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.