20 August, 2010

Rhetoric, Preaching, and...Homer

Wait! Shouldn’t that say: “Rhetoric, Preaching, and ... Paul,” or “... St. Augustine,” or “... John Chrysostom,” all of whom are stand-outs in Christian preaching? This would be understandable. It was certainly the reflex of Tertullian, and the radical reformers, Müntzer, Karlstadt, and others: Christian things for Christians; leave their own learning to the pagans.

But Melanchthon’s 1523 Encomium eloquentiae or Praise of Eloquence operates with an openness to the rhetorical tradition even of the classical pagans, or perhaps especially of the classical pagans. There, Homer, on the recommendation of Horace, Quintilian, Cicero; on the example of Solon, the just law-giver at Athens (fl. 596 B.C.), and Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens (561–525 B.C., with interruptions), who had the poems of Homer sung in their proper order and a text finalized—there, in Encomium eloquentiae, Melanchthon makes Homer the source and teacher par excellence of rhetoric, an art whose highest usefulness lies in understanding and proclaiming the Word of God. Homer remains the basic source for: the qualifications of a speaker, the arrangement of a speech, the capacity to argue and counter-argue, the ability to describe in persuasive detail; in short, all that is really needed for speaking, for rhetoric—indeed, for the proclamation of the Word.

But how does one “arrive”? How does one achieve the eloquence of Homer? First, one comes to grips with the humanist idea that the ancients are not museum pieces to be observed behind a glass case, but great works of art whose use in education is for them to be imitated. “No one doubts the perusal of good writers is very profitable. In truth, unless you add to this the habit of writing and speaking you will be able neither to understand with sufficient incisiveness their opinion, nor to conceive in your mind the fixed rule for judging and deliberating.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 70]

Second, even in imitation one does not remain frigid and “scientific.” Indeed, deep and incisive reading is commended. The Encomium eloquentiae is exemplary in this regard (Melanchthon teases out of Homer what the untrained eye would miss; for example he notes that excellence of speech and excellence of mind are made tandem at Odyssey 9.367, σοὶ δ ἔνι μὴν μορφὴ ἔπεων, ἔνι δὲ φρένες ἔσθλαι, “You have both a form of words and an intelligence that are excellent.”) But even intensive and incisive reading does not lead to distance, but to proximity, so that “not only the mouth and the tongue, but also the heart, are shaped by the knowledge of good writers.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 68]

As noted elsewhere in this blog, this is that business about the text interpreting the reader, not vice versa, the requisite attitude in the Wittenberg way for reading all great works, including and especially the Bible. Tuning the ear to the force of rhetoric in the Greats—Homer, Vergil, Herodotus, Thucydides—in turn allows the tuned ear to tune in to the rhetoric of Scripture, in short, to understand what Scripture, as rhetorical message, wants to say. Indeed, Melanchthon reasons, it was because of the West’s ignorance of classical antiquity from the end of the Carolingian Renaissance until what we now know as the Renaissance that the horrors and atrocities of scholastic theology came to be: “Unless these writings are studied, we shall have a posterity that is in no way more sane than past centuries, when the ignorance of writings had overthrown all human and divine matters. Indeed..., in time past, when God was sorely angered against the Church, writings were snatched away, and ignorance of holy things followed. For when God wanted to speak in our words, those who were inexperienced in the arts of speaking judged foolishly on the divine Word.... And since they had no writings from which to learn how to be wise, the charming men devised that foolish sophistry [note: scholasticism], and began to argue about fabricated compositions of words.... Does it not [now] seem that the [once] neglected writings have sufficiently avenged the affront?... Indeed, when the excellent Father [i.e., God the Father] had begun again to turn His attention to the wretched, and was going to give back to us the Gospel, because of His generosity He also restored [the classical] writings, by which the study of the Gospel would be assisted.” [Kusukawa & Salazar, 74–75]

So, yes! Let it be: Rhetoric, Preaching, and ... Homer! Otherwise you might end up with a theology worthy of the other Homer, and a preaching to match.

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