Chapter 1.
Ancient Rhetoric: A Model for Text-Driven Preachers

Ancient Rhetoric: A Model for Text-Driven Preachers

Paige Patterson

Although I recall none of the content of those early sermons, I have been hearing preaching almost from the time of my conception. Charmed, motivated, convinced, convicted, humbled, amused, bored, angered, and exasperated are just a few of the ways I have been affected on this long rhetorical journey. Somewhere on this verbal pilgrimage, I began to evaluate sermons, to compare preachers, and to study methodologies and approaches. Having the unabated confidence of youth mixed with just enough knowledge to confuse a whiff of insight with the taste of perception, I decided that sermons and preachers could be easily assessed. Someone pointed me to Aristotle's canons of rhetoric, and I concluded that I had discovered the prism of discernment.

With maturity came the revelation that Christian preaching was a mystery defying all attempts to bottle any formula for good preaching. First, I observed it in others. A message that to me seemed pedestrian at best, to my astonishment, would appear to be used of God profoundly. On the other hand, an eloquent discourse abounding in insight, wonderfully illustrated, and rich with pregnant metaphor would produce no spiritual energy and little response among the listeners. The latter sometimes engendered a certain admiration, but the former often generated changed lives.

Then, I observed this phenomenon in my own attempts to preach. Often when I thought I had come close to the achievement of preaching a good sermon, little happened of spiritual significance. Then, mystery wrapped in enigma, I would falter and, to my way of thinking, utterly fail, only to witness the mighty hand of God at work. I learned that it is "not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord" (Zech 4:6 NKJV). I can only conclude that the greatest failure in preaching and in books on preaching is the failure to invoke the anointing of God on the preacher and his message. Minus this touch, the preacher may achieve eloquence, but his message will never be like a two-edged sword, "piercing even to the division of soul and spirit," and become "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb 4:12). Only God can affect that, and He often does so through paltry human examples.

Leaving a famous church one Sunday morning, I encountered a godly saint who had been sitting nearby as we were immersed in the eloquence of the new preacher. "Now that was a great speech," my friend opined. He meant no uncharitable criticism. He simply gave a startling testimony on the effect of the preacher's sermon. In the process, this perennial occupier of pews taught me afresh the most important lesson of Homiletics 101, namely, that great oratory does not necessarily translate into effective preaching. Arduous human effort and critical, rhetorical assessment count for little when the needs of the human heart are addressed by a man of God bringing the prophetic, inspired word of God.

To recognize that another—indeed the most critical—dimension lies beyond human artifice is not to conclude that one is justified in abandoning preparation—academic and spiritual—or assessment. Consequently, a serious preacher will contemplate his art just as ardently as any other artist but with full knowledge that if he is faithful and true, he can anticipate the intervention of God, which is largely unknown to the practice of rhetorical arts in any profession or era.

This chapter recognizes that the ancients who first brooded over the art of rhetoric provide contemporary preachers priceless insights into the art of effective public declamation. Armed with these insights, a faithful man of God labors under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit to form the text into instruction and inspiration for the people of God. Now, like Elijah on Carmel, he must pray for the fire to fall. Elijah's altar was doubtless well constructed and all preparations carefully considered. But when the moment of truth came, Elijah understood from whence fire would fall and called on God, who alone could answer from heaven.

This chapter will now consider what can be learned from the ancients about good "altar construction." However, one must not forget that the fire fall comes only from God. Nevertheless, good altars have value, and this value the preacher must seek.

Rhetoric and Democracy

The city-state network of the Hellenistic world depended on a participatory society in which citizens exercised greater influence than could ever be the case in monarchies. Essential to such budding democracy was communication. And since perspectives differ, the ability to convey one's view effectively became a substantive value.

Classical rhetoric began and always remained primarily a system of training young men how to speak effectively in a court of law; and it was developed for the needs of participatory democracy, especially in Athens. Under the Athenian democracy, reaching its most radical form in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, there was no public prosecutor and there were no professional lawyers; criminal indictments, like civil suits, were brought by an interested person. In both criminal and civil cases, prosecutor and defendant were ordinarily expected to speak on their own behalf, though if they were unable to do so an advocate could speak for them. Since women were not allowed to speak in court, they had to be represented by a male family member. Any evidence of witnesses was taken down in writing before the trial and read out by a clerk, and prosecutor and defendant were expected to deliver a carefully planned speech, without interruption by the court. There was no presiding judge to ask questions, interpret the law, or establish relevance, only a clerk to organize proceedings; both fact and law were judged by a panel of jurors (dikastai) numbering at least 201 and, in some major cases, several thousand persons, chosen by lot from among male citizens. To make an effective case before such large juries required considerable rhetorical skill and confidence.

