The Adventure Continues

Hello again.  I shut this blog down a bit over a year ago for several reasons, one of which was lack of time to regularly post.  I hope to be able to redress that in the coming months, but not here.  The backup file for this blog has grown almost too large to allow for easy management, so I have begun a new incarnation of it at Societas Christiana (2.0).  If you are a culturally-minded Christian interested in the fields of Ancient and Medieval history, theology, literature, philosophy, education, and other such topics, I hope you’ll join me over there.

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This is the archive of my old blog, Societas Christiana, which was in operation from 2004 to 2010. On this blog you will find a great deal of information pertaining to Medieval Christendom, the Protestant Reformation, the relationship of faith and reason, Christian education, the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and other such topics of interest.

It is possible that the comments boxes are still open on various posts on this blog. However, you should understand as you browse the archives that this blog is no longer active. I do not check it for comments or hit stats or anything else, so if you choose to comment on a post it is most likely that I will not see your remarks.

This archive exists for precisely that purpose: it is archival. The main work in which I am involved at this stage in my life is the website Discarded Image.  If you wish to browse this archive, please use the menu on the right side to find the various categories.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you are enriched, and perhaps even challenged, by the materials in these archives.

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An Insufficient Understanding of “Sufficiency,” Part II

To see what the word “sufficiency” properly means, we need to look at the ends that are in view, and this takes us back to the definitions of the “sufficiency” of Scripture and of Christ given above. For the end of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:16), Scripture is “equal to the end proposed.” Far be it from me ever to say otherwise!

But what if we proposed the end of being a proficient auto mechanic, or a successful insurance salesman, or a competent lifeguard, or a successful novelist or an architect or a computer engineer? Is Scripture “sufficient” for these ends? Not according to Scripture itself it isn’t! Scripture says a great deal about doctrine and godly living, but it says nothing about how to attain these sorts of “mundane” ends. Thus it follows that we may say without any impiety at all that Scripture is quite literally “insufficient” for the attainment of certain ends. Scripture is fully sufficient for the attainment of the end at which it aims – teaching Christian truth and training in righteousness – but it is not sufficient for ends at which it does not aim.

Once again, this seems pretty straightforward. Very few Protestants, likely, would have a problem with what has been said so far. There are some Protestants out there, however whose “simple” piety about the Bible entirely overwhelms their rational thinking ability. A while back, some rather “screechy” and unkind rants were put forth on the Internet about two articles by Protestant academics[1] who said that Scripture was “insufficient” for certain mundane ends such as the ones I have mentioned above. The authors of these rants were apparently unable to emotionally get past the use of the word “insufficient” as an adjective attached to the noun “Scripture,” and their thoughts on the two articles in question were consequently, merely emotional vitriol presented as simple God-fearing piety that all simple God-fearers should wish to emulate. I take it, though, that most Protestants – even many with whom I would disagree about some other important matters – understand and agree with the points I have thusfar made in this series. What then, is the point of even talking about this subject?

The point is that although not all who have an insufficient understanding of “sufficiency” are screeching ranters, they are also as a general rule not very careful thinkers. For several reasons, much confusion exists in Reformed discourse about “sufficiency.” What are these? Let me list just three that seem most prominent.

For one, the term “sufficiency” is often defined in opposition to extreme errors (such as Roman Catholicism’s concepts of “tradition” and Magisterial authority. A term defined in opposition to an extreme error is likely to simplistically embrace the other extreme error. Many Reformed advocates of the “sufficiency” of Scripture are driven by their severe hostility to “Romanism” to embrace a notion of the Bible’s authority that is all-expansive and unquestionable: to even hint that significant truth might be found outside the pages of the Bible – whether in pagan writers, old Christian writers, or even modern non-Protestant writers – is seen by many as a nefarious attack on the clarity of God’s Word and the knowability of (all) truth by means of its teachings.

Second, emotional connotations associated with the Bible’s “sufficiency” are often allowed to do the conceptual work and stipulate the practical applications of it. In discussions about modern scientific theories, for instance, modern Protestants as a whole still labor under the disastrous rhetorical and intellectual after-effects of the Scopes Trial of 1925. There, as our popular culture has it, the Bible met Science in open conflict and went down in flames. Today’s “Bible only” advocates of the “sufficiency” of Scripture thus often readily reject appeals to Science in favor of “what the Bible plainly says” – a phrase which, more often than not, turns out to be a synonym for “what my untrained and unsophisticated mind thinks of as ‘the face value’ when it reads simple black-and-white words on a page.”

Third, the sense that most modern Protestants have of being culturally marginal, of being “underdogs for Truth,” of being always only a few steps away from being radically persecuted by “Them,”[2] readily creates an intellectual laziness and sloppiness toward complicated issues of human experience. For almost a century we have retreated from serious engagement with our culture in terms of mastering “Western culture” before trying to figure out how to present the Gospel in its context.[3] Uninterested in “worldly” things, we have over the last century or so simply surrendered the cultural ground to the unbelievers – whose increasing cultural influence we paradoxically then claim to despise, since it presides over the sad demise of the West.

Since we are as a general rule profoundly uneducated in the basic history and substance of our own culture, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with that culture.[4] The Bible, by contrast, is something we feel we have mastered. Grasping its message is so much simpler than getting grounded in philosophy, literature, political theory, art, original languages, and the rest of the traditional Liberal Arts curriculum. We don’t understand Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine and Boethius and Aquinas and Calvin (really, we don’t want to understand them), but we do understand the Bible.

For us, then, it is so much easier to go flipping through the pages of the Bible for answers whenever we have a question. What gets lost in our Bible page-flipping is, unfortunately, a due consideration of the logic about the relationship of sufficiency to different ends. Some ways that this works out in real life:

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of telling us all truth. We just assume that the Bible is a self-contained manual of epistemology, and expend all our cultural energy trying to develop a stark antithesis between “what the Bible says” and what “They” (the unbelievers) say.

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of grounding modern scientific inquiry. Many modern Protestants just assume that it was, and use the “sufficiency” of Scripture as a divine underwriting of self-justifying and self-contained scientific research programs. In their haste to oppose the errors that “They” (the unbelievers) are foisting upon us in the name of Science, these Protestants seem to forget that empirical science is always a revisable matter, and that he who marries today’s science – even by way of negative reaction – will be tomorrow’s widower.[5]

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of spelling out a complete political theory that is universally valid – a political system that is good in any nation, anywhere, at any time. We just assume that is such, and expend all our cultural energy trying to get prayer back into the public schools, the Ten Commandments hung back on the wall of the Supreme Court, and the “autonomy” of the U.S. Code replaced with the “theonomy” of the last three books of Moses.

In these ways and more, the classical Protestant teaching of the “sufficiency” of Scripture has come to be abused in our day. Although the idea is often stated correctly – say, “Scripture is equal to the ends for which it was given” – the specific applications that we often connect with the idea of Scriptural “sufficiency” demonstrate that we do not actually understand our own doctrine.

In the next post, I will provide some specific evidence that this accusation is true.


1. See T. David Gordon (The Insufficiency of Scripture) and J.P. Moreland (How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It). I leave it to the reader to go looking for the “screechy” non-replies, if he or she so wishes.

