Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism: Useful for Preaching?

26 Jan

What exactly is “rhetorical criticism”? In order to define and understand this discipline, one must go back to the definition of rhetoric itself, which is primarily drawn from Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle stated that rhetoric has to do with the concept of how one persuades another person or persons through various means, or what are termed “rhetorical strategies.”

Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, “may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”[1] Aristotle believed that there were three modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word: firstly, those which are based upon the personal character of the speaker (ethos or credibility), secondly putting the audience into a certain frame of mind (pathos or appeals to emotion), and thirdly the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the speaker’s words themselves (logos or logical argumentation). Depending upon the hoped-for outcome of the speech, the speaker begins by deciding which mode or means of rhetorical strategy he or she believes will most likely persuade the audience. To achieve this aim, the speaker can employ one mode exclusively, or any combination of the three.

Aristotle stands as the most important of the classical theoreticians of rhetoric because he provided the art with a logical basis.[2] The Stanford Encyclopedia notes that “Aristotle’s Rhetoric has had an enormous influence on the development of the art of rhetoric…for two millennia the interpretation of Aristotelian rhetoric has become a matter of the history of rhetoric, not of philosophy…it is the Rhetoric too which informs us about the cognitive features of language and style.”[3]

Roman teachers of rhetoric inherited the earlier work of Greek rhetoricians like Aristotle and built upon his divisions of rhetorical genres.[4] The Roman rhetorician Cicero extended Aristotle’s concepts by viewing the production of rhetoric—or the construction of a persuasive speech—as involving five elements: firstly invention (choosing a topic); secondly arrangement (how the parts are ordered); thirdly style (figures of speech, etc.); fourthly memory (memorizing the elements of the speech) and fifthly delivery (the actual giving of the speech before a live audience). Importantly for Cicero, the speaker (known as the ‘rhetor’) should progress through these five activities sequentially when preparing and delivering a speech. Only then can the rhetor “take a comprehensive view of the individual case in hand and duly take account of all its special circumstances. Only such an approach can produce a coherent speech that is as persuasive as the circumstances allow.”[5]


Throughout the centuries, from the time of the Church fathers right through to the modern day biblical scholars have employed classical Greco-Roman understanding of rhetoric for the study of Scripture. For example, Augustine devoted Book IV of On Christian Doctrine to illustrate how he employed Ciceronian categories of rhetoric for both biblical studies and preaching forms alike. Later biblical scholars such as Bede, Melanchthon, Erasmus, Luther and Calvin all studied Scripture using varieties of rhetorical analyses, focusing mainly on figures of speech, genre, and style. This understanding of rhetoric still impacts upon some schools of biblical rhetorical criticism, as critics studying Scripture seek to compile lists of its stylistic elements (figures of speech), which tends to restrain, paralyze and distort rhetoric from the more holistic classical ideals.[6]

In the sixteenth century the understanding of classical rhetoric became fragmented with the work of French scholar Peter Ramus. He became dissatisfied with the way in which late medieval teachers had allegedly confused the elements of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) into an untidy mess. He brought order to the confusion: grammar was the primary art of speech, logic or dialectic became the art of the matter and rhetoric became the art of the dress.[7]

Dividing up Cicero’s five categories into merely two, Ramus assigned invention and arrangement to the first category of logic, and assigned style, memory and delivery to the second category of rhetoric. To Ramus’s way of thinking, a speaker (or preacher) would firstly persuade an audience through logical means. Secondly, once the speaker achieved that goal could he then utilize style and figures of speech to appeal to the emotions of the audience. This mode of preaching is seen most clearly in the Puritan “plain style” of preaching in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Puritans firstly gathered their doctrines from the Bible, secondly utilized logic to prove those doctrines and only thirdly employed the means of “rhetoric to make those doctrines attractive, reasons convincing, and applications efficacious.”[8]

American preacher Jonathan Edwards stands as one of those who made exclusive use of this tripartite preaching form for the entirety of his preaching career. In fact this basic method is still very much alive today as seen in the structure of many expository-style sermon forms: Many sermons follow this threefold division: 1) select a text, 2) explain that text interpretatively using logical argumentation and 3) apply the text to the hearers using appeals to the emotions to get the listeners to respond appropriately to the message.

