Interview: Duane Litfin

Paul’s Theology of Preaching
Duane Litfin is President Emeritus of Wheaton College where he served for seventeen years. He holds a PhD from Purdue in Communication and a second doctoral degree (DPhil) from Oxford in New Testament Studies. His dissertation was published by Cambridge University Press as St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric. That book was later expanded by InterVarsity Press to Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth which the following interview centers on.

David George Moore conducted the interview. Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.

Moore: There are now three big iterations of your work on Paul’s theology of preaching. When did your long-standing interest in this topic emerge? Why does it continue to have such a hold on your imagination?

Litfin: Going back to my college years, I have long been interested in the complex and fascinating phenomenon of human communication. It’s something that touches all of life, from beginning to end. Personal relationships, public speaking, mass communication, nonverbal communication, the art of persuasion, hermeneutics, exegesis, small group dynamics, propaganda, advertising, the law, etc. The list seems endless. You never run out of interesting issues, especially for those of us in ministry.

Moore: As you ably say in this latest iteration of the book, many Christians seem to have missed significant details as to Paul’s approach and goals in preaching. Unpack some of the big reasons why this is the case.

Litfin: These projects—increasingly complete versions of one project, really—deal with a unique Pauline passage (1 Corinthians 1-4), which in turn deals with a deeply counterintuitive and counter-cultural insight from the Apostle. This crucial insight is by no means unique to this passage; it is quintessentially biblical and can be found throughout the Scriptures. But the thoroughness with which Paul treats this insight in 1 Cor. 1-4 is unique in his writings. Combine this with the fact that this insight cuts cross-grain to both our profoundly pragmatic culture and our own natural human inclinations and it’s not difficult to see why the insight hides in such a blind spot for so many.

Moore: Augustine grew disenchanted with rhetoricians who manipulated people for their own ends, yet he did not carte blanche reject the use of rhetoric. How different were Augustine and Paul when it came to their respective views on rhetoric?

Litfin: No one then or now can “reject carte blanche the use of rhetoric.” The term “rhetoric,” rightly understood, covers far too much for that to be possible. One would have to give up human communication altogether (perhaps a hermit?) to avoid all that comes under this expansive term. Paul was concerned about something much more specific than “rhetoric” in general. He was concerned about the use of ingenious human strategies of persuasion to generate false results in his preaching (1 Cor. 2:5), thereby usurping “the cross of Christ and emptying it of its power” (1:17). His concern was not that these strategies were somehow dishonest and manipulative (about which he says nothing); often they were no such things. But they were nonetheless very human (“natural,” 2:14) strategies that potentially produced only human results. It was in his concern about avoiding these false results, results “based on the wisdom of man and not the power of God,” that Paul differed with Augustine (one of my church history heroes). Augustine’s writings reveal no such concern. (Significantly, despite the fact that Augustine cites countless other passages from the Scriptures in his prolific writings, so far as I have been able to find he completely avoids engaging Paul’s argument about “persuasive words of human wisdom” in 1 Cor. 1-4.)

Moore: One thing struck me a number of times while reading through your book: Paul’s understanding of change in the listener very much frees one up to be faithful and leave the results to God. It seems clear from your book that this is something many Christian preachers have forgotten, or perhaps never learned it as well as they should.

Litfin: “Forgotten, or perhaps never learned it” are the operative words here. Which is why I have stayed with Paul’s argument through these three, actually four, iterations:   first, a Christianity Today article, then an Oxford D.Phil. dissertation, then a technical Society of New Testament Studies academic book, and finally, Paul’s Theology of Preaching, a book designed for a broader audience.  Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 1-4 is a crucial one, but also a counterintuitive one. Left to ourselves it’s not one most of us would come up with on our own.

Moore: Ecc. 12:9,10 says, “In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.” (Emphasis added) How do you understand the proper application of these verses?

Litfin: They’re a fine description of what preachers must do every week as they prepare to open the Scriptures to their people. There’s certainly nothing in this description that would contradict Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 1-4. The challenge in appreciating Paul’s argument is to understand what it is the Apostle is resisting. Getting that right, which is the burden of my book, is the key to understanding this important passage: what it’s saying, and what it’s not saying.

Moore: Is your book only geared for preachers?

Litfin: Not really. The subject is preaching because in 1 Cor. 1-4 the Apostle Paul is defending his preaching ministry (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:6). But to do so, he places that ministry within a broader context, one that touches Christian ministry of every sort. In this important passage Paul challenges his readers to adopt an obedience-driven approach to ministry rather than a results-driven approach. When we make this shift, our questions are no longer, What results are we after and how can we go about achieving them? Our questions become, What has Christ called us to be and to do, and how can we be that and do that to the best of our abilities? This is a profound paradigm shift for anyone in ministry.

Moore: For every reader of your book, what are two or three things you desire them to walk away having a clearer understanding of?

Litfin: First, the paradigm shift cited above is a crucial one. It shockingly requires us to stop setting our goals in terms of our results, and begin setting them, as did Paul, in terms of our faithfulness to Christ’s calling.

Second, this shift requires a new definition of “success” in ministry. Whatever our results, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (4:2). If Christ has found us faithful, we have succeeded.

Third, this approach to ministry requires us to pay a great deal more attention to our “calling,” both individually and institutionally. What is Christ calling us to be, and to do? Making sure we can answer these questions is where our ministry strategies must begin.

Fourth, this is an enormously liberating shift. Paul was called to “herald” the gospel. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24). Some found Paul’s gospel scandalous; others considered it nonsense. But for still others, that same gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Paul’s task was to be faithful to his calling and leave the results to the Lord. It’s an important ministry model for us all.

 

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