2. The “Us vs. Them” mentality of modern Protestants is everywhere present, particularly in our political discourse, where we are always complaining about the latest dastardly deeds of the “secular humanists” (or equivalent terms), who are always nefariously attacking our precious faith because they hate Christ and His truth. While there is a measure of truth to this feeling – Jesus did say that if the world hated Him, it would hate us – that truth has been exaggerated into a mentality of suspicious and reactionary hostility toward all that comes from outside our narrow confines.

3. I am here speaking of the loss of the traditional Liberal Arts, the foundations of “Western culture,” in public (and private Christian) education which began to take place early in the 20th century and continued throughout. This curriculum was the foundation of all education in the Western world from the time of the ancient Greeks all the way up to our own intellectually-myopic age. The loss of the Liberal Arts as the basis of public education has had incalculable negative effects on not only unbelieving culture, but on the Christian view of the world as well.

4. A lot of us even fear that culture, for every time we turn around it seems to be generating some new dastardly attack on “Truth.” Sometimes fear is a good thing, helping us to avoid something that genuinely will hurt us. Many other times, though, fear is a crippling reaction that draws us away from our duty to take action against the threat. Our modern Protestant cultural fear is of this latter type.

5. There is a difference between believing the Genesis account of creation (as I do), and dogmatically embracing the various scientific research programs that go under the label “creationism” in popular discourse. Even where biblical exegesis seems very straightforward, empirical science, as an inductive discipline, is nearly always debatable. Many self-described “creationists” fail to grasp the complexities of relating God’s Word to God’s world, and so wrongly tie the infallibility of the former to the fallibility of our investigations of the latter.

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An Insufficient Understanding of “Sufficiency,” Part I

In harmony with Scripture, we Protestants confess that Scripture is “sufficient”[1] and that Christ is “sufficient.”[2] I have noticed these past few years that in our circles these affirmations frequently exhibit the quality of moralism. That is, they perform as statements which activate great emotion within us, but fail to ground the emotion in serious substance. They become statements that say more about our (superficial) piety toward God’s Word than they do about the messy details of our daily lives in God’s world.

There are a number of ways that this could be illustrated.

For one, our typical statements about “sufficiency” frequently take almost entirely negative spins. The “sufficiency” of Scripture is frequently defined and defended as a denial of the erroneous concept of “tradition” that is held by Roman Catholicism. “Scripture plus nothing!”, we often retort to Catholics who are offering us what we consider to be a mess of mere human pottage masquerading as divine truth. Other times, Scriptural “sufficiency” is portrayed as a denial that in some area X of our lives, it is impermissible, nay, even impious, to consult sources other than Scripture for wisdom. “Scripture plus nothing!” we indignantly retort to other Christians who advocate the serious study of non-biblical books as a means to gain some understanding of our world. It is the same with the “sufficiency” of Christ, which is usually defined and defended as as a denial that anything other than simple, unadorned faith in Christ has any significant place in our lives. “Christ plus nothing!”, we rail at psychology, philosophy, history, literature, science, politics, and the like.

Before I object to these popular portrayals of “sufficiency,” let me note that there are some very important truths in these denials.

For instance, when we say that Scripture is “sufficient,” what we mean to say is that in terms of finding out about our condition before God and what can be done about it, nothing other than Scripture is required. Other things might conceivably say some good things about those topics, but we do not need those things in order to know what is true about ourselves and God. We do not need those things because Scripture is sufficient. This is certainly a wholesome principle, and one with which I agree most heartily.

Likewise, when we say that Christ is “sufficient,” what we mean to say is that in terms of gaining access to the Father, of having our sins forgiven, nothing other than God-given faith in Christ and Him crucified for us is required. We do not need priestly mediators or sacraments or psychological theories or philosophical axioms or an acquaintance with the Great Books of the Western World or anything else in order to get and know that we have acceptance in the eyes of a holy God. We do not need these things because Christ is sufficient. This is also a wholesome principle, and one with which I agree most heartily.

However, as I have been critically observing[3] the Reformed world for the past 5 years or so, it has become increasingly clear to me that on the backs of these noble truths there have come to be grafted some very deleterious errors. A great many Reformed people operating in contexts as diverse as conversations at the local coffee shop, Sunday School classes, sermons, seminary classrooms, and Internet discussion fora have come (I presume mostly innocently), to distort the practical ramifications of these grand Reformation ideas even when they get the verbal definitions of them correct.[4]

I have observed ministers and laymen from a variety of denominations talk as if there is little to no point in a Christian seriously engaging any written works other than the Bible. To be sure, the Christian may read other works – these ministers and laymen do not outright forbid such. However, to their way of thinking, the only reason to read these other works is to find fodder to laugh at the stupidities of non-Christians, foils against which to measure the Grand, Comprehensive, and Omnicompetent principles of what they call “the Christian worldview.”[5] To actually seriously study works other than the Bible, as if one might find some gems of truth scattered throughout them, is a fool’s errand, and only distracts attention from the only reliable source of authority that we have: the Bible.

Thus, to bring this home to myself, I have frequently been the target of denunciations from Christians of diverse denominational backgrounds that take the form of “Why don’t you have more biblical exegesis on your blog? Don’t you care about what the Bible says?” The only answer I can give is, “Of course I care what the Bible says. I just don’t think that a Christian has to justify everything he does with biblical prooftexts, because the idea that Scripture is ‘sufficient’ does not mean that Scripture is the only thing worth looking at.” It is a distinction that has often been lost on my critics, and their charges against me have played an integral role in bringing me to realize how the Reformation idea of Scriptural “sufficiency” has come to be abused in our day.[6]

Likewise, I have observed ministers and laymen from a variety of denominations talk as if there is little to no point in a Christian engaging in “merely worldly” activities, for it is only “preaching the Gospel” that changes individual men and so, by extension, changes a whole culture. In this paradigm, only regeneration counts. The thing itself that is regenerated does not count, except in the negative sense of just sitting there so that it can get regenerated. Only inner change truly counts. External change is superfluous to what is really important – namely, “spiritual” things. Some go so far as to suggest that the best way to change our culture is for us to strive to get our worship on Sundays in the church right, since worship is “spiritual warfare” and only “spiritual warfare” counts in God’s eyes.

There are several ways to approach these errors in order to show that they are, in fact, errors, and that they do not belong in our thought processes as we meditate on the idea of “sufficiency.” To me, the best place to begin, since we are dealing in all these cases with Greek words translated into English, is to inquire what the English word “sufficient” means. In English, “sufficient” means “adequate” or “equal to the end proposed.” If an army is said to be “sufficient” for the defense of a country, that army is “enough” for the purpose of defending the country. The army is “equal to the end proposed.” If I have “sufficient” money to cover the groceries in my cart, then I have “enough” money to walk out of the store having paid for all that is in my cart. The amount of money I have on my person is “equal to the end proposed.” It is “sufficient.”

This seems simple enough. In fact, it seems so simple that one may wonder why any further reflection is needed. Further reflection is needed because, as was just said, “sufficient” may be defined as “equal to the end proposed.” In the two examples just given, ends were proposed – defending the country, and buying the groceries in my cart. Are these the only ends that could be proposed at any time? Of course not. Are the ways in which these ends were stated the only ways they could be stated? Again, of course not. We could, for instance, envision a different war in which the present army is not sufficient to defend the country, or a shopping trip in which I place so much in my cart that the money in my wallet is not sufficient to cover it.

