Catching the Wave

In 2016, Catching the Wave: Preaching the New Testament as Rhetoric was published by Inter-Varsity Press (UK). Here’s a bit about it!

Who’s the book for?

The primary audience is pastors and regular preachers who want to learn how to harness the power of the biblical text in their preaching. A great Christmas gift idea for your pastor!

However, non-preachers might also find it helpful as an  introduction to the ancient rhetorical principles and techniques used by the New Testament writers – and how it helps us understand and more faithfully apply NT epistles.

Although the content is still a bit nerdy, it’s written in a conversational tone and relatively free of the pretentious footnotes that were essential for the academic version published in 2014. This one’s for normal people (sample extract below.)

You can buy it from me (email for $20 including postage within Australia. It’s also available at the Book Depository and Amazon.

What’s it about?

In a nutshell? It takes two ideas – one from the world of preaching theory and one from the world of New Testament studies – and puts them together.

Preaching: the idea that a truly expository sermon should not just say what the biblical text said, but also do what the biblical text did.

New Testament: many of the NT epistles were written according to speech-writing principles of the day, which are preserved for us in the speech-writing handbooks by figures such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. By understanding how writers like Paul used these techniques in their epistles (which were effectively written-down speeches), we can more accurately determine the function of the biblical texts.

Putting it together: this means that our sermons can also seek to do what the text was doing in its original setting.

The introductory chapter (pages xi-xvi) is below.

Introduction: Sermons that do.

Language doesn’t just say. It also does. We all know this.

When a parent announces to a child “there are dirty clothes all over the floor,” it isn’t just a statement in the indicative. There’s an implied command. The intended response isn’t “yes, that’s an accurate observation of the state of my room.” The child is supposed to pick them up—to do something in response.

When a wife asks her husband, “does my butt look big in this?” she’s not looking for an objective answer to her question. She’s asking him to reassure her that he still finds her attractive.

Language doesn’t just say. It also does.

Catching the wave

It’s just as true when it comes to the language of the Bible. The biblical authors didn’t just communicate content—they also wanted their words to do something in the lives of their first hearers.

When God asked Adam in the Garden, “where are you?”, it wasn’t because God couldn’t locate him; it was an invitation to a difficult but necessary conversation. When God answered Moses from the burning bush, saying “I am who I am,” it wasn’t an attempt to avoid the question, nor merely an acknowledgement that God can’t be adequately described in words; it was also an implicit call to “watch this space” as God would soon reveal his character by his actions.

The Gospel writers, too, didn’t record certain words and deeds of Jesus out of historical curiosity, but explicitly “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4), and “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

And the Apostle Paul didn’t just write a treatise on justification by faith and then, as an afterthought, send a copy to the Christians in Rome. He clearly wanted this letter to do something in the lives of the recipients. (What exactly that might have been is the subject of much scholarly discussion—and goes to the heart of what this book is about, as we’ll see shortly.) Paul’s epistles don’t just seek to inform, but to persuade, to exhort, and ultimately to transform.

So if the biblical text we’re preaching on not only says things but also does things—doesn’t it make sense for our sermon not only to say those same things but also to do something similar? A quick survey of the last thirty years of preaching writers would say “yes”. For example:

David Buttrick: “The question, ‘What is the passage trying to do?’ may well mark the beginning of homiletical obedience.”[1]

Fred Craddock: “Does the sermon say and do what the text says and does?”[2]

Thomas Long: A sermon on a given biblical text also had a focus and function, and both of these “should grow directly from the exegesis of the biblical text.”[3]

Michael Quicke: “Scripture not only says things but also does things.” The task of preaching is “designing a sermon that says and does the same things the biblical text says and does.[4]

As preachers, we spend a lot of energy trying to recover the original meaning of a text, and to interpret that meaning for a new audience. Having dutifully explained the content, we then search for “application”—another way of saying that we want our sermon to do something in the lives of our hearers. But this is often the point at which we leave the text behind, and through a process of prayer, cultural attentiveness, and pastoral concern we make the text do something useful for our congregation.

Fair enough. Yet if the biblical texts themselves are already trying to do something, shouldn’t we try to find out what that “something” is? Given the energy that goes into recovering the original meaning, shouldn’t we also spend a similar amount of energy trying to understand the original function of a text, so our sermon might function in the same way for our hearers?

It’s a bit like the difference between swimming against the current and catching a wave. If we take the content of our biblical passage and then try to do something with it that the original author didn’t intend, we often find ourselves paddling against the force of the text. But if we work out what the author was trying to achieve in the lives of the original audience and attempt something similar in our own context, we’re putting ourselves in the best place to catch the wave and harness the power of the text. When the function of our sermon lines up with the original function of the Word, the power of the Spirit is more likely to wash over us and our hearers.

But how do we catch that wave?

A question of rhetoric

We’ll come back to that question shortly. Because forty years ago—when writers like Buttrick and Craddock were pioneering the so-called “New Homiletic”—there was another wave forming on the horizon. It was all about studying the rhetoric—the persuasive intent—of a text. It got a label back in 1968 when the president of the Society for Biblical Literature, James Muilenberg, called for research in a field he termed “rhetorical criticism.”[5] This call was answered by pioneers like Hans Dieter Betz in his commentary on Galatians; George Kennedy, applying his classical education to the study of the New Testament; and in the two most recent decades, Ben Witherington and his prolific output of socio-rhetorical commentaries. The field is by now well-worn and established.

