June 7, 2004

Theology and Rhetoric

Category: Theology :: Permalink

“How did Christian theologians … abandon rhetoric?” asks Peter Leithart in “When Theology and Rhetoric Embrace” (alternatively titled “Rhetoric and the Word”), published in the May 2004 issue of First Things. Leithart writes:

The twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden once commented on the absence of rhetoric among theologians. Were a poet to use a phrase such as “mortal sin,” he said, it would be meant as a hyperbolic way of warning people away from certain kinds of behavior. When a theologian uses the phrase, it has a very exact and technical meaning. Theologians are the least rhetorical of writers.

Auden’s observation is undeniably accurate, but when we glance at the literary shape of the Bible, it is difficult to fathom why it should be so. After all, the Bible has no theology that does not have a rhetorical shape and thrust. It is full of stories, laws, rituals, proverbs, psalms, genealogies, visions, and prophecies that often take poetic form. Scripture includes the severe diatribes of Jeremiah, the unutterable beauties of Isaiah and John, the goading wisdom of Solomon, the luminous allusiveness of Genesis and Matthew. The closest that the Bible comes to technical theology is the letters of Paul, but no one can read Galatians, Corinthians, or Paul’s sermons in Acts without realizing that he is a master rhetorician. To be sure, Paul’s rhetoric is not necessarily the rhetoric of pagan Greece or Rome (though scholars are finding that often it is), but he is rhetorical in that he speaks and writes above all to persuade, convict, and change his readers.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:18 pm | Discuss (0)

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