Christian Rhetoric: Scraps for a Manifesto

By Jordan, Mark D. | Cross Currents, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Christian Rhetoric: Scraps for a Manifesto


Jordan, Mark D., Cross Currents


Too much Christian theology is rhetorically dangerous, by neglect or by design. Academic writing excuses itself from rhetorical care in the selfless service of some precise truth--and then deforms our only means for speaking truth. Popular theology typically borrows rhetorical tricks without regard for their criteria or consequences. Theology dangerous by design threatens in the name of God when it means really to summon the local police.

Each of these theological styles--there are many others--is dangerous as writing because it neglects or abuses rhetorical power. The preached or prayed religion of an enfleshed Word, Christianity professes ultimate rhetorical ambitions. So the double danger: A theological writer can refuse to attend to the rhetorical devices necessarily in play or can claim them grandiosely for anti-Christian purposes. The first danger leads to the second.

Histories of Christian theology place its origin in the contest between revelation and philosophy. The narratives can forget that those philosophies were not textbook systems. They were persuasive schools, historical communities constituted by relations of students to teachers, by common practices of ways-of-life, by the handing on of certain texts that had the power to call and correct. Some of the forms of philosophic persuasion are reflected in the New Testament letters. Many more find their way into early Christian writing.

A moral fable about Christian theology might better stress the original competition with flourishing schools of rhetoric. We read this in Augustine's Confessions, of course, but we do not remember it, partly because Augustine represents his conversion as a decisive turn from rhetoric to revelation. Attentive readers of any page in the Confessions know how much rhetoric survived conversion--or motivated it. In his Milanese garden, Augustine sees not Christ, but the stately figure of a personified Continence. She exhorts by example and by well modulated shame. Augustine is then commanded to read by a pure voice--by the provocation of voice alone, without name, body, sex, logic. A rhetorician's conversion towards a new rhetoric able to command bodies.

Augustine was not alone. The three other "doctors" or teachers of Latin-speaking theology--Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory--were accomplished orators, but also avid students of rhetorical arts. Ambrose wrote a whole treatise in imitation and correction of Cicero, while Jerome dreamed that he would be accused before God of being more Ciceronian than Christian. Even Gregory the Great, two centuries later in Christian time, is praised by his biographer as pre-eminent at Rome for rhetoric. Latin theology invents itself when rhetoricians read the Christian bible in search of a higher art. It can be no surprise then that all four of the Latin "doctors" are renowned not only as theologians, but as preachers and moral exhorters. Or, to speak less anachronistically: the four founders are simultaneously teachers and preachers--persuaders to divine wisdom more than professors of it.

In this fable, the rhetorical cast of theology survives the decline of civil rhetoric. Long after the pagan schools languished or were closed in Western Europe, rhetorical sensibility continued to animate Christian writing. Some medieval writers of theology are praised as gifted stylists--certainly the "mystics," women and men, canonized and heretical, but also theological poets and allegorists (Alan of Lille, the Victorines, Bonaventure). Even the staple forms of Scholastic writing, disputed question and literal exposition, imitate classroom exercises and so echo performed persuasion. The disputed question descends from the Platonic (or Augustinian) dialogue, and the expositions or commentaries carry forward practices of the ancient instruction.

Theological eloquence remains as well an ideal among Scholastic writers. When Thomas Aquinas describes what it is to compose Christian theology, he speaks of instructing intellects, moving passions, changing those who receive its formation. …

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