St. Paul and Poor Preaching: A Warning against Superficiality

061214For many years when I was growing up,  the image I had of St. Paul was of a bold evangelist who went from town to town teaching and preaching about Christ in powerful fashion. I imagined people mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.

Recently, though, I have altered my view just a bit based on Scriptural descriptions of Paul I have read. I have no doubt that he was a brilliant theologian. Paul 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 I imagine that this fervor was reflected on his face as he preached and taught. But it would seem that Paul was not in fact recognized as a particularly gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture along with some commentary by me in red.

  1. 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 to glean from this passage is that people regarded 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.
  2. 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 even clearer evidence that some (though surely not all or even most) thought 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, since it is Paul himself who is reporting this, he may well 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.
  3. 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 somewhat like the revivalists of today. Here too is more evidence that Paul was not possessed of great oratorical skill. He seems to admit this freely, but refuses to concede that he is inferior to anyone in the knowledge of the faith.
  4. 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 claims no clever oratorical skill but actually underscores his lack of eloquence to emphasize that the power is in the Cross of Christ.
  5. 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 the young man, sitting on a window sill, falls three flights to his death. Paul then runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work, I guess!)  Finally, Paul returns to complete the Mass. It is a humorous and touching anecdote in many ways, but it is also a story that illustrates that Paul could be somewhat 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. And maybe He can speak through you as well.

Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I work very hard to develop my preaching skills. I think the people of God deserve this. But in the end, none of us should ignore the fact that God can speak in and through the humblest of 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, and was committed to walk thousands of miles and endure horrible sufferings so that he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen. Paul was also a natural leader and one of the most fruitful evangelizers the Church has ever known. We tend to prize oratorical skill and personality rather highly, but there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and charisma.

Our TV-based, media-centered culture has come to focus primarily on personal magnetism and the ability to “turn a phrase.” The ability to communicate well is surely a great gift, but there are many others as well. In valuing certain gifts over others we risk superficiality and injustice. The Church needs all our gifts.

What gifts do you have that God can use?

This song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.”

5 Replies to “St. Paul and Poor Preaching: A Warning against Superficiality”

  1. Agreed, Father Pope. In fact, my reading of the Paul accounts in Acts shows a man devoted to Truth in Jesus Christ, but barely able to get a public sermon out of his mouth without initiating controversy, opposition and eventually public disturbances. Certainly Truth took no second place to diplomacy and “marketing” in Paul’s work. Maybe there’s a lesson in that….

  2. This should be taken to heart by those who are not actual “preachers”, too. We each have a roll to play in spreading the Gospel, and though we know it is actually God’s work, we have the responsibility to know what the Church teaches so that we can pass it along accurately.
    There is not much worse than having someone wax eloquent but be theological mistaken.

  3. Thank you! I find, when it comes to religion, I can write much better than I speak. In fact I often trip over my own words when trying to talk to an under-believer, but have little trouble getting my thoughts out in writing. I thought there was something wrong with me.

    Now I know this is just God’s plan for me and I should just go with it.

    Great article as usual, Msgr!

  4. There is a parallel to my situation.

    I have a verbal disability in that I am a very poor speaker and have no drawing power there – I put people to sleep or they tune out (google “alogia” as one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia) – ** but strangely, even though I have a disability in ordinary talk, I am a gifted lector.

    However, I feel that I am powerful and gifted in a certain dimension and topic of writing.

    With that gift and the gift of praying for several hours daily (because of disability, I cannot work, so that frees up the time and energy), the Lord has called me to a given task in His vineyard.

    N.b. I have heard you talk via YouTube Father, and you are gifted in both writing and speaking.

  5. So we have St. Paul to thank for the origin of the expression, Bored to death.”

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