According to John Henry Freese, the island of Sicily is the birthplace of rhetoric. After the expulsion of tyrants from Syracuse (467 bc), returning exiles made claims for recovery of property and made use of skilled orators to argue their cases. On the other hand, Aristotle focuses on Empedocles, whose pupil was said to be Gorgias, a famous rhetor. Plato uses the word rhētorikē in Gorgias (385 bc). Regardless of origins, by the time Aristotle wrote his Art of Rhetoric (c. 330 bc) in Athens, the practice of rhetoric was a known and, to some, a respected part of the life of the cities. Reputations were made or at least sustained through the use of rhetoric and discussions about its nature and use. Cicero (106-43 bc), Quintilian (30-100 bc), Demosthenes (384-322 bc), Isocrates (436-338 bc), Anaximenes (588 bc), and Aristotle are just a few of the participants in this art. Demosthenes had few natural abilities and overcame serious handicaps in order to excel, whereas Hermogenes of Tarsus (ad 160-230) had by age 15 already "achieved such mastery of the art of oratory that he aroused the admiration of the emperor Marcus Aurelius with his declamations and improvised lectures."

Not everyone in the ancient world or since that time has been a fan of rhetoric. Wayne Booth, in his excellent volume The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, mentions the opposition voiced in Plato's Phaedrus by Socrates, who scolded the Sophists by commenting, "He who would be a skillful rhetorician has no need of truth." Booth then cites a typical definition of rhetoric, which he says "concentrates on the pejorative."

Rhetoric: n. the theory and practice of eloquence, whether spoken or written, the whole art of using language to persuade others; false, showy, artificial, or declamatory expression; rhetorical: oratorical; inflated, over-decorated, or insincere in style; rhetorical question: a question in form, for rhetorical effect, not calling for an answer.

Doubtless, the objective of ancient rhetoric was to persuade. The fact that the issue was neither truth nor accuracy does not, however, render the art valueless for the preacher. To the contrary, if the preacher is armed with the truth of God, then the art of rhetoric becomes a tool for righteousness in his hands. Nazi physicians' misuse and abuse of the scalpel did not render scalpels morally suspect. In addition to the logic of that conclusion is the example of Paul, who regularly sought to "persuade" his listeners (Acts 13:43; 18:4; 19:8; 26:28; 28:23; 2 Cor 5:11). The preacher's task is to persuade sinners to repent and to believe the saving gospel of Jesus, the Christ. He is to exhort (a form of persuasion) the saints to continue to follow Christ, to maintain orthodox views, to love the brethren, to be morally and ethically pure, among other things.

Robert L. Dabney first published his Sacred Rhetoric in 1870. Dabney notes the importance of speech:

The gift of speech is the most obvious attribute which distinguishes man from the brutes. To him, language is so important a handmaid of his mind in all its processes that we remain uncertain how many latent faculties, which we are now prone to deny to the lower animals, may not be lying inactive in them, because of their privation of this medium. It is speech which makes us really social beings; without it our instinctive attraction to our fellows would give us, not true society, but the mere gregariousness of the herds. It is by speech that the gulf is bridged over, which insulates each spirit from others. This is the great communicative faculty which establishes a communion between men in each other's experience, reasoning, wisdom, and affections. These familiar observations are recalled to your view, in order to suggest how naturally and even necessarily oral address must be employed in the service of religion. If man's religious and social traits are regarded, we cannot but expect to find a wise God, from the beginning, consecrate His gift of speech to the end of propagating sacred knowledge and sentiments.

In fact, the ancients and their contributions to rhetoric provide much grist for the preacher's mill. One can learn the value of avoiding long, unbroken narrative from Demosthenes. The infrequent but masterful use of metaphor can be grasped here also. Quintilian's emphasis on the building of the speaker's character as well as his intellect is essential for the preacher. Cicero's canons of rhetoric are invaluable to the preacher.

Anaximenes championed extemporaneous speaking, an art that may be observed in many gifted preachers. Space limitations preclude such extensive forays into the literature and practices of famous rhetoricians. Rather, the focus here will be on the three famous rhetorical means of persuasion provided by Aristotle in his Art of Rhetoric. These, in order of consideration for the preacher, are ethos, logos, and pathos. Although there are a number of good methods to assess the value of a sermon, my thesis is that, from the point of view of simplicity and yet sufficient comprehension to cover the matter, these three canons of rhetoric, though born in a pagan context, are both adequate and remarkably serviceable. We turn to this consideration.


Aristotle's simple definition of rhetoric is the launchpad for this discussion. "Rhetoric then may be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever."

