We Preach Christ Crucified

Rhetoric in the Service of Jesus Christ

by Deborah M. Gill

As contemporary preachers, we use the tools of rhetoric to communicate the Word of God clearly and effectively to our hearers. In doing so, however, we risk relying on our own wisdom and power rather than God’s. How can Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16 help us avoid this risk and keep hearers’ attention focused on Jesus Christ? After all, people today often use rhetoric in popular speech as a description of communication intended only to impress, or speech that is lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. Empty rhetoric refers to pomposity, extravagant, bombastic language; i.e., hot air.

Are we arguing for unscrupulous, coercive communication in the service of Christ? Absolutely not! Such disingenuous use of language to manipulate people is not the original sense of the term.

What Is Rhetoric?

Although the term holds a negative connotation to many, rhetoric refers to the art of persuasion studied as an ancient discipline as early as the 5th century B.C. Many consider Plato and Aristotle the fathers of modern rhetoric. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the art of discovering all the available means of persuasion in a given situation.”

Broadly speaking, rhetoric is communication; and, more specifically, it is “the use of symbols in communication” to “understand, engage, and relate to another.” These three activities are prerequisites to persuasion in preaching: understanding, engaging, and relating to another.

Dr. Joy Qualls, assistant professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Evangel University, reminds us, “Humans are the only members of creation with the power to create a substantial part of their reality through the use of symbols. … When we change the symbols we use to frame an event, our experience is altered.” Qualls continues, “God did not use thought or actions to create the world. Scripture states that God spoke creation into existence, and He remarked on each portion of creation. As beings created in the image of God, I would argue that the symbolic use of language to engage in rhetoric is God-given. God is the ultimate Rhetorician, and we are engaging Him when we engage in the process of symbol creation and understanding.”1

Rhetoric in Scripture and Church History

Rhetoric, then, involves all that goes into convincing an audience. Unlike our contemporary culture, which is text-based — texts and texting are ever present in this Internet age — the cultures of the biblical world were oral cultures. Both the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible contain many rhetorical devices designed for hearing, such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, etc. With a literacy rate of between 5 and 20 percent in the Roman era, and with written texts extremely expensive to produce, all ancient peoples (whether literate or illiterate) preferred the spoken word to the written word. It is not surprising then that Jesus said so many times in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation, not “Whoever has eyes, let them see” but, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The New Testament shows how seriously the founders of the Church took the Great Commission as a commitment to convince. Not only do Jesus’ sermons and the speeches in Acts reveal evidence of rhetoric; but also, because the writers of the New Testament’s documents intended for church leaders to read them aloud — usually to a group — they too contain the same elements of oral persuasion. Ben Witherington explains in his new book, New Testament Rhetoric, “oral conventions more shape the so-called epistolary literature of the NT than epistolary ones.”2 For example, Paul composed his New Testament letters as discourses for designated representatives of the apostle such as Timothy, Titus, or Phoebe to deliver orally in a rhetorically effective manner to particular audiences. Paul’s education, both as a Pharisee and a Roman, qualified him to present rhetorical speeches and letters comprised of rhetorical addresses. From their use of the rules of rhetoric, Witherington explains it is clear that all the NT writers were well educated: they were among the top 5-10 percent of first-century society in terms of education.

Averil Cameron’s landmark study on Christianity and rhetoric,3 demonstrates how the small, marginalized group of Christ-followers, whose religion demanded exclusive devotion to Christ, not only survived, but also prevailed over the pluralistic culture of Rome. While ancient Christian writers attribute all the glory for this growth to God, it is also clear how effective their rhetoric was. They powerfully preached the truth, and God used this to set the captives free.

Patristic preachers considered the New Testament authors to be their mentors in the rhetorical arts. From Early Church history through the Middle Ages, while contextualization also contributed to communication, Christian discourse continued on the course of its original trajectory based on Greco-Roman rhetoric. Numerous Reformers (e.g., Melanchthon) were rhetoricians. Witherington argues there is a place for rhetoric today. “The modern rhetoric of preaching would do well to learn much from the ancient preaching of rhetoric.”4

Paul’s Case Against Rhetoric?

