Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Evangelical Eloquence - Introduction to Sacred Rhetoric

How important is gospel communication? The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.17-19 states,
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Many use this statement by Paul to suggest that it is wrong to teach and learn communication skills in order to communicate the gospel--they suggest that that is falling prey to using eloquence that robs the cross of its power and wisdom from the world that will be destroyed.

In the Introduction to his classic work on sacred rhetoric, R.L. Dabney confronts this notion by suggesting a difference between art and artifice. He suggests that "Art is but the rational adjustment of means to an end. . . . it employs proper menas for a worthy end; it is but wisdom in application, (15). For Dabney, describing preaching as the "art" of speech communication of the gospel is not the same as saying that preaching is to utilize lofty speech or sophistry, for that is "artifice," not "art." "Artifice is fasle; it adopts deceitful means for a treacherous end," like "when the cunning seducer prepares a seeming attraction which is not indeed real, to inveigle his prey into the snare, this is artifice, (15). But not only does "artifice" include using tricky tactics to get people to agree with the speaker, it also includes the pathos of the fine arts, "in which the end of the skill employed is only to gratify the taste, and not to evoke practical volition, (15).

For Dabney, then, referring to preaching as an art, is not to suggest that preachers should use tricks, fanciful language and or sophisticated arguments to simply get people to agree with them or to create an experience that merely flatters one's taste; for when he does so, he violates his responsibility to his office and contradicts the very notion of preaching itself. Rather, because the preacher has been called by God to communicate the truth of the gospel with oral communication, then, the preacher should utilize means that help him accomplish his duty:
But I assert none the less that, since this duty is to convey gospel truth effectively to other souls, and since there are adapted means by which this end may be the better accomplished, there is a true art of preaching, which is not only lawful and hones, but sacredly obligatory.
Dabney's point here is that the preaching of the gospel is itself a means that God uses for the nourishment of faith in his covenant people and for creating faith in the lost, and as such, it is imperative for the preacher to use the proper means of communication. As Dabney points out, the preacher does not have the choice between using a means and not using one, but rather, the real choice is between "art wise and art foolish, art skillful and art clumsy," (17).

Sacred rhetoric helps the unclear to become clear. And this is quite important, since "the state of the pulpit may always be taken as an index of that of the Church. Whenever the pulpit is evangelical, the piety of the people is in some degree healthy; a pervision of the pulpit is surely followed by spiritual apostasy in the Church," (27).

So in light of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1.17-19, how should the preacher utilize effective means (art) for communicating the gospel without utilizing eloquent wisdom that empties the cross of its power? Dabney suggests that in the history of gospel preaching, there have been three stages that serve to help illustrate the proper and improper rhetorical art, and these stages help provide the preacher a guide.

The first stage is the proper stage for gospel preaching. In it, "scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb . . . they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy spirit has presented them, without seeking any other from human science." By this Dabney draws our attention to the reality that the scripture itself comes with its own means of presentation. The Bible is not a random collections of words--but the Spirit has communicated God's revelation with a form. We must study the Bible, not only for its content, but also for the form in which that content has been communicated. Faithful preaching and sacred rhetoric that is in keeping with Paul's instructions utilizes the means of communication found in the Bible for communicating the message of the Bible. (I will have more to say about this stage later, so check back!)

However, there are two other stages, both of which the preacher should avoid. The second stage is a hybrid of the first and third stages. In it the doctrines of the Bible are taught using the methods developed by human wisdom "moulded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics." This kind of preaching attempts to maintain the correct teaching of the Bible, but rather than using the rhetoric of the Bible, it utilizes the popular communication styles of the culture. Let me provide an example. Many today believe that preaching itself has become outmoded because we live in a culture that is image oriented. Mere spoken words do not communicate to today's culture, so we need to find other creative, image-based means to communicate the gospel. In essence, this method, although well-intentioned, falls into the trap that Paul says we are to avoid. The preaching of the gospel is foolishness to those who are not meant to receive it. We are not called to smooth out the foolishness by utilizing means that are culturally driven instead of the means found in the Bible itself. According to Dabney, this is important, for when one tries to teach the truth using culturally based communication styles, the result is that the truth will ultimately be lost, which leads to the third stage.

The third stage is to be avoided at all costs, for the third stage is when not only are "the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word," (28). The point: one cannot separate the message from the media. If one attempts to utilize the media of the culture, the message will soon begin to correspond to the message of the culture, as well.

In this Introduction, Dabney helps the preacher and the person in the pew have a better understanding of the importance of communicating the gospel well and the proper place to ascertain the form of that communication--the Bible. The preacher, no matter how gifted he may be, must study and learn the art of sacred rhetoric, for the sake of being faithful to his own call and for the sake of those listening to him. There is an art to sacred rhetoric that does not empty the cross of its power and is not based in the culture of the world that is passing away. In the words of Dabney:
Let us, my bretheren, eschew the ill-starred ambition which seeks to make the body of God's truth a "lay figure" on which to parade the drapery of human philsopophy. May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress!

No comments:

Post a Comment