Books I and II of the volume Art of Rhetoric focus on the subject of dianoia or thought. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Rhetoric calls this rhetorical invention, the counterpart to dialectic. Rhetoric concerns itself with particular cases, whereas dialectic addresses general issues. In Books I and II, Aristotle describes the nature of "rhetorical invention."

Means of persuasion are either nonartistic—laws, witnesses, contracts, or oaths, used but not invented by the speaker—or artistic, the invention of the speaker. Artistic means of persuasion take three forms, which have come to be known as ethos, the presentation of the character of the speaker as a person to be trusted; pathos, the emotions of the audience as stirred by the speaker; and logos, logical argument based on evidence and probability.

Elsewhere in this book, attention is devoted to the non-artistic means of persuasion, though not necessarily with that nomenclature. This chapter will focus on the artistic means of persuasion, since these are too often neglected in text-driven preaching. Aristotle presents these three: "Now the proofs furnished by the speech are of three kinds. The first depends upon the moral character of the speaker, the second upon putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind, the third upon the speech itself, in so far as it proves or seems to prove."

The first of these "artistic" demonstrations can be termed ethos, the moral character of the speaker. Aristotle observes that when a speaker delivers a speech in such a manner that he is thought worthy of confidence, such an impact is greater than the sum of other aspects of the declaration. For Aristotle, this ethos must arise from the speech itself rather than from preconceived ideas about the speaker. While this may sometimes be the case, a "small world technology" of the modern era increasingly adds significance or credibility to a contemporary speaker. But we may certainly agree with the conclusion of the sage when he declares, "Moral character, so to say, constitutes the most effective means of proof." Such virtues as justice, courage, self-control, magnanimity, magnificence, goodness, goodwill, liberality, gentleness, and both practical and speculative wisdom are among the virtues extolled. "Virtue, it would seem, is a faculty of providing and preserving good things, a faculty productive of many and great benefits, in fact, of all things in all cases."

When the preacher begins his message, the auditors tend to make instantaneous judgments about him and, therefore, to some degree, about his message also. Listeners, for example, may decide almost instantly whether they think the preacher will be boring or interesting. The preacher lacks experience to know that of which he speaks. His training is apparently quite limited. He is bombastic but not very profound. He is a salesman, and I would never buy a "previously owned" automobile from him. All of these judgments relate to the credibility of the preacher. As the message continues and reaches a conclusion, congregants continue verifying or revising those initial judgments.

Factors establishing credibility are too many for this chapter, but the subject can be approached under two basic categories: preparation and character. Preparation entails both tangible and intangible factors. Three will be mentioned here.

The Preacher's Walk with God

Although no one is party to the private devotions of the preacher, the Scriptures are often eloquent in their note of genuine men of God. In 2 Kgs 4:9 (NKJV), the Shunammite woman tells her husband, "I know that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us," and suggests that a room be added for his visits. Of Stephen, it is observed that when they looked at his face, it was "as the face of an angel" (Acts 6:15). Moses found himself forced to veil his face because of the radiance of God's presence reflected thereon (Exod 34:29-33).

To walk with God is to study His character, meditate on His words, search for His purpose, and converse with Him in prayer. The more one walks with God, marinates his messages in the presence of Jesus, and seeks the guidance of the Holy Spirit in both life and message, the more obvious it becomes to people of discernment that the preacher is a messenger straight from the throne room of the Lord. No single factor is more compelling than a challenge from a man who apparently walks closely with God. When the radiance of heaven is discernible in the messenger's life and face, even those outside of Christ are frequently touched. God can certainly use a dirty vessel because the gospel remains true regardless of the failure of preachers. But God's delight assuredly is in the effective blessings upon the labor of a pure and holy vessel, and He is under no constraint to bring anything other than judgment regarding soiled vessels.

Venturing into the unthinkable in a casual age, even dress is part of ethos. Formal dress has never been a personal joy for me. I am happier in my jeans, boots, western shirt, and hat. Moreover, informal ways seem to me less likely to become pretentious than the more stately and formal. Even though I have come to admire a pretty tie, I still suspect that the inventor of such an article was probably hanged by a tie by those forced to wear one. All of this notwithstanding, the casual dress of so many ministers may say more than they intend. If invited to the Oval Office by the president, my hunch is that most preachers would don their best, short of a tux. Yet when appearing before God or His people, some pay little respect to either. Now I want to make clear that not all occasions or contexts call for formal dress. The world of the cross-cultural missionary (whether internationally or in North America) immediately leaps to mind. The issue for the minister is one of honor and respect for God, whom he represents before the people. The preacher always should show respect for Christ and His church—at the very least, the same respect he would deem appropriate for dignitaries of the world. Otherwise, his ethos will also suffer.

