The Quest for Eloquence

Does Scripture forbid Christians from being eloquent? Here’s Kostenberger’s answer from his book, Excellence:

Did Paul approve of the quest for eloquence, or did he discourage – or even condemn – it? In a key passage, the apostle wrote to the Corinthians, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). Later on in the same epistle, Paul elaborated, “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). Judging from these passages, Paul seems to have intentionally curtailed his eloquence in order to focus his listeners’ attention on the gospel message. Is it legitimate, therefore, to use Paul’s example to argue that believers – including preachers – should refrain from cultivating eloquence in presenting the gospel?

As we will see, this conclusion would be premature. An appreciation of the first-century context helps put Paul’s words into proper perspective. The Sophists, a group of Hellenistic philosophers, were widely known for their eloquence and rhetorical skill, including in Corinth. By cautioning the Corinthians against unduly relying on human rhetoric, Paul most likely sought to counteract the Sophists’ influence, trying to redirect their focus away from human rhetoric to the actual gospel message (see 1 Cor.2:1-5).

That said, however, Paul’s eloquent use of rhetoric elsewhere in his letters – including in 1 Corinthians – makes clear that he did not reject its use altogether. Rather, he cautioned against a misplaced focus on the medium – the human speaker – at the expense of the message: the saving news of salvation and forgiveness of sins in the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is powerful, not because of human ingenuity, rhetorical persuasiveness, or oratorical power, but because of the saving work of God. This fact, however, should not lead us to reject eloquence altogether. It is the abuse of rhetoric that Paul opposed, not its proper use in ways that undergird the gospel message.

John Piper helpfully addressed Paul’s stance toward eloquence along those lines in a chapter entitled “Is There Christian Eloquence? Clear Words and the Wonder of the Cross.” He rightly argued that Paul presented a two-pronged criterion for judging eloquence: does it encourage sinful pride and boastful arrogance, or does it exalt Christ? Eloquence that makes the speaker the center of attention should be rejected, while eloquence that draws attention to the crucified Christ and the message of his gospel should be embraced and utilized in preaching and teaching.

Paul’s “anti-eloquence” stance in 1 Corinthians should therefore be applied only to situations where rhetoric subverts and obscures the message. It should not be extrapolated to imply a universal prohibition against Christians utilizing eloquence or rhetoric in the persuasive communication of the gospel. This contention is underscored by the pervasive presence of eloquence throughout Scripture. The Bible itself is highly eloquent. It is filled with hymns, poetry, narratives, and letters that display the highest levels of ancient Hebrew and Greek rhetorical achievement.

Kostenberger, Excellence, (p. 149-151)



2 thoughts on “The Quest for Eloquence

  1. Yes, Obama came to my mind as well when I first read this. And while he truly is foremost among our contemporary Sophists, it seems that some level of sophistry is required for anyone to get elected, even those politicians whom I would support. This probably says something profound about our society, and, considering sophistry’s long historical precedent, about human nature in general, but I’m not sure what exactly that is. Something to do with enjoying complicated distractions from simple truths.

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