By comparing Luke’s narrative of Acts 17–18 with Paul’s confession in 1 Corinthians 1–2, some attempt to argue that Paul made a paradigm shift in his preaching — rejecting rhetoric — and cite 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16 as Paul’s defense of his new position. They claim that when Paul was in Athens on Mars Hill, he preached with the eloquence and wisdom of the Greeks. Having had such small success using the classical methods of communication, however, Paul changed his approach in Corinth (they claim); and that from then on the apostle abandoned oratorical approaches for a demonstration of the Spirit and power (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1–5).5 The intended implication of the argument is that we should do the same: reject rhetoric and embrace the anointing instead.

This either-or argument, however, is not grounded in truth. On the contrary, the scriptural record contains evidence proving that while in Athens and in Corinth (and thereafter) the apostle Paul was a both-and preacher: making his best case with rhetoric while making much space for the Spirit.

  • From Luke’s historical record note first Paul’s use of rhetoric in Athens was not as a replacement for powerful preaching and the Spirit’s work. Instead of quoting pagan poets, Paul quoted Scripture and declared the gospel with power. Furthermore, experiencing any success among the Areopagus audience was a miracle — proof that the power of the Spirit was active in that communication event as a most-essential element in those aristocratic Athenian converts coming to faith.
  • Second, Paul’s use of rhetoric in Athens was not as a substitute for or denial of the supernatural. Paul’s Mars Hill message did not involve any compromise, theologically speaking. Though he knew it would be an offense to his sophisticated listeners, Paul boldly declared — even in that intellectual context of philosophers — the greatest demonstration of God’s power: the resurrection of Christ.
  • Third, even in Corinth (and after), the apostle continued using rhetoric. The apostle’s testimony of his initial preaching in Corinth (1 Corinthians 2:1–15, the passage cited as proof of Paul’s rejection of rhetoric) is full of rhetoric. “Paul here disapproves of mere rhetoric, but his own writing, including 1 Corinthians, displays extensive knowledge and use of rhetorical forms.”6 “Paul knew the right place of persuasive argument in proclaiming Christ: at Corinth he had ‘dialogued’ in the synagogue week by week, ‘persuading both Jews and Greeks’ [Acts 18:4]. But he personally discounted the effectiveness of persuasive speech by itself in bringing about faith in Jesus and life-transforming knowledge of God” [emphasis added].7 Placing the Pauline Epistles in chronological order proves Paul’s continued use of rhetoric and rhetorical devices long after his ministry in Athens.
  • Paul never rejected rhetoric as evil; but, he knew it was not enough. He was a both-and communicator, proving in practice that preaching deserves our best efforts, but demands God’s supernatural involvement.

What, then, is the point of 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16? The whole passage is an argument for the superiority of true wisdom over false, i.e., the wisdom of God over the wisdom of this world. Paul identifies some of the characteristics and limitations of the world’s wisdom (i.e., the human way of trying to reach God): it sounds eloquent; it seems plausible (Jews seek for a sign; and Greeks for wisdom); but, it is empty and ineffective; and it endangers the message of the Cross.The wisdom of God, however, is seen in the message of the Cross (1:16–25); the method of God (1:26–31); and the ministry of the Spirit (2:1–16). Crucifixion and humility contradict cultural wisdom, yet the Holy Spirit “explains spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”

Paul’s Case for Rhetoric

First Corinthians 1:18–2:16, therefore, is not Paul’s case against the use of rhetoric. But we can see in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 the apostle’s strong case for rhetoric in the service of Christ. If rhetoric includes all that goes into convincing an audience, then we see how committed Paul was to rhetoric. The goal of preaching is infinitely and eternally important, for “what is at stake is not simply the failure or success of human persuasion, but [one’s] eternal destiny.”8 Paul’s fundamental philosophy in ministry was to discover the methods, which combined the greatest integrity with the greatest impact.9 First Corinthians 9:19–23 shows the great lengths to which Paul was willing to go to persuade his hearers to accept Christ. His rhetoric was not limited to words and logic; he used all means. The apostle’s use of the adverb, Ï€άντως, in his statement of purpose: “that by all possible means I might win/gain/save some,” is reminiscent of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric: “discovering all [the available] means to persuade.” Paul’s rhetoric transcended mere words; just like the Savior’s, the apostle’s whole life was an incarnational witness.

In the Classical Period, people understood rhetoric as the art of effective and persuasive speaking; and, as those speeches become recorded, rhetoric encompassed persuasive writing. People understand rhetoric more broadly today — not limited to written and spoken discourse. Rhetoric includes nondiscursive or nonverbal symbols. Rhetoric can be: speeches, essays, conversations, poetry, novels, stories, comic books, and websites; but rhetoric can also be television programs, films, art, architecture, plays, music, dance, ads, etc. The list is endless. We can consider a variety of media as rhetoric, and we can employ this media rhetorically in the service of Christ.

