Friday, May 29, 2015

Editorial Thoughts on Augustine

Guest post note: Today’s post comes from Amy Hermanson, Professor of English at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Dr. Hermanson helped edit the book The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: De Doctrina Christiana and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric (Baylor UP, 2008), which has sparked a couple of recent posts here on the blog. As an undergraduate, Dr. Hermanson attended Bethany Lutheran College and Marquette University. She earned her PhD at Texas Christian University and is now teaching courses including Shakespeare and Freshman Composition. In this post, Dr. Hermanson offers some reflections on DDC.

I first read Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (DDC) as an undergraduate on the recommendation of a friend. I don’t think I could define rhetoric then, and I wasn’t very well schooled in church history at the time—not pre-Lutheran Reformation church history anyway. But my sense, then as now, was that Augustine addresses issues that are relevant to us as believers today. What, if any, role do human beings play in mediating God’s message? How do we make sense of God’s perfection in cooperation with our flaws? What role might emotion and reason play in our faith lives? What role should they play? Such questions seem relevant today whenever I find myself discussing what church and evangelism are and what they ought to be with fellow Christians or sometimes when the academic and Christian communities I belong to seem at odds with one another.

I got to dig in again and consider the fourth book of DDC more deeply a few years after my initial exposure when I was a graduate student studying English literature and the history of rhetoric. The secondary readings in the volume on book four of DDC that I helped edit aim to capture Augustine’s rhetorical situation. The volume sprung from a graduate course I took on the history of rhetoric. We read portions of DDC as well as some secondary materials as part of the course, and our professor, Richard Enos, suggested gathering secondary materials together around a really well done translation of Augustine’s work that was only published in excerpted form up to that point. A closer look at Augustine’s historical moment reveals a lot about his impetus for writing DDC. Augustine was grappling with the role reason might play in the life of a Christian because many of his contemporaries were dismissive of reason in the spiritual realm. And Augustine was interested in the ways human agents mediated God’s word because he disagreed with many of his contemporaries who sought a pure message from God and viewed any human influence or touch as a depravity of God’s message.

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Augustine settled for us the relationship of faith and reason or the role of the human in mediating God’s Word. Rather, these discussions were kept alive through Augustine at a time when their messiness was threatened by over-simplified views of preaching and faith. The issue of the role of human agency in crafting prayer and praise, for example, resurfaces as a central concern in sixteenth-century England during the reformation. Literary and critical works from that period participate in this debate—George Herbert’s “The Altar” and Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, for example. And the practices of different church bodies springing from that period are marked by their respective leaders’ thinking on this issue. (Consider, for example, the Quaker practices of identifying no worship leader and adhering to no liturgy in order to make room for divine inspiration, sometimes in the form of “quaking,” at worship gatherings.) I continue to find Augustine’s work relevant today; he is a torchbearer pursuing a more complete understanding of our essence as Christians and of our role in sharing the Christian message. 

Saint Augustine. Bartolo di Fredi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Ambrose with other figures and angels. Engraving by C. Bloemaert after A. Bloemaert. [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book of the Month: De Doctrina Christiana

This month’s book, Saint Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine or On Christian Teaching), has been called “the first homiletic”—the first book on the art of preaching.* It’s been widely recognized for its contribution not only to the history of preaching but to the history of rhetoric, more generally.

If you ever hear about the “Christianization” of rhetoric, you’re almost certain to hear about Saint Augustine and his De Doctrina Christiana (DDC).

DDC addresses “the two things upon which every treatment of the Scriptures depends: the means of discovering what the thought may be, and the means of expressing what the thought is” (DDC 4.1). The first three books of DDC (completed around 397) address interpretation, while book 4 (added in 427) addresses rhetoric, focusing narrowly on the canon of style.

So is it a must read?

If you’re interested in the intersection of rhetoric and religion, I’d recommend at least book 4 of the treatise. You can find that text, in English and Latin, in The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo: De Doctrina Christiana and the Search for a Distinctly Christian Rhetoric (Baylor University Press, 2008). A bonus of this particular book: It includes a series of excellent essays on DDC that provide helpful insights on the text, particularly in its historical context.

In book 4 of DDC, Augustine presents some standard Ciceronian wisdom on the purposes of speaking (to teach, to delight, and to move) as well as styles suitable to those ends (the plain, the middle, and the grand). His analysis is interesting, but the real value of the text for the modern reader is in the enduring issues it raises with respect to “Christian rhetoric.”