In other words, the word “sufficient” is not just a word that we say, not just what Francis Schaeffer once called a “connotation word.”[7] A “connotation word” is a word of which the hearers think they know the meaning because it arouses pragmatic or emotional sympathies within them. However, upon closer analysis, it turns out that the connoted meaning of the word is nebulous, and that only an illusion of communication is taking place because the word either has no real intellectual content or else is being filled with different intellectual content by each hearer. Thus, the substance of what “sufficient” means has to be spelled out in concrete detail, lest our invocation of the term be merely a pious abstraction. The real-world value of the word “sufficient” is directly related to the end which is proposed. Propose a different end, and what was a moment ago “sufficient” may no longer be so.

Now what does all this mean for our Protestant affirmations that Scripture and Christ are sufficient for us? I will take up this topic in my next post.


1. The locus classicus for this idea is 1 Timothy 3:16, which says that Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Jesus frequently castigated His opponents for adding to or distorting the Scriptures by adhering to mere traditions of men (Matthew 15; Mark 7).

2. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, we find out that God’s grace is sufficient for us. Ephesians 1:3 says that we have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Colossians 2:10 tells us that we are “complete” in Christ.

3. I have been Reformed myself since late 1996, so what I am doing here is an “internal critique,” not a hostile external attack. What I mean by “critically observing” is taking 1 Thessalonians 5:21 seriously by “examining all things carefully” so that I can “hold fast to that which is good.” Examining “all” things does not mean all things except your own faith.

4. Of course, not all Reformed people are guilty of these errors. When speaking of a large, diverse array of individuals, it is not wrong to use generalizations even though there are many individuals to whom the general truth does not apply.

5. I hope shortly to do a post or two on the problems that are inherent in thinking of Christianity as a “worldview,” and of ourselves as “worldview thinkers.”

6. Other things have played integral roles in this realization, as well. For instance, numerous books and articles by such Reformed worthies as those who run the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, along with R.C. Sproul, Leland Ryken, and many others, have pointed out the poverty of contemporary Evangelicalism’s – including much of the Reformed world – approach to the created world.

7. See this excerpt from Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. The term “connotation word” is defined and explained about halfway down, but it would be worthwhile to read the whole excerpt for context.s

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Rhetoric In the New Testament, Pt. 4 (Acts, Galatians, Thessalonians, Romans)

George Kennedy analyzes several speeches by Peter in the Book of Acts, and finds significant rhetorical features in them. For instance, Acts 1:16-22, though only six verses, appears to be an instance of a deliberative speech. This is seen, according to Kennedy, in the following structure: prooimiom (the opening word of friendly greeting, “Brethren”, in 1:16), narration (1:16-19, the brief retelling of the death of Judas), marshalling of proof (from Scripture itself, 1:20), and the closing statement recommending a particular action in the near future (1:21-22). This form of the classic deliberative speech is very short and lacks many other rhetorical devices which could have been used had the circumstances of this speech required them.[1]

A second example, the long speech in Acts 2:14-40, seems to exhibit an interesting combination of both judicial and deliberative rhetoric as follows. Verses 14-36 are explicitly judicial in that they first refute the charge of the Jews that those assembled at Pentecost are drunk and then indicts the Jews for their pivotal role in the death of Jesus. Both of these sections contain issues of fact, which in classical rhetorical theory was one type of stasis (basic issue) to be argued in a court setting. From verse 38-40 Kennedy sees a change to a deliberative mode of discourse, strongly urging the crowd to repent and be baptized. Verse 40′s summary, “with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them…” seems to clinch the idea that this speech falls into the classical category of deliberative rhetoric. Intriguingly, though, viewing the entire speech as a unit gives the outline: prooimiom (v. 14), proposition (in the form of an enthymeme, v. 15), proof (again, from Scripture, vv. 17-21), second prooimiom (v. 22), second proposition (vv. 23-24), second proof (from Scripture, vv. 25-28, amplification of proof (via exegesis of the Scriptural passage cited, vv. 29-35), and conclusion (v. 36).[2]

A third example is the speech of Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:2-53. According to Kennedy, in this example of clear judicial rhetoric, the stasis is antengklema, or “counter-accusation”, the purpose of which is to highlight the purportedly illegitimate jurisdiction of the court bringing the accusation. The structure of Stephen’s extended speech, given to him by the Holy Spirit, works out like this: prooimiom (7:2a), narration (2b-48), proposition (v. 51), and indictment in the form of proof (from historical evidence, vv. 52-53).[3] Kennedy sees no natural and proper classical rhetorical ending to this speech (arguing that it needs one of several possible devices that would be normally used to close out a judicial speech), but he does see an “epilogue” of sorts in vv. 54-56′s account of Stephen’s vision, which performs the “counter-accusation” function of the stasis of jurisdiction, namely, Stephen’s rejecting the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction over him by pointing out the location of the real court of law: the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Moving on, Kennedy sees deliberative rhetoric in Paul’s Thessalonian epistles, deliberative rhetoric in the epistle to the Galatians, and epideictic rhetoric in the epistle to the Romans.

I Thessalonians reads like a typical Greco-Roman letter of the day, beginning with a salutation and ending on a complimentary note. Between these comes an extended exhortation to stand firm in the Lord (and thus, the epistle is an example of deliberative rhetoric), spiced up by an extended narration (chapters 2 and 3) which are clearly an attempt by Paul to establish a favorable ethos (a conviction that he can be trusted) with his audience. The crux of Paul’s ethos here is his strong sense of identity with the Thessalonian church and its needs, seen especially in verses 2-3 and 3:10. Beginning with a refutation of slanders about his authority and desires relative to the Thessalonians (2:1-8), the construction of a positive ethos travels through highly emotional accounts of missionary experience (2:9-3:13) to a closing, and quite calm prayer (3:11-13). Nestled in the midst of this (2:14, 19) is a powerful rhetorical identification of Paul’s sufferings with the sufferings of the Thessalonian church. This is the rhetorical mode of persuasion known as pathos. 2 Thessalonians follows a similar plan, but with the entire omission of the narration.[4]

Galatians provides another example of deliberative rhetoric, though Kennedy opens his section on the epistle by observing that some commentators have misleadingly identified it as an instance of judicial rhetoric because of its emphasis on “defense” (both Paul’s defense of himself and his defense of his Gospel). There is some prima facie plausibility to this sort of reading, especially given a thorough knowledge of the very serious theological disputes within the early Church, but Kennedy still argues for deliberative rather than judicial rhetoric in Galatians. This is because the narration of facts in the epistle seems more directly related to establishing Paul’s credibility (ethos) against the Judaizers, and thus the divine origin of his Gospel. The whole point, indeed, of the Galatians letter is to exhort the Christians there toward a specific action, and exhortation in strong terms is one of two kinds of deliberative rhetoric (the other kind being dissuasion). Paul’s argument in the epistle is a sustained case that Christians are not to observe the Law of Moses but the Law of Christ instead, and exhorts them to make a decision (via deliberation) about their immediate future lives as Christians and toward the Judaizing disrupters of the peace.

Kennedy’s analysis of the rhetorical structure of Galatians expounds this pattern: salutation (amplified by two topoi, the divine nature of Paul’s apostleship and an announcement of the doctrine of Christian freedom in Christ, 1:1-3), prooimiom (an attention-grabbing, biting attack on his opponents, 1:6-10), proposition (there is no other Gospel, 1:8), proof (working out of the headings in support of the proposition, 1:11 ff.), narrative (1:13-2:14), second heading, narration, and proof (3:1-4:11), anticipation of objections (3:23-4:11), strong appeal to pathos (4:12-4:20), further proofs (4:21-6:10), and epilogue (6:11-18).

