Not with Wisdom of Words: Nonrational Persuasion in the New TestamentBy Gary S. Selby (Eerdmans, 2016).

It is not always that one finishes a book in almost-a-single sitting with delight. Especially not one on hermeneutics. Well, I did this one, on a flight across the Atlantic.

Selby, Professor of Ministerial Formation at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, has written this book focusing on how the NT authors “use language to bring their audiences into an imaginative, visceral experience of … truth” (viii). This is in opposition to other communication modalities that merely inform and explain, but not inspire: they aim for intellectual conviction than imaginative experience.

Chapter 1 delineates a history of rhetoric relating to the NT, a recent turn after decades of “research that focused on uncovering the layers of form and tradition”—an “‘archaeology of discourse’” (or, as I call it, a hermeneutic of excavation) (3). “By contrast, rhetorical scholars aimed … at exploring how the texts might have functioned persuasively for the audiences to whom they were directed” (and the ones in the future that were clearly part of authorial intention) (3). Such an approach counters the “tendency to reduce a potent, imaginative vision to mere propositional argument in a way that marginalizes or even dismisses the central feature of the discourse, that is, its experiential, visionary character” (5–6). While Selby restricts his proposal to “the poetic texts of the NT,” exemplified in chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, I would argue that every pericope of every genre of every book of Scripture is implicitly “poetic” in this sense, for all texts (or their authors) do things with what they say and propound a new world-vision, a vision of God’s ideal world, a world in front of the text that God invites his people to inhabit. Falling in love with that vision, one lives in accordance to it, aligning oneself to its demands. “These texts were not aimed at convincing but, rather, at inducing ‘ekstasis,’ literally, transport, carrying their listeners into an alternative realm of reality, an experience that would fundamentally change their orientation in the physical and social worlds in which they lived” (16–17). Indeed, “much of the human response to the world … is visceral, a ‘gut reaction,’ arising not from conscious intellectual processes [alone] but from what the Scripture calls the kardia, the heart” (11). This is what the text is doing, and for the interests of the readers of this Journal, this is the role of the sermon: to depict the world portrayed by the text and to arouse a passion for that world! Such communication, especially that geared towards application as is all of Scripture, is always “poetic” in function. And the consequence of such “poetic” communication and engagement of the audience is that it “may be awakened to realities of human existence hitherto unacknowledged, to certain kinds of self-knowledge, and to new ways of seeing the world” (27).

In chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5, Selby considers four NT “poetic” texts: 1 Thess 4:13–18; Rom 7:14–25; 1 Cor 13; Eph 1:3–14—a careful analysis of those passages’ language and structure—instances of “the NT’s use of mimesis in its efforts to inculcate a Christian worldview”—the world in front of the text (41). While observations are carefully made—though a bit more integration into a unified sense of what the author is doing with what he is saying would have helped—the author offers a creditable and convincing accounting of these passages.

Chapters 6 and 7 bring the book to a close with a cogent discussion of the implications for such an approach (an annoying misspelling of John Bunyan’s name, notwithstanding). Selby discusses how poetic form alters the three fundamental relationships of the rhetorical encounter: the relationship of audience to content (holistic adoption of the vision-content, not just its intellectual apprehension), of rhetor to audience (poetics has the rhetor almost avoiding direct address to the audience and not drawing attention to himself, rather pointing to the vision, and becoming a joint participant with the audience), and of audience members to one another (poetics tends to “create” communities through language that evokes shared emotional states, and that invites listeners to “become” an ideal audience). I found myself extrapolating these notions to the preaching situation: the audience experiencing the world in front of the text, the preacher being the curator of the text-picture and not the painter, and the formation of the audience into a congregational community by the act of preaching in the context of worship. Much grist for the mill here, and worthy of more exploration! In sum: Not with Wisdom of Words comes with a “must-read” recommendation for all preachers!

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 17.2 (2017): 55–57

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