The early church on rhetoric

People studied the art of rhetoric in order to better enable themselves to persuade others.  The ability to speak eloquently and convincingly was a valuable skill in social and political affairs.  Itinerant teachers, called “sophists”, took on students and taught all sorts of subjects but their main subject was rhetoric.  Well to-do families would hire sophists to teach their children rhetoric because it was thought such skills would help them advance in society.

The sophists and their communication skills were not always popular or well regarded.  Other philosophers criticized them because some of their techniques were considered dishonest.  Some prided themselves on their ability to convince people even when they had had a much weaker rational argument.  Through boasting and appealing to emotions they could sway people with dishonest manipulation.

The modern sermon is a speech with Christian content delivered following certain rhetorical methods.  Half the books in any Christian college library on preaching drink deeply from the school of rhetoric.  Eloquence and persuasiveness are generally held in high regard, especially in superstar churches that surround and infuse their sermons with high quality digital media.  This stands in contrast with most church leaders in the first two centuries of the church.   While some methods of persuasion taught in rhetoric were considered more honest than others the early leaders of the church generally rejected rhetoric.

Origen wrote:

I assert, therefore, in answer to such statements as the above, that it is clear to all who are able to institute an intelligent and candid examination into the history of the apostles of Jesus, that it was by help of a divine power that these men taught Christianity, and succeeded in leading others to embrace the word of God. For it was not any power of speaking, or any orderly arrangement of their message, according to the arts of Grecian dialectics or rhetoric, which was in them the effective cause of converting their hearers.

Clement of Alexandria wrote:

But the art of sophistry, which the Greeks cultivated, is a fantastic power, which makes false opinions like true by means of words. For it produces rhetoric in order to persuasion, and disputation for wrangling. These arts, therefore, if not conjoined with philosophy, will be injurious to every one.

Justin Martyr

For neither by nature nor by human conception is it possible for men to know things so great and divine, but by the gift which then descended from above upon the holy men, who had no need of rhetorical art, nor of uttering anything in a contentious or quarrelsome manner, but to present themselves pure to the energy of the Divine Spirit, in order that the divine plectrum itself, descending from heaven, and using righteous men as an instrument like a harp or lyre, might reveal to us the knowledge of things divine and heavenly.


In courts of justice, in the public assembly, in political debate, a copious eloquence may be the glory of a voluble ambition; but in speaking of the Lord God, a chaste simplicity of expression strives for the conviction of faith rather with the substance, than with the powers, of eloquence. Therefore accept from me things, not clever but weighty, words, not decked up to charm a popular audience with cultivated rhetoric, but simple and fitted by their unvarnished truthfulness for the proclamation of the divine mercy.

While some church leaders did give speeches, the consensus was that early Christian leaders did not use any tactics they considered dishonest or manipulative in order to convince or persuade.  They employed simple straightforward and honest speech and relied on God to do his special brand of persuasion in people’s hearts.

In summary the leaders of the early church didn’t believe that using monologue was sinful.  They believed that great power was available using certain techniques in speaking.  They believed the gospel message was powerful all on its own and it didn’t need to be augmented or amplified through the tools of persuasion.  In fact they believed it was harmful to the purposes of the kingdom.

I personally think the testimony of these ancient pillars of the faith should be heeded today. Many churches attempt to leverage the power of digital media to wow rapt audiences.  Our full spectrum visual media has more power than that of the finely honed rhetoricians of Origen’s day.  We need to ask whether our mediums and method are actually faithful to the gospel message and let it stand on it own power.