Preaching: A Rhetorical Question

De Doctrina Christiana, or On Christian Teaching, never quite does what I expect it to.

You’d think after a few readings it would take on a familiar tinge and find a nice settled rhythm, but it doesn’t. There’s always some new facet to explore or think about. Today, I sat and reread book IV reminding myself that Augustine neither starts nor finishes a thought where I expect him too.

This doesn’t start off there though. A few months back, I reviewed a couple books on preaching: Adam Hamilton’s Unleashing the Word, and Andy Stanley’s Communicating for Change. The first offered up some excellent insights, the latter was… well the later had a good quote from Bill Hybels that summed up the entire book. Thus keeping me from wanting to read any more Andy Stanley books for right now.

Neither however quoted or talked about Augustine and his little book. Although I find this odd, because it’s a true gem. 



Augustine starts off on the subject of Rhetoric? It’s one of those moves that I didn’t expect, but it’s an important place to start.

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Rhetoric is the offering up of a persuasive speech or essay or novel or pretty much any form of communication. It used to be a cornerstone of education. We gave it up to teach people math and science which are noble pursuits and necessary (as we hear from Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society) to sustain life, but literature and art, those are what we live for. The quest for a technical society has largely left us with out the ability to effectively communicate… At least in part.

This is perhaps why I didn’t expect to find a bit about rhetoric or especially the obvious about rhetoric right on the outset, but I admit, today I was struck by the idea that rhetoric can be used to express truth or falsehood in equal measure. Often I think that when I find something true, it will of necessity be beautiful and well put despite the abundance of beautifully written or phrased works that clearly are false.

“Howl” and “Invictus” stir the soul as poems but upon closer inspection cannot bear up under scrutiny.

But they are beautiful and moving pieces of work.

With misdirection operating in every level of our society, I had not really stared this fact in the face in a way so plainly stated. Here I was and I felt that we have ads persuading us by offering up narratives and ideals that would never be attended to consciously, but their pervasive nature kindles up a desire within us and tempts us away.

Yet rhetoric is a tool and can easily be picked up to persuade people of the truth. We preachers don’t always bear it up well.

At this moment my vision is of Frodo inspecting Strider for the first time. He says quite simply, “A servant of the enemy would look fairer and feel fouler.” We preach bread and water with wisdom, while those that would oppose the truth preach pina coladas and steak. Perhaps for that very reason, God can stir us up to love the words of a simple preacher. We don’t look so pretty, but in a deeper sense, we preachers are fair underneath.

Then Augustine challenges the way he was taught rhetoric.

Again we find him going where we least expect him to go, but he cuts to the chase. The rules of rhetoric do not make one eloquent. The rules of rhetoric don’t create an imagination capable of inflaming the desires and informing the minds of men. He makes it pretty darn clear that we aren’t going to benefit from them unless we can learn them quickly and put them to good use. Otherwise we shouldn’t bother.

So, where do we go to learn?

Augustine says go read, go listen, hear and see and feel what writers and speaker stir up within and how they do it. Read novels! Read epics! Read sermons! Learn eloquence the way a toddler learns to speak, not by the rules but by imitation born of humility and true enjoyment of the artful method.

Only then does he tell us to what end we preach: To inform the minds of what we’ve learned in our studies and to stir up or hearers to action. Only then does he let us know that the chief purpose of all words is to glorify God.


About Sean Smith

Husband, Father, Pastor, Swimmer, Writer, Reader, and attempted Adventurer!
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