What role does persuasion play in communicating Christian truth to people?
To engage in Christian apologetics is to enter into the enterprise of personal persuasion. When apologists defend the faith it is for the purpose of persuading people of the truth of historic Christianity. But what actually goes into making a good case of persuasion in general and for Christian apologetics in particular?
Rhetoric is the field of discourse aimed at persuasion. And persuasion is involved in many critical areas of life such as education, law, science, politics, and religion, including Christian efforts at evangelism and apologetics. However, too often people associate rhetoric with disingenuous attempts to sway people through slick manipulation—but abuse doesn’t rule out the proper use of rhetoric.
Five basic elements have come to be accepted as legitimate tools of persuasion. While these broad principles were first systematized by pre-Christian Greek philosophers, the modes of persuasion themselves are generally evidenced in Scripture.
Classical Philosophy’s Five Modes of Rhetorical Influence
Two of the greatest rhetoricians in history were the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) and the Christian thinker St. Augustine (AD 354–430). As prolific authors of antiquity, Aristotle wrote the classic Treatise on Rhetoric and Augustine wrote On Christian Doctrine, which described a distinctly Christian use of rhetoric. Here are the five Greek words bearing on the topic of rhetoric and my application of them to the field of Christian apologetics:
1. Ethos (Gk: ἔθος): The Persuasion of Character
The Greek word ethos means character. And a critical element in the persuasion process is whether the person making the case is credible. Many people will not listen to arguments for or against a position until they know the person giving them can be trusted. Thus, being an inviting, trustworthy, and reliable person conveys believability. When it comes to apologetics encounters, demonstrating an intellectual code of conduct by handling competing positions with accuracy and fairness builds credibility. Maintaining a respectful tone and avoiding inflammatory language evinces trustworthiness. And appealing to the most reliable and credible sources in supporting a position also helps establish authority. Finally, candidly identifying a position’s possible weaknesses shows that the person presenting the case cares more about truth than merely winning an argument.
2. Pathos (Gk: πάθος): The Persuasion of Feeling
The Greek word pathos refers to feelings and emotions. This is the root of words like empathy and sympathy. The appeal to the passions seeks to illustrate just why the reader or listener should care about the topic or argument being presented. Human beings are both thinkers and feelers. So persuasive writers and speakers often utilize vivid imagery (metaphors, storytelling, etc.) in order to provoke feeling and thus awaken the depths of emotion. Appealing to the deep shared values, beliefs, and needs of an audience can ground emotional appeals. However, it’s best to avoid manipulative emotional appeals that can backfire and turn people off.
3. Logos (Gk: λόγος): The Persuasion of Reason
From the Greek word logos we get the English word logic, which reflects persuasion through reason and argument. While credibility and passion are powerful elements in persuasion, a person must ultimately ground his or her case in solid reason. A logical coherence must run through the entire position. And arguments should be well supported with evidence, facts, and reasons. Logical appeal alone may not persuade all people, but its absence will certainly persuade none.
4. Taxis (Gk: τάξις): Persuasion of Structure
The word taxis refers to structure or arrangement. Order carries with it a certain sense of coherence. So an apologetics presentation should contain an organization that reflects a logical order. Interestingly, Aristotle defined logic as “ordered thought.”
5. Lexis (Gk: λέξις): Persuasion of Style
Finally, the Greek word lexis conveys style. In speech and writing this is sometimes described as “putting the right word in the right place.” In an apologetics context it means delivering words in a concise and careful manner. Sometimes apologetics speakers and writers say too much instead of leaving the listener tantalized and wanting more.
In Scripture, we generally see these five principles mentioned with regard to apologetics. The apostle Peter instructs Christians to be ready to give reasons for their faith but accompanied by gentleness, respect, and a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:15–17). The apostle Paul is described as reasoning about the faith and seeking to persuade non-Christians of its truth (Acts 18:4) as well as dismantling arguments marshaled against the faith (2 Corinthians 10:5). He also appeals to the collective beliefs, values, and needs of human beings (Acts 17:22–31) but insists that a Christian’s conduct and speech with others should reflect grace and wisdom (Colossians 4:5–6). And in Jude 3, the author speaks of the need for Christians to contend for the faith.
God’s transformative grace ultimately persuades people of Christian truth (Acts 13:48). But these five elements can serve as a means to God’s ends in evangelistic and apologetic encounters.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which of the five Greek words carries the most appeal with you? Why?
- For more on rhetoric, see Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak How to Listen (New York: Touchstone, 1983).