communications ministry

Wise and Eloquent Preaching

Nearly every class I have taken, seminar attended or and piece of guidance that I have received about preaching has encouraged me to craft a sermon that is well written and smartly crafted. However when Paul reflects on his ministry, he writes:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 1 Corinthians 1:17

How do you make sense of these, seemingly opposite sets of guidance?

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

4 replies on “Wise and Eloquent Preaching”

I don’t necessarily think they are opposite (or opposing) sets of guidance.
But, if your goal is to write a well written and smartly crafted sermon with out the Gospel, I don’t think you can.
How many times have you started a sermon with one thought in mind, only to find that you went in an entirely different direction because the Spirit was guiding you?

Personally, I will listen any day to a sermon that is accurately crafted over one smartly crafted. Yesterday I heard a very smartly crafted sermon at one of the churches I attended. Sadly, it entirely missed a critical point: that the atonement of Jesus has less to do with this life than with eternity.

What have I learned about preaching, from both the point of the listener/congregant/attendee and the viewpoint of one attending seminary classes is to stick to the real gospel message, theologically nitpick your sermon while you are preparing it, and speak clearly to the congregation. No, it may not be the most creative or stunning presentation, but it also gets the job done and leaves the real emphasis where it belongs, on Jesus.

After all, a lot of preachers have made huge impacts with “a joke, 3 points, and a poem.”

Paul’s opposition of preaching that is ‘wise and eloquent’ to preaching that has ‘power’ is probably more related to the ancient greco-roman approach to rhetoric than to what moderns might understand as ‘style.’

For the Roman world, rhetoric was the highest art, and was the culmination of the Roman education. Rhetoric was concerned with persuasion first and foremost, with substance or truth as a potentially useful if ultimately unnecessary appendix to the entire craft. Add in to the mix the commonly pecuniary motive of engaging in rhetoric, and one can appreciate Paul’s opposition to it.

One can see this functioning in Paul’s struggles with the Corinthians and the ‘super-apostles’ who seemed to have had more rhetorical success among that church. For example, in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul mentions how he is not a well-trained speaker, but yet still has knowledge, and earlier reminds them that he has authority over them. He also sets himself apart from them by mentioning that he has never charged for his services. To many the fact that he didn’t charge would indicate that his abilities as a leader (in a world where rhetorical ability is paramount) are suspect; from his perspective, it is an obvious indication that his preaching and ministry is due to a call from God and not financially motivated.

As far as rhetorical style, a comparison of Paul’s letters with ancient greco-roman letter forms indicates that he was not unacquainted with writing style (or at least his scribes were not) and that he was accustomed to employing it in his written communication, which probably explains why people were wont to say that he was ‘forceful’ in his letters but not so in person. This kind of statement has little to do with his personality or demeanor but rather with his rhetorical abilities.

Hence, it would seem that Paul’s opposition isn’t to style or the careful crafting of preaching necessarily, but rather to the shallowness that can accompany rhetoric when it is employed for its own sake or the debasing that can occur when it is motivated by financial gain or other such less than laudatory reasons.

Hmmm…it would seem I can never refrain from abject verbosity, for which I ask pardon. 🙂

JW, your verbosity is a necesity for the subtlty you so richly articulate! Keep it up!

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