Is Eloquence the Goal?

There is a lot of talk about the importance of eloquence in classical—even, and especially, classical Christian—education. But a story my pastor told recently set me to do, as Bertie Wooster would say, “some pretty tense thinking” about eloquence. To sum up my pastor’s experience, a man he was telling the Gospel to once expressed amazement that a Christian could be so “articulate”. At first, I made a note about the horror of so many inarticulate Christians. But I had drawn from the story exactly the wrong point: God does not need us to be articulate before He can use us to change someone’s heart. My pastor went on to say that the statement prompted him to rethink his attitude in sharing the Gospel, and his story prompted me to consider the importance placed on eloquence in the classical Christian curriculum.

The emphasis on eloquence should not flow from inconvenient remnants of pride—the desire to make oneself look good. In a meeting last week, a fellow Christian educator observed that classical Christian education seemed to promote “intellectual pride”, implying that it was therefore less valuable than a “plain” Christian education. The conversation moved on to other things before I could point out that a proper classical education—with a substantial discussion, like the one I had with some of my middle school students last spring, of Socrates’ Apology—should not promote intellectual pride, because a truly classical education should teach you how much you do not know. Similarly, a truly Christian education should teach you, as the Lord says in Jeremiah 9:23-24, that “him who boasts” should “boast in this, that he understands and knows Me”. Neither classical nor Christian education should leave the student proud of his oratorical skills.

Instead, it is more likely that classical Christian education’s emphasis on eloquence may come from—as it did in my own thoughts on the way to last weekend’s local homeschool expo—the desire to make the Gospel look good. Surely this, if any, is a righteous motive for eloquence. But it does not square with God’s own view of eloquence. Just as He is content to be seen on earth as “a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22:6), He is content to be spoken of on earth among men in our most rough-hewn phrases. St. Paul spends the first two chapters of I Corinthians reminding the Corinthians that he did not preach the Gospel to them in eloquent words. On the contrary:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (I Corinthians 2:1-5, emphasis mine)

The purpose of the “average” speaking ability of the Gospel-teller is to give the Gospel-hearer greater direction to trust in the Lord. Are we so proud as to put ourselves between a potential new believer and the Lord?

“But,” some—including myself—will ask, “what about St. Paul’s speech in Athens? Isn’t that a model evangelistic speech? What about the call to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Savior’ (Titus 2:10)? Doesn’t that mean we should present the Gospel well?”

To address St. Paul’s address first: Clearly, the speech is something we should want to imitate. It shows that St. Paul knows about the Greek culture and gives them something they relate to, using that to point them toward the Lord. It also shows that St. Paul says something they are doing right; they are extremely concerned about religion—their altar “to the unknown god” shows that they want to cover all their bases, and St. Paul’s arrival with the Gospel shows that the Lord was answering their prayers. It is short and a complete summary of the redemption story from Creation to Last Judgment.

Are its cultural literacy, politeness, brevity, and thoroughness things we should ignore? I do not believe so—if God allowed some of the Athenians to become believers through St. Paul’s evangelistic speech, and then included that speech in His word, it seems that He wants us to know about it.

However, I think we should be very cautious about making this speech our go-to model for evangelism or our go-to piece of Scriptural evidence supporting classical Christian education. St. Paul’s experience was only an echo of Christ’s experience: the most common response to the Gospel, except in extraordinary circumstances, seems to be rejection. In verse 18, the philosophers call the highly-educated (see Philippians 3) St. Paul a “babbler” because of the content of what he is saying; in verse 32, the men at the Areopagus mock him for talking about resurrection. St. Paul is not a bad speaker; the book of Acts is constantly noting how the Lord is giving St. Paul the ability to reason with and speak to all kinds of people, even those who really dislike him. But for all this facility with language, St. Paul is chased out of one town after the other. Well-used language, no matter how culturally literate or polite, does not necessarily draw people to Christ. It may be helpful, but it is not necessary. All that is needed for “successful” evangelism is the Lord’s gracious drawing of the hearer’s heart.

To address the call to “adorn the Gospel”, I would only note that the command is given to slaves who are to act well toward their masters. And this raises another portion of the classical Christian education debate that often seems de-emphasized: living well. We “adorn the Gospel” not necessarily with well-crafted words but with the Christ-like actions we take throughout every area of our lives. As the Lord declares in Jeremiah 9:24, “I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight”. These actions of God are the actions we should have in our own lives. “Eloquence” is not in this list. If we have steadfast love toward those who will be hearing our speaking of the Gospel, we will not allow our words to become the focus—we will ask God to help us stop being our own proud selves and allow God to place Himself as the focus of the words He is giving us.

To my fellow Christian classical educators, may the Lord help us to remember that a classical Christian education is good for many things—it can help us to learn a great deal about God’s world and His sovereignty over it, about how to speak and persuade, about how to be more thoughtful. But may the Lord also help us to remember that a classical Christian education—or indeed, any education at all—is not the most important knowledge we can have for ourselves or the most important knowledge we need for spreading the Gospel. What we need most is knowledge of the Lord Himself; He will spread His Gospel as He wills through us—He will give us the words. It is after all, the Gospel of Christ, not of Eloquent Christian.

Photo: Detail of the Raphael cartoon of St. Paul preaching in Athens