Wilson, Douglas, and Nathan D. Wilson. The Rhetoric Companion: A Student's Guide to Power in Persuasion. Moscow, Idaho: Canon, 2011.
Lesson 1, “Biblical Wisdom and Rhetoric” pp. 11-15.
Wilson begins this lesson by questioning whether rhetoric needs to be defended. If it is something condemned by Scripture it should be rejected. Yet possibly it needs no justification. Rhetorical studies have been suspect as long ago as the time of Socrates. Yet there may be a distinction between rhetoric and sophistry.
“Rhetoric as a formal subject is the third part of the classical Trivium - grammar, dialectic and then rhetoric. It is almost at the halfway point in the seven liberal arts, the last four being the Quadrivium - arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. As a formal subject of study, it attracts less opposition. But as an informal whipping boy, rhetoric has become synonymous with ‘sophistry,’ meaning some kind of chicanery with words, or empty rhetoric” (Wilson 2011, 11).
Wilson contrasts the responsible use of rhetoric with sophistry, though he does not define sophistry very adequately. Yet using a working definition of “empty rhetoric” he takes an extended quote from the Bible (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:13) to illuminate the biblical condemnation, not of the rhetoric, but of its emptiness.
“In a word, Paul is rejecting human autonomy in rhetoric. He is opposing every form of humanism in the art of using words well” (Ibid., 13). In this very same paragraph, Wilson uses the term “autonomy” in apposition to “the myth of neutrality.” There is no explanation attached to this idea in his text. Wilson goes on to contrast the “foolishness of preaching” with “enticing words of man’s wisdom” (Ibid., 14). His point is that the Christian view of rhetoric is aimed at truth, even if that truth is not the most enticing or even plausible message available. This is in distinction to the pagan rhetoric which would seek persuasion at all costs.
Wilson then moves to his “working definition of rhetoric: the art of a good man speaking well” (Ibid.). In practice, this means that the Christian speaks honestly, in accord with Scripture. The words and thoughts should also be arranged in a pleasant and appropriate way.