What Is the Place of Eloquence in Christian Preaching?
On Monday we talked about what makes a good sermon. Today we have someone asking a question about what place eloquence has in the pulpit — if any. And it’s a question from a seasoned preacher who asked to remain nameless. “Pastor John, what’s the role of creativity, imagination, and rhetoric in preaching? I’m thinking of things from alliteration and assonance to structural and organizational devices to the use of metaphors, imagery, and illustrations.”
Is There Christian Eloquence?
This question has weighed on me for decades, so much so that maybe he knows we did an entire Desiring God national conference in 2008 under the title “The Power of Words and the Wonder of God.” The next year, Justin Taylor edited those messages into a book by the same title.
“The Bible is full of efforts to make the language different from ordinary, humdrum, traditional speech.”
My talk in that conference was “Is There Christian Eloquence?” My text was 1 Corinthians 1:17, which says, “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.”
I think that is the key issue. How do we reconcile the pursuit of creative, imaginative, compelling uses of language in preaching and writing with the biblical warnings against replacing the power and offensiveness of the cross with human finesse or human art or human cleverness?
Nobody Is Immune
Nobody can escape this problem. So nobody out there should say, “I don’t even come close to that problem — I’m not eloquent at all.” No, no, no, no. You do come close to this problem every time you open your mouth for Jesus. Yes, you do.
Nobody escapes this because everybody in preaching or teaching or witnessing has to choose words. When you choose words, they are more or less grammatically correct, more or less interesting, more or less striking, more or less traditional, more or less concrete or abstract, more or less evocative, and there are more or fewer analogies and illustrations, which may be more or less captivating, and on and on.
Nobody can evade the issue that when we choose our words, we are hoping they have an effect for the glory of God and the salvation of sinners. We make choices, and we’re never quite sure that it was the right choice.
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Understanding the Question
This preacher is asking, “Is it fitting, helpful, legitimate, faithful to turn on the mental juices of creativity and imagination and make efforts at eloquence?” He mentioned a few examples, like alliteration: “the big, bad, bellicose bully.” He mentioned assonance: “Men sell the wedding bells.” (You hear the eh, eh, eh sounds. That’s assonance.)
He also mentioned metaphors: “Jesus is the lion of Judah.” Or similes: “He will come like a thief.” Or imagery: “The sun crosses the sky like a bridegroom leaving his chamber.” Finally, he asked about illustrations, like Jesus’s parables: “The kingdom of God is like . . . ”
It’s not a simple question.
Make It Sing
Let me point our pastor friend to the fourth part of the new book Expository Exultation. I’ve got an entire part of this book devoted to the question “Is there such a thing as a legitimate Christian eloquence?”
My answer is yes, but chapters eight and nine really try to tackle and show that the use of our natural powers, our natural brains, and our natural creativity with verbal effort to say things effectively may cross the line of emptying the cross of its power, or it may not cross the line.
Here’s what I’ve concluded. (You have to go to the chapter to see the whole argument.) I’ve concluded the Bible itself is filled with every manner of literary device to add impact to the language — acrostics, alliteration, analogies, anthropomorphisms, assonance, cadence, chiasm, consonance, dialogue, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, paradox, parallelism, repetition, rhyme, satire, simile. They’re all there and more — lots, lots more. The Bible is just explosive with varieties of effort to make the language different from ordinary, humdrum, traditional speech.
It seems to me that not only is there an example for us in the Bible for what to do with language when we’re handling sacred things, but also that God himself invites us to join him in this creativity of compelling language with words like these.
This is Proverbs 15:23: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” Or Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Or Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” On and on we could go.
My answer is yes. We should use our creative gifts to say things in interesting, non-boring, clear, truthful, biblically faithful, emotionally engaging, memorable, striking, compelling ways that are suitable to the subject matter.
Guard Against Misuse
When I seek to guard against the misuse of creativity or the misuse of Christian eloquence, which I don’t think is a bad thing, I think mainly of two criteria that would show something out of bounds or in bounds, protecting the cross with its power and its offensiveness.
“We should use our creative gifts to say things in interesting, non-boring, clear, and biblically faithful ways.”
1. Does my way of speaking or writing feed boasting? Does it come from an ego in search of exaltation through clever speech, and would it lead to that? Oh, how prone we are to want to get accolades for the way we put words together! That’s what Paul considers so deadly. Paul rejects it.
2. Does my use of creative language in speaking and writing exalt Christ, especially the crucified Christ?
The most helpful word I ever read on this outside the Bible is James Denney’s dictum, which I think expresses these two criteria in a nutshell. He says, “No man can give at once the impressions that he himself is clever, and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” I read that early on in my ministry, and it has held me fast. Hold fast to that, and be as creative and compelling as you can be for the glory of Christ and the good of souls.
By John Piper