For many years, growing up, my usual image of St. Paul was of a bold preacher and teacher who went from town to town powerfully teaching and preaching on Christ. I imagined people mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.
In the years since seminary however I have altered my view just a bit based on Scriptural descriptions of Paul. I have no doubt that he was a brilliant theologian. He was reputed to have been one of the greatest students of one of the greatest Rabbis of that time, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). I have no doubt as to his zeal for Christ and that this zeal must have been reflected on his face as he preached and taught. But it would seem that Paul was not considered a remarkably gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture along with some commentary by me in RED.
- Now I myself, Paul, urge you through the gentleness and clemency of Christ, I who (you say) am humble when present in your midst, but bold toward you when absent…..(2 Cor 10:1) The key element of this passage is that people regard Paul as rather humble and quiet in person but in contrast quite bold and assertive in his letters. This does not paint the picture of a fearsome and bold preacher.
- For someone will say, “His [Paul’s] letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor 10:10) Here is clearer evidence that some (surely not all or most) though of Paul’s presence and preaching as weak and of no account. The Greek phrase λόγος ἐξουθενημένος (logos exouthenhmenos) translated here as “speech contemptible” can also be translated as “words or speech of no account”, or “a word or speech to be despised” Now, of course, Paul himself is reporting this and may be overstating the perception of his preaching out of a kind of humility. But, here again, is more evidence that Paul may not have been a highly gifted or bold preacher, at least from a worldly perspective.
- For I think that I am not in any way inferior to these “superapostles.” Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things (2 Cor 11:5-6) The exact identity of the “superapostles” is debated but there is wide consensus that Paul does not mean here the Apostles chosen by Christ. Rather he likely refers to itinerant preachers who were well known for their oratorical skills. Some of them may have been Judaizers who opposed Paul. But it would seem that these skilled orators could draw a crowd. Perhaps they are like the revivalists of today. Here too is more evidence that Paul was not possessed of great oratorical skill. He seems to admit this but refuses to admit that he is inferior to anyone in the knowledge of the faith.
- For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning…..(1 Cor 1:17). Again Paul admits of no clever oratorical skill but actually underscores his lack of eloquence to emphasize that the power is in the Cross of Christ.
- On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight…..Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread(Acts 20:7-11) 🙂 Note that Luke describes Paul as preaching “on and on.” The sermon seems to have put the young Eutychus right to sleep and he, sitting in a window sill, fell three flights to his death. Paul runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work!) He then returns to complete the Mass. A humorous and touching story in many ways but one that also illustrates that perhaps Paul could go on and on and be soporific.
So it would seem that Paul was not possessed of great oratorical skill. This may surprise us given his astonishing missionary accomplishments. But we must avoid superficiality in understanding the power of God’s Word. The power is in God. The battle is the Lord’s. We may all prefer to listen to great orators who can bring the house down. But God can write straight with crooked lines. He can make a way out of no way. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey (cf Num 22:21), maybe he can speak through me too. Maybe he can speak through you.
Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I strive to work very hard to develop my skills. I think the people of God deserve this. But in the end none of us should ignore that God can speak in and through the humblest people and circumstances. Paul may not have had all the rhetorical skills we think he should have had. But he was possessed of many other gifts. He was a brilliant theologian, had amazing zeal and energy, was committed to walk thousands of miles and endure horrible sufferings if only he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen. He was also a natural leader and one of the most fruitful evangelizers the Church has ever known. We rather highly prize oratorical skill and personality. But there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and personality.
Our TV based media centered culture has come to focus primarily on personality and word-smithing. The ability to communicate is surely a great gift but there are many others as well. In prizing certain gifts over others we risk superficiality and injustice. The Church needs all the gifts.
What gifts do you have that God can use?
This song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.”