The Preacher's Study

Listeners do not have to persevere long to ascertain whether the minister has done his homework. If the preacher has grappled with the passage until he understands it, he will be able to stake out the significance of the text and apply it fruitfully to the assembly. If the preacher struggles to make the text come to life, seems confused by portions of the text, or is clearly unaware of its possibilities, the public will rapidly discern his inadequacy to expound the biblical message. Often-used and dated illustrations and dependence on the work of other well-known ministers will quickly erode the ethos of the man of God. There is no substitute for spiritual preparation, and failure in rigorous study is surely a sin second only to the failure to prepare spiritually. Arduous study is simply not optional. Paul, in 2 Tim 2:15, demands the following of the young pastor: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." The verb diligent is the translation of the Greek term spoudazō, a vivid concept of giving oneself zealously to be an unashamed worker, unashamed because he has learned rightly to divide the word of truth. The vast majority of preachers in the contemporary era are unaware of the obligatory nature of rigorous study of God's Word.

The Preacher's Observable Life

Drugstore cowboys have cowboy hats, boots, and jeans. One might even have a rope or a saddle. He may talk about the ranch and even spout cowography, but put him on a horse and in less than a nanosecond you will discover that he is, though looks are to the contrary, not a cowboy. The preacher may be eloquent, dress professionally, have appropriate credentials, and know his way around the ministerial world. But if his life fails to magnify what he preaches, his ethos will vanish like the dew of the grass under the gaze of the midmorning sun.

Paul's instructions to Timothy (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) regarding the character and qualification of elders emphasize the exemplary demands for the preacher-teacher. In 1 Tim 4:12 the apostle encourages his youthful disciple, "Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity." All these instructions for the young minister focus on a life open to the gaze of the saints and, for that matter, the observing world. In so doing, the preacher establishes credibility or ethos, which lends credibility to his message.

A preacher's response to anger, misrepresentation, judgment of motives, abuse, unkindness, and so on are verification or falsification of his exhortations. The chasteness of his language and life, the comparison of his life and actions, and the affections of his heart either add vitality to his sermons or else sap them of holy energy. The sanctity of his union with his wife and the joy of wise and faithful parenthood render his pleas from the pulpit doubly persuasive. Godly ethos is thus established. The character of the preacher may lie beyond the observatory abilities of the parishioner but will not, thereby, escape such conclusions. At least two factors will be at play here.

Respect for Auditors

The saints make judgments about speakers just as speakers evaluate the congregation. One of the first observations will focus on whether the speaker shows respect for the audience.

Because contemporary preachers are so acclimated to sizing up the audience, they tend to forget that the same process is happening in reverse. Here are some of the questions being asked, mostly unconsciously, about the preacher's respect for the listener. Does he think I am a child with his firm affirmation of the obvious or his constant repetition? Why is he browbeating me? Is he attempting to impress me with all those sesquipedalian words? Oh, my! You would think he would at least find a new illustration. I have only been a Christian for two years, and I have heard that one six times. He is just here for a big offering. He is entertaining, but he is wasting my time because there are superior entertainers on television. Any analysis of the speaker's ethos includes an assessment of whether his character is such that he can respect the assembly, even if he disagrees with most or all of them.

Possession of Virtues

The basic attributes of honesty, integrity, and justice make up the primary armor for a great preacher. I once asked my father for his impression of George W. Truett, far-famed pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, from 1897 to 1944: "Truett, in retrospect, was not a great preacher," he replied. Continuing, he added, "But he was a man of such unparalleled integrity that you were awed almost as if in the presence of God." That is ethos. Of another famous preacher, I once heard it said in a Texas way: "He is as strong as goat's breath, but, you know, he is always so painstakingly fair." This is justice. Or again, someone said adroitly about my own father, "Have you noticed that all of his illustrations are apparently true?" While this was a fine observation of Dad's ethos, I sometimes shudder when I think about what the statement implied about preachers in general. In commentaries it is not unusual to find a section in the introduction on the integrity of the text. But if the preacher's ethos does not merit a similar trust, the message of the text may be broken apart on the slippery racks of character flaws in the speaker.


Logos references the speech or sermon itself. The concept of logos boasts philosophical roots stretching to the virgin days of Greek thought. B. G. Kerford observes,

Earlier attempts to trace a logical progression of meanings in the history of the word are now generally acknowledged to lack any secure foundation, and even to try to trace out the history of a single "logos doctrine" in Greek philosophy is to run the risk of searching for a simple pattern when the truth was much more complex. But the extreme importance of the "logos doctrines" of different thinkers is clear, and there certainly were relationships between the ways in which successive thinkers used the term.

