Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.