Some specific rhetorical figures which seem to be evidenced in the book are: epidiorthosis (a correction, 1:7), epicheireme (an argument which, unlike an enthymeme, states all of its parts, 2:15-20), synkrisis (a striking antithetical contrast between two things, 5:19-24), and pleonasm (amplifications of the pastoral points in chapter 5). Interestingly, Kennedy ends by contrasting the classical rhetorician’s tactic of proliferating arguments in order to get all possible angles of a dispute with the tactic of Christian rhetoric, which “focuses on a few [arguments] presented as absolute in their validity.”[5]

Finally, in the book of Romans Kennedy sees a use of epideictic rhetoric, which he explains as follows. The structure outlines like this: prooimiom (including introduction of topoi, 1:8-15), proposition (1:16-17), narration (of the power of God in salvation, 1:18-2:16), arguments on specific topics (situations of Jews and Gentiles, the nature of faith, the matchless love of God from which nothing can separate us, explanation of Jewish concerns to Gentiles, pastoral issues, 2:17-15-13), epilogue (15:14-33), postscript (establishing personal connections between Paul and the members of the Roman church, 16:1-23). Some rhetorical devices found in the book include: pleonasm (deliberate redundancy for rhetorical effect, 1:29-31), strategically-placed rhetorical questions (2:21-23), paradox (4:18; 6:20), climax (5:3-5), and amplification (16:25-27).[6]

As a final and thought-provoking point about specific examples of classical rhetoric in the New Testament, Kennedy observes that the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a splendid example of anaphora, which is the rhetorical technique of repeating the first word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses (“By faith…By faith…By faith…By faith…”). This is not only pleasing to the eye and ear, but results in a progressive building of rhetorical “tension” and at last culminates in a satisfying resolution (“because God has provided something better for us”).[7]

Much more could be said, but it seems good to close out this series by returning to where we began: St. Augustine’s remark in On Christian Doctrine 4.4.6 that the biblical writers generally speaking have their own special form of rhetoric, and that they do not spurn classical rhetoric so much as they simply do not make an ostentatious use of it (as do the classical rhetoricians).

1. George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pg. 116.

2. Ibid., pp. 116-118.

3. Ibid., pp. 121-122.

4. Ibid., pp. 141-144.

5. Ibid., pp. 144-152; cite from pg. 151.

6. Ibid., pp. 152-156.

7. Ibid., pg. 156.

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“It’s All About the Gospel,” Said the Reformed Papalist

Here’s a follow-up to my post below, “Is Western Culture Worse than Sodom and Nineveh” -

It occurred to me that those Calvinists whose final recourse when discussing cultural topics is “It’s the Gospel that really changes people ” may be, despite their honorable intentions, actually truncating “the Gospel.” A lot of times, such Calvinists are referring to the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) – which, in the Reformation disputes was frequently called “the Gospel.”

However, there is more – a lot more – to “the Gospel” than “just” justification by faith alone. In fact, the Apostles – whom we may surely presume were preaching “the Gospel” in the Book of Acts – got in trouble not just for talking about how souls could be made right before a holy God, but for saying that “there is another King named Jesus” (Acts 17:1-9). The post-apostolic Christians followed their lead. Polycarp, that magnificent martyr, was killed not because he stood in the marketplace doing apologetics debates and pounding his pulpit for justification by faith alone, but because he refused to say “Caesar, Caesar” while performing a political act of submission to Caesar as “Lord.” If you know anything about Roman history and Roman politics, you will just see that Polycarp died for a “Gospel” that was about far, far more than how his soul could stand righteous before a holy God. It was about that, to be sure, but it was not only about that.

Now, if we were talking about Systematic Theology, these Calvinists would immediately agree that justification by faith alone necessarily produces the very practical fruit of sanctification. They would also agree that sanctification is about daily living, and that daily living involves quite a lot of use of the body to interact with the physical world. Yet somehow outside of “theology wonk” conversations, all this gets lost, and talk about “It’s the Gospel that changes people” becomes an, ahem, justification for sitting around lamenting the “sad decline” of our culture while doing nothing about it except “preaching the Gospel.” Essentially, justification gets divorced from sanctification when the locus of conversation changes from Systematic Theology to questions about Christian involvement in culture.

On the contrary, in the same way that the Reformation (biblical) doctrine of justification by faith alone necessarily produces the very bodily activity of seeking sanctification, it also has definite concrete political and social implications. Contra to what Luther derisively called the “hyperspiritual” view of the papalists that “real” Christian life consists of shunning the “merely worldly” and seeking “higher” things, the Reformers understood that justification by faith alone immediately and politically frees the Christian to do all manner of “worldly” things without justifying them as largely time-wasting, and probably even disposable, appendages to “preaching the Gospel” and other so-called “spiritual” things.

This is why Luther is reported to have replied to a cobbler who asked him what he should do now that he had become a Protestant: “Make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.” Likewise, when someone asked Luther what he would do if he knew Christ was coming back tomorrow, he said, “I would plant a tree.” This is why Calvin spent so much time in his writings talking about supposedly “merely mundane” things like political theory and the lawfulness for the Christian of various modes of cultural activity.

These implications of “the Gospel” seem to be radically counterintuitive to a lot of professing Reformed people. Yes, indeed, it is “the Gospel” and only “the Gospel” that changes men on the inside. However, interior change is not the whole of redemption. Interior change necessarily produces exterior change – as one has colorfully said, “Theology always comes out your fingertips.” The question that arises, then, is what mode a justified person’s exterior change should take. As I have explained elsewhere,[1] because of what “culture” is, cultural work is simply inescapable. The question is not “Should we do cultural work?, but “What kind of cultural work should we do?”

Alas, a whole lot of “It’s all about the Gospel” Reformed-types these days hold a view of “the Gospel” that assumes the same spirit/body dualism that the papalists held against the Reformers. It’s a sad irony that some of the most passionate defenders of “the Gospel” manage to mess it up by confining it to thundering propositions about the state of the soul, all the while “fiddling while Rome burns.” And it’s an even sadder irony that the specific way in which they mess “the Gospel” up is exactly the way the papalist opponents of the Reformers messed up the biblical concept of the Christian life.

[1] See my old series “The Biblical Necessity of A Christian Culture” – Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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Principles of Reformed Fundamentalism

A lot of people I know, from former teachers to present friends, seem to think that Fundamentalism – the preeminent American variety of Protestantism – is really not that big of a deal in Reformed circles. To spend much time addressing it, to point out its inroads into the Reformed Faith, to criticize its narrow-mindedness, lack of compassion, willful ignorance of the larger world outside its own camp, and self-righteous pretensions to see the heart motivations of others, is just unfruitful and perhaps even unhealthy. “Chill out,” some people frequently tell me. Tempest in a teapot, really.

I respectfully, but very firmly, disagree.

It is important to understand that I am not using the term “Fundamentalism” as a mere term of rhetorical abuse, as it is frequently used today. I believe the term has actual content, and it is the content of the term to which I object. Also, thanks to the news media in particular, the term “Fundamentalist” has come to be associated with murderous Islamic fanatics and other religiously-unhinged people. I am not so foolish as to make the universal claim that all people who exhibit the traits I will soon list are either murderous or religiously-unhinged.

