Pathos and Preaching

 |  September 1, 2016

Phillips Brooks’ legendary description of preaching as “truth through personality” is cited by mainstream and evangelical ministers alike as an incarnational approach to preaching akin to transparency and genuineness.  Heralding the description as the goal of faithful exposition, many use it to admonish students of preaching to embrace who they are while declaring the truth within the boundaries of their natural disposition.  Not only is this understanding foreign to Brooks’ usage of the phrase, but it also limits our ability to utilize the emotive structures of a biblical text through what is often called pathos.[1]

Using Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion (logos, pathos, ethos), most Bible teachers emphasize the content and structure of the words themselves, or what we refer to as the logos of scripture.  Great effort is taken, and rightly so, to accurately communicate the logical message within the focal verses at hand.  Many, however, falsely dichotomize the message and mood of the Bible, as if attention to emotional goals and design is somehow manipulative.  If, however, biblical pathos includes the emotive structure and intention, or what might be called the inspired tone of a text, faithful exposition necessitates discerning and declaring the spirit of holy writ.  Mere passion in the pulpit will often fall short of this goal because it may not accurately correspond to the Holy Spirit’s revelatory mood.

Because the Bible pulsates with emotion, faithful exegetes will not only give attention to what the biblical text says, but also how it says it.  Nathan clearly sought an emotional impact as well as a logical result when he rebuked David with the declaration, “Thou art the man!” in 2 Samuel 12:7.  Urgency, lament, and even righteous anger leaps off the page when we survey Romans 1:18-32.  The sarcasm of 2 Cor. 11-12 is difficult to overlook as we observe the Apostle Paul defending his apostleship.  Passionate appeals woven into the biblical record reinforce instead of detracting from the overall message of each passage.  Preachers should highlight rather than avoid revealed sentiments like these.  The aforementioned passages fall flat if we disregard the feelings that accompany their content.  Ignoring the textual pathos simply is not an option.

To avoid contradictory tones competing with the Bible’s message, the preacher’s goal is to stand behind the text so that its message and mood resonate with listeners.  Though personally connecting with an audience is important, doing so must never come at the expense of connecting hearers to the logical and emotional goals of a text’s original author.  Elevating the mood or personality of the preacher often distorts an accurate understanding of all that a biblical author seeks to communicate through a passage of scripture.   Striving for “truth through personality,” is acceptable only when we prioritize the personality of the biblical witness above the personality of the messenger himself.  Attention to the Bible’s pathos can protect us from these subtle, albeit dangerous, deviations.

So what is the goal of text-driven preaching as it relates to pathos?  Discerning the emotive structures of the Bible places text selection, grammatical construction, historical context, literary genre, and character development at the forefront of our hermeneutical disciplines. [2]  Once the energy of scripture is extrapolated, the preaching moment becomes an opportunity to emulate the biblical mood for members of a congregation even as we seek to elicit the same response from them.  Simply put, pathos in preaching means the preacher embodies the spirit of the text while seeking to help his audience do the same.  Because people will feel something when we preach, our goal is to focus them on the energy of the text so that they feel the breath of God as they receive His message.

Ideally, there will be no need for pulpiteers to choose between their personal pathos and that of the biblical record.  Maintaining the primacy of scripture, however, must guide our practice in the event a choice is necessary.  Altering our present disposition and mood may be necessary to preserve the accuracy of how the scripture communicates truth.  While biblical fidelity is more important than personal authenticity, a better scenario is that no such choice is necessary.  Even as the Bible determines and drives the emotion of every sermon, it remains equally true that the scripture should alter the preacher’s disposition too.  If the Bible’s logos compels us to yield our beliefs to divine revelation, so too, the Bible’s pathos should motivate us to yield our personal disposition to the manner in which God speaks.

Who we are, what we say, and how we say it are the glorious burdens of text-driven preaching.  By yielding to the intentional and deliberate pathos of the Bible, preachers of every disposition will be equipped to preach truth through God’s personality.


[1]For an excellent discussion of the shortcoming surrounding Brooks’ usage of “truth through personality,” see Charles W. Fuller, The Trouble with “Truth through Personality, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010).

[2]These strategies are not original with me.  See Gregory K. Hollified, “Expository Preaching that Touches the Heart,” Preaching 19 (2004):  18-23.

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