My top 5 takeaways:

1. Rhetoric is a useful resource for Christian preaching.

If you know nothing else about DDC, this is the passage to remember:
For since through the art of rhetoric both truth and falsehood are pleaded, who would be so bold as to say that against falsehood, truth as regards its own defenders ought to stand unarmed, so that, forsooth, those who attempt to plead false causes know from the beginning how to make their audience well-disposed, attentive, and docile, while the others remain ignorant of it; so that the former utter their lies concisely, clearly, and with an appearance of truth, and the latter state the truth in a way that is wearisome to listen to, not clear to understand, and finally, not pleasant to believe. [. . .] Since, therefore, there has been placed equally at our disposal the power of eloquence, which is so efficacious in pleading either for the erroneous cause or the right, why is it not zealously acquired by the good, so as to do service for the truth, if the unrighteous put it to the uses of iniquity and of error for the winning of false and groundless causes? 
Timeless words, aren't they? 

2. The ideal of speaking is wisdom + eloquence; wisdom is essential, eloquence value-added.

For Augustine, the sacred speaker must possess wisdom, or knowledge of the truth (unlike the sophistical speakers of his day, who were much more about style than substance). The Christian preacher can do good with this wisdom, but he can do even more good if that wisdom is paired with eloquence. “For those who speak eloquently are heard with pleasure; those who speak with wisdom are heard with profit” (4.8).

3. Yes, Cicero DOES have something to do with Paul.

St. Jerome, one of Augustine’s contemporaries, expressed wariness about pagan learning, asking, “What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospels, and Cicero with Paul?” (Epistle 22, Letter to Eustochium). In DDC, Augustine provides an answer, using many passages in Paul to illustrate Ciceronian rhetorical principles. (Incidentally, he also points to the prophets and a few of the church fathers, too.)

Augustine teaching in Rome

4. It IS useful to learn rhetoric, even if God provides the words.

There are a number of instances in the Bible when God intervenes in speaking situations. Remember Moses trying to get out of a speaking assignment? God tells him: “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exod. 4:12). Similarly, Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 12:12 that “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” Augustine acknowledges the role of the Holy Spirit but maintains that rhetoric is still useful to learn, in the same way that Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about how to teach are useful (DDC 4.33).

5. Prayer is essential.

At the end of the book, Paul addresses prayer, leaving readers with this thought:
If Queen Esther prayed when she was about to address the king  in regard to the temporal affairs of her people, that God might give her a well-ordered speech in her mouth, how much more ought he to pray to receive such a gift who labors in word and teaching for the eternal welfare of mankind?” (DDC 4.63).
Ah, so wise. And eloquent.

From Charles Sears Baldwin’s “St. Augustine on Preaching.” In The Rhetoric of St. Augustine of Hippo, eds. Richard Leo Enos and Roger Thompson et al. (Baylor UP, 2008), p. 202.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Friday Figure: Antithesis

How’s this for an opening line?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

You probably recognize the “best of times, worst of times” part (and if you’ve read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you may know the rest of it, too). The whole line is a perfect example of the figure of the month: antithesis (from the Greek antitithenai, to set one against the other, compare, oppose; antithesis, opposition).

Antithesis joins contrasting ideas—often, but not always, in parallel structure. It’s common in literature (“To be, or not to be”), campaign speeches (“The poor seem to get poorer, and the rich get richer”), and music (“What goes up, must come down”).

It’s also part and parcel of “thinking Lutheran.” Our very Christian existence—saint/sinner, Old Man/New Man, dark/light—is antithetical, consistent with the paradoxes of the faith. 

We even confess with antithesis: “We have done those things which we should not have done, and we have not done those things which we should have done” (The Confession of Sin, Matins, ELH).

For additional examples of antitheses, you can’t go wrong with the texts of Martin Luther. Here are just a  few standouts, all from texts posted recently on the Luther Reading Challenge site: 

Letter to George Spenlein (1516)
Therefore, dear brother, learn Christ and Him crucified. Praise and laud His name, and despairing of self, say to Him, “You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am Your sin. You have taken what is mine, and given me what is Yours. You have assumed that which You were not, and given me what I had not.
The Heidelberg Disputation (1518)
Thesis 3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
Thesis 4. Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
Thesis 26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.
The Freedom of a Christian (1520):
A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.
Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation.
Luther’s texts aren’t the only great source of antitheses; the Bible is full of them, too. I see so many examples—in devotions, on social media, in articles—that I wondered: What would happen if you opened the Bible to five random places and tried to find an antithesis?

