Book Review: Duane Liftin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching

Liftin, Duane. Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 392 pp. Pb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

In recent years interest in Greco-Roman rhetoric has exploded for Pauline scholars. Liftin is somewhat responsible for this interest since he published a similarly-titled monograph in 1994 (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric; SNTS Monograph Series). As he states in the introduction to this new book, prior to the twentieth century, interpreters understood “words of wisdom” in 1 Cor 1:17 as a reference to Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy. Due in part to growing interest in Gnosticism, the first half of the twentieth century understood “words of wisdom” in the light of Gnostic mythology. Paul’s opponents were “gnostic pneumatics” who downplayed the significance of the Cross. In this book, Liftin argues the earlier view was correct. When Paul describes his own mission as preaching the Cross “not with words of the wise,” he has Greco-Roman rhetoric in mind.

Lifton, Theology of PreachingThe first part of Liftin’s book is an introduction to Greco-Roman Rhetoric. In these early chapters Liftin attempts to avoid the “wearisome minutia” typically found in introductions to rhetoric. This is not a monograph-length book on rhetoric, so he illustrates the main features with one or two key original Greco-Roman texts. He also avoids the tendency to reduce rhetoric to techniques for manipulation or simple ornamentation. Liftin argues rhetoric was so pervasive in first-century Corinth Paul could not avoid using some aspects of rhetoric even if he has a negative assessment of the impact some orators have had on his Corinthian churches.

After a short chapter tracing the history of rhetoric from Socrates to the Second Sophistic movement, he demonstrates the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. A successful orator used all possible means of persuasion to “create or produce belief in their listeners” (73). This required the orator to know a great deal about human psychology and their audiences worked. In chapters 3-5 (The Power, Reach and Genius of Rhetoric), Liftin shows how this power to sway an audience provided a foundation for power in Greco-Roman society. Virtually everyone in the Greco-Roman world understood what good rhetoric was and treated the best speakers with honor. In fact, the audience was the ultimate judge of a successful orator.

In chapter 6 (The Appraisal of Rhetoric) Liftin argues audience in the first century were experienced listeners and were capable of critiquing an orator even if they were not specifically trained in rhetoric. Just as most sports fans are able to critique the performance of their team despite not being professional athletes, most people had enough experience listening to orators they could make a judgment on the speaker’s skills. In Chapters 7-8 Liftin contrasts the hazards and rewards of rhetoric.

The second part of this book applies this history of rhetoric to 1 Corinthians 1-4. This opening section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the only place in Paul’s letters where he expresses anything like a “theology of preaching.” In addition, Paul makes some dismissive remarks concerning the “wisdom” of this world. Liftin points out the usual arguments about Paul’s education in rhetoric are not as important to his goals since he has argued for the pervasiveness of rhetoric in the first century. It does not matter if Paul was a professionally trained orator or not, he was being judged in ways consistent with the Greco-Roman world by the Corinthians and found wanting.

Liftin reconstructs the situation in Corinth as follows. Paul preached the Gospel in Corinth, people responded and a community was established. After Paul left and Apollos arrived the church began to have reservations about Paul with respect to his deficient public speaking. He was unskilled, something Paul admits in 2 Cor 11:6 (Liftin has an excursus defining what he means by “bad rhetoric”). Since the Gentile Corinthian believers were part of a culture which highly honored rhetorical skills, the church was embarrassed by Paul’s poor skills and began to look elsewhere for apostolic guidance. Specifically, Liftin thinks Apollos is was an eloquent speaker who “unwittingly” caused a division in the church (p. 156). 1 Corinthians 1-4 is therefore Paul’s response to criticism of his ministry style. Over several chapters Liftin supports this contention with careful observation and exegesis of the text of 1 Cor 1-4.

LiftinThe third part of this book offers some analysis of Paul’s ministry model and suggestions “appropriate strategies” for applying the “Pauline model.” While the Greco-Roman world sought to use rhetoric to persuade an audience by means of their own skills, Paul “disavowed the task of inducing belief in his listeners” (p. 263).  For Paul, it is the Holy Spirit who prompts faith in a listener, not “words of wisdom” as judged by contemporary standards. Paul is only the herald of the Gospel, someone who presents the truth of the Gospel. It is the power of God who brings a listener to belief. If this is the case, then there are two important implications. First, there is a certain ambiguity of “persuasion.” Paul certainly wanted to persuade, but he did not resort to the strategies of the Sophist to achieve this goal. Second, a good herald must adapt to the audience. This is exactly what Paul claims to do in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Paul is functioning as any herald might when he is “all things to all men.”

Liftin deals with the problem of Paul’s consistency in chapter 18. When Paul decries use of rhetoric, is he not employing a classic rhetorical style? If the goal of rhetoric was to persuade, then Paul’s letters have to be considered examples of rhetoric since they are trying to persuade an audience. Liftin thinks his “limited definition” of what Paul rejected defuses this criticism of Paul. Paul is not saying he rejects all forms of rhetoric since this would be virtually impossible if he was going to communicate the Gospel. Paul’s denial of rhetorical skills means he shifted the power of his speech away from himself to the Holy Spirit. To a large extent, Paul’s rhetorical skills gave the Holy Spirit “something to work with” for bringing people to Christ.

Paul’s missionary model is therefore humble and servant oriented. Paul was a herald announcing the Good News, leaving the power of persuasion to the message preached rather than then messenger.

Liftin includes five appendices. First, Liftin comments on the relationship between Paul, Apollos and Philo. Although he things “Philo might have written 1 Corinthians 2:13 almost as comfortably as the Apostle Paul” (p. 326), he ultimately rejects Philo as a source for the “words of wisdom” in Corinth. Appendix Two briefly discusses the Book of Acts as a source for background to 1 Cor 1-4, concluding Acts is reliably complements 1 Corinthians, but Acts is inadequate for the rhetorical skills of Apollos.  A third Appendix concerns Paul’s Epistemology.

In the fourth appendix Liftin discusses the implications of his study for contemporary preaching. This chapter is adapted from his 1977 Christianity Today article. He makes some pointed critiques of “gatherings centered on a charismatic, pseudo-celebrity communicator who revels in the spotlight” and other manipulative strategies used to wear people down and force people into an emotional response (p. 348). In contrast to this, the preacher “should do everything possible to build comprehension of the reality of Christ’s claims upon the listener” (p. 349). Amen and amen.

The final appendix suggests several “Broader Implications” of Paul’s ministry model with respect to the Church Growth movement. The appendix was originally an address to the American Society for Church Growth (ASCG) in 1995. Liftin is critical of marketing strategies used by churches in order to stimulate growth. Rather than presenting the Gospel as a product to be marketed, driven by the need for results, churches must be “obedience driven” (358).

Conclusion. Liftin admits early this book requires “tolerant readers” (p. 29). There are lengthy citations of primary sources in the first part of the book in order to illustrate some aspect of rhetoric. In order to keep the text readable, he placed technical material in a series of short excurses scattered throughout the book. These text-boxes are indexed in the table of contents and tend to be no more than a page or two.

This is a stimulating and challenging book operating at two levels. On the one hand, Liftin provides an academic introduction to Greco-Roman rhetoric as a background for reading 1 Corinthians 1-4 in a proper cultural context. But at another level, Liftin wants to challenge the churches to be faithful to God in their preaching of the Gospel. His call is to reject the sin of the Corinthians who used their culture to judge the success of the Gospel. In the end, it is this topic which needs to be addressed more directly by Liftin.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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