Rhetorical Device in Expository Ministry: A “how-to”

This is the second installment in a series on the expository ministry of John Calvin.

While no one today has ever heard John Calvin preach, we still have around 1,460 of his extant sermons to study with about another 1,000 manuscripts either missing or destroyed [according to John Leith, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Today in Light of Recent Research” in Review and Expositor, (1989), p.29]. Princeton scholar, Hughes Oliphant Old shares an appreciation for Calvin when he says, “few preachers have affected such a tremendous reform in the lives of their congregation as did the Reformer of Geneva.” So what was the chief piece of artillery at Calvin’s disposal and more specifically how did he wield it? Old answers that Calvin, “drew his hearers into the sacred text along with him.” To be sure, Calvin was not the only reformer to enjoy a robust expository preaching ministry. Old tells us that “Calvin had the same tools…which the older Reformers had; it was just that Calvin’s were a bit sharper.” The focus of this essay will examine how Calvin used his “sharper” tools and their benefit to preachers today?

Without going into much detail over definitions, let it be said that Calvin was an expositor homiletically and all his sermons reflected this commitment (see T. H. L. Parker’s, Calvin’s Preaching). He was committed to expository preaching because he believed that the text should be taken at face value and that grammatical-historical exegesis was the only corrective to the allegorical method so prevalent in some of his predecessors. Therefore the principles that one may draw from his example are only true to the source if repeated within a consistent expository ministry that is rooted in sound hermeneutical principles (which should be the subject of another essay all together).

Eye-witness accounts and sermons left behind help us to see that one of the reasons for Calvin’s effectiveness was his use of rhetorical device. Simply put, he was a master of the language and worked hard to make sure that his message was simple in its style yet profound in its content (One of the more lucid analyses of Calvin’s preaching that has contributed to my thinking on this subject is Hughes Oliphant Old’s The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Church: Volume 4 The Age of the Reformation, pp.90-134). Rhetorical device refers to the use of the word pictures, questions, metaphors, etc. to communicate the ancient truths of Scripture to a modern audience. To be effective in this is to clearly distill that message, communicate it through individual giftedness all without truncating the original intent of the author(s). Over the next few posts, I will explore each of the following rhetorical devices found in the preaching of Calvin and show how they are rooted in Biblical examples and useful for preaching today.

1. Outlines as device
2. Similes and synonyms
3. Paraphrases
4. The “Negative” or “Corrective”
5. Expansion
6. Contrast
7. Sarcasm/absurdity
8. Simplification
9. Symphonic preaching
10. vocabulary

8 responses to this post.

  1. I can not wait…. Don’t rush this series.

  2. Very instructive content. I will wait patiently and expectantly for the remainder of the series.

  3. Sounds fascinating. Looking forward to it. I once read through Calvin’s sermons on Isaiah. Some of the best homilies I’ve read. Whenever Calvin said, “It’s as if [the author] was saying, ‘… .'” I would hang on every word. He knew how to teach his people.

  4. cjd,

    Thanks for the encouragement but I must admit that reading your blog was hard to swallow. Are all the “f” bombs really needed? I’m sure you can find a better way to communicate than dressing up your language with utter trash. Who says curse words are “culturally relative”? Is that how you measure truth and its impact on your neighbor. Something is way off in your thinking. If I can minister to you in anyway, please let me know.

    Yours, PSL

  5. Paul,

    Then don’t read my blog. I’m not the kind of Christian who’s going to pretend he’s perfect, nor am I ever going to be coy and use something like “F%#$#%&^”

    Moreover, had you read further into the blog, you would have seen no use whatsoever of any curse words.

    Truth is of course not relative. But when and where to use them is not, from our fallen perspective, always clear. Ezekial, for example, dressed up his language with utter trash. Yet for him this was prescribed by God himself. I recognize this was not the case for me. But I didn’t need to even consider it this way, for using such language in public is “plain disrespectful,” and I admit it. Do you understand?

    And finally, the words themselves are relative, even if their meanings are not. I could have cursed at the fellow in Latin. And while I may have felt the same amount of shame, the point is that he and his wife understood the word I used, and they felt it. Don’t presume to make “swear words” and my (and undoubtedly many others’) occasional use of them some kind of shibboleth. If that were the case, Ezekial would find himself judged by you.

    I am no Victorian or Puritan, nor is my aim to “sin boldly.” You may yet find you’re the one being ministered to…

  6. Thank you for your response. I did read the whole blog and I still don’t see your point. Puritan? Victorian? If to use such language in public is disrespectful then why repeat it on your blog? Do you see my point? When the Scripture recounts Peter’s swear-filled denial of Jesus, Mark doesn’t see fit to tell us the actual words Peter used (Mk. 14:71), he simply recounts the fact that he swore. I hope next time you will show a little more charity for other perspectives than yours.

    My comment about ministry was and still is my commitment to you…that’s what the body of Christ is for. Frankly, you sounded very angry and your response here has only furthered that suspicion. Again, if I can do anything for you, please let me know. I think it is best not to carry-on lengthy conversations like this here so let me know if you would like to talk in private.

  7. I can see the point about not carrying on lengthy conversations here. One final word on this subject should suffice. Rest assured, though, I am not angry. The fact is, I don’t take myself too seriously, and what may come across as anger is my passion for others to do the same. I see a lot of self-importance out there, Paul. I know you do too.

    To use such language in public, especially when aimed at others, is indeed disrespectful. It is not quite so, in my opinion, when recounting it (this is not to deny the sensitivity others may feel toward its use). Also, for every Mark, there’s a prophet (if not Paul the apostle) using colorful language to express a point. (I am in no way comparing my use with theirs; I’m just rejoining your point.)

    I will indeed aim to show more charity, insofar as a person’s “perspective” is not a veiled attempt to bind my conscience. Thank you for the admonition.

    Still looking forward to the Calvin study.

  8. I will put up the new post on Monday. Since we’re talking about Calvin here can I make a suggestion for reading over the weekend? How about reading chap. XX from the Institutes on prayer. I tell everyone who is new to Calvin to start there. It’s easy to read, full of meat, and greatly practical. Then spend some devoted time in prayer.

    “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable.” ~Calvin

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