Philippians as a Model for Preaching

(This is Neil) Since Todd has been providing excerpts from and commentary on Fulfilled in Your Hearing, I thought that I’d contribute a short post on preaching. And, since it is the Year of St Paul, and Philippians 2 makes two close appearances in the lectionary for September, I thought that I’d post on St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians as a model for preaching. The following is indebted to an article by James W. Thompson from last year’s Interpretation.

First, we should review the context of Philippians. Paul’s epistle was addressed to a vulnerable community. The Christian community, Thompson tells us, was a “remarkable experiment in a world in which groups were normally united by family ties, professional associations, or ethnicity.” Furthermore, the Christian belief that “Jesus is Lord,” as NT Wright tells us, “could not but be construed as counterimperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.” Even if he expected punishment, the jailed Paul now has to reassure the anxious Philippians, themselves plagued by adversaries and false teachers, that his imprisonment has “helped to advance the gospel” (Phil 1:12) and is not a disaster.

How does he preach to them? Thompson suggests that Paul’s letter falls into the recognizable genre of the “ancient letter of friendship.” Paul uses the common definition of friendship as two bodies with one soul – bodies that possess all things in common – in order to urge the Philippians to remain “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). They are to rejoice together and share their love with one another. He constantly repeats the word phronein, which literally means “to have an opinion,” “think,” or “set one’s mind on,” but can also mean “insight” or “inner reflection.” Thompson says that, in politics or military affairs, phronein could even refer to a “common loyalty.” When Paul urges the Philippians to “have this mind” – “attitude” in the NAB (touto phronein, Phil 2:5), he is trying to unite the vulnerable Philippians around one particular “insight,” “loyalty” and “attitude”: the self-emptying of the Jesus who is Lord. Paul shows us that preachers must unify a fragile congregation by illustrating this common “mind” in Jesus Christ. That is the basis for Christian friendship. The preacher, we can say, must never leave his congregation with a fellowship merely based on shared ideology, principles, programs, or moral examples. These things, however worthy, can become twisted through our fear of death into self-protective fantasies (see my posts here and here). Put bluntly, we need an entirely new way of thinking. The preacher must bring his congregation with Christ to the foot of the cross, so that they might grasp that death is not a final shame and humiliation and then see the world through this new “insight,” “loyalty” and “attitude” (see my post here).

We can now look at how Paul argues. We can see coherence in the letter’s composition if we glance at rhetoric handbooks. Paul uses all three kinds of common argument. His long autobiographical sections – “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7); “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient” (Phil 4:11) – are arguments from ethos, or character. Paul also makes arguments from pathos, or emotion. As Aristotle, from whom this identification of three modes of persuasion comes (see Rhetoric 1356a), tells us, “persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions,” making them “pleased and friendly.” Thus, Paul assures the Philippians that he “shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:25), and will reassure them again and again of his love for them. Finally, Paul makes arguments from cognition, or logos. These arguments are rooted in the “mind” revealed by Christ: God exalts those who empty themselves, even to the point of death. Paul shows us that preachers must “recognize that complexity of the communication process” by integrating the modes of argumentation. A good preacher must know how to present himself as credible, has to understand the emotions of the congregation, and should be able to reason logically. A sermon can be ruined if the deacon seems arrogant, unfair, or unduly concerned about the wealth and influence of the church. A sermon can be ruined if the priest is either boring or overly melodramatic. A sermon can be given by a good preacher, contain compelling stories, but still be tarnished through painfully poor or incomplete reasoning.

Paul also shows his mastery of rhetoric in his arrangement of the letter. Paul asks his listeners to “with one mind struggle together” in the first chapter, after an opening thanksgiving (Phil 1:27), and returns to the athletic metaphor in the fourth chapter (synathlountes means to “be athletes together”), noting that Euodia and Syntyche “have struggled at my side” (Phil 4:3), before finally ending with a final thanksgiving. These passages serve to bind his arguments together in an inclusio. Paul also follows classical rhetoric in including an exordium (to introduce the topic and favorable dispose his audience), narratio (to cover the history of the case), propositio (thesis), probatio (proofs), and peroratio (summation and final emotional appeal). (Perhaps a refutatio was not necessary here.) These elements give his letter an overall structure. The exordium clearly states his goal – that, in this time of difficulties, the Philippians should become friends in Christ with more love, discernment, and righteousness – and favorably disposes his listeners by telling them that he holds them in his heart (Phil 1:6-11). Paul then continues with an autobiographical narratio, which argues from both ethos and pathos. Illustrating the situation, he tells the Philippians that although he is in prison, he is still able to rejoice, because his imprisonment contributes to the spread of the gospel, and he cares nothing for himself.

Paul then clearly lays down his thesis: the Philippians, despite their enemies and hardships, must remain “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). How? Why? Paul argues for this thesis in the probatio, using examples. The Philippians are to be friends, with one mind, because this is the mind of Christ, who emptied himself but was then exalted by God. Paul gives other examples for them to follow: Timothy, Epaphroditus, and, as we might expect from the narratio, Paul himself. “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us” (Phil 3:17). In the peroratio, Paul returns to his themes – the Philippians must struggle together, and rejoice together with Paul. Paul reminds them that he is a model for them because he has adopted the mind of Christ, knowing “indeed how to live in humble circumstances” (Phil 4:12) as well as abundance, because Christ strengthens him. He can share in and model the deepening friendship in the midst of hardship to which they are called. Paul then thanks the Philippians once again. Paul, obviously, has presented a developed and compelling argument. He has, among other things, presented a thesis and proven the thesis by showing how it has been actualized in real life. The preacher, we can say, must never be disorganized. Paul also shows us how the use of examples can make an argument persuasive, whether the examples come from the life of Jesus, the saints, or even autobiography.

There are other ways in which Philippians can be a model to the preacher. Professor Thompson notes that Paul uses a hymn in the second chapter, “That Paul appeals to a hymn open possibilities for the preacher insofar as the hymn has a specific rhetoric effect on the listener.” He also notes that the prominent placement of the hymn is only possible because it “recalls the entire Christian story.”

What can we learn about preaching from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians? I think that we can summarize with two points:

1. The preacher can only unify his congregation with the “mind of Christ”

2. The preacher should be familiar with classical rhetoric.

What do you think? How do they teach rhetoric in seminaries?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Philippians as a Model for Preaching

  1. FrMichael says:

    “2. The preacher should be familiar with classical rhetoric.”

    Not in the seminary I attended. With the large number of ESL seminarians, just teaching the basics of English grammar, both spoken and written, was difficult enough.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks for writing, although what you say is really depressing. How do they preach?


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