You may not be a supporter of the Labour party. Perhaps you believe it was wrong for the British Parliament to vote in favour of bombing Syria. But if you have a smidgen of interest in oratory, you will have surely have taken note of Hilary Benn’s speech last night.
Speaking in favour of air-strikes, Benn’s 15 minute speech, impressive and impassioned, was enough to bring some MP’s to tears. Already some have described the address as “truly historic.” Another MP trumpeted it as “one of the truly great speeches to be made in the House of Commons.”
Now whether the speech was quite up to ‘Churchillian standard’ is certainly up for debate. What cannot be questioned is that Benn raised the bar on the typical oratorical fare within the House of Commons. It cannot be contested either that the speech was influential. At least 15 MPs decided to vote for military action based upon Benn’s speech alone. This really is quite something: a speech that actually changes minds!
So what was it about the address that caused MPs to be moved, the press and public to be wowed?
Having watched the speech and read the transcript, I believe Benn followed a tried and tested formula. It is hard to pull off in practice, but the theory goes back to Aristotle (384BC). It was Aristotle who said that the art of persuasion is a combination three things – logos, ethos and pathos.
Logos refers to the sound-reasoning that a speech possesses. Ethos describes the speaker’s own credibility, while pathos denotes the speech’s emotional appeal. According to Aristotle, it when these three elements coalesce that you have the makings of a truly persuasive speech.
Hilary Benn’s address contained all three of these elements. First, his speech contained logos. There were facts, and there was reasoning, in copious amounts. Benn presented uncontested figures concerning the number of people so far killed by ISIS. He referred to the UN resolution that permits military action. He talked about the invitation France has given Britain to help with its cause. And he dealt with various objections to military action, seeking in each case to answer them.
Benn’s address also involved ethos. Benn is a respected Member of Parliament who has been in situ for 16 years. He has served in both the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet. Importantly he is presently the Shadow Foreign Secretary, suggesting that he is not a novice when it comes to foreign affairs. Who was giving the speech was part of the reason it succeeded. It is very much doubtful that a little-known back-bencher could have made the same impact that Benn did.
Finally, Benn’s speech possessed copious amounts of pathos. Whether you agreed with him or not, you could not deny his passion. Benn was lively in style, emotive with word-choice, and his gestures were an expression of his deep-seated feelings. It was critical for the speech’s impact that Benn clearly believed in what he was saying.
Taking a look at this from a Christian perspective, what might we learn? In one sense, we mustn’t rely on oratorical mechanics. Christians (and preacher’s particularly) have something more in their arsenal than Hilary Benn. As well as logos, ethos and pathos we must add into the mix theos. As we speak God’s Word, we believe that God himself works in our listener’s hearts and minds. By His Spirit, God convinces men and women of the things of Christ. We do not need to rely on a methodology proposed by Aristotle.
But neither do we need to discount these elements altogether. It can be argued, rather easily, that Peter, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus, exhibited logos, ethos and pathos in their preaching. Didn’t Paul communicate with logos? Didn’t Peter preach with pathos? Didn’t Jesus possess ethos?! Yes, yes and yes.
It is therefore the case that we need far more logos, ethos and pathos – not just in our parliaments, but in our churches and pulpits too.
According to John Stott, in his commentary on 2 Timothy 1:10, “the apostles formulated the gospel, preachers proclaim it like heralds, and teachers instruct people systematically in its doctrines and in its ethical implications.”
I, for one, am convinced that the role of Apostle has ceased within the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). On the other hand, there is a clear and ongoing need for the gospel to be both preached and taught. Until the end of the age, the world and the church needs preachers and teachers.
At one time it was fashionable to make a sharp distinction between preaching and teaching. Not least because of a certain CH Dodd, many churches took the view that one man would come to ‘preach’, another man to ‘teach’. The impression given was that a man could preach without teaching. Or visa-versa, he could teach without preaching.
The New Testament, however, is not so sharp in its division between preaching and teaching. Consider the following texts. They evidence the close relation between preaching and teaching:
“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28)
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 4:2, ESV)
“Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” (Acts 5:42)
“Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 28:31)
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17)
The way that Paul and his fellow apostles wedded preaching and teaching together should give us pause for thought. There is no New Testament divide between preaching and teaching.
This is not to say that we cannot distinguish between them at all. Preaching tends towards our proclamation of the gospel, whereas teaching is more our explanation of it. Its probably also true – following RC Sproul – that teaching leans towards the indicative, while preaching leans towards the imperative.
My take on this for pastors is this: we should find it difficult – almost impossible – to preach without teaching, or teach without preaching. We may find ourselves at times being expected to do more the one, than the other.
But in the pool of ignorance that is the 21st century, can we really preach intelligibly without considerable teaching being involved? And if we love the gospel, and those we teach it to, how could we ever stop at the didactic? Will we not leave our notes and declare the gospel-marvel?
Pastor, learn to say no!
Agreed. We need more resources to help with application.
"Perhaps a generation of preachers who are now old enough to be looked up to by younger men assumed that good application is vital, but didn’t talk about it much. And of course, as we know from other areas, what one generation assumes, the next often denies. These older preachers may well be terrific appliers of Scripture in their own sermons, but if that’s not something they talk excitedly about at length when they talk about preaching, the younger men are not likely to notice it."
Prepping expository messages
Steve Lawson has an excellent series of lectures on the ‘Mechanics of preparing an expository messages’. Here is one of them.
“If we hope to help our congregation develop a Christian mind, we have to develop one ourselves. And the only way to do this is to soak our mind in the Scriptures.” (John Stott)Tweet
One major point of difference is the way that a speaker must employ repetition. Repetition is not critical to the writer. But for speakers – and even more so for their hearers – repetition is crucial.
In a church setting, the person in the pew does not have the ability to rewind. There is no ‘catch up’ when it comes to the sermon. Listeners can’t return to the paragraph they failed to grasp. The preacher’s spoken words can easily, and permanently, be lost in the wind.
So the preacher restates his key ideas. He doesn’t assume that his listeners ‘got’ his idea the first time. He restates. He revisits. He re-emphasizes.
And though this practice is simple, it produces something profound. The preacher’s words don’t drift away so easily. Instead, they arrow their way towards people’s hearts. Repetition leads to clarity, conviction and change.
True, repetition can be overdone. The preacher who restates his ‘big idea’ 17 times tests his congregation beyond limits! Repeat, but don’t tire. Bear in mind that many ideas can be stated once. It is the really important ideas that bear repeating.
Recall too that repetition doesn’t necessarily mean exact restatement. We can restate the same concept but in varied and colorful language.
This is what the best preachers do. And its something that the rest of us, yours included, could do a little bit better.