Litfin’s Study of Paul’s Theology of Proclamation

Dr Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton, studied Paul’s theology of proclamation for one of his doctoral dissertations. His study reveals how Paul’s view of preaching contrasted with the first-century Greco-Roman rhetorician. The biblical focus for the study was 1Cor.1-4, where the issue is addressed most directly. The following points may give you a taste of his study and its relevance for us as preachers:

1. Language and ideas have the power to sway people. Paul knew that, and we must recognize the power of language and ideas in order to comprehend the reality of ancient rhetoric and the contrast with Paul’s preaching.

2. The ancient rhetorician tailored his efforts to achieve a result, whatever it took. Paul was different. Paul, like the rhetor, viewed the audience as a given, but did not take unto himself the task of inducing belief. For Paul, this was the task of the Spirit of God.

3. Paul proclaimed, and as a herald he announced, but it was not his task to persuade. So he would “placard” the cross before his hearers. He could not allow for the possibility of the listeners’ faith being a product of the preacher’s ability to induce faith by rhetorical technique.

4. Paul did not somehow disavow every element of rhetorical technique. It is clear in his letters, and in the speeches in Acts (if they are accepted as representative of Paul rather than Luke’s writing ability), that Paul did use various elements of rhetoric in order to communicate effectively. In fact, the ancient study of rhetoric was descriptive more than prescriptive, it was determined by observation of what effective speakers did. In light of this, Paul would not have had to study rhetoric in order to learn the skills he demonstrates. But he did put his own preaching in sharp relief to that of the rhetoricians. What was the difference?

5. Paul did not pursue the third step in persuasion. Persuasion theorists break down the process into five steps. (1) Attention, (2) comprehension, (3) yielding, (4) retention, and (5) action. Rhetoric placed heavy emphasis on step 3, yielding. Paul aimed his presentation at step 2, comprehension. Obviously, as people were persuaded by Paul’s preaching, an observer might credit him with the whole process. But in reality, Paul held back from any strategies that might induce a yielding in the hearts of his followers. Without making a cheap shot at ancient rhetoric as being mere manipulation, it is clear that Paul was wary of anything that might cause his hearers to come to faith based on his technique of persuasion. We should be wary of the same.

Peter has responded to a comment, and gives a link to a Litfin article.

6 thoughts on “Litfin’s Study of Paul’s Theology of Proclamation

  1. Hi. Good post, and I agree with its substance, but I do have a question. Is it entirely accurate to say that it wasn’t Paul’s task to persuade?

    (It’s often hard, on a blog, to discern someone’s tone, so I want to say up front that my motive isn’t to challenge your point, or to argue with you, but to generate some additional thought on this subject.)

    First, the NT itself unapologetically uses the language of persuasion. In fact, Acts 18:4 explicitly states that persuasion is Paul’s goal. (See Acts 18:4, 19:8; 26:24-29; 2 Cor. 5:11)

    Because of that, I wonder if it might be better to view the issue as an example of a type of compatibilism, where the human responsibility to persuade, and the exclusively divine power to persuade, coexist.

  2. Thanks Barry. Obviously I cannot really speak for Duane Litfin, and I would encourage anyone to get the book (if you can find it!) I suppose he might say two things.

    One is that his focus was 1Cor.1-4 where Paul is clearly distinguishing his own ministry from the methods used by public speakers in that culture. Since Paul is making a strong distinction, it is good to study the situation carefully and discern what he was resisting so firmly.

    The other is that the language of persuasion is used of Paul as you noted, just as I noted that certain features of oratory and rhetoric were evident in Paul’s speeches. However, Litfin distinguishes the specific focus on step three – getting people to yield. For Paul, the burden of responsibility rested in step two rather than three, because he did not want anyone’s faith to rest on his rhetorical abilities.

    This is an interesting discussion, although I am a little nervous about it being based on my brief summary of Litfin’s work. I know that he summarizes his work in a series of talks with Haddon Robinson, available from the Ockenga Institute store at Gordon-Conwell. I should listen to those again.

  3. Just to follow up with the previous comments. I asked Duane Litfin to take a look at the discussion thus far. He graciously did so and emailed me. Time constraints kept him from diving in here. However, you’ll have to take my word for all that I say here.

