“Fire” could mean a number of things, it could be that there is a fire over there that needs some attention, it could be that I am commanding people to shoot at something or it could be that I am responding to someone asking me what we should do with a disgruntled employee. Obviously, part of working out what I mean by the word “fire” has to do with the context of what is being said, but it also has to do with my purpose in saying it: what do I want the hearers to do.
Tim MacBride has written an accessible book based on his Ph.D. thesis on rhetoric in the New Testament. This is an excellent introduction the world of rhetorical criticism. Rhetorical criticism is about working out not just the context but the purpose of the text. “…the text itself has a purpose, and if we are to be faithful to the text, its purpose should be the purpose of our sermon, broadly speaking” (p8). “The goal of the historical-critical method has been to reconstruct the ‘setting and purpose’ of an epistle. However, an understanding of rhetorical genre helps us work out that setting more closely, and focuses us on the purpose aspect” (p10).
The book is split into three sections. The first is looking at three types of rhetorical genre, or if you like why is this being written. The second is the forms of rhetorical writings, or how is the writer getting his point across. Finally, there are types of proofs that rhetorical writers use. In each chapter, MacBride points out where these sorts of rhetorical tools are used in the New Testament, but also how these tools can be used by modern preachers with concrete examples. Often these examples are sermon texts with pointers along the way highlighting where tools are used.
What I like about the book
Firstly, MacBride actually understands ancient rhetoric. Most people misunderstand concepts like ethos, logos and pathos thinking they are something like ethics, logic and emotion, whereas the actual meanings of these are more sophisticated that that. (Actually ethos as nothing to do with ethics as such, more to do with the character of the speaker). If you are looking for a book to explain all this, you have come to the right place.
Secondly, this book is seeking to be driven by the text of the Bible. If the text is seeking to prove a point, so should we; if the text is seeking to sum up a point, then so should we.
Thirdly, I found this book to be extremely helpful in working out how to preach to the heart and use emotions without being manipulative or eisegeting the text. The pathos of the text is there, I need to bring it out the right way. In this way, the book becomes a great companion to Sam Chan’s Preaching as the Word of God. Chan’s thesis is that preaching should have the same illocutionary force as the text presents. MacBride is showing how this is done.
Finally, the book gives lots of practical examples so you know what is being meant, and the practical outworking of the
There are some shortcomings of the book, but in MacBride’s defence, these are not necessarily his fault. The book’s subtitle is “Preaching the New Testament as rhetoric”. However, the tools that MacBride points out are primarily focused on the epistles. MacBride does point this out in the introduction and conclusion. This is because the gospels, for example as a genre are different. Admittedly I am preaching through a gospel at the moment so feel this shortcoming more acutely right now!
Secondly, the book assumes that the writers are using rhetorical styles. In his defence, there is a short explanation of this assumption and his doctrinal thesis addresses this. This is a book that is more focussed on the practical working of the theory rather than seeking to defend it, so if you are to read it, read with this in mind.
I would recommend this book to an advanced preacher who is seeking to extend themselves in preaching a text more precisely and accurately. Personally, I am looking forward to putting this into action.