Although every Fundamentalist is in some important senses religiously off-kilter, not every “Fundamentalist” is the type of person who, say, goes out and protests the murder of the unborn by murdering the murderers. A lot of them are just self-righteous legalists who lose their emotional composure when someone pops open a beer or lights up a cigar in their presence. A lot of them are just simplistic moralists who think “Christian culture” was a “Leave It To Beaver” sort of paradise that got nefariously destroyed when the “Secular Humanists” kicked prayer and the Bible out of the public schools in the 1950s. A lot of them are just “good, hard-working people” who devotionally read their Bibles every day, go to church on Sundays, and wish passionately that there were more “G-rated” movies and that some “Christian Coalition” could make it so that 7-11s wouldn’t carry pornography. They just don’t have the spiritual resources to handle the Modern world, and so they desperately retreat into their own private, pious sense of “commitment to Christ” as the universal solution for all ills.

The sense in which I am using the term “Fundamentalism” has some overlap with these popular definitions, but it is at the same time much broader because it is rooted in the larger history of American Protestantism and its various mutations over the last 200 years or so. To understand what I mean by the term, one must go back to the beginning of “Fundamentalism” – to the original historical description of a sub-group of mostly American Protestants who began in the early 20th century to vigorously fight the forces of Modernism and Liberalism that were massively infecting and debilitating Protestant institutions.

The original Fundamentalists, named for the set of 12 volumes of essays (The Fundamentals) published between 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, were a diverse and intellectually-respectable bunch. Despite the later extreme narrowing of the Fundamentalist perspective on faith-science issues, some of the original Fundamentalists actually defended the possibility of harmonizing evolution and the Bible.[1] Indeed, not a one of them were Billy Sunday-type “Bible-thumpers,” though within a few decades the term “Fundamentalist” would come to mean exactly that in the popular imagination.

The term “Fundamentalism” originally defined a set of specific doctrinal principles, which are usually listed this way: (1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, (2) the Virgin Birth, (3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, (4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and (5) the imminent second coming of Christ. As this list goes, it isn’t bad, but one may certainly reasonably wonder why only these five doctrines were considered “fundamental.”

For a while, these five doctrines held the coalition together, but, to make a long story short, as controversies between the Fundamentalists and their Modern Liberal opponents progressed, fractures appeared in the coalition. Bit-by-bit, Fundamentalism splintered. Most of the splits were very nasty in tone. As various groups hived off to form their own tribes of “true believers” clustering around whatever one or two or three Burning Issues on which they felt everyone else had “compromised,” each group became theologically xenophobic and deeply anti-intellectual. The Fundamentalists, of whatever denominational stripe, began to lose intellectual battle after battle. There were a variety of reasons for this, and many of them may be subsumed under the general tone of American society as it became more “secular,” more hostile to conservative Christianity. Sometimes, though, as with the hugely influential Scopes Trial of 1925, the Fundamentalists lost just because of the incompetence of their spokesperson(s) to address the particular issue of debate. Whatever the reason for a particular group’s cultural failure, however, collectively they grew increasingly radical about the role of the Bible in human thought and action: That other group tried to engage the world of scholarship, and look what happened to them! We’ll avoid the same fate by just damning the world of scholarship as a whole! Today, the qualities of theological insularity and narrow-mindedness, suspicion of serious academic endeavors, militant (and usually self-righteous) separatism, and obnoxious, in-your-face Bible-thumping” define the term “Fundamentalist” for most people in our culture today.

In my view, what the history of “Fundamentalism” shows is that “Fundamentalism” has transcended a mere list of doctrinal principles (the famed “Five Fundamentals” of the 1920s), and became a whole way of thinking and living. It is now a whole self-contained and self-justifying set of approaches to the various aspects of reality: there is a distinctly Fundamentalist ontology, epistemology, psychology, sociology, and axiology.[2] In this all-comprehensive worldview fashion, “Fundamentalism” transcends a specific list of doctrinal positions.

There are Fundamentalists who are Democrats and there are Fundamentalists who are Republicans. There are Fundamentalists who think Christian political thought has to come straight out of the Book of Deuteronomy, and there are Fundamentalists who think Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are just “the bombs.” There are young earth Fundamentalists and old earth Fundamentalists. There are Arminian Fundamentalists and Calvinist Fundamentalists. There are Fundamentalists who resolve to “know nothing but the King James Version of the Bible, and it crucified for me,” and Fundamentalists who can competently engage the domains of biblical criticism and the exegesis ofthe original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Indeed, Fundamentalists can be found in the ranks of almost any position that Christians take today, for Fundamentalism has adapted to the changing conditions of the Modern world, and so has transcended its original meaning. It is in this all-comprehensive worldview fashion that Fundamentalism has wreaked absolute havoc in the Reformed world for the last few decades.

I started to see this about ten years ago as a side-effect of spending a lot of time debating popular-level Roman Catholic apologists. That bunch is thoroughly Fundamentalist itself, and repeatedly demonstrates an inability to grasp historical arguments that show a number of radical discontinuities between the Protestant Reformers and today’s Protestant Evangelicals. No matter what the topic of debate, these apologists inevitably reduced the Reformation principle to a caricature drawn from contemporary Protestant Fundamentalism – for them there either was no difference between the two, or the former simply necessarily devolves into the latter.

But it wasn’t just the Catholic apologists who helped me see the dangerous presence of Fundamentalism in Reformed circles. Eventually it was Reformed Fundamentalists themselves who helped me see it. As a whole way of thinking and living, Fundamentalism appears in the way many Reformed people debate specific issues such as creation/evolution – they have never gotten over the Scopes Trial of 1925, but relive it continually every time any issue of faith and science arises. It appears in the way they think about the Bible’s role in human thought and action – they are fanatical biblicists, demanding that everything be justified with a “plain” prooftext from Scripture. It appears in the way they do theology – only the Bible counts, and only they know how to properly read the Bible. It appears in the way they practice apologetics – any defense of the Faith that does not assume a militant “Us vs. Them” paradigm is a “compromise.” It appears in the way they talk to other image-bearers (both Christian and non) – Jesus vs. the Pharisees and Paul vs. the Judaizers are “one size fits all” models of human conversation.

In these ways and more, Fundamentalism fundamentally affects in extremely harmful ways not just the way many Reformed people perceive themselves, but the way they perceive key Christian tasks such as “preaching the Gospel,” “defending the Faith,” and “serving the Lord.” Despite the common way that our culture has of caricaturing Fundamentalism as a haven for brainless, mantra-spouting idiots, in the Reformed world it is found not just on the level of the average layman, but on the level of professional scholars teaching in the seminaries. Men with advanced degrees in theology, apologetics, Church history, biblical interpretation, ancient languages, and other important high-powered intellectual disciplines, think and act like Fundamentalists – and, more devastatingly, confuse their Fundamentalism with “being Reformed.”

Ironically, Reformed Fundamentalists typically refuse to accept the label “Fundamentalist,” because they associate the label with anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism may be defined as an attitude of retreat from the sober use of the mind to understand and articulate the Faith, but if there is any one thing that Reformed people believe characterizes their view of the faith and reason, it is that “Reformed” means to be deeply and soberly intellectual about one’s faith. Calvin was this way, and we certainly want to be be like Calvin! Indeed, if one was to gather a wide array of Christians into a large meeting hall and watch their activities, the Reformed people would be the ones sitting in the corner of a room, brows furrowed in intense concentration while reading a dust-covered 1,000 page book with a title like “A True and Most Learned Disputation On the Glories of the Inestimable Reformation Doctrines of Grace, With Accompanying Refutations of All Pelagianizing and Judaizing Departures From the Plain Truth of the Holy Scriptures.”

