Is It Possible that St. Paul Was a "Poor Preacher?" A Brief Meditation on Superficiality

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.

  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 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.
  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 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.
  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 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.
  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 admits of 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 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.”

10 Replies to “Is It Possible that St. Paul Was a "Poor Preacher?" A Brief Meditation on Superficiality”

  1. This is something I’ve wondered about. My feeling is that Paul’s presence and preaching were imposing. And I suspect his personality was divisive in the sense that people were either attracted to or repulsed by him. I doubt many were neutral about him. Paul is often self-deprecating about his abilities and worthiness but I tend to see this as stance taken by Paul so that the credit and glory of his ministry is (properly) given to God. Could any sincere Christian really claim otherwise? Luke’s accounts of Paul’s oratory in chapters 22 to 26 of Acts (Paul before the mob, the Sanhedrin, Felix and Agrippa) suggest that he knew how to work a crowd.

  2. What a great post. Though just an amateur exegete myself, do you think that it is reasonable to believe that rhetoric was so important in Hellenic civilization that to speak out in public like he did, on such important matters, may have actually seemed utterly contemptible (unlike today!)?

  3. What a brillant piece father! I feel perhaps Christ who knows his way out of the grave (like GKC says) used his letters – perhaps after his beheading – to unleash the power of the Holy Spirit. And pehaps people, evangelized by his meekness and later his heroic martydom – went back to his words and were transformed by it.

  4. 1. The trouble with material science is it cannot read metaphors or between the lines… It appeals to the rational thinkers…

  5. “I who (you say) am humble when present in your midst, but bold toward you when absent.” Does this remind anybody else of Pope Benedict? Because he will not compromise the truth, he is much reviled for being “bold when absent”, but by all accounts his gentleness comes across much more strongly when he is met in person.

    As for “the cleverness of human eloquence”, my impression is that this refers to the superficial conventions of rhetoric, not to how well-conceived or convincing his arguments really were. One can imagine a composer who writes great music but cannot sing his own songs well; do you listen just close enough to hear that the song is sung badly, or closely enough to hear the beautiful new song that just needs a better singer?

  6. St. Paul’s failure in Athens is another example of his probable lack of speaking skills.

  7. I had an opportunity to hear Charles Colson preach. He is a short, slightly homely looking man. The huge church space around us resonated with the power of the Holy Spirit. A large number of ex-convicts were in attendance. Grace, prayer, attention, respect throbbed in the atmosphere. I kept thinking over and over again, this is what it was like to listen to Paul. Even as I write these few lines I experience the Holy Spirit Presence in a tangible way. I cannot remember much Charles Colson said that evening, but I have always known that the Holy Spirit filled the whole place where we were. The gifts given to Paul continue to be given in our time.

  8. If God gave you an outpouring of grace every time you were the word He explicitly used to respond directly to the cry of my heart or confirm a word, you’d be consistently saturated in graces from this alone!

  9. Well, I’m no expert. In fact, I may be a fool. I’m just a humble Episcopalian trying to love God and my neighbor the best I can. However, having some vague familiarity with rhetoric and formal forms of argument, I see St. Paul as a very clever debater who lures the reader in with admissions of inadequicies. Then, when he has you all softened up and comfortable, he brings his real argument, full of wisdom and God’s glory.

    Personally, I think pure exegesis is roughly impossible. I think the perfection of Holy Scripture isn’t in a homogenized understanding (it’s not a Haynes auto manual for the soul), but its ability to say so much to so many without being recieved identically.

    My favorite collect, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

    May the Lord be with you always and keep you in everlasting life!

  10. It’s not the messenger so much that matters as it is the message that counts. What is God trying to tell us through St. Paul? What is God trying to say through us? Do we have the message right? St. Paul spent several years in study and meditation before he began his mission. While most of us do cannot do quite that, every Christian must spend some time (according to one’s state in life) every day in study and meditation. Even 15 minutes can make a huge difference, and then, of course, we must let the Holy Spirit carry us to where He wants us to go. It’s pretty exciting.

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