At one time, the “Transmission Model” explained the process of rhetoric as: a “Sender” transmitting messages to a “Receiver” [S > R]. This incomplete model viewed communication as a one-way process in which the speaker is active and the audience passive. Someone later enhanced this model by adding the Receiver’s feedback to the Sender and by acknowledging the presence of “Noise” affecting the transmission and reception of communication both ways. Today’s “Rhetorical Model” is much more complex: recognizing also the differing contexts of the sender and of various receivers in an audience, and that the interaction among them is a continuous loop. What can we learn from this new understanding of rhetoric? Communicating the gospel is not just about the preacher’s “transmission”, that’s a great place to start, but there’s much more involved.

The editors designed this Enrichment journal on preaching around what Aristotle called “the three proofs of rhetoric”: logos, ethos, and pathos. We could restate these ancient Greek concepts for today’s preacher as three Cs: (1) content — organization of the argument to demonstrate its truth; (2) credibility — effectiveness of the message based on the believability of the speaker; and (3)connection — emotional/relational relevance of the communication, since listeners become convinced by what is stirred within them. These three proofs are excellent means of persuasion. What, of all the possible means of rhetoric, are you incorporating in the service of Christ?

Responsible Use of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is powerful. Although we traditionally consider effective rhetoric as admirable and desirable, empty rhetoric has become a terrible turn-off in our time. William Penn noted slippage toward this pejorative sense early in 1693 as some of his contemporaries were “using the truth and beauty of rhetoric for iniquitous purposes.”

Persuasive communication has great power; thus, people use it for a multitude of purposes. The Nazi propaganda machine, much of American advertising, and many politicians and spin doctors are guilty of targeting God with their communication purposes that do not bring Him glory, but does that make persuasion evil? No.

What does responsible rhetoric in the service of Christ look like? It recognizes that communication is God-given — part of the image of God in us; and, it seeks to understand, engage, and influence others in loving ways that please our Creator. It recognizes that the good news is all about Jesus; and it seeks to spotlight the Cross, without compromising its costliness to Christ or to us, as His disciples.

Responsible rhetoric in preaching recognizes the ultimate importance of its goal — the eternal salvation and entire transformation of souls for the glory of God; it is willing to discover and employ all available means to persuade; yet it humbly acknowledges the absolute necessity of a demonstration of the Spirit and power to convince. Thus, the preacher is careful with content — leading God’s truth out of Scripture; the preacher connects with the audience — walking the truth into their hearts; and the preacher is conscientious in life — to be a credible witness of God’s Word.

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, born in A.D. 354 in Roman Africa (present-day Algeria), was a leading professor of rhetoric prior to his conversion to Christ. When asked whether Christians could use secular rhetorical theory in proclaiming the gospel, he replied: “Yes. Secular theory could be used and should be used to proclaim the gospel.” He said, “A good Christian speaker should emulate the speakers of the Bible as they have the most effective preaching style.” In 386, he wrote On Christian Doctrine, which applied Cicero’s rhetoric to preaching. In it Augustine spells out his ideals for a Christian rhetorician.

What is responsible use of rhetoric in the pulpit? Augustine challenges each of us, be:

  • a Defender of the Faith
  • an Enemy of Error, and
  • an Expositor of Scripture.


1. Interview with Dr. Joy Qualls, assistant professor of Rhetoric and Communication, Evangel University, Thursday, May 10, 2012, Springfield, Missouri.

2. Ben Witherington, III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 4. See also chapters. 1,2,5.

3. Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (Los Angeles: University of California, 1991).

4. Witherington, 239.

5. More than 50 years ago Barclay presented this view with missionizing zeal: William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, rev. ed. The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 23–25; and more recently Joseph Pathrapankal uses the same perspective on this passage to argue in favor of religious pluralism: Joseph Pathrapankal, “From Areopagus to Corinth (Acts 17:22–31; 1 Corinthians 2:1–5) A Study on the Transition From the Power of Knowledge to the Power of the Spirit,” Mission Studies (2006) 23.1: 61–80.

6. Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), loc cit.

7. David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Church. The Bible Speaks Today Series, NT Series ed. John R.W. Stott, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 41.

8. Ibid., 159.

9. Ibid., 160.