It is always a delicate matter when believers speak out on any issue, whether to fellow believers, or to non-believers. Most discussions or arguments on controversial subjects give rise to heated debates, plenty of emotion and lots of passion. There is nothing wrong with arguing one’s convictions with gusto, but often heat, rather than light, is generated.
Many debates degenerate into name calling, abuse, ad hominem attacks and plain nastiness. Of course the believer is called to something higher than mere mud-slinging and abuse. Thus in a heated debate we are called to respond in the opposite spirit: if the other side is hurling abuse and invective, we are to respond in love and respect.
Having said that, is there ever a place for a bit of spice in our remarks, for a bit of rhetoric in our debates? Can contemporary believers engage in the use of satire, irony, parody, strong and emotive language, even mockery, sarcasm, ridicule and insult? Can a believer make his case with the use of exaggeration, hyperbole and/or other zesty rhetorical devices?
Rhetoric simply means effective and persuasive speaking and writing. What kind of rhetoric do the biblical writers employ? Do they shy away from what might be called “negative” rhetoric?
The obvious beginning point to answer such questions is to look at Scripture itself. Do we find there examples of this sort of language and rhetoric? The answer is, there are in fact numerous examples of all of the rhetorical devices mentioned above found throughout the Bible.
I have two reasons for this inquiry. The first is theological. There is a new and burgeoning field of study into the biblical use of rhetoric. Rhetorical theory or rhetorical criticism are some of the names of this developing area. In the last three or four decades a voluminous literature has sprung up on this important subject. New Testament scholarship is especially interested in this field. A study of the use of rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world is throwing a lot of illumination on the writings of the New Testament. As but one example, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has penned a host of commentaries with the subtitle, “A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary”.
So simply as a theological exercise, this area is worth exploring in more detail.
The second is personal. I recently penned a piece which made use of, shall we say, a bit of rhetorical flair. The response was mixed. Some loved it and pleaded for more. At least two believers however were concerned, thinking it excessive, over the top, and uncalled for as a believer. One of the two really was mainly objecting to the political content, while the other thought a believer should never resort to the use of such rhetorical flourishes as mockery or sarcasm.
They may be right. I am not interested here in defending myself, but to simply tease out my initial reaction to my critics, namely that there appears to be a fair bit of such “negative” rhetoric used in Scripture. Thus this article.
As to the Biblical examples, only a handful out of many can be produced here. God of course quite often uses strong and “negative” language and rhetoric. And as God, he is of course entitled to. Yahweh, through Isaiah, for example, taunts paganism and the false idols (Is. 44:12-20, eg.) Using quite strong satire and ridicule, Yahweh contrasts the false idols with the living God.
Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal is a classic example of humorous sarcasm and taunting (1 Kings 18). Verse 27 of course is the highlight: “Is Baal musing, or gone aside (literally, to take a leak!), on a journey, or asleep?” He really rubs it in here.
The entire book of Amos can be appealed to as an example of satire and parody. Amos 4:1 for example speaks of the wealthy, uncaring women of Israel as the “cows of Bashan”. Not very flattering remarks those.
The Old Testament is not alone in such examples. Many can be found in the New Testament as well. John the Baptist, for example, could lambast the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7).
And Jesus was certainly not averse to using such language and rhetoric. He used a wide array of rhetorical devices. Indeed, as The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery puts it, “Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony and satire”.
He could use preposterous exaggeration, such as the camel passing through the eye of the needle (Matt. 19:24), or straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matt. 23:24). In Matt. 23:16ff Jesus speaks with sharp satire about the “blind guides” and “blind fools” (the teachers of the law and Pharisees). He also pulled no punches in calling the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27).
Of course he could be very strong against those who would not believe in him. “You are of your father the devil” he said of the unbelieving Jews (John 8:44). And it was not just strong language that Jesus could use. Actions also come into play, such as the cleansing of the temple. Not quite the image of the meek and mild Jesus here.
In the book of Acts we see the early disciples making some pretty strong remarks. Consider Stephen who called the Sanhedrin “stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts” (Acts 7:51). Or Paul, who told Ananias he was a “white-washed wall” (Acts 23:3). When challenged for insulting the high priest, Paul said he did not know he was one. But he was apparently willing to use insults on other people.
The other New Testament writers could also dish it out fairly heavily, but space here is limited. So let me finish with a closer look at some of the Pauline literature. Consider a classic example of Paul in Phil. 3:2, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh”. It is clear just from a straightforward reading of the text that Paul is being far from polite here. He is being deliberately derogatory and scathing.
Gordon Fee says of this passage that it is “expressed with powerful rhetoric, full of invective and sarcasm”. F. F. Bruce speaks of the “parody,” “invective,” and “opprobrious language” language used by Paul here. Or as Markus Bockmuehl puts it, “The first paragraph explodes with a bitterly satirical attack on a group of enemies”.
There is a lot of very strong rhetoric here, complete with three stinging epithets. An epithet is a disparaging or abusive word, or phrase. Let me focus on just one, the word “dog”. In an age of pet lovers today, we miss the severity of the term as used back in Paul’s day. Back then dogs were treated with contempt: they were viewed as vicious, filth-eating scavengers.
Indeed, the epithet has “all kinds of pejorative connotations” as Peter O’Brien puts it. As such, Paul was using incredibly strong language on his opponents. But as Fee reminds us, he did not do so merely to express a “personal pique,” but because the very gospel was at stake.