Such people are in no way “Fundamentalists,” right? On the contrary, just reading Big Books Full of Big Words does not insulate one from the harmful ontology, epistemology, psychology, and sociology of Fundamentalism-as-a-way-of-thinking-and-living. In order to illustrate this, I have put together the following short, and non-exhaustive, list of characteristics of Reformed Fundamentalism. Perceptive observers of a wide cross-section of both extramural and intramural Reformed disputes will readily recognize these characteristics at work in what they have seen.

#1 - There is Us, and there is Them. We are good. They are bad. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#2 - The Reformation was a radical discontinuity in Christendom, and the whole point of the Christian life today is to spend every day pretending that each of us is our own personal Luther at his own personal Diet of Worms. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#3 - By “They,” We mean Arminians, Roman Catholics, and unbelievers – that is, pretty much the rest of the world. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#4 - They do not like the plain truth. We do like the plain truth. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#5 - We have grace. They do not have grace. Thus, We are better than Them. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#6 - The Reformed Faith is all about saving souls. Everything else is mere externals, worthless to both God and Us. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#7 - We are the guardians of all biblical truth. The one, true, holy, catholic, apostolic Christian Faith is what We say it is. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#8 - Whereas We have mastered the Bible, They don’t like the Bible. If you try to get us to think about how we use and interpret the Bible, you are attacking the Bible itself. If you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

#9 - In the event of any other dispute, go to #1 and read through this list again. It’s really very simple. And never forget that if you disagree with Us, you are somehow involved with Them.

These principles are not mitigated by the mere fact that Reformed people as a general rule are very interested in intellectual matters. Rather, these principles actually underlie a lot of what passes for Reformed intellectual work these days.

The political thought of the “Theonomists” and “Reconstructionists,” for instance, continually exhibits the exaggerated and militant “Us vs. Them” mentality of Fundamentalism, right down to the moralistic anger at how “They” (the “Secular Humanists” and/ or “the Enlightenment”) stole our glorious “Christendom” from us, and, doggone it, if They don’t give it back yesterday, we’ll thump them with our BIBLES! Theonomists, in fact, typically exaggerate and distort the importance of their own exegetical work to the history of Christian thought, and in the process, also frequently grossly caricature other positions as simple, Black-and-White, “autonomous” refusals to submit to God.

Likewise, Van Tilian apologetics, which seems to have become the majority report among Reformed people interested in cultural matters, continually exhibits the self-righteous Fundamentalist notion that We are the sole possessors of the correct approach to the Bible, and everyone else – They – are perpetually guilty of “compromising” the “plain” truth of the Bible. Despite a veneer of intellectual sophistication, too, the Van Tilian approach is actually extremely suspicious of reason and academic pursuits, and its advocates spill a considerable amount of ink attempting to show that everyone except Reformed people of their own ilk use reason incorrectly and in a manner utterly hostile to the Bible.

Numerous sub-sects in the Reformed world exalt “soteriology” – doctrines about salvation – above all other concerns. In their distortive reading of certain passages of Paul, since “flesh profits nothing,” there is not much reason to be concerned with “mere externals.” “Mere externals” only get in the way of what is really important – the soul. So reducing salvation to nebulous, unverifiable internal transactions between the Holy Spirit and the individual person’s soul, such “Reformed” people demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between their understanding of the purpose of salvation and that of the “non-Reformed” (usually the Arminians) people whose “errors” they so vehemently decry.

Further, a great many self-proclaimed Calvinists have become masters of the pessimism of the Calvinistic doctrine of sin, but have extremely shrunken and deformed notions about the Calvinistic doctrine of redemption. One does not have to look far, especially on the Internet, to find TULIP thunderpuppies passionately pounding the pulpit for “the doctrines of grace” while exhibiting zero graciousness toward the recipients of their sermons, who might as well be Jonathan Edwards’ “loathsome spiders” hanging over the gaping pit of Hell. The emphasis of such “Gospel-preaching” is, just like Billy Sunday of old, “Hellfire and brimstone,” but while this is ostensibly done to drive men to Christ, in reality it is done to highlight the majestic fidelity of the thunderpuppy to “Truth” and the disgustingly willful hatred of “Truth” of his opponent. The Pharisee still stands in the Temple looking down on the Publican, but now his prayer is “God I thank thee that I am not like those others who compromise your wonderful Gospel of grace!”

Lastly, there is the ever-present phenomenon of “Bible-thumping.” This used to be associated with the likes of William Jennings Bryan and Billy Sunday, but today you don’t have to look far to find card-carrying members of the Reformed intelligentsia regularly confusing “Bible-thumping” with the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. I have written much on this topic elsewhere, so here I will only summarize. Unfortunately for today’s Reformed Fundamentalists, the Reformers and their heirs pretty much all the way up to the late 19th century did not believe that the Bible was the first, last, and really, the only, place to stop for principles and life applications. They regularly and learnedly exegeted and expounded upon the Bible, yes, but they did so from within a warm, organic, humanistic[3] worldview, a worldview which did not simplistically confuse the “plain” meaning of Scripture with what the surface level of their own minds thought was true. The Reformers understood that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith, not that it is the only rule of faith, period. This distinction, and not contemmporary Reformed “Bible-thumping” (the attitude of automatically suspecting other sources of authority and instead going to the Bible whenever we have a question), is what built the Reformation.

These examples illustrate the fact for which I contend that just being “intellectual” does not protect one from the various faith-damaging impulses of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is just as alive and well in Reformed circles as it is outside of them. This essay is not some overanxious, exaggerated jeremiad I have written in a fit of melancholic despair. It is a very real problem that has been with us for decades, and it very much needs to be addressed by all who love the Reformation and wish to see its truths successfully engage our Modern world.

[1] A position I do not share, lest anyone be wondering.

[2] Axiology is a little-used word for the study of ethics.

[3] If the first thing you think when you read this word is “Secular Humanists,” Fundamentalism is not far from your door.

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Is Western Culture Worse Than Sodom and Nineveh?

I tend to be a “glass is half empty” sort of guy, always noticing the downside of things and usually having to have others of a less melancholy temperament point out to me that sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the glass is really half-full.

Today via Facebook I saw a link to post about the “sad decline” of Western culture. I resonate with posts like this a lot, because, again, I tend to be a pessimist. Nevertheless, when I read the individual’s concluding thought, which was that we need to “dust off” our Old Testaments and become re-familar with “remnant theology,” a light went off in my head – a light I would not have expected to go off in my (pessimistic) head.

I’ve been working with the Old Testament a lot for the past several weeks as I prepare to teach an integrated Bible / History / Literature class this coming school year, so the Old Testament has been much in my thoughts of late. When this individual invoked that portion of Scripture as a support for his cultural pessimism, suddenly I thought, “But wait – God is the God who told Abraham that He would spare the horrifically wicked city of Sodom if only ten righteous people were found in it, and He’s the God who spared the horrifically wicked city of Nineveh, because there were 120,000 people within it who could not tell the difference between their right hand and their left – plus livestock.”

