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Biblical exegesis in rhetoric

There are some churches which have merely expository sermons. In those, the goal of the sermon is to convey the meaning of a given Bible text, being not unlike an academic lecture. Therefore the quality of the sermon is exactly in line with the quality of the exegesis.

But for any Christians who have any further purpose to their sermons, exegesis serves to further a rhetorical point (and these can be many). Therefore the quality of the sermon is determined not only by biblical exposition, but by the preachers argument.

As someone who has specialized in the study of the Bible, I can speak to the exegesis portion readily. As for sermon rhetoric, I am mostly an amateur critic. Allow for me to present the four basic situations I encounter when criticizing the rhetorical use of biblical exegesis in sermons:

  1. A valid exegetical observation is used to make a good rhetorical point.
  2. A valid exegetical observation is used to make a bad rhetorical point.
  3. An invalid exegetical observation is used to make a good rhetorical point.
  4. An invalid exegetical observation is used to make a bad rhetorical point.

Numbers 1 and 4 do not warrant comment. Numbers 2 and 3 are the tricky situations. I confess I am much less likely to be critical in the case of #3. For example I'll drag out the textbook "root" fallacy:

The Greek word for "church" is devired from roots which mean "called out," so the church is being called out from the world.

It is an absolutely silly exegetical observation, but I support the overall point - that the church is called out to be distinct from the world. I generally accept those sorts of statements, because the overall point which came across is good. If I were to be critical, it would be fairly low-key.

Number 2 presents an uncomfortable situation. I am having trouble thinking of an example, because it seems to me that if 1) the exegetical point is valid, and 2) the argument is sound, I ought to support the conclusion. Yet I am nonetheless more likely to be critical of a preacher in such a situation, because it seems that they are trying to use the truth of scripture for bad purposes.

The implication of this observation is that I think that the rhetorical message is more important than the exegetical observations in a sermon. I think that is a good thing, overall. I am dubious of preachers who claim their sermons are merely expository, but even if they were, why would you hear such a sermon during worship? It seems to me that sermons need to have some sort of devotional or encouraging or hortatory component in order for them to fit in during church services. At the same time, I worry about sermons which are purely rhetorical and do not rest on proper biblical exegesis.

I love a short sermon

I grew up with long sermons. They were of the 30-minute variety. And in college not only were the sermons long, they had to be expository. I used to think that people who liked short sermons were intellectually lazy or something.

But now I know better. I am actually more impressed by a preacher who can make one really good point in 5-10 minutes than one who can make three points in 30. If your sermon requires the congregation to take notes in order to understand it, you are doing it wrong. I think it is more important to make a sermon memorable than to make it extensive.

Expository sermons are great, but I think that Bible study is best done outside of the context of a worship service. Sunday school and in-home Bible studies are perfect for learning what the Bible means. Sermons are a great opportunity for the preacher to exhort the congregation on other matters.

I love a short sermon.

Against applicable sermons

If you can't apply it on Monday, you won't hear it on Sunday.

You'll probably see the above promise on the seeker portions of church websites. It is an expression of a popular principle for Christian sermons: they should be applicable. More than that, they should also contain specific and concrete recommendations of how to apply the sermon. Inapplicable sermons are apparently less popular among church goers. I have a problem with that: I don't particularly like applicable sermons. I prefer esoteric, theological, ivory tower type sermons. Probably my all-time favorite sermon series was a four week exposition of the Nicene creed. Excellent! To be honest, I'd rather be left to my leisure to figure out how to apply what I hear. In the meantime, I'd like to hear interesting sermons.

The Old in the New: Modes of Rhetoric

Having made a distinction between rhetoric and exposition in the New Testament's use of the Old Testament, I thought it fitting to outline some more specific examples of each. In this post I examine the rhetorical use of scripture and provide several rough classifications.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.

Here in Galatians 4 we find a passage which has given fits to those who have attempted to construct a normative hermeneutic from the New Testament. Paul is apparently using a figurative interpretation - an allegory (αλληγορουμενα) nonetheless - to explain his point. This is particularly scandalous for those of us trained in the literal-grammatical-historical school of hermeneutics. Many explanations have been offered: Paul, through the Holy Spirit, had special authority to use such interpretive methods; the Sarah-Hagar story is a living allegory written by God (which is not without its charms); Paul must mean something other than what we understand as "allegory;" etc. I would suggest that Paul is not making a claim about the original meaning of the passage at all. Allegory can be both a valid interpretive strategy (employed to understand those stories which were written by their authors as allegory) and a rhetorical device (a cousin to the analogy). Paul is using the latter. He is re-appropriating the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate his point about the two covenants, not trying to tell us what that passage means. He even expands the allegory with two addition scripture references. The wording here cannot be definitively called down on either side:

ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι

The question is whether Paul is saying they were composed as allegory or are presently being employed allegorically. I don't think ἐστιν can tell us either way. However, given Paul's interpretive activities in his other letters, I believe that the rhetorical mode is the best explanation for his usage here. Allegory is perhaps the most extreme example since it was connected with medieval catholic interpretive methods which were repudiated by the reformers. So, having introduced allegory as a valid rhetorical use of scripture, the rest should come quite easily. I've already reference allusion (as in "out of Egypt have I called my son"). There is also an interesting case in Ephesians 4 where Paul perhaps deliberately changes the quoted text for rhetorical effect. I'm not sure what to call that, but I have seen the same tactic employed by modern preachers. Perhaps in the future I will endeavor to more exhaustively catalog all the rhetorical uses of scripture in scripture. As I have said previously, the study of these modes of rhetorical use of scripture in the New Testament cannot inform a normative hermeneutic. What can be gleaned are ways in which our own preaching and teaching can be enriched by following the models of the biblical authors. The question of a normative hermeneutic can be answered in two ways: 1) by examining the exposition of the Old Testament in the New; 2) by determining if there can truly be more than one hermeneutic (not just scripturally, but in general).