During the period of the Enlightenment scholars still studied classical rhetoric but utilized the divided rhetoric of Ramus. Rhetoric was subsequently reduced to lists of tropes and figures of speech to be memorized by the pupil and then utilized when the situation was right. During this period rhetoric came to be regarded as flowery speech having little or no significance in reality other than to manipulate people. In contrast to this “suspect” way of speech, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke set out to construct a “new” scientific and precise language favouring clarity and literalness that bypassed the flowery (but ultimately vain and empty) speech of rhetoric.

Even to this day, Foss notes that the notion of “rhetoric” still has this negative connotation: “rhetoric is commonly used to mean empty, bombastic language that has no substance…In other instances, rhetoric is used to mean flowery, ornamental speech that contains an abundance of metaphors and other figures of speech.”[9] This can be clearly seen in the contextual usage of the word “rhetoric” as applied to political speeches, for example (“mere rhetoric”).

Since the early 1900s, however, the study of classical rhetoricians such as Aristotle and Cicero enjoyed a resurgence of interest, particularly within American universities such as Cornell and Ohio State. This return to more classical ideals eventually had an impact upon biblical studies and today biblical rhetorical criticism has returned to more of an Aristotelian mode that seeks to understand the persuasive power of dynamic biblical texts. Moreover, critics have shifted the focus of rhetorical criticism to that of viewing the art of persuasive rhetoric as acting upon audiences also.[10] Hauser points out that “rhetorical critics have also, in recent years, recognized the significance of the reader’s response to the text. A text cannot convey meaning without a reader or audience to perceive it… The ‘meaning’ of the text thus will be, of necessity, a combination of the signals sent out by the text and the inclination of the reader to respond to certain of these signals.”[11]

Today the categories of classical rhetoric are also useful for analyzing the persuasive elements of speeches, music, films and written texts alike. The Greeks did not invent rhetoric, as Kennedy notes, they discovered it by formulating principles of what makes a speech persuasive (or what doesn’t!) When studying a speech, for example, the rhetorical critic seeks to discover the question “What was it about that particular speech that made it effective, or not?” When studying written texts the rhetorical critic seeks to understand what message the writer is attempting to convey, and how he/she attempts to persuade an audience to believe that message by means of that text. Kennedy notes in this regard that “as such they [texts] are rhetorical, and their methods can be studied by the discipline of rhetoric.”[12]

The Rhetorical Situation

The study of a “rhetorical situation” is an excellent example of rhetorical criticism put into practice, as it is a model that seeks to understand the various persuasive elements of rhetoric and how those impact upon an audience capable of taking action. According to Lloyd Bitzer (who coined the term “the rhetorical situation” with his 1968 article of the same name), the basic definition of a rhetorical situation is one that calls for some type of verbal (rhetorical) response. In other words, the situation generates the response and not the other way around. A speaker responds to the situation as he/she addresses an audience in the attempt to persuade that audience to act or do something that will then modify the situati€on. This will then restore harmony and balance to the situation. The rhetorical situation consists of the following three elements:

1) An Exigence—this is a problem or a defect, or “something that is other than it should be.”

2) An Audience—who are capable of being constrained in thought or action in order to bring about a positive modification of the exigence. The audience is necessary because it is through their actions and/or influence that the exigence can be modified, thus bringing about the restoration of harmony and balance.

3) Constraints—a variety of factors that operate on both the speaker (the rhetor) and the audience. The speaker’s central task is to discover and make use of proper constraints (rhetorical strategies) so that the audience will be motivated to take action and do something about the exigence. The speaker can make use of a variety of constraints: he/she can appeal to the audience’s traditions, beliefs, or emotions; quoting statistics, rules, laws, etc. to attempt to persuade and motivate the audience to take action and modify the exigence.

One key element to keep in mind is that the rhetorical response of the speaker to the situation must properly “fit” the exigence. In other words, the required action/change required of the audience to modify the exigence must be action that is within the realm of possibility to achieve, otherwise it is pointless!