    He thinks I’m “doing pretty well in summarizing the points” but what is needed now are the nuances to his work. The place to get that is the book, which he suggests interlibrary loan can help locate.

    He’s considering a popular level version of the book (great idea, I’d encourage that!) He also summarized his work in a Christianity Today piece back in about 1977 which was “somewhat misnamed” as “The Perils of Persuasive Preaching.” I’ll link the article below.

    He did say that “compatibalism” won’t work as a resolution. Paul’s clear decision was to restrict himself, rather than suggesting that his full efforts could fit together with God’s work. For Paul, the wrong approach could displace the work of God, rather than fitting together with it.

    I appreciate Dr Litfin interacting here, even if not personally on the site. As he suggested, if this subject is of interest, then pursuing his book or article would be the way to go.

    The link for the article, reprinted in the Cultic Studies Journal in 1985, is here.

  4. Peter,

    Thanks, both to you and to Dr. Litfin, for the response. I would like to see a “popular” edition of that book published. In the mean time, I’ll try to read the article.

  5. If we are wanting to understand what Paul actually ‘did’ in his preaching, it seems to me that we should look at all the other passages first! I Cor2:1-4 is notoriously difficult because we are left to reconstruct the context. Barry has suggested some important texts. I would want to add Acts 17:1-4, where we learn of Paul’s normal approach (v2) and that it involved ‘reasoning’ v.2 (where dialegomai implies dialogue), explaining v3 (which can only be done adequately in a dialogue situation where you get feed back about the hearer’s misunderstandings), proving v.3 which suggests the use of evidence in response to doubts, and proclaiming v3, which implies ‘announcing’ in the context of ignorance. Announcing may lead to comprehension but there is rather more going on here. We are told that the end result was that some people were persuaded v.4. Indeed, in Ephesus he was described as “aguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Acts19v 8.

    If we are to understand what happened specifically in Corinth, we ought to look carefully at what Paul and Luke have to say elsewhere. Luke – are we to think his descriptions might not be trustworthy? – writes in Acts 18v4 that Paul used dialogue in order to persuade Jews and Greeks. The Jews clearly recognised what he was doing and made it central to their charges against him 18v13: “This man is persuading the people…” The dynamic of Acts 18 (Corinth) is entirely consistent with Acts 17 (Thessolonica and Athens) and Acts 19 (Ephesus) or before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26. There is nothing in Luke’s description to suggest Paul changed his approach. On the contrary, Paul did what Paul did!

    And he clearly remembered it when he wrote 2 Cor 5v.11 (a key verse describing what he sought to do), “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade men.”

    Now then, how do we understand 1 Cor 2:1-4? It is generally considered that Paul was battling against the expectations his audience had from travelling orators. And we can imagine the problem they were.

    Plutarch tells us that Mark Anthony trained as a public orator and tells us that his style “had much in common with Anthony’s own mode of life. It was boastful, insolent, and full of empty bravado and misguided aspirations!” What a denunciation!

    Other evidence of the orators tells us that they spoke on a wide range of subjects to please their audiences. Furthermore they tended to be young, athletic showmen who were physically impressive as well as verbally dexterous.

    If that is true, it provides a vivid context for understanding 1Cor 2:1-4. Paul could not compete! He didn’t try to woo his audience with verbal dexterities or pretend to be an intellectual. He came to announce a message about God and had no interest in amusing them with discourses on other subjects. He was physically unimpressive, and far from being full of bravado, was actually quite apprehensive about the reception he might get. It was not rhetorical flourishes or clever arguments on which he depended to bring about conviction, but the power of the Holy Spirit. To speak of ‘yielding’ in this context is to introduce a word and idea that are not found in these biblical passages. Rather, the Holy Spirit may bring about conviction from preaching the truth about God which involved announcement, dialogue, explanation, evidence and persuasion, demonstrating the truth and reasonableness of his message (Acts 26v25).

    • Thanks for the substantial comment, Peter. Just a brief comment in response. Litfin uses the language of yielding in respect to the oratory of the day, stating that Paul didn’t go there. Thus it seems an appropriate term to use, even though not biblical. It is great to see the Holy Spirit working through the preaching of Paul, and even more amazing, through our preaching . . . in all its complexity, but not in trickery or flawed integrity.

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