That got me thinking about my usual pessimistic attitude about our culture. Here I am teaching in a Christian school, a fact which implies a long-term vision of cultural success. (There is no reason to educate, to impart a knowledge of our heritage and achievements to another generation, if the whole thing is irretrievably and inexorably sliding into the abyss really soon.) Yet here I also am, a melancholy and pessimistic evaluator of our present cultural situations, sitting around lamenting the loss of Christendom, and well, even the loss of just basic “Western culture” in our time. Woe is us!, I want to sit around complaining, for we are sadly declining and there is no health in our bones! Surely God cannot put up with our manifold sins and wickednesses for much longer, but must hasten us into the trash-heap of history! What can we poor, besieged Christians do but pray for strength to avoid falling along with everything else?!

The problem with this way of thinking, is, of course, that God isn’t obligated to underwrite a despairing, prophetic-rock-throwing, Gospel-thundering remnant and destroy the rest every time things in the world get really bad. As Augustine pointed out so long ago in the City of God, nobody knows the secrets of providence. God raises up kings and God deposes kings (Dan. 2:21), and all without consulting us or even remotely caring about our limited, and usually quite foolish, perspectives on the ephemeral events of our terribly momentary little lives.

Moreover, from the standpoint of what we can, as humans, actually know, we are explicitly told in Deuteronomy 29:29 that the only things that belong to us are the things that have been revealed – the secret things belong to God. Last time I checked, there is nowhere in Scripture that says Western culture will fall in the 21st century, leaving only a pathetic little remnant of faithful people to say “See, I told you so! At least we kept preaching the Gospel and doing apologetics while the house burned down around us!” And at any rate, as Peter Leithart has sagely pointed out in his commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, the Old Testament teaching of the remnant does not typically refer to a small band of believers who survive a judgment of God because they stayed firm to the end. Rather, it refers to a mixed remnant, a remnant of believers and unbelievers, who, by God’s providential selection alone, survive a judgment of God.

So yes, I say, let’s dust off those Old Testaments and stop being cultural pessimists. Yes, things right now in Western culture are pretty bad, and seeming like they’re getting worse every day. Nevertheless, we are not the ones who have declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and it is not our will for our culture that will be done. Perhaps we ought all to more seriously consider the words of Jonah 4:2, which, despite being uttered by a prophet who was angry that his gloom-and-doom expectations had not come to pass, “Ah Lord…You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” This God who saved Nineveh is, someone else subsequently pointed out to me, the very same God who knew that ultimately Nineveh would apostatize again and would have to be destroyed.

Yes, indeed, we have reason to hope, even in the midst of our “sad decline.”

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Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 3 (1 and 2 Corinthians)

“Rhetoric in the New Testament” is, of course, far too large a topic to adequately explore in a short series of posts on a blog. One purpose of this post in the series is to demonstrate, mostly from some of the writings of the Apostle Paul, that classical rhetoric was known to at least one of the major writers of the New Testament. Another purpose is to show that concerns emanating from classical rhetoric, particularly from its long-running dispute with the Greek Sophists, are an important backdrop to understanding the milieu in which the New Testament was written.

My starting point for examining classical rhetoric in the era of the New Testament will be the remark of St. Augustine in the fourth century that the biblical writers generally speaking have their own special form of rhetoric, and that they do not spurn classical rhetoric so much as they simply do not make an ostentatious use of it (as do classical rhetoricians). The passage is worth citing at length:

I could, however, if I had time, show those men who cry up their own form of language as superior to that of our authors (not because of its majesty, but because of its inflation), that all those powers and beauties of eloquence which they make their boast, are to be found in the sacred writings which God in His goodness has provided to mould our characters, and to guide us from this world of wickedness to the blessed world above. But is not the qualities which these writers have in common with the heathen orators and poets that give me such unspeakable delight in their eloquence; I am more struck with admiration at the way in which, by an eloquence peculiarly their own, they so use this eloquence of ours that it is not conspicuous either by its presence or its absence; for it did not become them either to condemn it or to make an ostentatious display of it; and if they had shunned it, they would have done the former; if they had made it prominent, they might have appeared to be doing the latter. And in those passages where the learned do note its presence, the matters spoken of are such, that the words in which they are put seem not so much to be sought out by the speaker as spontaneously to suggest themselves; as if wisdom were walking out of its house,–that is, the breast of the wise man, and eloquence, like an inseparable attendant, followed it without being called for.[1]

Let us look at how these concerns operate in Paul’s first and second letters to the Corinthians.

Paul’s phraseology in 1 Corinthians 3:18 speaks of his opponents as “the sophists [debaters] of this age” (οι σοφοι εν τω αιωνι τομτω) who lack a specifically Christian power (δμναμις). But the Apostle’s point in this passage goes beyond merely mentioning the οι σοφοι (Sophists) by name. Despite appearing to eschew classical rhetoric and offering instead a radically non-rhetorical “simple” presentation of the Gospel, Paul not only refers to a great deal of classical rhetorical terminology, but even sometimes uses formal rhetorical techniques in the construction of his phrases.

Bruce Winter[2] argues that the Sophists had introduced into the Corinthian church a great deal of confusion by means of mixing the Christian call to discipleship and preaching the Gospel with sophistic oratorical terms for students of rhetoric and rhetorical techniques. The sophists called their “disciples” names such as are found in 1 Corinthians 1:26 – σοφοι (wise men), δυνατοι (powerful [speakers]), and ευγενεισ (ingenious). By contrast, Christians are usually called “disciples” by the simple, unadorned word μαθητησ.

More specifically, the Corinthians had apparently become convinced that a μαθητησ (humble follower) was actually a ζηλωτησ (a prideful emulator of a great master). As Paul’s argument against the Sophist disturbers of the church proceeds, he makes reference to more terms current in rhetorical theory – terms such as πιστισ (confidence or conviction),[3] αποδειξισ (clear proof),[4] δυναμις (power),[5] πειθω (persuasiveness),[6] and υπεροχη (superior feeling based on eloquence)[7]. The use of these terms shows that Paul is very aware both of classical rhetoric and how it is being used by his opponents as a tool of deception rather than of truth.

Throughout 1 Corinthians 1, Paul attacks every one of the sophistical claims: the superior status of these wise men (1:4-9), their efforts to imitate great masters (1:10-17), and their penchant for boasting (1:17-31). Chapter 2 opens with a deliberate attack on the Sophistical way of approaching a new audience – namely, an appeal to superior speech, wisdom and possession of knowledge. Verses 3-5 of that chapter appear to implicitly address the three traditional modes of rhetorical proof: pathos (“I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling” – not very inspiring from a rhetorical point of view), ethos (“my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”), and logos (“that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God”).[8] In chapter 3:1-4, Paul chides the Corinthians’ behavior by describing it in terms used by the sophists themselves, ζηλοσ (generous rivalry) and ερις (contentious disposition). At last, 1 Corinthians 3:18-23 reverses the confusion of disciple / wise man (μαθητησ / σοφιστης), particularly by declaring that the teachers belong to the students – the exact opposite of what Sophist teachers claimed about their disciples!

As for the use of rhetorical techniques, several examples commend themselves. Winter argues that in 4:6 Paul uses two rhetorical devices. The first is known as “antithetical status,” which contrasts two things – in this case Paul’s “idiocy” with the Sophists’ “wisdom.” The second is called “covert allusion” (described by the Apostle as λογοσ εσχηματισμενος), which uses oblique references and irony to make tough points in a way that will not unduly offend the hearers. 2 Corinthians 10:13 gives an example of irony, which when combined with 11:6 creates the impression that Paul could speak with eloquence if he wished, but he deliberately chooses not to do so for theological reasons.

