[Texts: 1 & 2 Corinthians; Aristotle’s Rhetoric]
When Paul protests to the Corinthians that he did not come to them “proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom,” we shouldn’t imagine that he left his education on the doorstep of the synagogue (or the house of Titius Justus!). Nor should we think that he had anything against elegant phrasing and argumentation, even though he insists he didn’t preach the gospel with “words of eloquent wisdom.” Frankly, his own writing gives the lie to the assumption that his approach to sharing the gospel was somehow ingenuously lacking in strategic, deliberate verbal tactics.
The contrast Paul draws here in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is not between untrained but sincere speech (on the one hand) and the use of rhetorical strategies for persuasion (on the other). On the contrary, he specifically distances himself only from the deceptive “wisdom” and “eloquence” of the sophists of his day, who would persuade people to believe falsehoods by way of flattery and impressively complex reasoning. It’s the moral compass behind the verbal stratagems that’s in view here, not rhetorical skill per se. Accordingly, in both letters to the Corinthians the evidence of Paul’s persuasive skills abounds as he seeks to rebuke, correct, and steer them towards a fuller understanding of the gospel.
I’ve named and written about one of Paul’s rhetorical approaches previously, offering “Mutual Autobiography” as a collective term for a biblical writer’s sincere but planful references to history shared with the recipients of a letter. Appeals to past and current relational realities have the effect of linking the writer’s content with the readers’ feelings, a powerfully persuasive tactic when those feelings are positive; as Aristotle once observed of a speaker’s audience, “Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.” So in several of his letters, Paul clearly takes advantage of the positive associations his readers have with his person and his past actions, demonstrating his shrewd assessment of their emotional responsiveness to his appeals.
Here’s another rhetorical strategy to add to our list of Paul’s methods, this one employing reason and logic to persuade. What I’ve dubbed “Theo-logic” occurs when a biblical writer traces an “If-Then” construction, showing how an established situation in the history of God’s dealings logically leads to a further, and even more significant, conclusion. It’s an appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions, its power lying in its irresistible reasonableness. A couple of examples:
From 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul both lays out the true situation and pursues the logical extension of some false instruction that has infiltrated the church:
IF we preach Christ raised from the dead,
THEN this other version of events (“No resurrection!”) just doesn’t make sense!
IF they are right about “No resurrection!”,
THEN not even Jesus was raised.
IF not even Jesus was raised,
THEN your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, and our dead friends are lost forever.
IF not even Jesus was raised,
THEN what’s the point of our preaching, and all this suffering for the gospel? We’re of all people most to be pitied for believing a lie!
…Let’s move on to the true situation (which I’ve supported previously with references to hundreds of eyewitnesses, some of whom are still alive): in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!
IF Christ has been raised,
THEN all shall be made alive, as promised!
IF the dead are raised,
THEN all my suffering for the gospel (and for you Corinthians) makes perfect sense!
From 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul alternates between noting what was true in the past under the Old Covenant, and asserting what is presently true for believers in Christ:
IF the ministry of death, that Law written on stone tablets, came with Moses’ face glowing with glory that faded,
THEN won’t the Spirit’s ministry have even more glory?
IF there was glory in the ministry of condemnation,
THEN the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.
IF what was being brought to an end had glory,
THEN won’t the permanent ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
Conclusion: yes, indeed – and because we’ve tapped into this permanent glory, we are willing to bear anything for the sake of this good news!
Keep alert in your studies of the Epistles, especially, for passages like these that read a bit like geometric proofs – IF you find them, THEN you can acknowledge the writer’s effective use of Theo-logic!
Further notes for the curious: Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric (c.340 B.C.) was in circulation in the intellectual world that Paul inhabited, and it’s possible that he encountered it, read it, and benefited by it. Luke reports that Paul quoted Greek poets and playwrights in his travels around Achaia, so it’s not inconceivable that he’d have dipped into the famous philosopher’s works as well. On the other hand, Paul’s excellent education at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel would have provided plenty of rhetorical training. The rabbis didn’t need to appeal to the Greeks for persuasive strategies — and they even developed a few of their own that related specifically to the handling of the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Hebrews contains many examples of these rabbinical verbal tactics.
Whether he studied Aristotle’s ideas or not, here’s a passage from The Rhetoric that at least accurately describes Paul’s rhetorical intelligence:
“There are, then, these three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand emotions — that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.” (Aristotle, The Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. NY: Random House (1984), 25.)