Two additional factors play a part in the rhetorical situation:

  1. A factual condition—both the speaker and the audience need to agree that the exigence is a real problem. For example if a hurricane is bearing down on a small village and looks like it may well destroy it, those who live in the village all share—and agree on—the same factual condition.
  2. A related interest—when connected to a factual condition, this element involves the appreciation of the (potential) severity of the factual condition. This accounts for the appearance of motives and purposes. If there is the likelihood that people will die if they stay in their homes because of the hurricane, this may bring about sufficient motivation to evacuate the village.

Bitzer gives an example of a rhetorical situation. Imagine that a deaf and blind friend is walking unaware toward a section of excavated sidewalk that has no safety barrier. He could fall into the hole and be seriously injured. This is the factual condition. But is there a related interest? Yes—you, his friend, see the impending accident and fear for his safety. However, you are too far away to run and stop him from falling in the hole. Thus we have an exigence, which is the factual condition plus a related interest.

Further complicating the situation, near the hole a woman sits in a lawn chair in her front garden reading a book. She is the audience—only she is in a position to hear a persuasive message, act and save the blind and deaf man from certain disaster. Perceiving this reality, you create a message in your mind and shout the message to the woman, thus alerting her about what may well happen to the deaf and blind man.

Fortunately the woman hears your message and is sufficiently compelled to act because of the danger posed to the blind and deaf man. She agrees to the factual conditions of the exigence (the deaf and blind man about to fall in the hole) and has sufficient related interest to respond to the constraint—the rhetorical strategy you employed in the message you shouted to her. In this case, perhaps the appeal to her emotions, or sense of human decency because she does not wish to see the man get seriously hurt, were sufficient motivating factors for her to take action. In any event, she responds to the message, intervenes and guides the blind man to safety, thus restoring harmony and balance.


The analysis of classical rhetoric, rhetorical criticism and the rhetorical situation demonstrates that persuasive speech clearly has the ability to motivate people to take some sort of action. What is valuable about rhetorical criticism in particular is that it seeks to understand the actions people perform when they communicate to one another for the purposes of persuasion, the invitation to understand one another better and as a means to self-discovery or self-knowledge.[13] Therefore rhetorical criticism, whether utilized to understand the persuasive and communicative elements of music, art, architecture, written texts, plays or movies, helps improve our abilities as communicators. Moreover, Foss points out that “knowledge of the operation of rhetoric also can help make us more sophisticated audience members for messages.”[14]

Therefore rather than being merely reactive, we can become proactive when we participate in the process of shaping our culture because we are less inclined to accept existing rhetorical practices and to respond uncritically to messages we encounter. And finally, for biblical studies, rhetorical criticism is a dynamic process that continues to change and is flexible. By focusing less on lists of stylistic elements and more upon a classical understanding of persuasive rhetoric, rhetorical criticism takes us away from traditional readings of sacred texts and into the dimension of social interaction and transformation.[15]

[1] Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 2.

[2] Richards, Rhetoric, 41.

[3] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “Aristotle’s Rhetoric.”

[4] Richards, Rhetoric, 42.

[5] May and Wisse, “Introduction” in Cicero, De Oratore with Introduction and Notes, 10.

[6] Wuellner, “Where is Rhetorical Criticism Taking Us?” 451. This is seen most clearly in the so-called “Muilenburg School” of biblical rhetorical criticism after its founder, James P. Muilenburg.

[7] Miller, The New England Mind, 320-321.

[8] Ibid., 304. The preaching of Puritan New Englander Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century demonstrates this mode of preaching. His sermons invariably proceeded as follows: 1) Text of Scripture 2) Doctrine (presented logically from Scripture and theology) and 3) Applications (using persuasive speech to appeal to the emotions of the listeners).

[9] Foss, Rhetorical Criticism, 4 (italics hers).

[10] Richards, Rhetoric, 159.

[11] Hauser, “Rhetorical Criticism of the Old Testament,” 13.

[12] Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, 4.

[13] Foss, Rhetorical Criticism, 4-5.

[14] Ibid., 8-9.

[15] Wuellner, “Where is Rhetorical Criticism Taking Us?” 462-463.

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