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Rhetoric as Apologetic- Can we learn from ancient apologetics?

apologetics-romanIn the ancient world, rhetoric was a major field of study. Briefly, classical rhetoric is the practice of discourse as a means to motivate, inform, persuade. It is hard to pin down to an exact degree what rhetoric is, but here we will use the term as broadly defined above.

Ancient Rhetoric in Apologetics

Mark Edwards, in “The Flowering of Latin Apologetic: Lactantius and Arnobius,” (cited below) examines the way these ancient apologists used rhetoric in their defense of the Christian faith. This involved demonstrating that Christians were educated over and against the notion that Christians were all slaves and fools. It also involved showing that Christians were the paragons of (Roman) society rather than people who overthrew society. They presented Christianity as an alternative way of thinking–a whole system which was to overthrow the Pagan thought of the time.

These different aspects of rhetoric in apologetics were specifically aimed at the audience of the time of Lactantius and Arnobius. Perhaps we can learn from their example.

Rhetoric in Apologetics Today

There are a number of ways we may apply rhetoric to apologetics today. One may argue that the use of memes is one (lowbrow) way of utilizing rhetoric in apologetics–making brief points in a provocative manner that brings forth further thought. How might we best use memes in apologetics? Are they even appropriate? These are questions that I will not delve into, but I think they are worth trying to work out for those involved in apologetics or interested in doing the same.

Another aspect of rhetoric which may be integrated into today’s apologetic is the continued deflection of charges from non-Christians against the faith. Specifically, some allege that Christians are stupid. Like Lactantius and Arnobius, we may feel free to flourish the names of Christian scholars through time and into today. Christians cannot truly be classified as necessarily stupid or foolish when they continually work in the highest levels of academia.

Rhetoric in apologetics seems as though it may necessarily be focused on the “low hanging fruit” like the examples given above. I’m not convinced this is the case, nor am I convinced that this is a valid objection to its use. Regarding the latter point, surely if charges are made against Christians necessarily being foolish or lacking education, a valid response is to demonstrate how this is false. The use of memes is frequently effective, though we must be wary of their tendency to oversimplify.

Regarding the former point–that rhetoric is not necessarily focused on “low hanging fruit,” I would note that in many ways, a convincing case depends on how it is presented. Moreover, as Christians we are called to present our case in a way that will put us above reproach in character. If we’re able to eloquently present a case, then perhaps more will consider the case itself. I’m not suggesting we try to obfuscate, but we should try to work to present our case in a winsome manner that utilizes the best scholarship, the most current language, and integrates the fewest possible errors (and this includes typos and spelling errors–something of which I am guilty, I’m sure).

Moreover, Lactantius and Arnobius were both clearly concerned with the imminent attacks on Christianity. They weren’t seeking to anticipate and shoot down future problems so much as they were dealing with the current attacks on their faith. Perhaps we can take this as a call to focus on the issues which face Christianity today ourselves. Like them, we need to confront the most popular of our naysayers and utilize the best scholarship in order to refute criticisms of Christianity.


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Mark Edwards, “The Flowering of Latin Apologetic: Lactantius and Arnobius” in Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 1999).



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