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  • Brian Chilcote

Rhetorical Questions Part 3: Why is it Important to Know Something About Rhetoric?

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Would you build a theological doctrine on a peroration element? Hopefully, you'd think twice since the peroration is all about an emotional appeal- it's not even a summary of a particular question or problem.

Ephesians chapter 6 is a classic example of peroration at the end of an epideictic message. Stand firm, keep doing what you are doing and don't stop! The image of a Greek hoplite or Roman legionnaire holding his ground works to fire up the audience to dig in as well. Mirror reading here will lead you down a very weird path.

What is mirror reading? It's a literary term that signifies inferring the author's main concern by looking at the unwritten other side of an argument. In First Corinthians we get one side of a conversation, but it's not too difficult to mirror read what's reflected in the Paul's emphatic prose.

Mirror reading doesn't work in an epideictic peroration like we find in Ephesians 6:10 and following. Were we to try it here, we might conclude that Paul wants these people to actively pursue and battle the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Or that there is a severe problem with demonic oppression or possession in Ephesus, something that is not addressed anywhere else in the letter.

While it's not always clear how or where New Testament authors use certain rhetorical elements, reading with rhetorical categories in mind can help unlock interpretations we wouldn't casually recognize. Approaching a text on its own ancient rhetorical terms increases the likelihood of getting closer to its original intent.

Ignoring ancient rhetorical structures and thought patterns can lead interpreters in all manner of theological directions that work against more plausible meanings and applications of the text. At a minimum, thinking rhetorically puts modern readers in a less certain position when analyzing New Testament texts, understanding that professional scholars continue to debate how ancient authors arranged their thoughts, and how those arrangements affect our interpretation.

One example is Romans chapter seven in which Paul appears to describe an intense struggle with himself regarding sin. Is Paul (and, if you hold that Paul's writings are essentially divine, God) talking about a "substance" that inhabits our bodies and drives sin even after we believe in Christ? Or is Paul using a strategy called prosopopoeia - an impersonation by the author or speaker as a way to illustrate an idea from another perspective, in this case possibly a fallen Adam?

Reading this way might have prevented an entire branch of Christian tradition from pursuing an unsupported doctrinal position when they overemphasized a minor sub-point about salvation, not recognizing that the propositio in Romans mentions nothing about justification by grace through election. Most scholars agree that the propositio or thesis statement of the entire book of Romans is in verses 16 and 17 of chapter one.

What does the propositio actually say? To summarize, Paul declares that the gospel has power to effect salvation to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles (a hot topic in most of Paul's writings). How does the gospel have this power? Because it reveals the good and right inner character of God, as supported by a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, "the righteous by faith will live."

Some have gone as far as to say that Romans 1:18-3:20 should be considered a kind of prosopopoeia akin to modern parody as a way of mocking an opponent's position by taking it to logically absurd conclusions. If that's the case, the entire beginning of Romans is not Paul's position at all, instead it reflects the claims of his opponents. He doesn't start on his defense until chapter 3 verses 21-26 which is a recap of the propositio in chapter one. (see Campbell, below)* There are problems with this interpretation, but it does make interpreters to stop and think about the possibilities.

Is Paul's letter to the Romans forensic, epideictic or deliberative? If it's forensic, the exact nature of what is on trial should be obvious and Paul's legal argument should be easily detectable. If it's epideictic, one should expect to find moral lessons or reasons to continue pursuing virtuous behavior in the future. Is it deliberative? What future action is being debated? What are the main points what is minor supporting evidence?

Answers to these questions can help us avoid theological wrong turns. Is a particular text primarily aimed at moral exhortation (paraenetic)? In Galatians, Paul patches together some passages from Genesis to compare Hagar and Sarah to the contemporary topic of religious slavery and freedom, with the intention of evoking pathos, or an emotional reaction; to paint his opponents as enslavers (Boooo!). It's not an academic exegesis of an Old Testament passage to prove a theological point, so it doesn't mean that we have permission to do likewise with the Old Testament by allegorizing Genesis just because Paul did it in a few paragraphs in Galatians.

Our thoughts are not the thoughts of a first century rhetorician. The question for the interpreter (you and me) is not whether a certain passage is persuasive to us in our time, but if it was persuasive to the first audiences that encountered it.

To think about...

How does knowing some rhetoric make an interpreter more or less certain about his or her interpretation?

Most of the documents in the NT were probably intended to be consumed (listened to) from beginning to end in one sitting. How might that change our hermeneutic? (method of interpretation?)

Next up, Part 4: Literary Devices

* Douglas Campbell The Deliverance of God

See also Witherington III, Ben, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament

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