Monday, May 03, 2010

Anti-Rhetoric Rhetoric

I was re-listening to John Piper's excellent conference message from the 2008 Desiring God National Conference (Audio here), on the topic Is There Christian Eloquence? Clear Words and the Wonder of the Cross. Piper is very sharp on this one, exploring the problem of eloquence and rhetoric that 1 Corinthians raises in particular, in the life and work of those whose business is proclaiming the gospel in words for persuasion. Essentially, Piper's answer is that there is a distinction between the Sophists, whose aim is to draw attention and praise to themselves by their arrangement of words for persuasive and pleasing effect, and the eloquence of both the Scriptures and (ideally) the preacher, whose aim is rather to draw attention and praise to Christ. Do yourself a favour and listen to the talk.

I wonder if this ever occurred to the Ancient Fathers? Many, especially from the 3rd century on, were deeply trained in a rhetorical tradition that formed the backbone of classical education and drew on the traditions of the Second Sophistic. Almost all major Latin Fathers were rhetorically trained, practised as rhetors or lawyers, or were even professors of rhetoric. And yet, when you read their writings they consistently distance themselves from rhetoric, sometimes explicitly, all the while employing pervasive rhetorical techniques in their writing and speaking. How to account for such apparent hypocrisy? While in some cases the tension is acute (Jerome, for instance), it seems that for many of them it had become warp and woof of their discourse. Almost certainly part of their distancing was to distance themselves from the bastion of Late Antique paganism that was resident and buttressed by the rhetorical tradition. Some writers start to give a more positive evaluation of rhetoric (Basil I think, and definitely Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana), which with the ongoing Christianisation of the Empire eventually gives way entirely, as rhetoric is thoroughly integrated into a Christianised education process, as the pagan alternative begins to disappear, and so the polemical distance is less necessary. Perhaps, too, the orators' annoyance at applause reveals something of their anti-rhetoric rhetoric - a sense of the holy things they were discussing, and a desire not to be applauded, but rather God to be magnified. Even if they didn't grasp this lesson, we must.

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