Rhetoric, the Bible, and the Believer

by Bill Muehlenberg

elijah - fire from heavenIt is always a delicate matter when believers speak out on any issue, whether to fellow believers, or to non-believers. Most discussions or arguments on controversial subjects give rise to heated debates, plenty of emotion and lots of passion. There is nothing wrong with arguing one’s convictions with gusto, but often heat, rather than light, is generated.

Many debates degenerate into name calling, abuse, ad hominem attacks and plain nastiness. Of course the believer is called to something higher than mere mud-slinging and abuse. Thus in a heated debate we are called to respond in the opposite spirit: if the other side is hurling abuse and invective, we are to respond in love and respect.

Having said that, is there ever a place for a bit of spice in our remarks, for a bit of rhetoric in our debates? Can contemporary believers engage in the use of satire, irony, parody, strong and emotive language, even mockery, sarcasm, ridicule and insult? Can a believer make his case with the use of exaggeration, hyperbole and/or other zesty rhetorical devices?

Rhetoric simply means effective and persuasive speaking and writing. What kind of rhetoric do the biblical writers employ? Do they shy away from what might be called “negative” rhetoric?

The obvious beginning point to answer such questions is to look at Scripture itself. Do we find there examples of this sort of language and rhetoric? The answer is, there are in fact numerous examples of all of the rhetorical devices mentioned above found throughout the Bible.

Rationale

I have two reasons for this inquiry. The first is theological. There is a new and burgeoning field of study into the biblical use of rhetoric. Rhetorical theory or rhetorical criticism are some of the names of this developing area. In the last three or four decades a voluminous

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literature has sprung up on this important subject. New Testament scholarship is especially interested in this field. A study of the use of rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world is throwing a lot of illumination on the writings of the New Testament. As but one example, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has penned a host of commentaries with the subtitle, “A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary”.

So simply as a theological exercise, this area is worth exploring in more detail.

The second is personal. I recently penned a piece which made use of, shall we say, a bit of rhetorical flair. The response was mixed. Some loved it and pleaded for more. At least two believers however were concerned, thinking it excessive, over the top, and uncalled for as a believer. One of the two really was mainly objecting to the political content, while the other thought a believer should never resort to the use of such rhetorical flourishes as mockery or sarcasm.

They may be right. I am not interested here in defending myself, but to simply tease out my initial reaction to my critics, namely that there appears to be a fair bit of such “negative” rhetoric used in Scripture. Thus this article.

Biblical examples

As to the Biblical examples, only a handful out of many can be produced here. God of course quite often uses strong and “negative” language and rhetoric. And as God, he is of course entitled to. Yahweh, through Isaiah, for example, taunts paganism and the false idols (Is. 44:12-20, eg.) Using quite strong satire and ridicule, Yahweh contrasts the false idols with the living God.

Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal is a classic example of humorous sarcasm and taunting (1 Kings 18). Verse 27 of course is the highlight: “Is Baal musing, or gone aside (literally, to take a leak!), on a journey, or asleep?” He really rubs it in here…

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Think Christianly: Looking at the Intersection of Faith and Culture

 

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