Apostolic preaching was intentionally persuasive. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Therefore, apostolic preaching was rhetorical without being dependent on rhetoric. Unfortunately, the church in the first few centuries moved away from the apostolic model of limited rhetoric to a culturally popular model of professional rhetoric.  As society accepted the church, preachers adopted a professional model for preaching, and the sermon took on the rhetorical style of the culture. Modern sermons, too, can bear little resemblance to the apostolic model in our desire to be culturally relevant. Why? What changed?


Aristotle developed what he called “rhetoric proper” which was the use of “proofs” as the means of persuasion. The word Aristotle used for “proof” is the Greek word for “faith” (??????). There were three kinds of proofs in classical rhetoric – logos, ethos, and pathos. The proofs intended to produce belief in the audience, so faith and proof were closely related. Logos was the content – the word – itself. Logos was the message, the logical argument of the speech. Ethos was the moral character of the speaker. Aristotle considered ethos to be the most effective means of persuasion. Finally, there was pathos, human emotion or passion. Pathos referred to the emotional reactions of the audience as moved by the speaker. These three divisions of classical rhetoric have framed homiletics throughout church history.


Sophistry as a movement was already popular by Paul’s day. The orators focused on manipulation of emotions and style without substance. Philo called it “shadowboxing.” Sophistry used rhetoric to manipulate people by pandering to the needs of the audience. The speakers elevated pathos – human feelings and needs – to the highest means of persuasion. Sophistry came to dominate the field of rhetoric, and rhetoric soon was perceived as the art of persuading people to accept something as true whether it was true or not. It was pathetic preaching – preaching that stressed pathos over logos and ethos. The speaker manipulated the message to fit the needs of his audience to accomplish persuasion. A rigid form of rhetorical education called “paideia” permeated Roman society by the 4th century. Rhetorical schools trained preachers in paideia, so pathetic preaching became a common model for preachers.


The three proofs are not equal. Therein lies the ethical danger for every preacher. Aristotle saw them as distinctive kinds of proof. Pathos was the judgment which the audience delivered after evaluating the ethos or moral character of the speaker as seen through the logos or actual content of the speech. In fact, Aristotle expressed the opinion that speakers made too much of pathos in his day as people sought to stir the emotions of the audience. Aristotle wrote, “persuasion is produced (???????????) by the speech itself (??? ??? ?????) when we establish the true … from the means of persuasion applicable to each individual subject” (Aristotle in The “Art” of Rhetoric, John Henry Freese in The Loeb Classical Library, I.ii.4-6) Notice that he is saying that persuasion is produced (they believe) by the speech (Word) using persuasive means. Paul adapts the model of Aristotle by stressing that faith comes by the power of the Spirit using the word to change humans and not be human ingenuity or techniques (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). The logos takes precedence. Ethos is next, and pathos is last. The apostolic model for preaching stressed the message over the method, the Spirit over the emotions, and so avoided pathetic preaching.


Duane Litfin warned us long ago that we can go too far in our pursuit of results whenever we adjust the message to manipulate the audience (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation, p.246). Pathetic preaching started with the audience and catered to their needs to produce “faith.” The church growth movement has much in it to commend, and there are many good principles that pastors can learn to implement. The danger is that preachers develop an “idolatry of method” over message in our desire to be relevant to people (Bill Hull, Is the Church Growth Movement Really Working? in Power Religion: The Selling out of the Evangelical Church? edited by Michael Horton, pp.141-142).  I fear that we can be quick to shape our message to fit our method. We need a return to the model of apostolic preaching on which Christ founded His church and avoid allowing audience appeal to determine the message. Logos first and ethos second. Whenever pathos drives the sermon, our preaching becomes pathetic.
Pathetic preaching is audience driven instead of text driven and results oriented instead of truth centered.