16 December, 2009

The Fundamental Rhetoricity of Lutheran Theology, Rhetoric, and the Curriculum

The dimensions of the New Testament term πίστις (pístis), generally translated as “faith,” are many, and what I’m here proposing is not meant in any way to be exhaustive. In fact, I want to focus on just one aspect of the term: its basic rhetoricity. The term, is of course, like everything in the New Testament (with the exception of such Hebrew terms as “Sabbath,” etc.), a term borrowed from pagan antiquity. And its most well-known use in pagan antiquity was within the context of rhetoric, both explicit and implicit. That is, it appeared in both self-consciously rhetorical situations and in unself-consciously rhetorical situations. But what the term meant in pagan antique rhetorical contexts was “persuasion,” or “the position of being in a state of having been persauded,” “conviction.” [For those who go in for such things, linguistically speaking πίστις (pístis) is a zero-grade passive/perfect verbal noun derivative of the ε-grade verb πείθω (peítho) “to persuade.”] Its choice by the New Testament writers to express “faith,” belief, trust in God, gets at the idea that all of this is a “conviction that” certain propositions are true [e.g., John 20.31: “These things have been written in order that you may BELIEVE (πιστεύητε; pisteúete) that [proposition:] Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and in order that BELIEVING (πιστεύοντες; pisteúontes) you may have eternal life in His Name.”]

Nor is this a New Testament theologoumenon. The God of Scripture deals with Himself and His creation in a fundamentally rhetorical way. The eternal counsel of the Triune God is the eternally on-going conversation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [see, e.g., Psalm 110.1: “The LORD SAYS to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Psalm 2.7: “The LORD SAID to Me, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.’”] The eternal counsel to save a lost and condemned creation is borne in words, as our hymn puts it:

“He SPOKE to His beloved Son, [Er SPRACH zu seinem lieben Sohn] / ‘’Tis time to have compassion. / Then go! Bright Jewel of My crown, / And bring to men salvation.’” [“Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” Martin Luther; LSB 556.5; ELH 378.5]

The intra-Trinitarian dialogue from eternity to eternity has as its goal the mutual conviction of the Persons of the blessed Trinity. God doesn’t talk to Himself for nothing.

Speaking of the term “nothing:” God even convinces what is not, or what is nothing, or, better yet, nothing at all, to be something as the first of His external acts: “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.’” [Gen. 1.3] “Nothing” obeys God and becomes “something,” in specific, “nothing” becomes light. What had no power of its own because it was nothing at all is called into existence and does something (shines) by the convincing utterance of God. This becomes a stubborn pattern in Scripture, and if you don’t get this, you don’t really get the first thing about theology: God always operates by His Word. God always creates FAITH by His Word because what that FAITH is is πίστις (pístis), conviction, “the position of being in a state of having been persuaded” that the proposition offered by God is true [again, see e.g. John 20.31]. When God wants to bring comfort to His people, He doesn’t give them a hug. He speaks. Isaiah 40.1: “‘Comfort, comfort My people!’ says your God.” Isaiah here is saying that God told him, Isaiah, to comfort the people. It goes on [Isaiah 40.1]. God is addressing Isaiah: “SPEAK tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, etc.” The whole comforting motion initiated by God is initiated by His WORD: it’s rhetorical! He tells Isaiah what to do. Isaiah is convinced. He has πίστις (pístis); or rather, the Word of God creates the πίστις (pístis) it demands. And Isaiah turns around and SPEAKS the Word that commanded him to SPEAK in order to arouse the same conviction in Jerusalem. The Word announcing the comfort is itself the comfort offered.

And so on it goes. Even in the Law-Gospel dialectic—or rather, especially in the Law-Gospel dialectic. When Paul says that “the Law works wrath,” [Rom. 4.15] he means that the WORDS, e.g., “Thou shalt not commit murder,” CONVICT me or PERSUADE me that I stand in transgression of the command. In other words, when it is told me that I have broken the Law by calling my brother a fool, I have no choice but to admit the charge, to be convinced, and convicted, of the accusation. [Sorry, brother, I have said raka to you]. Conversely, “where there is no Law, neither is there transgression,” [Rom 4.15b]. That is, where the Law does not ANNOUNCE its demands in WORDS it has no power to convict, to persuade me of my wrong-doing. However, where the Law does announce its demands it always has the power to convict because it always articulates in what way I have transgressed it. Ironically, the Law creates its own kind of πίστις (pístis), its own kind of standing in the position of having been persuaded. But it’s one that makes me hate the God who convicts me of my sin.

The Gospel is an altogether different WORD and creates an altogether different PERSUASION or CONVICTION. But it’s still completely within the rhetorical realm: “So then faith [πίστις; pístis] comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” [Romans 10.17] This Word is, like the Law, a proposition that wants to persuade me. The proposition is this: that in Christ the Law has been fulfilled on my behalf, that all condemnation is removed from me for the sake of Christ, that in Christ the eternal intentions of the Father toward me are clearly revealed and are nothing but unfettered gift. Faith, my being persuaded of this proposition, of this “word of Christ,” works its own reciprocal utterance, that of “calling upon the name of the Lord,” a calling upon God that is coterminous with my being saved [Romans 10.13]. And even in the fellowship of those who are being saved, rhetoric is constitutive: “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” [Eph. 5.19]. Paul could have easily put the case differently: convince one another by using the Word of God. “Preach the Word” [2 Tim. 4.2]. This is to look at the front end of a two-step process, the end being the arousal of faith, because in Scripture and its world, all words have one purpose only: to create conviction, persuasion, πίστις (pístis), faith.

What grew out of this observation in the Reformation-Era reform of higher education was a primacy placed upon rhetoric. Rhetoric scholars tell me that it would be wrong to say that during the Middle Ages rhetoric as a discipline had disappeared. But it had grown sallow and limp: in the universities it did not have pride of place in the faculty of the arts like it came to have in the reformational reform of the university curriculum. In the early reforms of the University of Wittenberg—already before 1530—the cold, sterile dialectic of scholasticism was replaced, and later crowned, by the teaching of rhetoric. Disputations were, at least initially, suspended and replaced by orations. The models taken for this were classical and biblical models. In the realization of the fundamentally rhetorical nature of biblical discourse, rhetoric or, personified, Rhetorica, became the handmaiden of theology.

Today Mme Rhetorica goes largely naked and unadorned in confessional Lutheran higher education, her only bit of clothing a skimpy course in public speaking, maybe or maybe not required, and often threadbare in its less than intellectually rigorous content. But if she, with the rest of her Muses, can be reborn, she will hold pride of place, permeating the curriculum, exercised at every turn, clothed in a gown woven together from all the strands of the curriculum. Because if we live in a world called into creation from a nothingness persuaded by God’s Word to be, and to be something; and if we understand ourselves as we are, as creatures whose being consists fundamentally of being addressed by God, that is, under the conviction of the Law, and persuaded that in Christ we have a gracious God, it stands to reason that the rhetorical word, the word that creates persuasion, is an intellectual glue that makes all things cohere.

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