Winter cites L. Hartman’s judgment that Paul provides “a theological interpretation of his behaviour when defending himself in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians he became a kind of ‘anti-rhetorician’ in order that it might be evident from whence came the power and the effect.”[9] Even something as simple as the notation in 9:15-19 of his “secular work” is a calculated snub on the Sophists, who routinely expected the cities in which they plied their art to support them out of gratitude for their civic service. Paul is not like them: he works with his own hands for his support, and does not depend on others who are “wowed” by his clever mode of speaking.

The withering “anti-rhetorical” critique of the sophists continues in the next epistle. For in 2 Corinthians 1:12 Paul declares that he has not acted according to the σοφια σαρκικη (again note the reference to the sophists in the term σοφια), and in 10:4 he contrasts the methods of his ministry, fitted for spiritual men (πνευματικοι) with the fleshly power (σαρκικα αλλα δυνατα) of the world. In 10:10 Paul makes a big point out of his physical weakness, something that was the bane of the professional orator, who was expected to carry his body as powerfully as he thundered with his voice.

In 11:6 we find Paul referring to himself as “unskilled in speech.” This is a translation of the technical term “idiot” (ιδιωτης τω λογω), which was used by teachers of classical rhetoric to describe people not trained in the techniques of speaking well. Finally, we again find the snub on the Sophists’ disdain of manual labor in verse 16 of chapter 12, which refers again to Paul’s gainful employment (tent-making) outside of preaching, which fits very nicely with the fact that the sophists were known to be money-hungry and to use their rhetorical arts to fleece their audiences.

All of these intriguing facts about the text of the Corinthian epistles leads another scholar to conclude that “Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is largely deliberative [rhetoric], though it contains some judicial passages…Second Corinthians, on the other hand, is largely judicial except for chapters 8 and 9, which are deliberative.”[10]

As we proceed through analyses like this, it is noteworthy that a number of these scholars are not Christians. To some extent, they are performing these types of analyses as a way to “reduce” the biblical text to the status of any other old text from the Ancient world.[11] Nevertheless, I believe that these analyses points out a significant example of the Holy Spirit working with the existing categories of the mind of the one He is inspiring. From a Christian perspective, then, this recalls B.B. Warfield’s explanation of divine inspiration as being like God pouring His light through stained glass windows that were purposefully designed to color the light in a particular way. In other words, viewing these and similar New Testament passages through the lens of factors such as classical rhetoric can help us understand the Divine Word better.

1. “On Christian Doctrine” 4.4.6, trans. Rev. Professor J.F. Shaw, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995), pg. 577.

2. Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul Among the Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3. A term used by Aristotle in his On Rhetoric, I.I.1356a.

4. Referred to by Quintilian in his Oratorical Institutes 5.10.7.

5. Aristotle, On Rhetoric I.II.2.1.

6. The stated goal of rhetoric!

7. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, II.2.7.

8. A brief reminder of the meaning of these terms: (1) the truth and logical validity of the position being argued (rhetorical logos), (2) the speaker’s ability to convince his audience that he can be trusted (rhetorical ethos), and (3) the speaker’s successful arousing of favorable emotions in his audience so that they not only intellectually agree with what has been argued but also wish to act on it (rhetorical pathos). See Aristotle On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 37-39.

9. Philo and Paul Among the Sophists, pg. 161.

10. George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pg. 87.

11. An exception would be Ben Witherington III, whose recent work New Testament Rhetoric (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009) I have not yet had time to survey, and so am not citing from in these essays.

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Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 2 (Rhetoric and Sophistry)

In Part 1 of this series, we saw that even while teachers such as Plato and Aristotle were seeking to develop rhetoric into an art form that would be of great service to finding truth and expressing it well, there was another class of people who were deeply interested in rhetoric: the Sophists. These itinerant teachers of rhetoric were not so much interested in establishing truth by means of effective speaking, but rather interested only in effective speaking for its own sake. Often, the Sophists would use the rhetorical arts to persuade others of various positions regardless of whether those positions were true or false.[1] Other times, the Sophists used the art of words – sometimes torrents of words – to convince others that professional practitioners of a particular art (say, medicine) were in no way superior to a Sophist who had not studied the art in question, but could give pretty speeches about the art in question.[2]

Plato and Aristotle viciously mocked the Sophists and their understanding of rhetoric itself. For instance, Plato’s Gorgias represents the Sophist by that name as dishonestly seeking to convince others via mere wordplay that he is an expert on any given topic under the sun. According to Aristotle, the Sophistical use of rhetoric aimed to inculcate its students not with the tools to speak well (the “art” of rhetoric), but merely with the results of the Sophists themselves speaking well. That is, Sophistical rhetoric did not teach men how to craft their own words well, but only how to imitate the Sophists and thus, to trick others.[3]

But for all the efforts of Plato, Aristotle, and others like them to stamp it out, the Sophistical tradition was alive and well in the era of the writing of the New Testament. Training in classical rhetoric was a part of the basic educational curriculum in both the Roman Republic and Empire. The first and second centuries after Christ have, in fact, come to be called “the Second Sophistic Period,” because they represented a thoroughgoing attempt to use the oratorical disciplines not so much for purposes of persuasion, but in order to conserve in an age of decline the values of the old pagan society.[4] The Sophists of this period were interested in using rhetoric to expound philosophical ideas (largely forms of Platonism and Stoicism) and to teach others to declaim in the style of the grand orators of old. Their speeches tended to be “wordy, smooth, and bland in thought, though sometimes impassioned in style.” Often, their goal was “the expression of the traditional values of Hellenic culture in an age dominated by the realities of Roman rule and later by the threat of Christianity.”[5]

This last theme, the danger of Christianity, is of particular importance for evaluating the relationship of classical rhetoric to the worldview of the New Testament. The sophists of the Second Sophistic Period had a definite program:

…Their noblest themes, voiced on great public occasions but often implicit also in declamations, were the beauties of Greek religion, mythology, literature, and art; the historical achievements of classical Greece, including the defeat of the Persian invasions; the idealism of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato; the moral excellence of great Greeks of the past; and, taken as a whole, what it meant to be Greek. Though they could celebrate and flatter Roman emperors or governors, and though they avoided direct criticism of Roman institutions or Christianity, the total effect of their work was to define a distinct culture that belonged to them and their audiences by inheritance as Greeks. This culture, as they saw it, was intellectually and morally superior, though politically, economically, and militarily subservient to the rule of Rome; it had richness of historical experience, sophistication, and beauty lacking to the vulgar, anti-intellectual perversities of the Christians. There is a persistent note of nostalgia in the work of the sophists.[6]

It is against this backdrop of the sustained Sophistical attempt to portray classical pagan culture as demonstrably superior to the “barbarism” of the new religion, Christianity, that the concerns of rhetoric may be seen to be operating in the background of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. That topic will be taken up in my next post.

1. An excellent example of this Sophistic tactic in operation is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus.

2. Gorgias says exactly this in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, at 456a-456d.

3. “On Sophistical Refutations” 1.1, in The Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 8: Aristotle I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc., 1982), pg. 253.

4. See George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 230-256.

5. Ibid., pg. 232

6. Ibid., pp. 232-233

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