Fine style does not make something true, nor has a man a wise soul because he has a handsome face and well-chosen eloquence…. He seemed to them prudent and wise because he charmed them by the way he talked.
Saint Augustine of Hippo was a well-educated man. Before he converted to Christianity, rhetoric and public speaking formed a sort of idol in his life. He loved listening to good speakers, he constantly sought to be a better speaker, and he valued eloquence so highly that he didn’t always care what was actually being said, as long as it was said well. And yet, he was also aware that eloquence does not make something true. His quote, above, may be an obvious truth, but it’s prudent wisdom for us today, too. How often we follow someone because of how they look and how they sound. If we like a person, or a person’s style, we find ourselves much more apt to accept what they have to say.
This is an issue for many Christians today, especially in the revivalist and megachurch movements, and the many churches affected by them. There is an idea, in many people’s minds, that a good gospel preacher is loud, engaging, enthralling, captivating. A good preacher will “blow the doors down” and people will come flocking to hear him. This is an appeal to eloquence or emotionalism (or both), which easily ends up overlooking substance and content. As long as people come forward at the altar call to “give their lives to Jesus”, the preacher has done his job.
There is a shallowness in our attention and our desires that is very easy to give in to. Augustine grew painfully aware of this in himself, leading up to his conversion to Christianity, and he found this lesson an important consideration throughout his Christian life and ministry as well.
Interestingly, there are also people who realize this shallow tendency to follow blindly a good and polished speaker, and react to it in the opposite extreme, actually mistrusting eloquent speakers. In Augustine’s day, there were some Christians who thought that preaching and teaching should be simple and straight-forward. Eloquence was an idol and a distraction, these people asserted. But Augustine recognized eloquence and style as tools that could be used for good or for ill.
Already I had learnt from you [God] that nothing is true merely because it is eloquently said, nor false because the signs coming from the lips make sounds deficient in a sense of style. Again, a statement is not true because it is enunciated in a an unpolished idiom, nor false because the words are splendid. Wisdom and foolishness are like food that is nourishing or useless. Whether the words are ornate or not does not decide the issue.
This is the balanced lesson, I think. Wisdom is nourishing food; foolishness is useless food. If we proclaim the Gospel with simplicity, God’s wisdom is there. If we proclaim the Gospel with eloquence, God’s wisdom is there. Eloquence is only a tool; we may use it or not, but we can never celebrate it as an end unto itself.
If your pastor is an exciting and engaging speaker, listen carefully to what he actually teaches.
If your pastor is kind of a boring preacher, listen carefully to what he actually teaches.
Both quotes above are from the Confession of Saint Augustine, book V section vi.(10), which is on page 78 in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, 1998.