Kerford goes on to comment that the logos doctrine of Hereclitus was both famous and obscure, combining the three ideas of human thought about the universe, the rational structure of the universe, and the source of that rational structure. Logos, he says, was for the Sophists both arguments and what arguments were about, whereas for Stoics, logos was the principle of all rationality and as such often identified with God. Of course, from logos comes the English term "logic," and the extent of the influence of the word may be observed by its frequency in taxonomy of sciences—geology, psychology, sociology, biology, zoology, and so on—or in the categories of theology such as hamartiology or ecclesiology.

For the Christian, the importance of the concept is located in the logia tou theou, the "oracles of God" (Rom 3:2). Here words are more than mere terms. The Bible constitutes the very utterances of God. Even more fascinating is the Johannine employment of the idea to express the mysteries of the preexistence of Christ, His deity, and His incarnation. In the prologue to John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the logos, the logos was with God, and the logos was God" (John 1:1). Again, "the logos became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This is sufficient to demonstrate that both in the writings of the Greek philosophers and in the Greek New Testament, logos was a term of significance.

Recent advocates of narrative preaching are unsure about this logos. David Buttrick says, "So the Bible offers meaning—not in every little passage; some Bible passages may be largely irrelevant or even sub-Christian—the Bible offers meaning by handing out a story with a beginning and an end and, in between, a narrative understanding of how God may interface with our sinful humanity." The case is actually even worse. Buttrick discloses, "There is no pure gospel; no, not even in the Bible! To be blunt, the Christian scriptures are both sexist and anti-Semitic." There is no logia tou theou—just religious testimony, much of which is in error. Buttrick and others have given away the farm. They have jettisoned the gospel. If we have no certain word from God to expound, then listening to CNN or Fox, depending on one's preference, will prove more entertaining than preachers and just as compelling.

When one asks about the logos of a particular sermon, he is inquiring about its logic as well as its content. As to the logic of a message, one asks first, does the message make sense? This is not just a broad, general query but rather an attempt to ascertain whether the message has thoughtful purpose, orderly progression, and convincing conclusion. Does it "hang together" and is the purpose clear and powerful? Are there apparent or actual contradictions in the sermon; and if there are intentional paradoxes, are these defended at least regarding the rationale for leaving matters unresolved? Do the propositions, postulates, points (whatever you wish to call them) follow logically and develop the overall theme, or are they unrelated to each other and tangential to the text?

Not so many moons have passed since a great preacher, in the process of preparing for a conference on preaching, placed this intriguing query before me: "Who are the great Bible preachers today?" He was not searching for preachers who had texts but for texts that had preachers! As Jeff Ray so poignantly stated the matter,

I know that genuine expository preaching is almost as rare as the once multitudinous buffalo on our Texas prairies. If you ask me why, I can tell you. I found it not in a book nor by observation of other preachers. I found it out by personal, practical experience. When I am to make a sermon, I have found it an easy job, quickly performed, to deduce a topic and dress it up in platitudinous superficialities and palm it off as a message from the Word of God. But I have found it difficult, laborious, and time-consuming to dig out an adequate interpretation of a passage of Scripture and coordinate the results of that patient digging in an effective, logical outline. Because I have allowed so many little "higglety-pigglety" inconsequential enterprises to break in on my time, I have felt it necessary to follow the line of least resistance and thus have I, and doubtless thus have you, formed the habit of preparing mainly topical sermons. I am an "old dog" now and they tell me that it is hard to teach an antiquated canine a new trick, but I say to you solemnly that if I could call back fifty years, I should make it a life's ambition to be a real expositor of the Word rather than a rhetorical declaimer on topics and mottos.

Slavish adherence to what is generally termed "exposition" is not the concern. Learning three conventional categories of sermons—topical, textual, and expository—is a helpful discipline. Particularly, exposition should be mastered in its classical form. However, the concern here is not that the preacher always selects an extended text, taking all major "points" and subheadings from that text. My own conclusion is that good preaching consists in helping people to read the Bible. A preacher may be a persuasive orator; but if only that, how is he superior to Greek rhetoricians? On the other hand, as a Bible preacher, the text-driven prophet explains, illustrates, and applies the text. The pericope under scrutiny ought to have much in common with Ezekiel's dry bones. The skeletal parts sort themselves out and come together. Sinew, ligament, and skin cover what is still merely a corpse until the refreshing gusts of the presence of the Spirit vivify the sermon, and the words of the text leap from the pages of Holy Writ to electrify the hearts of listeners.

