the hearers need teaching, the matter treated of must be made fully known by means of narrative. On the other hand, to clear up points that are doubtful requires reasoning and the exhibition of proofs. If, however, the hearers require to be roused rather than instructed, in order that they may be diligent to do what they already know, and to bring their feelings into harmony with the truths they admit, great vigor of speech is needed. Here entreaties and reproaches, exhortations and upbraidings, and all the other means of rousing the emotions are necessary.

The pastor’s model must be the character of Jesus Christ himself. Not only must he aspire to the life of holiness, but he must also imitate the role in which Jesus was best known. Professor Gilbert Highet reminds us, in The Art of Teaching, that Jesus was primarily a teacher: “The pastor thinking over next week’s sermon is connected by a direct, unbroken tradition passing through seventy generations back to Jesus teaching his first chosen pupils.”

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In role, in character, the Christian pastor ought to practice the rhetoric of the Master-Teacher, testing his own use of language against that which first expressed the truth of the Living Word.

The rhetoric of Jesus is characterized by simplicity, directness, integrity, and originality. His language is never complex; it is always simple enough for the youngest listener. His language is never fuzzy with circumlocutions; it is always direct. He was never pompous. He did not feel a need to impress people with the dignity of his station. He was the Son of God, but he spoke the language of men. His language is never equivocal; it is always the honest, right word. It is original, pictorial without being melodramatic, metaphorical without being trite. We have no record that Jesus ever uttered a cliché. His feeding the five thousand did not result in evangelical exaggeration. Surely he would never have sanctioned an outpouring of inauthentic religious jargon, the constant overstatement, the all-inclusive generalization—“We all had a rich time of fellowship at last Wednesday’s Hour of Power, and Brother So-’n-so thrilled each heart with the challenge of the work of the Lord in that corner of his vineyard.” When Jesus spoke, men were compelled to say, “No man ever spoke as this man.”

For the Christian pastor preparing a sermon, the first concern, after establishing the rhetorical situation (who is speaking to whom about what?), is to ask himself: “What is the best way for me to talk to this audience about my subject?” The best way will always be organized and concise.

Organization consists of something more than saying, “My sermon this morning has three points.” The coherence of a speech develops from its essential unity, from its structural integrity. It is bound together because it is a whole. If it is not a whole statement, its incompleteness makes its worth questionable.

Furthermore, it must be brief. To most laymen, wordiness is the hallmark of the preacher. In business, brevity and pointedness prevail; in industry, the thesis of a scholar is abstracted to a paragraph. Yet preachers often perform as though bound by some sort of Parkinson’s Law: “Words expand in proportion to the length of time to be filled.” The preacher who knows his rhetoric will look for the most effective way of saying what needs to be said, say it, and then pronounce the benediction.

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The discipline of rhetoric also extends to the delivery of the sermon. To be sure, the rhetoric of Jesus Christ was God-given, as he tells us in John 17:8: “I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me.” There are still a few preachers who assume that Christ’s promise to his disciples that the Holy Spirit would fill their mouths applies to their own extemporaneous Sunday homilies. This is a questionable interpretation. The message delivered from the pulpit requires careful planning, thoughtful preparation, and the wisdom to use notes or a manuscript. It seems presumptuous, in my judgment, for a pastor to assume the right to be less well prepared for delivering his sermon than his parishioner may be for treating his patient, for defending his client, for teaching his classes, for working at his lathe.

Some will object to what seems to them the quenching of instantaneous inspiration. One pastor, objecting to my views, retorted, “Either you’re in the Spirit or you’re not in the Spirit; and if you’re in the Spirit, it doesn’t matter what you say.” If that is so, then the Holy Spirit of God must share the blame for countless verbal blunders and consequent misdirections of thought resulting from incomplete preparation or an excursus from the text. For when the Spirit imbues, he also gives the right word.

Surely the most successful of Christian preachers was one who knew and practiced his rhetoric. Saint Paul, a student of the classics and a rhetorician, expressed in forceful terms the obligation of every Christian spokesman: “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). But Paul knew the significance of an effective means of persuasion—an effective rhetoric—for he also wrote, “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech” (2 Cor. 3:12). What better advice can one find?

D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the English Department at the Stony Brook School or Boys, Long Island, New York. He holds the B.A. from New York University and has studied at the NYU and Wehaton College graduate schools. He has written several textbooks, including two on rhetoric.

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