Column entry, “Avoiding the Discussion,” 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

May: “Avoiding the Discussion”

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, 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.

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May 2023

Avoiding the Discussion

Much has been considered since I started this column almost two years ago. However, in many ways, we have not dealt specifically with a conundrum lying at the root of the discussion. The conundrum is as follows: Why should a Christian study rhetoric if they are to rely on the Holy Spirit when teaching or preaching?

This seemingly contradiction is important and requires a thorough discussion of the way the biblical authors make sense of God’s sovereignty and our ability to learn, grow, and mature as humans.

Many pastors either avoid this conversation altogether or swing radically to one side, namely in how they preach.

For example, some preachers opt out of studying or preparation because they believe they are meddling with the Holy Spirit. Whereas other preachers so anxiously prepare without ever considering the role of the Spirit in their preparation and presentation.

How should we make sense of this mystery?

Dealing with Mystery

Often, preachers talk about biblical paradoxes as a problem to be dealt with rather than a mystery to be delighted in. Since the enlightenment, we have fooled ourselves into believing that we can fully understand everything through a process. In buying into this prospect, many Christians have all but eradicated any willingness to deal with the mysteries of scripture and the faith.

Thus, when pastors consider the relationship between studying rhetoric and preaching, it is simply a problem to be solved. Most modern solutions see the two completely disconnected. Whereas preaching is proclamation of truth through the Holy Spirit, rhetoric is manmade tricks and cheap marketing none of which, it is argued, belong in the pulpit.

I suggest this is a refusal to delight in the mystery that the Christian faith offers us.

To say that preaching is wholly an act of the Spirit through the preacher is less than the biblical picture. Similarly, to say that preaching is wholly a human act is also subpar biblically speaking.

Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo, offers some guidance on this very issue in Book IV of On Christian Doctrine.

Delighting in Mystery

The bishop wisely deals with this issue by discussing prayer.

Prayer, he argues, is an act that ties together human action and God’s sovereignty. How? Well, Christians believe that God knows the future; yet, still demands the discipline of prayer in the life of the believer.

Knowing that no mature Christian would rightly argue against the act of prayer and God’s foreknowledge, Augustine ties this act into the ongoing debate regarding training in oratory.

“Now if any one says that we need not direct men how or what they should teach, since the Holy Spirit makes them teachers, he may as well say that we need not pray, since our Lord says, ‘Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him’…”

In other words, to argue Christian teachers and preachers do not need training but simply rely on the Holy Spirit seems more spiritual; however, it removes all responsibility on the human part. Augustine delights in this mystery by viewing God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility working in tandem.

He continues by arguing that prayer is, in fact, more fruitful than training to learn the ins and outs of oratory. Thus, preachers should pray for themselves and for their hearers because—like in prayer—God is the only One who truly knows the needs of everyone. He, of course, says it better: “And who can make us say what we ought, and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speeches are?”

Even in elevating reliance on God over oratory, he is not willing to eradicate the responsibility of learning and training in rhetoric.

In this same discussion, he says: “Accordingly, he who is anxious both to know and to teach should learn all that is to be taught, and acquire such a faculty of speech as is suitable for a divine.”

Ultimately, Augustine argues, that as the preaching moment arrives, the words of Jesus should be remembered when speaking to his disciples who would soon face persecution and be brought before thrones to bear witness. In this command, Jesus tells them to not worry about what words they will say because the Spirit will speak through them (Mat. 10:20).

Train and Trust

Most of us have been wrong the whole time. It is not one or the other. The Spirit or Me. Rather, it is the Spirit speaking through me and my learnings. This mystery is quite delightful. We can learn, train, and become better equipped, but, in the end, it is only God who can make these learnings fruitful.

With the possibility of education, we can excel in homiletics and rhetorical training. I assume Augustine’s encouragement to become a “divine” means nothing less than to be well-trained and disciplined; while, at the same time fully trusting that God has given us the right words to speak.

From this perspective, Christian educators should be challenged to consider the various ways we can encourage homiletical and rhetorical training in our universities and seminaries.

Let’s not be lax on proper oratorical training because we are unwilling to deal with the mystery. The Spirit can and does use those who have sought to be better servant communicators.

So, let’s trust, train, and delight.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


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