In Os Guinness’s recent apologetics book Fool’s Talk, what role does rhetoric play? Literary scholar David Parry draws on his knowledge of classical and Christian rhetorical traditions to unpack one strand of Guinness’s ideas about apologetics. To read David’s other work for ESN, click here.
“Do you know how you can act or speak about rhetoric so as to please God best?”
(Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus)
The epigraph above is selected from the five pages of thought-provoking quotations that open Os Guinness’s provocative and insightful book Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. I was kindly sent a free review copy of Fool’s Talk by the publisher, but since Bob Trube has already reviewed the book for this blog, I have decided instead to reflect on one theme of particular interest to me that Fool’s Talk touches upon.
Guinness’s manifesto for Christian persuasion insists that there is no single formula for sharing our faith in a winsome and compelling way, and that “formulaic, cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism and apologetics” can do more harm than good. Instead, he advocates creative, imaginative and “subversive” ways for Christians to respond to individuals with different felt needs, desires, experiences, and convictions. While Guinness does not dismiss rational propositional arguments (and indeed sees them as vital at the right time), he insists that other approaches are also needed, particularly in contemporary Western culture where many respond more immediately to image and narrative.
One of the unexpected resources that Guinness holds up as a model for Christians who want to communicate winsomely is the tradition of classical rhetoric formulated by Greek and Roman writers such as Aristotle and Cicero. Though not the central focus of Fool’s Talk, this strand jumped out to me since I am in the process of writing a book on the use of rhetoric in English puritan writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While my research is largely historical in focus, it touches on some of the same questions that Guinness raises as relevant to Christian communicators today.
In common parlance, “rhetoric” often has negative connotations of insincere and empty speech (especially in the political realm). However, the historic meaning of rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Using this broad definition of rhetoric, Christian witness is inherently rhetorical, since the gospel (as Guinness rightly emphasises) advances through persuasion and not coercion.
Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric identifies three key dimensions of persuasion—logos (appeal to reason), pathos (appeal to emotion), and ethos (the perceived credibility of the speaker). For some classical rhetoricians (though not all), the true orator had to be sincere in order to present a credible ethos, and Guinness references this understanding of rhetorical ethos: “The first and indispensable requirement for classical rhetoric had always been ethos, the moral character of a speaker that supported the power of his logos, his rational argument.” For Guinness, this underlines the need for those who represent Christ to have an integrity that gives credibility to their words, a credibility that the Church in its various expressions has sometimes sadly lacked.
Guinness notes that “A striking feature of the early Christian centuries was the number of Christian leaders who were trained in rhetoric, even teachers of rhetoric, and acclaimed orators.” He mentions Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and, notably, St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine, who prior to his conversion was a teacher of rhetoric, was first enticed to listen to the preaching of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, by his eloquence.
Nevertheless, Guinness, along with Augustine, recognises that eloquence is not always deployed in the service of truth, and so rhetoric is a tool whose use is ethically ambivalent:
As a well-trained orator, St. Augustine was honest in facing up to the temptation of using words as power. He admitted that in his pre-Christian days as a “word merchant” (venditor verborum), “I always used to win more arguments than was good for me. … The hot-headedness of a young man soon hardened into pig-headedness.”
Augustine’s words here are a helpful caution to those of us in academia who are tempted to place winning arguments for the sake of personal or professional pride over a humble sharing of truth in service of others. (Anxieties about the capacities of rhetoric to deceive are present even in pre-Christian classical antiquity in works such as Plato’s Phaedrus.) In contrast to this self-serving rhetoric, Guinness cites the Renaissance polymath scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam’s pursuit of a “persuasion through pleasing discourse” modelled on Jesus, whom Erasmus called “the persuasiveness of God”. While we should seek to communicate winsomely, inelegantly expressed truth is to be preferred to rhetorically skilled deception.
In his conclusion, Guinness draws attention to a vivid analogy attributed to the classical philosopher Zeno of Citium and often cited by Renaissance educators: the contrast between the closed fist representing logic and the open palm representing rhetoric. Guinness links this to two modes of Christian persuasion present in the early centuries of the Church, which he summarises as follows:
One was a closed fist. This represented the dissuasoria, the negative side of apologetics that used all the higher strengths of human reason in defense of truth. Mustering all the powers of reason, logic, evidence and argument, closed-fist apologetics had the task of answering every question, countering every objection, and dismantling false objections to the faith and to knowing God. In the words of St. Paul: “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
The other symbol was the open hand. This represented the persuasoria, the positive side of apologetics that used all the highest strengths of human creativity in the defense of truth. Expressing the love and compassion of Jesus, and using eloquence, creativity, imagination, humor and irony, open-hand apologetics had the task of helping to pry open hearts and minds that, for a thousand reasons, had long grown resistant to God’s great grace, so that it could shine in like the sun.
Though Guinness believes that both modes of communication are essential, Fool’s Talk argues that it is the latter, open-handed kind of imaginative communication that is particularly in need of revival in our time. I agree.
 Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 7, citing Plato, Phaedrus 267a–b (also cited with discussion on p. 173).
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 17.
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 65.
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 171.
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 170, citing Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 48.
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 170, citing Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Scribners, 1969), p. 140.
 Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 253.