Now there are various types of rhetorical criticism.[6] Some apply universal theories of rhetoric to texts. Others look at how texts can be used for rhetorical purposes alien to that of the original author. But the kind I’m interested in here is what’s usually termed the “historical” sort—in particular, as it relates to the New Testament epistles. This discipline looks at the rhetorical rules and terminology of Graeco-Roman oratory, taken from the speech-writing handbooks of the day and other ancient sources. That is, it’s based on how the ancients themselves theorised about persuasive speech. And having looked at this theory, it seeks to understand the New Testament epistles in these terms, as speeches. After all, most epistles were intended to be read out loud, given the lack of universal literacy and limited access to photocopiers.

In essence, rhetorical criticism looks at the biblical text and asks not just what the text was intended to say; it also asks what it was intended to do in the lives of its first hearers. It sees an epistle by Paul, for example, as an exercise in rhetoric—that is, persuasive speech—following, by and large, the rhetorical conventions of his day. Rhetorical criticism provides a framework to understand the function of a biblical text, using the very tools first century writers would have used to construct the text in the first place.

Now so far, nothing I’ve said is particularly new. I’ve just summarised what’s been happening in the area of preaching theory and New Testament research. And what I want to suggest is simply this: that the question being asked by the New Homiletic can be answered, at least in part, by rhetorical criticism. All we need to do is to tie these two strands together.

In other words, how do we “design a sermon that says and does the same things the biblical text says and does?” Answer: through rhetorical criticism, we can find out not just what the text was saying to its first hearers, but also what it was intending to do. From that, we can develop a systematic approach that helps us create our sermon, so that it functions in the same (or very similar) way.

My aim in this book is to take this very simple idea and show how we might be able to use it to inform the function of our sermons. Firstly, we’ll be introduced to the three different kinds—or genres—of speeches in the ancient world. This is because each genre performed a different function and was appropriate for a different setting in public life. Secondly, we’ll look at the form of an ancient speech, since each element of the speech structure had a different function in relation to the whole. Thirdly, we’ll investigate the ways in which ancient writers attempted to persuade: ethos, based on the character of the speaker; logos, appealing to reason; and pathos, seeking to arouse emotions in the audience. At each point we’ll stop to see examples of how this plays out when we preach from the epistles, to see what it might be like to “catch the wave.”

Some assumptions

Before we get going, here are a few of the basic assumptions I’m working from.

Throughout the book, we’ll be looking at examples mainly drawn from Paul’s letters. The reason for this is that they appear to follow Graeco-Roman speech conventions more closely, particularly in form and genre. The exceptions are 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, as they are more “mandate” letters than written-down public speeches. The other epistles (and Revelation) still exhibit this to varying degrees—especially in terms of the rhetorical strategies used. It’s less relevant to the Gospels and Acts, as they are biography/historiography rather than public speeches; however, Paul’s speeches as recorded in Acts follow the conventions of courtroom rhetoric discussed in chapter one.

I’m also assuming that it’s legitimate to view most of Paul’s letters as written-down speeches. I think we can do this as long as we’re cautious, and don’t try to fit everything into the textbook models. If you’re interested in a defence of why we can apply first century speech-writing theory to the letters of Paul—including the issue of whether Paul was trained in rhetoric—see Appendix A, along with chapter two of my previous book.[7]

My previous book is also the reason for proceeding with minimal footnotes here. If you want references to the ancient sources and critical argument in all their scholarly pretension, that’s where you’ll find them. The aim of this book is to make it simple and accessible to those wanting to use it in preaching, rather than to defend the methodology. It’s a “how to” guide, rather than an academic argument.

Finally, I’m explicitly assuming an expository preaching model. Without dismissing the important role of the topical sermon, I believe that expository, text-based preaching should be the bread-and-butter of regular, congregational preaching. Of course, the term “expository” is used in various ways, and has been frequently associated with verse-by-verse explanations and a deductive approach. Not to mention points that all conveniently begin with the same letter of the alphabet. However, my definition is more in line with the New Homiletic I mentioned earlier. I consider a sermon to be expository if it seeks to say and do what the text says and does, no matter what form the sermon eventually takes. In other words, I’m outlining an approach for creating a sermon rather than for a particular style of delivery.

But enough about assumptions. We’ve paddled out through the breakers, now we’re ready to catch a few waves.

Buy the book at the Book Depository online.


[1] David Buttrick, “Interpretation and Preaching,” Interpretation 25(1981): p.58.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1985), p.28.

[3] Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 1st ed. (Louisville KY: Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1989), pp.189-90.

[4] Michael J. Quicke, 360-Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking, and Living the Word (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2003), pp.53,131. Quicke himself is consciously building on the work of Craddock and Long.

[5] James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88(1969): pp.1-18.

[6] Some people can be put off by the term “criticism,” given the negative connotations of how we use the word in ordinary speech, or its association with liberal methodologies. But its usage here simply reflects a German word that’s about making judgements. Call it “rhetorical analysis” if you prefer.

[7] Tim MacBride, Preaching the New Testament as Rhetoric: The Promise of Rhetorical Criticism for Expository Preaching, ACT Monograph (Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp.22-34.