The Beauty and Danger of Rhetoric

God is good, true, and beautiful. That is so because His attributes are identical with His essence. Quenstedt speaks of this: “The divine essence is like a boundless ocean of all infinite perfections, which the human intellect has not the ability to exhaust, by one single conception, and, therefore, draws drop by drop, as it were, something form that infinity.” [1]

God has graciously revealed His attributes in creation: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”[2]

Even though our nature is corrupted, the Scriptures proclaim that man does still recognize these attributes of God and, therefore, is left without excuse. When we look at nature, we see God’s attributes of goodness, beauty, and power. When we
look inside ourselves, we see the Law of God written on our hearts, a goodness which we ought to seek to attain. Even now, the heathen recognize that there is objective beauty, truth and goodness in the world.

But there is also a beauty which our God has only given to men. There is the beauty of words. We don’t just use language to impart information, but we impart that information in a way which evokes feelings of pleasure and delight. Aesop’s fables teach morals in a vivid way. Hymn singing teaches the Christian Faith by using one of God’s most precious gifts, music. Poetry also teaches while delighting the ear and mind with alliteration, rhyme, and pungent imagery. We use beautiful words to

The heathen recognize the persuasiveness of beautiful words. They called it rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined in this way: “It is clear, then, that rhetorical study, in its strict sense, is concerned with the modes of persuasion.”[3]

Good rhetoric, the beautiful words and phrases, flow out of true and good doctrine. Rhetoric supports the truth, like the flying buttress which braces the mighty

cathedral. Rhetoric displays the good, just like the smile on a pious girl’s face.

Sadly, rhetoric, that great gift of God, doesn’t always serve the interests of the good or the true. A father warns his son to beware “the seductress who flatters with her words.”[4] A man or woman with a silver tongue has led many into shame and sin.

But misused rhetoric is also a danger to the preaching of the Gospel. St. Paul warns the Ephesian congregation: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”[5]

And again, St. Paul warns about those whose rhetoric does not conform with the truth of sound words: “he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.”[6]

We must be careful, lest our rhetoric obscure the truth and pervert the good. As the Scriptures attest, rhetoric can do great harm to people’s souls. Pastors ought not to become sophists.

Does this mean that we abandon rhetoric? Of course not! Rhetoric is a wonderful gift of God. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all used rhetoric in their sermons and in their teaching. Pastors throughout the ages have employed rhetoric in their sermons. We ought not neglect a gift just because it is misused.

How then shall we use rhetoric and the beauty of words to teach the Faith? Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero all wrote classic books on rhetoric. Martin Luther said this about Cicero: “[He] was the wisest man. . . I marvel at this man who, amid such great labors, read and wrote so much.”[7]

But the best advice was advice which I received from a brother in the ministry. He said, “Ask yourself three questions. 1. Is it true? 2. Is it clear? 3. Is it beautiful?”

The first two questions must be answered in the affirmative. If you cannot answer the first question, you are a false teacher. If you cannot answer the second question, you are not apt to teach.

While the third question is not essential to the faithfulness of the teaching office, it is nevertheless important. We ought to lovingly craft our sermons and our bible studies. We ought to use powerful imagery which will be imprinted on the minds of men. This is our weekly goal.

But any rhetoric which either obscures the truth or teaches falsehood should be cut off. Those “beautiful words” are not beautiful at all. They are beautiful like plastic flowers are beautiful. They may look fine, but they have no life and no divine power.

May the Lord Jesus adorn our good and true teaching with beauty, until that day we behold the True, Beautiful and Good One face to face.



[1] Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, pg. 121.

[2] Romans 1:20.


[4] Proverbs 2:16.

[5] Ephesians 5:5-6.

[6] 1 Tim. 6:4-5

[7] AE 54, pg. 171.


The Beauty and Danger of Rhetoric — 5 Comments

  1. Rhetoric based on the truth is the most powerful rhetoric.

    What any pastor or lay need to remember in regards to rhetoric, however, is that there is both the emotional and the logical side to persuasion. There will be that very rational and sober-minded fellow who still remains baffled that no one is perturbed by his very rational and sober rhetoric!

    And perturbed is the correct word for it, for the mind tends to remain in place, never breaking stance, until something disturbs it.

    The vast majority of people simply operate on emotions far more than they operate on purely rational thought. Even those who believe they are rational! So for your rhetoric to actually be effective to most people, you absolutely must understand how to address and challenge emotions.

    Pastor Berg is entirely correct that rhetoric must remain true. Clear is a subjective matter however, as clarity is dependent on the understanding of the reciever. Beauty is simply a function of being true.

    I have had experience with those who pooh-pooh the emotional aspect of rhetoric, and they justify it by mistakenly claiming it as being deceitful or being unclear, or ugly, or some other excuse generated by their emotional dislike of it, ironically enough.

    It being untrue, however? They could never successfully argue that. And sometimes truths that we find unpleasant are ugly to us. “They simply only need to follow our logical diagrams, and then they shall see the light! My logical flow of A -> B -> C is beautiful and clear!” They may logically see it make sense, but their hearts will not be swayed, and the brain will soon forget, because they themselves don’t want to remember.

    Clarity is good. Beauty is good. However, rhetoric simply being true is what is required to ensure you have effective rhetoric that does not pervert goodness.

    I beg of you, fellow brothers, understand and learn the weapons of emotional appeals, as they are weapons that have been turned against us in the public square. They may seem ugly and plebian, but they are effectively the language of men and women.

  2. This was excellent and clear. Thank you.

    I would love to see classical rhetoric taught as part of pre-seminary (or seminary) coursework. Perhaps even at the Lutheran high school and undergraduate levels. Not simply in preparation for the predigtamt, however. Consider the opportunities for confessing the faith amid our daily vocations… if our folk had been formed to use “every available means of persuasion!”

    There might have been reason that Luther/Melanchthon/Bugenhagen used the classical model for their schools, and even more reason that Walther and the Saxons followed the classical model when starting schools in Perry County. Alas for when and where the current generation of well-meaning LCMS educators try to conserve … the progressive methods learned in our very own teacher’s colleges.

  3. Perhaps also:

    4. Is it well-suited to your audience?
    5. Is it appropriate for the occasion?

    A prominent biblical example that comes to mind is Paul at the Areopagus.

    Responding to MM above, I’d be inclined to say that in the interest of being persuasive, emotion can help to convey the meaning of the truths that we want to shed light on.

  4. My only disagreement with Mr. Layman would be as to the severity of the usefulness of emotions in persuasion.

    He says emotions “can help to convey the meaning of the truths”.

    I say, from my own experience, emotions are essential to conveying the meaning of the truths we want to shed light on. Recall how the Holy Spirit worked on Pentecost – the people touched were very emotionally moved. Recall how Saul reacted when he had his great conversion. Change and emotion are pretty much hand-in-hand.

    Nota bene, this is in no case advocating happy clappy claptrap. It is simply pointing out that in order to connect with people and persuade them to change, the heartstrings have to get plucked.

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