Rhetorical Criticism: An Appropriate Method for New Testament Studies?

I’ve been working through some material on rhetorical critical approaches to New Testament studies, as of late, in preparation for my presentation at SBL later this year.  While it seems to be gaining acceptance and adherents, rhetorical criticism remains somewhat criticisized as a lens for interpreting biblical texts.  Critics often argue that because our knowledge of the education of the biblical authors is limited, we don’t know whether they were trained in the canons of classical rhetoric.  Thus, they say, it is illegitimate to evaluate and interpret their writings based on those canons. 
A question may be posed in response, though: Do the writings of the biblical authors evidence an awareness of and proficiency in classical rhetoric?  If we answer this question affirmatively, then it would seem rhetorical categories are not only appropriate but called for with regard to the texts which would appear to use them.  If the writer evidences facility with ancient rhetorical convention, then to read the text through a rhetorical-critical lens would be to read the text on its own terms.  We don’t need to have explicit data about the author’s education to judge whether his writings indicate a knowledge of rhetoric.  In my current project, I aruge that 2 Peter 3 is structured with a rather elegant rhetorical transition device.  Is there external evidence that Peter had classical oratory training?  No.  But there is internal evidence that he was familiar with this particular device and put it to use in the letter.
Let me say as well that I find rhetorical criticism to be much more fruitful in the New Testament letters than I do other genres.  The letters were written to be delivered orally upon their arrival at their destination.  It makes perfect sense that they would include features to enhance the oral delivery of the letter/speech.  So, while I might read Romans through a rhetorical lens, I would hesitate to read Mark that way.
So, is rhetorical criticism an appropriate method for studying the New Testament?  The answer is that it is more appropriate in some places and less in others.  If the letters evidence rhetorical features, then we should allow the text to determine our method and analyze them in light of those features.  Evidence for rhetorical features is harder to demonstrate in narratives.  So, we should be more cautious as we approach those texts.

3 thoughts on “Rhetorical Criticism: An Appropriate Method for New Testament Studies?

  1. Yes, sufficiency of scripture may be exactly why God has not ordained any additional process of canonization to extend the Bible as you conclude.

    Still does sufficiency of scripture necessarily imply sufficiency of understanding?


  2. I agree that the Holy Spirit works to enable faithful refelction, preaching, teaching, and commentary on the Bible. I don't think this means that the Biblical canon should remain open. This is one application of the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. What God has given in scripture is sufficient for life and godliness. All that God has ever said need not be canonized. Even if we found one of the other letters of Paul to Corinth, it need not necessarily be canonized because what has been canonized is sufficient. A document can be edifying without being in scripture. The gospel of John points out that not all the works of Jesus have been recorded. But what has been recorded is sufficient to reveal God and enable faith and holiness.

    Taken this way, the canon works as a standard by which to measure other truth claims. Someone could be claiming inspiration and actually be lying. The scriptures as we have them provide a standard to measure such claims against.

    You raise some good questions. Thanks for your comments.


  3. It is a reasonable approach, in studying scripture, to ask if some method of study could yield a greater understanding, or not. 2 Timothy 3:16 says all scripture (graphē) is God breathed, but seems to place emphasis on the written tradition primarily.

    However, the same spirit which inspires the written tradition, inspires the oral tradition; so in fact, what is recorded in scripture, whether it comes from an oral or a written argument is God breathed. All scripture has the same character as the prophet's speech, whether preached or written. (2 Peter 1:19-21).

    Scripture is not merely the fruit of human thought, premeditation and art though, but also and equally God's word, and ex-spired (rather than in-spired), doubly authored where man is a secondary author. This primary author initiates, prompts, enlightens, and superintendents each writer (or speaker) as they do their work. This is the (work of the) Holy Spirit. Accordingly, all scripture is essentially verbal in nature.

    Even so, the resultant revelation is still not devoid of human character. It is clear from style that human writers have contributed much to the making of scripture (including 2 Peter 3). Though God has permitted the preservation human form in the transmission of his word, faith dictates that all theology is essentially the unassisted domain of the primary author.

    This raises the question, is there theological value in studying the traces of human form found in the Bible? Also Matt, if you've ever noticed the influence of the Holy Spirit in the development of your own sermons, blog entries, or other writings, there can be no reason to believe that the Holy Spirit has stopped co-authoring God's word with faithful humans in the world today. If the Holy Spirit is still at work, why is the Bible not getting bigger?

    Perhaps because although the Holy Spirit is still at work, God has not ordained a process of canonization that will permit the Bible to be extended, which means the modern believer must have discernment (and faith) enough to know when God is continuing to work through the faith of his imperfect human agents. Is not society more literate now than when God first spoke through His prophets?


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