I gave it a whirl. The results: Success in 4 out of 5 instances. (Maybe 5 out of 5, but I’ll let you decide).
2 Kings 9:3 (Elisha instructs a prophet how to anoint Jehu the king of Israel): “Then open the door and flee; do not linger.”
Jer. 50:32 (the destruction of Babylon): “The proud one shall stumble and fall,/with none to raise him up.”
Heb. 1:9 (the supremacy of God’s Son): “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.”
Is. 62:4 (Zion’s coming salvation): “You shall no more be termed Forsaken,/and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,/but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,/and your land Married.”
Luke 1 (the birth of John): Nothing here, but in the Lutheran Study Bible, there’s a commentary on the facing page that contains the following line: “Jesus’ work of reversing the worldly order begins at his birth and culminates with His death on the cross.”
Does that count?

Maybe not, according to the rules of the game, but it definitely works as an antithesis.


Photo in graphic: Athens, Parthenon, southern side (damaged). Adam Carr, own work, uploaded to English Wikipedia, 07.02.2004. Via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Peter und Paul an der Binnenstra├če in Werth, Isselberg. By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The "Rules" of Rhetoric: Are They Necessary?

I’ve started rereading Saint Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), which is the May book of the month here on the blog. I wasn’t going to say anything about it until next Tuesday, but Augustine’s comments on the “rules of oratory” are just begging to be addressed.

Before I get to Augustine, here’s a question for you.

What do you think is required for learning to speak well? How do good speakers—or preachers—get that way?

Augustine, who at one time taught rhetoric, offers his opinion at the outset of book 4 of De Doctrina Christiana:

Wherefore, as children do not learn to talk except by listening to the talking of those who talk, why cannot men learn to be orators not by studying the rules of oratory, but by reading and listening to the orations of orators, and, in so far as it is possible, by imitating them? Is it not true that in actual experience we find that this is so? For we know many who are more eloquent without the rules of rhetoric than many who have learned them, but none who are eloquent without having read and heard the discussions and speeches of the eloquent (sec. 5).

On the one hand, Augustine seems dismissive of the “rules” of rhetoric, bringing to mind the words of author Samuel Butler: “For all a rhetorician’s rules/Teach nothing but to name his tools” (Hudibras, 17th century).

Ouch! (And wouldn’t you know, the “Figure of the Month” is on tap for this Friday—another tool for you to name!)

On the other hand, Augustine does acknowledge elsewhere in the book that the study of rules has some value; thus, he’s not completely “anti-rules.” Rather, his point is probably more about the absolute necessity of reading, hearing, and imitation.

Augustine reiterates this idea later in the book, saying, “the man who wishes to speak not only with wisdom but also with eloquence, . . . I rather send to read or hear the eloquent, and to imitate them by practice, than advise to give his time to professors of rhetoric” (sec. 8).

Hmm. Another interesting comment from the former professor of rhetoric.

For the record, I agree 100% with Augustine’s advice about reading, hearing, and imitating (and I’d add analyzing, too). Those activities likely make a greater contribution to speaking ability than does the art of speaking (“rules” and principles), yet art still serves an important purpose.

The Young Cicero Reading

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (1st century AD) gets at that purpose in his discussion of imitation—reading, hearing, critiquing, practicing—in the Institutes of Oratory. For imitation to be effective, Quintilian says, “the first step is for the student to understand what it is that he is going to imitate, and to know why it is good.” That’s hard to do well without some knowledge of the art.

So speakers absolutely need models and practice. They can also benefit from knowledge of the art. Is there anything else?

Yes, say many writers, including Isocrates, the 4th-century Athenian teacher. In Antidosis, Isocrates adds natural talent to the list:

They [students] must, first of all, have a natural aptitude for that which they have elected to do; secondly, they must submit to training and master the knowledge of their particular subject, whatever it may be in each case; and, finally, they must become versed and practiced in the use and application of their art, for only on these conditions can they become fully competent and pre-eminent in any line of endeavor (187).

Of these three elements—nature, art, and practice—Isocrates says that “natural ability is paramount and comes before all else” (189).* 

Augustine would likely agree, but his take natural ability in De Doctrina Christiana is unique. When describing the writing of the authors of Scripture, Augustine notes the special quality of their intellect, saying:

These words were not written by human industry, but were poured forth by Divine Intelligence, with wisdom and eloquence—wisdom not being intent on eloquence, but eloquence not deserting wisdom. . . . What wonder is it that it [eloquence] is found likewise in those men whom He has sent who fashions natural genius? (sec. 21)

Divine Intelligence? 

That definitely trumps rules.

* See also Cicero’s discussion of the art of speaking, including the place of natural ability, in De Oratore 1.102-159.

ART: The Young Cicero Reading, circa 1464. Vincenzo Foppa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons