Preaching the NT as Rhetoric

This is a quick overview of the book by the same title, published by Wipf & Stock and available on It’s a thesis publication with the Australian College of Theology. A more accessible, practical presentation – aimed at preachers – is planned for later in 2015.

Exordium: Designing a sermon that does

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.

For the past few decades, there’s been a growing awareness of this in homiletic circles. The fact that biblical texts don’t just communicate content – they were also designed to do something in the lives of their first hearers. Persuade. Exhort. Change. As David Buttrick said 30 years ago: ‘The question, “What is the passage trying to do?” may well mark the beginning of homiletical obedience.’

And if we’re to be faithful to this in our preaching, our sermons also need not just to say something to our present day hearers. But also do something. As preachers, we spend a lot of energy trying to recover the original meaning of a text, and interpret that meaning for a new audience. But we should also spend just as much energy trying to understand the original function of a text, and have our sermon function in the same way for our hearers.

We need to ask Fred Craddock’s question: ‘Does the sermon say and do what the text says and does?’ This is an idea consciously picked up by Michael Quicke in his ‘360 degree preaching’ model. He defines the preacher’s task as ‘designing a sermon that says and does the same things the biblical text says and does.’

Biblical texts don’t just say, they also do. And our sermons need to reflect this, if we’re to be faithful to the intent of the text.

But how do we do that?

Narratio: Rhetorical Criticism

Let me come back to that question in a minute. Because another strand of thought was developing among biblical scholars over this same 40 year period. It got a label in 1968. Back when the president of the Society for Biblical Literature, James Muilenberg, called for research in a field he termed ‘rhetorical criticism’. The 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 NT; 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. Some apply universal theories of rhetoric to texts. Or they look at how texts can be used for rhetorical purposes alien to that of the original author. The kind I’m interested in here is what’s usually termed the ‘historical’ sort. And in particular, within my field of NT.

This discipline looks at the rhetorical rules and terminology of Graeco-Roman oratory – taken from rhetorical handbooks of the day, and other ancient sources. And it seeks to understand the NT documents, in particular the epistles, in these terms. After all, most epistles were intended for oral performance, given the lack of universal literacy and limited access to photocopiers.

In essence, rhetorical criticism looks at the biblical texts 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. In persuasive speech. Following, by and large, the rhetorical conventions of his day. It 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.

Propositio: Rhetorical Criticism and Biblical Exposition

My argument here is simply this: the question being asked by the New Homiletic can be answered, at least in part, by rhetorical criticism. Just matching 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?’ Through rhetorical analysis, we can find out not just what the text was saying to its first hearers, but also what it was intending to do. And from that we can develop a systematic approach that helps us create our sermon. A sermon that functions in the same way, or at least a similar way.

Now the book goes into a bit more justification for this. But you can read that for yourselves if you like. What I’d like to do here is give a sample of just some of the ways this plays out. Ways we can use rhetorical criticism to design sermons that also do what the text does. The paper gives more detail, and obviously the completed thesis will give a lot more. But here are some edited highlights.

Probatio: Rhetorical genre

The first task of rhetorical criticism is to determine the rhetorical genre of the text. You see, there were three main species of rhetoric:

Forensic rhetoric, which grew out of the courtroom. It was the rhetoric of attack & defence. Its aim was to prove or disprove something, and was focused largely on the past. We see this kind of rhetoric in Paul’s courtroom speeches in Acts, or defending his motives in 2 Corinthians.

Deliberative rhetoric was associated with civic life. Its aim was to persuade the audience to take a particular course of action – and avoid the alternatives. It was focused largely on the future, and the virtues of what was courageous, just, mature, and above all, advantageous. The majority of Paul’s epistles are essentially deliberative – persuading the people of God to live in a certain way, in light of the gospel.

A third type, epideictic rhetoric, was for festivals and important occasions. The rhetoric of praise and blame, as part of a culture of honour and shame. Its aim was to honour and reinforce values already held by the community, and shame those which deviated. It was thus focused on the present. 1 Thess is largely epideictic, as is the famous encomium on love in 1 Cor 13.

This is significant for preaching. If our sermon is to do what a text does, it needs to have the same broad purpose. All too often I hear a forensic text, focused on proving a particular truth, pressed into service in a deliberative sermon, telling us how we ought to live. Or an epideictic text, celebrating community values, becomes a forensic defence of a particular aspect of Christian character. But if we want our sermon to harness the rhetorical power of the text; if we want to catch the wave rather than swim against the current – then our sermon needs to align its rhetorical purpose with that of the text.

Just to give one example, 1 Thess is all about honouring already-held values. And by doing so, to encourage them all the more. Paul’s explicit about this epideictic aim a number of times:

4:1 ‘you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.’
5:11 ‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’

And they’re just two examples of many. It’s a celebration of their virtue, as a means of encouraging them to keep doing it even more. Yet how often is this epistle preached on in a way that berates the congregation for not living this way? Whilst sometimes this may be true, the rhetorical strategy of the biblical text is exactly the opposite! More carrot than stick. Surely a sermon series in 1 Thess that respects the rhetorical genre would look within our own communities. It would look for positive examples of the values Paul praises. And hold them up as models, as an inspiration for us to live them out all the more.

Our sermon’s rhetorical genre & purpose, then, needs to match that of the text.

Probatio: Rhetorical form

The second fundamental of rhetorical criticism is an awareness of rhetorical form. Of structure. There was a standard arrangement of the parts of a speech. And each part had its own particular purpose. So it makes sense that if we’re preaching on a part of a speech, we need to know which part. And crucially, what that part was intended to do.

The first part of a speech was the exordium. The introduction. It had two functions. To build rapport with the audience, and foreshadow the topic of the speech. As such, I don’t think it a particularly natural thing to preach only on an exordium by itself. You might find a bunch of theological material there, which can form a launching pad for investigations of a more topical nature. But if we’re serious about preaching the intent of a text, it’s hard to make an entire sermon on a text that’s just supposed to gain attention & introduce stuff!

What normally followed the exordium was a narration. A statement of the facts of a legal case. Or a description of the circumstances which prompted the speech. And not just a dispassionate presentation. But one that presented the facts of the matter in a favourable light for your argument. A classic example is Paul’s narration in Galatians. There, he presents an extended history of his conversion, and subsequent dealings with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. And he does it with an obvious agenda: to show how he’s independently commissioned by God, yet also later approved by the Jerusalem ‘pillars’; and how he acted consistently with his beliefs at all times, unlike Peter. As preachers, what do we do with this?

If you look at ‘application’ or ‘preacher’s’ style commentaries, you’ll see a variety of ideas: how Paul’s story compares with our own experience of divine revelation; a pattern for a believer’s conversion; the importance of welcoming new converts; how to make a stand for the truth. All primarily applying Paul’s story as a model. Yet is that Paul’s intention? As Scot McKnight rightly says:

‘In order to apply this biography of Paul we must first discern its essential purpose – and if that purpose is Paul’s independence from Jerusalem and his direct revelation from Jesus Christ, then his biography is not as directly relevant as we might have initially thought.’

When preaching on a narration, we have to be careful not just to apply the story. Like an object lesson straight out of Sunday School. But look for the reason the writer tells the story. The angle they’re coming from.

And we can often see this more clearly once we get to the next part of the speech. The proposition. This was the central thesis statement of the speech. Where the speaker stated the case he was attempting to prove.

Locating this is crucial, as every other part of the speech – exordium, narration, and the proofs which follow – they all contribute in some way to the proposition. This is why the proposition is key.

Firstly, the proposition tells us the rhetorical function of the letter as a whole. For example, the proposition of 1 Cor is found in ch1.

1:10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

It’s an appeal to concord & harmony, in light of the division described in the narration which follows (the ‘I follow Paul, I follow Apollos’ bit). This is a characteristic topic of deliberative rhetoric.

Or take Philippians. The proposition starts at v27 of ch1.

1:27-28 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents…

It’s an appeal to civic-mindedness and unity within the believing community in the midst of suffering. Calling them to following the examples of Paul-in-chains and Christ-crucified.

Rather than speculating about the unifying theme of an epistle, rhetorical analysis tells us. We find it in the proposition!

Secondly, the proposition acts as a hermeneutical control over each section of the epistle. That is, the function of every other passage we look at is determined by how it contributes to proving the proposition. This helps narrows down our options of what a text might be doing. It helps us understand the function of a text, which then determines the function of our sermon.

For example, 1 Cor 13 might have an epideictic function of praising selfless love as a virtue, in order to encourage people to love all the more. But it only does this because it contributes to the overall aim of the letter – producing unity in the church. So a sermon on 1 Cor 13 should also praise selfless love in order to encourage our hearers to love all the more. But the explicit context and purpose of this love should be to produce a united fellowship. Tie it in to Paul’s overall aim. Likewise, a sermon on ch14 shouldn’t primarily be a treatise on tongues and prophecy. Rather, it should focus on how spiritual gifts should be used in a way that promotes unity instead of division. ‘Cause that’s what Paul’s doing.

Although this sometimes might feel restrictive, it’s how we keep ourselves in line with the original intent of the text. And it can also open up areas of application we might have overlooked. For example, there might be a passage which is a relatively dry presentation of some point of theology. The function of a sermon might seem to be just gaining or affirming mental assent to it. However, if we look at how that particular point functions in relation to the proposition, we might see some application in light of that.

Even Paul’s famous ‘all have sinned’ passage in Rom 3 isn’t simply to gain assent that we are all sinners saved by grace – it contributes to the central proposition of Romans, the fact that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles on exactly the same basis. Faith in Jesus Christ. So an awareness of our universal sinfulness should lead us toward unity. Towards not thinking we’re better than anyone else. And therefore away from racism, cultural snobbery, or any other ‘boundary marker’ that leads to division. There is a practical application!

