Engaging with New Testament rhetoric in ‘Catching the Wave’

I’ll be honest, Tim MacBride’s Catching the Wave was sitting unopened on my bookshelf for months after IVP first sent it to me to read and review. I knew I’d get round to it at some point, but there was always something I’d read instead. After all, I thought, what use can a book helping you preach the New Testament be to me? I’m a Christian, sure, but I’ve preached a grand total of two full sermons in my life, and I definitely don’t do it on a regular basis.

Little did I know that all those months I was putting off reading a book that would open up my eyes to an effective, engaging way of reading and interpreting much of the New Testament. I may not be planning a sermon any time soon, but I read it and I talk about it a lot, including on this blog. MacBride’s advice on using ancient rhetorical conventions to understand the New Testament struck me as profound.

Before I talk a little bit more about the content of the book, I should warn you that this book is not for everyone. MacBride is primarily writing for pastors and speakers, and assumes a high level of Biblical literacy and some familiarity with the history and culture of the New Testament. He doesn’t take the time to fully explain every theological or interpretive concept in the book, because he assumes that his readers know what he’s talking about already. This isn’t a flaw with the book, it’s simply an indication that the book isn’t aimed at a general audience, or even a general Christian audience.

Getting to grips with genre

MacBride’s argument in his book is that we will be able to preach the New Testament (specifically the epistles) more effectively if we understand the genre that they were written in, and mirror that genre in our sermons.

As the epistles are essentially speeches written down, the best way to understand their genre is to look at Ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric, more simply explained as ‘persuasive language’. He opens the book by highlighting the three main types of rhetoric:

  • Forensic: to persuade people of the truth about past events (as in a law court).
  • Epideictic: to reinforce values already held, often through praise or celebration.
  • Symbouleutikos (deliberative): to persuade people of the best future action – a product of Greek democracy and political speeches.

Much of the New Testament, says MacBride, is epideictic or deliberative in nature, with epistles tending to fall into one of the other broad category (though there can be some mixing of elements). Ultimately, MacBride urges preachers to find out what the text was supposed to do, and make their sermon do it. MacBride then goes on to look at deliberative and epideictic texts in more detail, and give some example sermons from his career highlighting the techniques he’s using.

As someone who reads the Bible privately more often than not, with no view to public speech, I found that I could still apply MacBride’s principles to my own reading and interpretation. Although I might not have to preach an epideictic sermon, my understanding of a text like Philippians could be greatly improved by realising that it is epideictic in nature, and that everything in that epistle is ultimately contributing to that epideictic function.

Understanding the building blocks of rhetoric

In the second section of Catching the Wave, MacBride moves from the broad overview of rhetoric, to the building blocks of rhetorical literature:

  • Exordium: the opening, building rapport with the audience and introducing the topic.
  • Narratio: a narration of events that led to you giving the speech.
  • Propositio: the central thesis that you are arguing.
  • Probatio: all of your arguments in support of your thesis.
  • Refutatio: anticipate and refute objections and counter-arguments.
  • Peroratio: summary and final emotional appeal.

In section two, MacBride looks at each part of an ancient speech in turn (with the exception of the probatio, which is the sole focus of section three), and explored how you might craft a sermon around each section in an epistle.

For example, you might preach from an exordium as an introduction to a series on a certain epistle, giving an overview of the text and talking about it in specific reference to the rest of the epistle. When preaching on a refutatio section, you might look at the objections raised by the Biblical author’s opponents, and see if there are any parallels in the 21st century.

As a reader, I found this section just as interesting as the first. It shows how the epistles fit together as texts, and encourages a more holistic, contextual approach to individual passages, rather than the modern day temptation to take passages out of context and fit them into whatever theme you’ve decided to preach on.

As a side note, MacBride makes it clear early on that he doesn’t have a problem with thematic preaching, but, in his opinion, preaching from Scripture should be the backbone of our teaching. He argues that we get the most of the texts as a church when we preach from the texts themselves and letting them guide our sermons, rather than preaching themes and picking the snippets that support them.

Biblical arguments

The final section of the book looks at the most substantial rhetorical element in more detail: the propositio. Again, there are different elements in a propositio, different kinds of making an argument:

  • Ethos: appealing to the moral standing of the speaker.
  • Pathos: appealing to the emotions of the audience.
  • Logos: appealing to the reason of the audience, which divides into:
    • Inartificial proof: proof that is self-evident and taken as a given.
    • Artificial proof…
      • Deductive – drawing a logical conclusion from a set of propositions
      • Inductive – drawing a conclusion from examples and patterns

I don’t have the space to talk about all of those types of argument, but MacBride does, and, again, he tells his readers how we can recognise them and craft sermons around them. He doesn’t shy away from the problems of bringing these ancient conventions into the modern world, but looks practically about where we can apply and modify them for the best effect.

In short, I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. It has opened up a new way of thinking about New Testament texts to me, and I look forward to applying some of it to my personal Bible readings. Would I recommend it? Yes, but I would probably recommend it specifically to certain people, rather than throwing it out as a general recommendation – not everyone is going to get along with or engage with this kind of book. But if you are someone whose interest has been piqued by this review, then get out there and buy it.

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