Column entry, “Aim for Joy: Symbolic Power and Preaching,” by Brandon Knight

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Column Title: In Search of Right Words: Saint Augustine, Rhetoric, and Preaching

By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University

Column Description: Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in his work On Christian Doctrine, illustrates the important relationship between preaching and rhetoric. Even in his day—and still today—many questioned what use the church could possibly gain from the study of oratory. Nevertheless, Augustine saw something much deeper in communication that many Christians still miss centuries later. This column will be a personal journey through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, through which he shows how God can, in fact, use rhetoric to help us see more clearly the beauty of Scripture as well as find the right words when articulating gospel truths to others.

January 2022 / December 2021


Aim for Joy: Symbolic Power and Preaching

One of my favorite passages comes from the Old Testament prophet Amos and his illustration of God using the plumb line to measure Israel and their motives.[1] Now, I’m no carpenter—just ask my dad about our recent bathroom renovation. Nevertheless, this illustration is powerful because a plumb line measures horizontal in relation to the vertical—a unique intersection that can correspond to the act of preaching

God drops the plumbline to show the crooked nature of Israel’s religious practices. Like the pharisees of Jesus’ day, many of the important religious symbols and practices were reinterpreted to suit the motives and politics of the day. It was evident in both word and deed.

This same illustration may prove just as useful in showing us some of our “less-than-plumb” perspectives of preaching even today.

Often, I find myself, like others, questioning the overarching goal when preparing a sermon. I ask myself, “What am I supposed to accomplish in the act of preaching?” Sometimes, when not being reflexive, I entertain more selfish goals that seem to focus on my pride and ego rather than in service for others.

There are many who have sought to provide an overarching goal of preaching in hopes of ministering to the many needs present in a church congregation and St. Augustine, 4th century Bishop of Hippo, was one of them.

Quentin Schultze in Communicating for Life gives a holistic view of communication noting the power people have through their use of communication—what he calls symbolic power.[2] He argues that our use of symbols—communication—is nothing less than an interpretation of reality. One biblical example noted is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was home to numerous religions and views of magic which were slowly infiltrating the church through new converts. Paul’s rhetoric in the epistle, Schultze argues, is to reinterpret and reframe their understanding of other spiritual forces in relation to Christ by declaring Christ to be sovereign.[3]

Our sinfulness must also be considered in relation to symbolic power. The effects of sin takes a toll by bending our symbolic power toward manipulation, lying, and seeking selfish gain. These examples are easy to come by. Take for instance, the televangelist who requested that his congregation purchase a $54 million dollar plane because demons tend to fly commercial.[4]

Pastors, we need a way of measuring our symbolic power. So, what does Augustine argue is the goal of preaching?

Augustine argues that the true end of preaching is discovering God himself—the source of joy.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argues that all of communication reflects our use of symbolic power especially in preaching. Through the sermon, we are interpreting all of reality toward the proper object of joy or in manipulative forms that press others to find joy in the objects around us.

Missing the mark often comes in the form of misinterpreting a created object’s purpose. The sin of idolatry is nothing less than believing some thing within creation to be worthy of worship.

Take, for example, the glory of nature which is worshipped in various religions.

Although the beauty of nature is awesome, it is not an end unto itself. Rather, the psalmist says that all of creation declares the glory of the One who made it.[5] And as Christ told the onlookers in Jerusalem, if we do not speak properly of reality and, especially, of God himself, then even the rocks will cry out.[6]

To Augustine, the end of preaching is to find God, who is the source of joy. This means that we must evaluate our words to discover our ultimate aim.

Augustine notes that finding joy in God manifests itself in an overflow of our words with others. When discovered, he argues, we naturally seek to persuade and influence others through our words. For example, when one falls in love, the natural process is to communicate it to others. I remember falling for Ashley, my spouse, and telling my friends: “She is the one!”

In scripture, however, we find that even marriage is a symbol pointing to God himself and his love for his bride. We can’t find the ultimate joy in marriage itself—although many try.  Rather in experiencing the glimpse of joy discovered in marriage, we realize that sacred relationship is symbolic of something greater.

Misinterpretations are all around us seeking to persuade us to find joy in the things of this world rather than God. Preaching is an act of symbolic power that is to counteract these faulty voices.

Some pastors, however, fall to their sway and in turn use their symbolic power to frame joy in some thing rather than God.

It is quite easy to add our own selfish motives and interpretations to the good things of life transforming them into advertisements for idols. So, we must be wise with our words.

Just as God judged Israel for their manipulation of those meaningful symbols around them, God likewise judges the words spoken every Sabbath before God’s people.

The plumb line is swinging. Let your words aim for God so that others will find true joy.



[1] Amos 7: 7-8

[2] Quentin J. Schultze. Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[3]“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12; ESV).

[4] News One Staff. “Televangelist Jesse Duplantis Says He Needs $54 Million For A Private Jet Because ‘Demons’ Fly Commercial” (May 29, 2018).

[5] “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1; ESV).

[6] “He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Lk. 19:40; ESV).

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