Persuasive Preaching: The Role of Ethos -- By: John S. Bohannon

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 24:1 (Fall 2006)
Article: Persuasive Preaching: The Role of Ethos
Author: John S. Bohannon

Persuasive Preaching: The Role of Ethos

John S. Bohannon

Ph.D. Student in Applied Theology (Preaching)
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587


Historically the preacher’s ethos warranted a prominent place of discussion within the church.1 Renowned Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne once challenged a young pastor during his ordination service with the following remark, “In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”2 These poignant words of McCheyne, echoed by other influential biblical orators (both before and after his time), reflect what has traditionally been understood as the role the person of the preacher plays in relation to the persuasiveness, effectiveness, and success of the pastor’s preaching ministry.3

Richard Lischer, writing on the person of the preacher, acknowledged the historically significant emphasis placed upon this subject: “Until the middle of the thirteenth century, when the church spoke about preaching its main topic was the character of the one who preaches.”4 The writings of Augustine provide a supportive voice to Lischer’s premise. Augustine wrote in On Christian Doctrine that “the life of the speaker has greater weight in determining whether he is obediently heard than any grandness of eloquence.”5 He also believed that “moral character [ethos] may almost be called the most potent means of persuasion.”6

Among modern homileticians, there seems to be a diminishing influence about preacher ethos compared to past generations.7 Lischer believes the contemporary homiletical scene reveals a major shift in emphasis away from the primacy of the preacher’s personal character.8 Technique, methodology, and pragmatism now reside at the center stage of homiletical discussion, having replaced the importance of the speaker’s character, competence, and holiness.9

If Lischer is correct in his assessment of a major void in the discussion of ethos in contemporary homiletics, and if Augustine was correct in arguing for its value in the preacher and preachi...

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