Or as Frank Thielman remarks, the “stridency of Paul’s language” and “the staccato rhythm of Paul’s rhetoric … underlines the gravity of the issues at stake with the Judaizers”. And notice that it is not just their arguments that Paul is savaging, but the opponents themselves.
Paul uses such strong and cutting language in many other places. Indeed, at times he can be quite acerbic, all the while inspired by the Holy Spirit. His Corinthian epistles, for example – especially his second letter – are long, running polemics against his opponents. He is continuously mocking and denigrating his opponents there, calling them “super apostles” and so on, while defending his own apostleship and ministry.
This is especially true in 2 Corinthians 10-13, where Paul becomes quite combative and emotional in tone. He seems to resort to boasting and self-promotion, while denigrating his opponents. But in his rhetorical fashion he in fact parodies his opponents and their assumptions of superiority. He therefore employs invective and put-downs to establish his own divine mission, as over against these false apostles, whom he attacks as fools and worse.
Indeed, it is a strong case of righteous indignation. As Alfred Plummer says, in these four chapters “he now exhibits fierce indignation and asserts his authority to the uttermost”. And it is not just a defence of the gospel, but of his own authority as well. As Ralph Martin reminds us, “Paul’s life and work go inseparably together”. To reject him was to reject the gospel entrusted to him.
So strong measures are called for. As David Garland says, “He pulls out all stops in trying to rally the Corinthians to his point of view and to reject those false teachers who have beguiled and badgered them”. He goes on to speak of this “scorching blast” in which he uses “a wide range of rhetorical devices, irony, sarcasm, mock humility, and contrast to bring the Corinthians in line with the gospel”.
Indeed, he is not shy about giving it to them. For example, in 2 Cor. 11:13-14, he speaks of “false [bogus] apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” Strong words indeed. In today’s climate of tolerance and political correctness such remarks would not go down well in a session of interfaith dialogue.
Witherington says the “vehemence here is reminiscent of Galatians”. Indeed, Galatians is another very strong writing from the pen of Paul. He does not shrink back from taking on those who would subvert the gospel, and even goes so far as to say that those who do so should be accursed (1:8-9).
Now thems fightin’ words. Not quite what we would find in polite ecclesiastical society today. But necessary words. These false teachers deserve eternal condemnation, argues Paul, because they are leading other people astray. Luther can speak of Paul’s “vehement zeal” here, and is right to say, “Would to God that this terrible sentence of the Apostle might strike terror into their hearts that seek to pervert the gospel of Paul”.
In Gal. 5:12 Paul also sidesteps diplomatic niceties, and goes straight for the throat: he tells the Judaizers they should go and emasculate themselves. The context is the insistence by the Judaizers that new Gentile believers must be circumcised. The various translations give interesting renditions of the Greek here. The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way “Tell those who are disturbing you I would like to see the knife slip”. The RSV is a tad more restrained: “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves”..
Richard Longenecker says that Paul here adds an “additional, sarcastic comment to caricature and discredit his opponents”. Indeed, he even goes on to say that it “is the crudest and rudest of all Paul’s extant statements”. Says Witherington, Paul “could draw on irony, sarcasm, invective on the negative side to cast odium on the arguments of the agitators”.
Many other examples could be given. Suffice it to say that the use of rhetorical devices to strengthen one’s case is found throughout Scripture. The question remains, however: should we make use of such rhetoric today? The biblical writers were inspired in what they said, while we are merely perspired. So care must be taken in imitating them here. But it seems that if it were wrong in principle to make use of such language and rhetoric, then God would not have used it, Jesus would not have used it, nor would have any other biblical writer. The fact that they all do indicates that it is not wrong as such.
Now I write all this not to encourage a generation of Christian writers to resort to heated polemics, to go for the jugular, to become H. L. Menckens or Ann Coulters. I am quite aware of our obligations to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), to show gentleness and respect (1 Pe. 3:15,16), and to let our speech be always seasoned with salt (Col 4:5,6). We dare not ignore or downplay such vital injunctions.
All I am trying to do in this piece is to show that in many places the use of strong rhetoric is clearly found in Scripture, and that in general, a polemical, argumentative style is quite often used. For example, Jesus and the early disciples made frequent use of the challenge-riposte paradigm, common in first-century Palestine, in which one tried to undermine the honour, or social status, of the other.
As always, getting the right mix is essential. We certainly should not go out of our way to pick a fight, to be insulting, to be rude, abrasive or tactless. But there are enough examples in Scripture to suggest that rhetorical devices can and do have a place in the Christian arsenal, if used wisely and with love.
It is not contradictory, in other words, to love and respect your opponents, while making use of strong and confronting language and rhetoric when dealing with their arguments.
Getting the balance right is always a difficult task. Some believers are way too polemical, biting, contentious and belligerent. They really need to tone down their language, their emotions, and their self-expression.
On the other hand there are some believers who are far too squeamish and weak-kneed to even enter into a debate, let alone take a strong stand for what they believe in.
So some believers certainly do not need to be encouraged in the use of strong rhetoric, while others need to be encouraged to be willing to take a stand for truth, to enter the fray, and to be able to thrust and parry with the best of them, all with Christian grace, to be sure.
Given that we live in an age which is short of civility, politeness, gentleness, respect and grace, the pressing need may well be to teach believers how to make their case in a gracious and loving manner. But as has been suggested, one can be gracious and loving while using strong argument and rhetoric to refute error and stand up for truth.