‘lest the cross be emptied’

The previous three posts in this series have been more or less uncontroversial — notwithstanding my efforts to stir the pot. But my suspicion is that things might start heating up. Why? Because as I turn my attention to the means of proclamation, I’m beginning to draw out the implications of my roughly sketched theology of proclamation (I’ll also be applying it by posting about particular situations and problems — such as this).

King St, Newtown (Spring 2007)

King St, Newtown (Spring 2007)

In this post I want to try to establish a something of a theological beach-head into the practice of proclamation, paying particular attention to the role of rhetoric and imagination in how we proclaim the Lord Jesus in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

To begin, let me take a cue from Paul’s famous words about rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 1.17-18:

Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

The question this raises is: Am I doing the wrong thing? Is addressing the question of style legitimate? Shouldn’t I rather follow Paul in disowning rhetoric because of a commitment to set forth the truth plainly (cf. 2 Cor 4.2)?

To such questions I answer, ‘No!’ (in thunder). Why?

  1. The moment Paul swears off rhetoric, is a supremely rhetorical one. He is not giving up on persuasion altogether — rather, he is rejecting a certain style (or set of styles) of persuasion. As scholars like Ben Witherington III have argued, it’s not rhetoric in general that Paul is distancing himself from. It’s the so-called wisdom that was so highly prized in educated Greco-Roman circles, which was largely a matter of rhetorical pyrotechnics with little regard for content. Indeed, Paul is mid-way through an attempt to persuade the Corinthians to give up their repulsive factionalism and live out the reality of their unity in Christ. And he’s pulling out all the stops.
  2. Plain style is still a style. Calvin may be expressing an admirable sentiment when he says that ‘truth is cleared of all doubts when, not sustained by external props, it serves as its own support’ (Institutes I.viii.1). But Augustine sees more clearly when at the beginning of On Christian Doctrine he slams those who say that we don’t need to learn to interpret Scripture — the flip-side of the Truth Needs No External Supports position. He points out that someone taught us the conventions we’ve learnt to automatically bring to our reading (from the basics of ‘read from left to right’ on up). Conventions — including stylistic conventions — are simply always operative where we’re dealing with human language. Form is not an external adornment for timeless core content. Style is not a dispensable husk around meaning. Rather, meaning and content are welded to style and form.

The point of deploying rhetoric, however, must be to communicate the good news about Jesus as directly and in as God-honouring a way as possible. Ultimately, real persuasion and deep and lasting change — i.e. conversion and transformation — is not something we can engineer. It’s a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to be faithful with what we’ve been given, renouncing manipulation and deception — since these methods bespeak a lack of trust in this work.

Nevertheless, whether we’re doing this in personal conversation, a small group or seminar context, in writing, or from the pulpit, we need to consider the how of proclamation (of course, the answer must be Yes to this ‘How’ question — as it is to any other). And, as far as I can see, rhetoric and imagination are crucial to this.

  • Rhetoric is crucial because the message we proclaim is one that goes way beyond just providing information. The good news about God’s achievement in Christ is proclaimed with a very definite aim: forging fellowship between God and human beings as it frees us from bondage to those things which are by nature not gods. Rhetoric ought to be deployed to help realise that aim. In fact, even if all we were aiming for was informing, rhetoric wouldn’t be ruled out. For as soon as we start addressing ourselves to how to grab people’s attention, help them grasp the relevance of what we’re saying, and ensure it sticks in their minds, we’re travelling in the orbit of rhetoric.
  • And imagination is vital because this is not just about persuading/telling but showing/eliciting/inviting engagement. Why else does Scripture use so many different literary forms to communicate its message? Not only do they reflect the imaginative resources of its authors, they engage our imagination too. Likewise, our proclamation ought to draw upon our own imaginative resources and engage the imaginations of those we’re speaking to.

It all boils down to effective communication. Although the final effect upon the life of those we’re speaking with isn’t ours to control — there’s at least one other will involved after all — all things being equal, faithfulness in the task demands our best efforts, doesn’t it?

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