Review: Paul’s Theology of Preaching

Duane Litfin, IVP, 2015, 400 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-7-49-34-amFirst Corinthians 1-4 is the only place in Scripture where we find the specifics of Paul’s philosophy of rhetoric, or put more biblically, his theology of preaching. This is cast in the milieu of the Greco-Roman world, where the people prized oratory above all else. The ancient populous lionized the greatest speakers whose ultimate goal was to persuade, move, and win. Nothing in Greek culture was higher, more ideal, than the man of eloquence.

Shockingly, Paul smashes this ideology with the words of a herald, a proclaimer, not an orator of great rhetorical gifts. “Not with words of eloquent wisdom” had he come to speak (1Co. 1:17), but with a message of “folly” to the majority (v. 18). Such a message actually destroys the wisdom of the wise (v. 20) and places the onus of success not on results, but on faithfulness (4:2).

Does this mean Paul is opposed to all rhetoric? Do homiletics have any place in the preacher’s bag of tools? At first, it appears Litfin’s answer to this is no. He writes in Paul’s Theology of Preaching: “It is not the herald’s job to persuade but to convey” (264). He is a proclaimer, an announcer.

It was the proclaimer’s function to make certain that the recipients heard and understood, but it was not the proclaimer’s role to engage his rhetorical skills so as to induce his listeners to yield to the message (264).

These latter two quotes by Litfin reveal two things. First, Litfin has a habit of overreaching and overstating his point. I said to myself over and over while reading–“that can’t be true”, only to later say, “Oh, now I see where he’s coming from.” Second, Litfin is probably speaking more about persuasion as the ultimate force that makes the hearer yield, rather than the content of the sermon that urges the listen to change.

It was McGuire’s helpful five goals of the speaker in chapter 18 that made things clearer. They are: (1) Attention, (2) Comprehension, (3) Yielding, (4) Retention, (5) Action. Are the first three the task of the preacher, or just the first two?

This is where Litfin distinguishes between a herald and a persuader. The former is only responsible for the first two. His strategy is to keep his audience’s attention for the sole purpose of understanding. The persuader, however, is not done with his task. Just as the Greek orators were only successful when they finally convinced (not coerced) the crowd to yield, so do many preachers today believe it is their task to bring conviction to their flock.

In sum, Litfin argues it is illogical and inconsistent for the Calvinist preacher to rate results by numbers. Per Paul, success can only be defined by faithfulness.

Some Practical Observations

Are rhetoric, style, and delivery skills important for the preacher? Some observations:

  1. The preacher must always depend on the simple proclamation of the Scriptures and leave the drawing and convicting to the Holy Spirit.
  2. Just because the preacher is not responsible to ultimately persuade the conscience of his audience to yield (item #3 in Litfin’s list) does not mean he is exempt in urging them to yield. Paul sought to persuade unbelievers (Ac. 18:4) and urged the church to do likewise (2Co. 5:11). It was clear to King Agrippa this was Paul’s intent (Ac. 26:28). Of course Paul did not believe he was the one who would ultimately open their hearts, as the Spirit did with Lydia. But this did not stop him from pleading.
  3. Those most guilty as “persuaders” in the evangelical world are Prosperity Charismatics on one side that laud numbers and size and the Fundamentalists on the other who push immediate decisions and come-forward invitations.
  4. Delivery skills such as clear speech, good volume, winsome gestures, parallel headings, eye contact, and engaging introductions are all valid because they fall into the realm of items #1-2: attention and comprehension. The preacher has crafted this to aid in

Conclusion

Litfin’s book was certainly thought provoking. I agreed with much of it. Still, I am convinced the preacher is allowed—yea, commanded—to urge his flock to turn and change, not just understand. This may require emotional appeals but those appeals will be directed toward helping the listener to comprehend, not toward inducing him to yield.

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