Rhetoric And Truth
While we have a different concept of the word rhetoric today, its origin goes back to the Latin, where the original meaning was literally “the art of oratory,” and referred to the quality of speech, or one who simply spoke well. Its meaning was expanded to apply to the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion, and often referred to one’s persuasive ability when writing or speaking. Nowadays, we most often use the term when we refer to political speech, and one’s “undue use of exaggeration or display.” In other words, as is often seen in the realm of politics, the speaker is exaggerating facts or scenarios to cause an emotional reaction from the audience, and not necessarily for good.
That use of the term rhetoric is one that is dangerous for the unsuspecting, the gullible, and the naïve; a speaker who is expert in stoking the emotional state of his audience can stir them up to do much good by using rhetoric, but he may also stir them up to do things that are not so good; the best may convince entire nations to do great evil, in fact. In spiritual matters, one may deceive sincere listeners into thinking they are following truth when, in fact, they are not, and all because the speaker has stirred up the emotions of the listeners with rhetoric. As a case in point, just watch some of the televised religious services where the speaker whips the crowd into a frenzy, with much shouting, vigorous music that sets the tone for emotional responses, and the audience literally jumping up and down in response to the speaker. Those who run down the aisles to “give their lives to the Lord” have done so not because of some great truth he has presented, but because of the emotional appeals that tugged at the old heartstrings.
Another means of using rhetoric in spiritual speech is the kind that avoids emotional appeals but turns, instead, to human wisdom and supposedly scholarly studies, where the speaker wows the audience with his ostensible knowledge of the original languages [Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic] as he explains the ‘true’ meaning of Scripture — one, he explains, that centuries of men throughout the world somehow overlooked or were too simple-minded to have seen or understood, as he now has. Such rhetoric relies on the speaker’s ability to speak above most of the audience’s head, using terminology that is meant to impress upon the hearer the speaker’s superior knowledge and ability to interpret and apply Scripture. Even those who understand everything he says are supposed to be impressed with his knowledge, as he kindly massages their egos, telling them how ‘wise’ they are for opening their minds to views and interpretations that generations before were unable or unwilling to do. In the end, it is still the rhetoric that sways, rather than any presentation of truth.
I will grant one may be sincerely wrong when speaking, such as was the case with Apollos, but eloquence in speaking something short of the truth will still lead men astray. Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately” because, before that, Apollos “knew only the baptism of John.” Once he had the full truth revealed to him, he went out and “greatly helped those who had believed,” and “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (cf. Acts 18:24-28). Let us note here that it was his willingness to speak the truth, and not his eloquence of speech that was the reason he helped the believers and refuted the Jews who disagreed. He could not have done that while lacking the full revelation of God’s word, no matter how eloquent he was.
Sadly, the sincerely-deceived speaker is far rarer than the one expert in rhetoric who deliberately misleads others into believing falsehoods because he has conned the audience into an emotional, rather than an intellectual, response to his words. It is for this reason [and many others] that John warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). I would bet that a good portion of those false teachers who are out there in the world — then and today — rely on emotional pleas and stirring up audiences with rhetoric. Don’t be fooled; just because someone makes a strong, emotional plea to you that what they speak is truth, and even if they tell you stories that bring tears to your eyes, that does not mean they have the truth, or are speaking it. Hold up everything against the written word of God, as did the noble Bereans (Acts 17:11), and believe it then only if it agrees with what God has already revealed. All the emotional pleas in the world will not change error into truth; all the rhetoric in the world will not change error into truth, either.
Those Bereans have set the example for us as to how we should receive any teaching that purports to be of God. Let us note a few things from their example, taken from a recent lesson delivered here.
They Received The Word With All Readiness. In simple terms, the Bereans had hearts that were predisposed to accept the truth, whatever it was. This speaks volumes about the attitude of these people! Not knowing what Paul would preach, their hearts were set on one thing: discovering the truth and accepting it — no matter what. That did not mean they would simply take one’s word for it, though; no, it was quite the opposite!
Today, we must have hearts willing to accept the truth, no matter what that is. If at any time we choose our traditional beliefs over the truth, our opinions over truth, or anything over truth, what we will be following will not be the truth! It doesn’t matter if our emotions are stirred by our family’s traditional practices, or if the truth means our hearts are broken because we discover we, and generations before us, have been misled. Do we really want the truth?
They Searched The Scriptures Daily. As just noted, the Bereans did not just simply listen to Paul and take his word for it, though they had a disposition to accept the truth; they “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” Their standard, by which everything would be compared and challenged, was the written word of God, the Scriptures. It would not matter how great a speaker Paul was, or how well he could stir their emotions; what mattered was simple: Did it agree with the written word of God? If it did not, all the rhetoric in the world would not make it truth.
Today, we must be willing to hold up any and all teaching and practices against the written word of God, the Bible, to see if it is indeed truth. If we find that it does not agree with the Scriptures, all the emotional pleading and all the rhetoric in the world will not change that fact.
They Acted On Their Discovery. When the Bereans searched the Scriptures and found Paul’s words to be true, “Therefore many of them believed” (Acts 17:12). No need for exaggerated statements or impressive displays; in fact, truth needs no ‘help’ to convince the honest heart.
Let’s be careful when someone claims to be speaking God’s word, but relies more on their rhetoric than their Bible. — Steven Harper