Too many contemporary practitioners of the homiletical art are bored with the task. They fret about what they will preach next Sunday, and somewhere in the hidden recesses of the soul they know their messages are vacuous—sound and fury about little more than human opinion and pop psychology. As the inimitable Spurgeon cautioned, "Estimated by their solid contents rather than their superficial area, many sermons are very poor specimens of godly discourse... verbiage is too often the fig leaf which does duty as a covering for theological ignorance."Others seem actually to enjoy themselves as they engage merrily in homiletical dog-paddling on the religious surface, whereas the beauty of the depths is neither discovered by the preacher nor exhibited to the saints and sinners who have come to hear from God but too often depart having only been entertained. As a scuba diver, I can assure you that however intriguing you may find the breakers and horizons of the ocean surface, the radiance of the coral reef, the majesty of the effortless "wings" of the manta ray, and the sheer magnitude of the whale shark, together with the other mysteries of the depths, far exceed the surface.

The sermon should be the crowning moment of the preacher's week. Spurgeon said,

Draw a circle around my pulpit, and you have hit upon the spot where I am nearest heaven. There the Lord has been more consciously near me than anywhere else. He has enraptured my heart while I have been trying to cheer and comfort His mourners. Many of you can say the same of your pew where you like to sit. It has been a Bethel to you, and the Lord Jesus has revealed Himself to you in the midst of His people.

Ezra pioneered text-based preaching, reading the Torah to the great congregation (Hb. qāhāl) from a pulpit, whereas Levitical preachers "explained the law to the people as they stood in their places" and gave them the meaning (Neh 8:1-12 HCSB). Predictably, when the logos was explained, the people first wept over their sins and then rejoiced about God's grace and forgiveness and then celebrated the whole event with "dinner on the grounds" (Neh 8:10-12). Most contemporary preaching seems still to inspire the potluck dinner, but logos-light proclamation produces little repentance and consequently a paucity of either gratitude to God or joy.

A similar event is captured by an observant physician who rehearsed a breathtaking stroll shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. Joining the two morose disciples journeying to Emmaus, Luke notes that "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He [Jesus] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27 NKJV). The word translated "expounded" (Gk. diermēneusin) is at the root of the English word "hermeneutics." Hermēnuō is related to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, whose dubious mythological responsibilities included clarifying the sentiments of the gods to humans—and to each other! Hermes was needed because sometimes these capricious gods were not on speaking terms with one another.

Jesus explained Moses and the prophets (which together make up the Hebrew canon) in a Christological way—a model for all genuinely Christian preaching. There were two measurable results. First, the logos of the preaching of the eternal logos set their "hearts ablaze" (Luke 24:32). Only logos-based preaching has much of a chance to produce this effect. Second, the two wayfarers returned to Jerusalem and excitedly shared their experience with the risen Lord (Luke 24:33-35). Logos-based (text-based) preaching will generate hearts ablaze and chronic witness.

Concerning the content of the message itself, one must determine first whether the preacher has understood the text and grasped his subject. A biblical preacher must not only comprehend the broad purpose of his text, as well as other insights available about the text, but he must also have a sufficient theological comprehension and an above-average grasp of the Bible as a whole to set his text properly in the theological milieu. Great preachers are cognizant of the necessity to be able to do exegesis and exposition within a historical setting of which they are constantly aware. How little actual grasp of scriptural knowledge is present in most North American preachers is reflected in the relative biblical illiteracy and theological misapprehensions of most congregations.

Now, the listener might ask himself, am I learning as a result of this sermon? Am I not only growing in my knowledge of the text itself, but am I also developing in my own abilities "rightly to divide the word of truth"? And, finally, is what is being proclaimed here of any substantive significance for life and eternity? If these questions can be positively answered, then the preacher's logos is probably far above average.


In the New Testament documents, pathos often appears as a descriptive word for the vileness of sin (Gal 5:24; Rom 7:5). But Michaelis notes that the word has positive meanings (2 Cor 1:5; 1:7) and is essentially neutral in its history. He suggests that the central motif of pathos is "experience." W. Michaelis, "sphazō," TDNT 7:926-30. Liddell and Scott, in their monumental lexicon of classical Greek, confirm this judgment, even though their first meaning suggested is "that which happens to a person or thing." Eventually, almost all lexicographers get around to the more commonly accepted meaning of "emotion." Whenever most people think of pathos, emotion is likely the understanding evoked. In Aristotle, the intent seems to be to evoke emotion in the listener. But this can seldom be achieved without pathos in the preacher.

