Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 1 (What Is “Rhetoric”?)

The noted Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan has written of the fourth century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa:

[He] was conscious of the cultural differences between more cultivated and “more barbarian peoples”…For him, the supreme example of how the believer could properly benefit from pagan learning was Moses, who had, according to the Book of Acts, “‘received a paideia in all the sophia of the Egyptians,’ a powerful speaker and a man of action.” Therefore “the paideia of outsiders” was not to be shunned, but cultivated. What it imparted, moreover, as the text of Acts conceded, was not nonsense, despite its pagan origins, but an authentic sophia of some kind.[1]

The concern for “powerful speaking” is what was called “rhetoric” in Ancient times. In our day, the word “rhetoric” means colorful, but vacuous concatenations of words strung together to convey the false impression that something substantive is being said, or else merely to verbally abuse another person. For many of our Christian brothers throughout the centuries, however, the word “rhetoric” conveyed much more than that, for as an essential and in its own way “scientific” part of every educated person’s mental background, it was the very warp and woof in which they spun Christian doctrine, defended it against opponents, and sought to persuade others of the validity of the Faith. Accordingly, a good place to start our examination of the relationship of Christian culture and classical rhetoric is this fairly standard definition of the latter:

The English word “rhetoric” is derived from Greek rhetorike, which apparently came into use in the circle of Socrates in the fifth century and first appears in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, probably written about 385 B.C. but set dramatically a generation earlier. Rhetorike in Greek specifically denotes the civic art of public speaking as it developed in deliberative assemblies, law courts, and other formal occasions under constitutional government in the Greek cities, especially the Athenian democracy. As such, it is a specific cultural subset of the more general concept of the power of words and their potential to affect a situation in which they are used or received.[2]

Beginning in the fifth century B.C., we find the term “rhetoric” being applied to the verbal tactics of the itinerant pseudo-scholars in Greece known as the “Sophists.” Greece, particularly, Athens, was developing into a radical democracy, which among other things meant that its law courts came to be presided over by large groups of ordinary citizens (often numbering over 200) chosen by lot, and who functioned as both judge and jury. No professional discipline comparable to “lawyer” existed at this time, so both sides of a case were made directly by their respective parties. Because they were under strict time limits (trials had to be completed in one day) and were required to address such a large group of people, the litigants made their cases by means of formal speeches. The discipline of rhetoric entered this picture precisely because the effective use of words was seen to be essential to convincing the judge-jury of the rightness of one’s case.

But “rightness” was in this context not necessarily an absolute. The Sophists who traveled throughout Greece teaching rhetoric were not interested in establishing truth by means of effective speaking. Rather, they were interested in effective speaking for its own sake – that is, in using the rhetorical arts to persuade others of various positions regardless of whether those positions were true or false. This practice attracted criticism from the more philosophically-minded Greeks, which explains why some works of Plato and Aristotle viciously mock the Sophists and their understanding of rhetoric itself.[3]

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 trick others.[4] Aristotle contributed to the positive use of rhetoric by outlining its purpose as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion.”[5] Aristotle’s concept of persuasion was grounded in three things: (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).[6]

Aristotle went on to provide one of the most cogent outlines of how rhetoric works to structure a speech and make it persuasive in the senses just mentioned. He accomplished this by first distinguishing three types of rhetoric.[7] First is deliberative rhetoric,[8] which concerns itself with persuading or dissuading an audience as to some position being debated. Second is judicial rhetoric,[9] which concerns itself with accusing or defending in the context of a court of law. Third is demonstrative (epideictic) rhetoric,[10] which concerns itself with moving its hearers to praise or blame. After extended discussion of these divisions of rhetoric, Aristotle turns to teaching how to structure a speech in each of these types of rhetoric and how to effectively deliver them both in oral speech and in writing (rhetorical lexis). This involves quite intricate discussions first of general principles of delivery, and second of the prior organization of what is to be delivered.[11]

The depth with which Aristotle treats all of these subjects shows that “rhetoric” for the ancient Greeks was a highly developed art form requiring a great deal of “scientific” knowledge, and not, as it has come to convey in our own shallow age, a mere bandying of colorful, but meaningless combinations of words. Rhetoric for Ancient authors was not a pejorative equivalent to the misuse of the similar Latin term propaganda (which literally means only “things to be propagated”, and does not on its face convey lack of value in what is being propagated).

Other Greek rhetoricians picked up where Aristotle had ended and began to compose a standard (canon) of the best authors of rhetoric, and this canon was made the curriculum in the formal schools. These schools trained up generations of eloquent speakers and writers who exercised tremendous influence on the politics, education, religion, and ethics of their society. Much space could be spent analyzing some of the great works produced by these men, both Greeks and Romans, but the reader is encouraged to spend some time looking at these works for himself.[12]

1. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter With Hellenism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), pg. 10.

2. George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pg. 3.

3. Plato’s dialogue Gorgias is an excellent treatment of the problems with the Sophists, and it is from this dialogue that a distinction between “rhetoric” and “sophistry” began first to emerge.

4. “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.

5. On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pg. 36.

6. Ibid., pp. 37-39.

7. These types of rhetoric should be remembered, for they are very important for understanding all later uses of rhetoric, especially in the rhetorical masters that we Christians know as “the Church Fathers.”

8. On Rhetoric. pp. 52-78

9. Ibid., pp. 87-118

10. Ibid., pp. 78-87

11. Ibid. pp. 216-282.

12. See, for instance, the many orations of Demosthenes (Greek) and Cicero (Roman).

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