Friday, June 05, 2009

Christian discourse

Reading through his introduction to Jude, I see that Gene Green confirms something I’ve been saying for years: the use of judgmental, ad hominem language to characterize your theological opponents is a part of Biblical discourse. As such, there’s no reason to treat this mode of discourse as inherently unchristian or unscriptural. Of course, certain conditions must be met to justify this usage.

“We can recognize in Jude’s rhetorical strategy the use of techniques common to vituperatio, the ‘rhetoric of slander’ (Johnson 1989: 420), which was the counterpoint to laudatio, the praise of noble character and deeds. As du Toit (1994: 403) observes, ‘Vilifying your opponent, like praising your addressees, has through the centuries been a useful persuasive weapon from the arsenal of a skilled speaker or writer.’ Vituperatio was a recognized skill that was even taught to students or rhetoric,” G. Green, Jude & 2 Peter (Baker 2008), 20-21).

“Jude’s rhetorical strategy is clearly formative as well. He wants the readers to continue in Christian virtue and avoid the vice of the heretics. He does not intend to persuade the heretics. In vituperatio, a person would employ well-known topoi in the denunciation of others…These themes were so well used that they even became part of the syllabus of rhetoric. Jewish rhetoric likewise employed vilification for similar ends…the categories used in Jewish rhetoric were quite similar to the gentile counterparts, even among Palestinian Jews (Johnson 1989:434-41),” ibid. 21.

“In light of ancient techniques of vilification, how should we read Jude’s denunciation of his opponents? Analyzing Jude along with 2 Peter in the light of speech act theory, du Toit (1994: 403) states, ‘For many a long day the performative dimension of language has been neglected in favor of the propositional. This is also true for NT studies. We have too long neglected the fact that in one way or another each of these writings seeks to persuade its readers/audience in a certain direction. To ask what a NT text is doing is at least as important as asking what it is saying.” He concludes, “Ideological literature works with contrasts; it does not seek the neutral middle-field. It creates heroes and villains’,” ibid. 21-22.

“So while the standard denunciations were employed in vituperatio, they could become specific when directed at a particular case. This is precisely what happens in Jude…Jude employs these conventional charges in ways specific to the situation his readers faced,” ibid. 22.


  1. "Christian Discourse"

    Hmmmmmmm, this blog post seems so opposed to what I've read last year in "An Evangelical Manifesto" which was championed by Os Guiness and others to push forward more charity and civility in Christian discourse whilst engaging with fellow Christians and with the general culture.

    What guidelines are there to know when to employ vituperatio and when not to?

    "Of course, certain conditions must be met to justify this usage."

    What are those conditions? (Not that I seek or am eager to use vituperatio, but when would it be justified.)

  2. Remember that, as Green points out, vituperatio is the flipside of laudatio. They comprise an antithetical pair. If there are times when praise is appropriate, then there are times when "vilification" is appropriate. They rise and fall together.

    Green already discusses the context in which it's used by (Peter and) Jude. Hence, it would be appropriate under analogous circumstances.

  3. What do you think of the qualifications Mike Patton offers regarding this type of theological/apologetical engagement:

  4. Patton's post is fine up to a point. It's a good opening move. In general, that's how we should start.

    But his discussion is one-sided. I think we should learn from apostolic example as well as apostolic injunction. One way of understanding how they interpret their own injunctions is to see how they put their injunctions into practice.

    We can learn some things about Christian discourse, not only from what the Bible says, but from how it says it.

    It's clear that NT writers and speakers don't always take the kinder, gentler approach.

    To say that every Christian should be uniformly "kind" and "gentle" in his discourse, but that's suspended in the case of an apostle, who is entitled to be harsh and disrespectful, strikes me as special pleading.

    If kindness and gentleness are virtues, why would they cease to be any less virtuous under inspiration? Conversely, if it's a vice to be harsh and disrespectful, why would inspiration elevate a vice to a virtue?

    Finally, the business about reading hearts and minds is unconvincing. The Bible frequent condemns people by class, and not merely as unique individuals.

  5. There are some other problems with the mind-reading criterion:

    i) If that's a precondition for condemnatory language, then that's also a precondition for commendatory language. Motives can figure equally well in the assignment of either praise or blame.

    ii) The Bible often instructs us to render judgements on the basis of behavior, and not invisible motives. Indeed, behavior is an outward sign of invisible motives. "You shall know them by their fruits."

    iii) Indeed, 2 Pet–Jude are a case in point. There the authors warn their audience to beware of false teachers. Based on what? Telepathy? No. Based on the actions of false teachers. Judging them by their words and deeds.

    iv) Finally, judgmental language is not the same thing as eschatological judgment. An uninspired speaker isn't sentencing anyone to hell.

  6. Steve: "vituperatio is the flipside of laudatio. They comprise an antithetical pair. If there are times when praise is appropriate, then there are times when "vilification" is appropriate. They rise and fall together."

    Steve, how would you grade yourself and Triablogue in also providing balanced laudatio to your interlocutors?

    I dunno, I'm just kinda recalling off the top of my head the Arminian apologists like Reppert, the Catholic epologists like Dave Armstrong, Eastern Orthodox apologists, Scripturalists like TurretinFan and Sean Gerety, et al. Do they get enough laudatio lovin' from you?


  7. The tone is set by the choice of targets. We generally target things we disagree with. That, in turn, selects for the tone. So the emphasis is mainly critical.

  8. "We generally target things we disagree with. That, in turn, selects for the tone."

    Heh, heh. I love it!

    Have you guys ever targeted LibProts? And the methodology of higher-criticism? I'd love to Triablogue vituperatio on those targets!

  9. Very interesting information. Sometimes one must listen to the music instead of just focussing at the notes.