Now that’s just a fraction of what we can learn about preaching from studying rhetorical form. And we’ve got no time to look at the remaining parts that form the bulk of the speech: the series of proofs which argue for the proposition. The refutations of objections both real and imagined. Or the emotional peroration at the end that sought to seal the deal.

Probatio: Types of proof

Although we will touch on these parts indirectly now. Because the third key of rhetorical criticism is where we look in detail at the different types of proof. Divided famously by Aristotle into ethos, pathos, and logos. Persuasion by character, by emotion, and by logic, respectively.

Firstly, ethos. Where the speaker would try to establish their moral character. Above all their trustworthiness. And if speaking on behalf of another, the trustworthiness of their client as well. How do we deal with passages of Scripture which are primarily ethos arguments?

Now if it’s the ethos of Paul’s client we’re talking about, it’s not too difficult. That is, where Paul speaks on behalf of God, demonstrating his character, his trustworthiness. God’s character is still highly relevant to our audiences today, is it not! However, the strategies Paul uses may or may not be as relevant. For the most part, we’re not speaking to biblically literate Jews; or to people living in a patronage-based society, who worshipped Greek & Roman gods, and some jumped-up Italian in a toga with garden clippings on his head. So we don’t blindly follow those same strategies; we evaluate their relevance. And sometimes modify them where appropriate, to achieve the same rhetorical ends.

What about if it’s the writer’s own ethos that’s at issue? We find this in many of Paul’s letters, often at length: esp. Gals, 1 & 2 Cors. How’s this relevant for us today? In my thesis I’ll be arguing for three main ways this is relevant:

  • To validate Paul’s apostleship, and how his words are therefore still authoritative for us today;
  • To emulate Paul’s character, which was an implicit function of ethos argument in the first century; indeed, explicit in 1 Cor 11 – ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’;
  • But most significantly, we need to take into account the fact that Paul was a key participant in the original situation. Where as in our present-day context, he merely speaks to us from afar. So I propose we look at how Paul is using ethos in his And then work out how we might use it to address our own situation. We ask: ‘whose ethos would Paul be looking to establish today?’

Let’s take the opening ethos arguments in Galatians 2 as an example. Paul builds his own ethos as someone who stands firm in not adding to the gospel. Not adding cultural boundary markers that exclude. In affirming salvation by grace alone. Now we could simply draw from that the principle ‘don’t add to the gospel’. Then give some examples of where we might be tempted to do so. And some reasons we shouldn’t. That would be a logos argument, and as such gets plenty of attention in Galatians from the propositio onwards.

To respect the rhetorical function of ch2’s ethos argument, I suggest that we should show how Paul’s own ethos functions in the original situation. And then seek contemporary examples of those today who act likewise.

A similar approach could be taken to the ethos arguments in the first 4 chapters of 1 Cor. We might seek to build the ethos of those who embrace substance over style, and godly ‘weakness’ over human wisdom and sophistication. Likewise, Philippians 1:12-26 might call us to build the ethos of those who joyfully suffer for the gospel.

Now we haven’t got space to look at all the implications of ethos arguments, let alone those of logos and pathos. You’ll need to get the book. But the key idea, I think, is this: our sermons should reflect the type of proof we’re preaching on.

For example, how will we preach a passage rich with pathos differently from the way we’d preach a more rational logos argument?

Think of a pathos passage like Gal 4:15

Gal 4:15 ‘What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me’.

A text full of emotion! But you can almost imagine the stereotype of a dry, expository preacher dealing with it. He places his glasses down on the pulpit and intones, ‘Paul here describes their former joy in an obviously hyperbolic fashion. The Greek word for ‘torn out’ is particularly illuminating, as it’s the same word used in Mark’s gospel for the friends of the paralytic digging through the roof…’ Don’t analyse pathos passages; preach them with matching passion!


Brothers and sisters, as the choir starts up, I implore you to investigate how we might use rhetorical criticism to design a sermon that not only says what the text says, but also does.

(And if you were wondering, this presentation has followed the broad outline of a first century speech. Grace be with you all.)

Tim MacBride

One thought on “Preaching the NT as Rhetoric

  1. Thanks for this summary, it’s a topic that I’ve been wrestling with around the use of passages contrary to the often clear context.
    I think that this approach to both studying and preaching on Biblical texts while at times frustrating (in the limitations it implies) it is also empowering as we have confidence that we aren’t coercing the scriptures to our own ends.
    My only criticism would be the section on taking Romans 3 and the continued case for the Gospel to all mankind (not only the Jews) as a word on racism and bigotry (good things to speak on but surely secondary to the ultimate point) but instead should be primarily a message of confidence that God’s grace and mercy is not just for the “righteous” but for the sinner like Paul, and like you (the congregation) and me (the theoretical preacher).

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