For the purpose of estimating the effectiveness of the sermon, Acts 1:3 may be the best text to assist in ascertaining the most helpful meaning of the word. Here the Bible reads, "To whom He also presented himself alive after His passion [Gk. pathein] by many infallible proofs." Here the word clearly references the suffering of Jesus in His atoning death. The idea of experience or what happens to a person is at the base of this suffering. But the "passion" of Christ was not passive. Cries from the cross, added to those of Gethsemane, are evidences of a purposeful and passionate plan that motivated Jesus to pursue this course. His purpose "to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) was expressed vividly and often. He said, "But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished!" (Luke 12:50). The Greek word (sunechō) translated "straitened" in this text literally means "constrained, held prisoner, or hemmed in." The baptism Jesus faced was His passion.

This passion, this constraint that motivated Jesus to move toward the cross, is close to what is intended by pathos in preaching. Jesus was not out of control. Emotions and sentiments did not drive Him. He was "emotional" but only in a way totally engaged with His mental and spiritual understandings. Thus the cross was not just suffering, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. The atonement was a purposeful, thoughtful, determined, but highly motivated, even passionate, act of supreme sacrifice. Pathos captures in part the understanding of what Jesus did at Calvary. And this in turn assists us in comprehending pathos in preaching.

Pathos may then be defined as passion in preaching. The preacher is not simply making a speech. He is not making a living. If there were no compensation, he would still preach because "woe is me if I do not preach the gospel" (1 Cor 9:16). The eternal destinies of men and women are at stake every time he preaches. The ability to cope with life and to find meaning and happiness constitutes the fabric of his preaching; and he is driven, knowing the difference that obedience to the truth of God can generate. Like Jeremiah, there will be times when the preacher, because of his own humanity, will not want to speak for God; but he will find that God's word is a fire in his bones and he cannot remain silent (Jer 20:9).

Throughout my own life, I have been the recipient of the goodness of God so far beyond what I ever could have dreamed. I have traveled extensively and attempted almost everything I ever dreamed. But without reservation, I can report that opening the Word of the Lord for an assembled congregation, expounding the text, and pleading for the souls of men are not only my favorite activities in life but also the passions of my soul. If passion or pathos is not deeply ingrained in the preacher's message, even if his content is good and his life credible, his listeners may well conclude that whatever does not grip the preacher's soul may not be particularly important.

A major key to pathos is learning to live in the text until the text comes to life in the preacher's heart. Doing one's homework in the lexicon, commentary, and other sources is critical; but having completed the academic task, armed with his grasp of meaning and possibilities, the preacher must now transport himself to the world and environment of the text. He has to join the troops and march around the walls of Jericho. Or he must tag-team with Jacob at the river Jabbok and wrestle with God until he enters the pulpit walking with a limp. He has to sit on a Galilean hillside and watch in startled amazement as Jesus breaks a few chunks of bread and a few small fishes, and the more He breaks, the more there is. In a didactic text, he has to get inside the mind of Paul as the apostle pens Romans and imagine himself chained beside him in the Mamertine Prison as Paul writes 2 Timothy. The Apocalypse will leap to life with incredible pathos if the preacher can make a mental journey to Patmos, that rock quarry in the Aegean Sea, and witness the visions of the beloved disciple.

Pathos grows naturally from living in the text, from the sacred-ness of the assignment, and from the awareness of potential for temporal and eternal transformation in the lives of the hearers. These three elements operate together to produce a holy anticipation of high-stakes adventure in the preacher. Finding lion and cape buffalo in Africa, diving with the sharks in the Andaman Sea, or, as a boy, preparing for a big football game under the lights, the adrenaline rush, the adventure, the awareness of high drama and higher stakes—these have always thrilled my soul. But in many sacred occasions, all of these have been subordinated to the drama of opening the Word of God and watching with awe as the Holy Spirit opened the hearts of people to the Lord. There is nothing in life to parallel this adventure.

One should also note that the ability to illustrate cogently may assist not only in the logos of the message but also with the pathos of the sermon. Illustrations serve several important functions. They give brief respite to the listeners in which the mind relaxes for a moment from following the logos of the sermon. Appropriately selected illustrations constitute another way of illuminating the logos, since they often provide concrete examples of what is otherwise abstract truth. The best sources for illustrative material are the narrative portions of Scripture. The Bible itself declares this to be the case. "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor 10:11). While the preacher must be careful not to overuse personal and family anecdotes, these, nevertheless, make it easy for the auditors to find common ground and, hence, comprehension of vital truth. Integrity in the use of the preacher's own experiences is also critical and ties to the subject of the minister's ethos.

Another source of illustration develops from the broad, extensive reading that hopefully composes the regimen of the preacher. Biography and history are the most productive areas for mining illustrative gems. Wide reading with a view to illustration as well as to the general acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is crucial for anyone who takes seriously the preaching task. A system may be designed to store these nuggets for the moment of need. Great preachers are almost always good storytellers, and my father always insisted that the better preachers boasted some of the abilities of the actor as well. Both of these skills are important, but the preacher must remember that he does not have the luxury of untruthful embellishment without the sacrifice of credibility.

