For many years, the image I had of St. Paul was that of a bold evangelist who went from town to town teaching and preaching powerfully about Christ. I envisioned his audience mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.
I ultimately altered my view a bit based on scriptural descriptions, some of which we are currently reading in the Office of Readings. 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 the time, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). I also do not question his zeal for Christ, and I can picture that fervor reflected on his face as he preached and taught. However, it would seem that Paul was not in fact recognized as a particularly gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture:
- 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 in person but in contrast quite bold and assertive in his letters. This does not paint the picture of a bold, fearsome 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 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 “words or speech to be despised.” Of course, because Paul himself is reporting this, he may well be exaggerating the perception of his preaching out of a kind of humility. However, this is further 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 identity of the “superapostles” is debated, but there is wide agreement that it does not refer to the twelve apostles chosen by Christ. Rather, Paul is likely alluding to itinerant preachers of the time, most of whom were well known for their oratorical skills. Some of them may have been Judaizers who opposed Paul, but it would seem that they could draw a crowd. Perhaps they are somewhat like the revivalists of today. Paul seems to acknowledge that he is not a great speaker but refuses to concede that he is inferior to anyone in 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).
Paul claims no “clever” oratorical skill; rather, he 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).
Luke describes Paul as talking “on and on.” The sermon seems to have put the young Eutychus right to sleep, and results in his falling three flights to his death. Paul runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work, I guess!) Paul then goes back upstairs to complete the Mass. It is a humorous and touching anecdote in many ways, but it is also a story that illustrates the somewhat soporific effect of Paul’s preaching.
So, it would seem that Paul did not possess great oratorical. This is somewhat surprising 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 His. We may prefer to listen to skilled speakers, but God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey (see Num 22:21), He can speak through us, too.
Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I work hard to develop my preaching skills because I think the people of God deserve this. In the end, though, none of us should ignore the fact that God can speak in and through the humblest of people and in the most unlikely circumstances. Paul may not have had the rhetorical skills we think he should have had, but he was blessed with many other gifts. He was a brilliant theologian, had amazing zeal and energy, and was committed enough 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 force of personality, but there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and charisma.
Our culture—particularly since the advent of television, radio, and the Internet—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 injustice and superficiality. The Church needs all our gifts.
What gifts do you have? God can use them!
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Was St. Paul a Poor Preacher?