What about show and tell? The contemporary church is the era of PowerPoint, big screens, minidramas, and other artifice. These are more often used by that genre of preachers who are less concerned with the text than by those whose purpose is to explain the text. This is unfortunate. Every honest means for assisting in the successful launch, flight, and landing of the text-driven preacher is not only acceptable but also desirable. However, when the use of such artifice becomes monotonous, predictable, or the essence of the message, its legitimacy is sacrificed. Too often, contemporary pulpiteers use such devices as a substitute for significant logos or for the incarnational and prophetic mandate achieved by a genuine man of God whose ethos is unquestioned. But as illustrations of the teachings of the Bible, such tools in the hand of the preacher become the scalpel and sutures of his profession of spiritual healing. Of course, entertainment for its own sake is never the purpose of the Christian preacher.

As a part of the process of pathos, though also essential to logos, application and exhortation are likewise the preacher's tasks. If the preacher assumes that the lesson is complete without concrete application, he assumes too much. The bridge from the text to applications to the Sitz im Leben of the congregation is a vital part of both logos and pathos in preaching. Otherwise, the proclaimer may well have expounded the truth of Scripture, bringing the congregation to view the promised land on the far bank but leaving them with Moses at Nebo rather than revealing how to cross Jordan and arrive in the land.

Exhortation is a crucial aspect of Christian preaching. Pathos is primary in exhortation, though logos and ethos figure prominently as well. Paul insisted that Timothy "preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim 4:2). This also was Peter's practice: "And with many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation'" (Acts 2:40). Judas and Silas "exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words" (Acts 15:32). See also Acts 11:23, 14:22, and 20:2 for additional uses of parakaleo in the apostolic community. "Exhort" is a translation of the Greek parakaleō, meaning "to call to one's side." My own favorite translation betrays my revivalist and evangelistic background, but I translate the word as "extending an invitation or appeal." Pleading for the souls of men or consistently pleading for believers to follow the Lord should be the climax of every text-driven sermon. Extending this appeal must use pathos in its primary nuance of "passion," though controlled emotion is not thereby excluded.


A surface observation might adjudicate the preaching enterprise as essentially simple. A man stands before an assembled body and gives testimony to the grace of God. But if the man of God wants to make an optimal presentation, if he wishes to advance mere talk to an art of preaching, then he recognizes that he must begin with his own life. In fact, Paul warned about making an elder of a "novice" because lacking a life of experience and testimony, such a one would be more likely to be "puffed up with pride" and "fall into the same condemnation as the devil" (1 Tim 3:6). Armed with a credible and saintly life, which renders the preacher "above reproach" (1 Tim 3:2 ESV), the servant of the Lord is now prepared to travail in study until the sermon based on the text is formed in his mind and heart.

Having prepared arduously, the prophet opens the Word of God to the people. Text-based preaching or exposition is the only really appropriate form of Christian preaching. This is true because the preacher is to be an "able teacher" (1 Tim 3:2 HCSB). However, this is also the case because if God has spoken on any issue, is it not ultimate chutzpah for the preacher to substitute even the noblest of human formulations for the thoughts and utterances of God? And if God did not address the subject, then why would the preacher's choice of subject be more important than the subject that God has chosen to address? After all, is the preacher a servant of the world or is he a spokesman for God? With ethos established, the preacher now explains the logos of the will and purpose of God in Holy Scripture.

One would hope this task is pursued with pathos, that is, with passion. Shouting is neither included nor excluded in pathos. The same is true for tears. Disengagement from emotion "run amok" is essential but not wholesale disregard of emotion, since "feeling" is a vital part of what it means to be human. If preaching were compared to the flight of an airplane, ethos would represent the trained, reliable pilot; logos the cargo to be delivered; and pathos would be the trim on the wings and tail of the plane. All of this that is to be used of God must be borne along on the zephyr winds of the Holy Spirit.

Preaching is not simple but complex. Like salvation, the basic concept is simple so that all may profit. But beneath the surface, both salvation and preaching are complex issues. The ancient Greeks had no intention of making a contribution to Christian preaching. Classical rhetoric, no matter how persuasive, can never approach the transforming impact of Spirit-endowed preaching. But Aristotle's three criteria for rhetoric are still invaluable for today's minister. Ethos, logos, and pathos in Christian, text-driven, Spirit-inspired preaching are, in fact, lifted to a level that Aristotle himself might have envied.