The primary importance of clarity
Augustine held that the foremost oratorical responsibility of the preacher was clarity. He said, "The speaker should not primarily consider the beauty of his teaching, but the clarity of it." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 12, 27) Resonating the priority of Christian preaching over that of Classical rhetoric. Augustine always recommended that the preacher concentrate on intelligibility more than on his choice of beautiful words.
He wrote, "The teacher, then, will avoid all words that do not communicate; if, in their place, he can use other words which are intelligible in their correct forms, he will choose to do that, but if he cannot -- either because they do not exist or because they do not occur to him at the time -- he will use words that are less correct, provided that the subject matter itself is communicated and learned correctly." (De Doctrina Christiana ("On Christian Instruction"), 4, 10, 24) Clarity was such a priority in his preaching that, although he was an expert orator, Augustine at times used incorrect grammar when he thought it would enhance communication to those in his audience who had no learning. The role of the preacher, then, is not pure persuasion, but clarity. When the preacher clarifies, Christ the Internal Teacher - the only one who truly can do so - persuades the hearer.
In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote that good teachers have - or, at least, should have - such a desire to teach that if a particular word in good Latin is unavoidably ambiguous or obscure in relation to the intellectual or cultural capacity of a particular audience or congregation, what he called a "vulgar manner of speech" (i.e., colloquial words, or unsophisticated words used by unlearned people) should instead to be used. (De Doctrina Christiana, 4, 9, 23). He urged that if correct but stylish words were not the most suitable ones to communicate to the hearers, the speaker "should use words less correct, provided that the thing is taught and learned without distortion when these alternate words are used." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 10, 24) Even so, how clearly something is expressed is still not as important as what is to be taught: "It is the sign of good minds to love the truth within the words, rather than the words themselves." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 11, 26)
Differences between rhetoric and preaching
As well as the basic difference between Classical rhetoric and Christian preaching mentioned in a previous Augnet page, there are other differences that Augustine addressed. Another consideration that influences Augustine's view of his listeners arises from his understanding of the kingdom of God and the changes that have occurred in culture because of it. One of these factors was the composition of the audience. Classical rhetoric anticipated and expected a audience that was educated, wealthy and male. On the other hand, a group of Christians in a church had a great variety of persons in terms of social status, economic circumstances, education levels, and gender. Even the attitude differed towards those without learning. Classical rhetoric looked down on poor people and those without learning, whereas the Christian religion preached that in the Kingdom of God there was no distinction between Jew and Greek, between a slave and a free person, or between male and female.
In the view of Classical rhetoric, the masses were discounted because they lacked learning and culture, and almost looked upon with disgust. In the Christian religion, however, the masses were looked upon as a field ripe for harvest, or as sheep scattered and fearful. They were looked upon with respect and compassion. In the Greco-Roman world, a sermon as part of a religious celebration was rare. There was no equivalent in pagan worship, since paganism did not have holy texts that wielded the same influence as the Bible had on Christians. Hence there really was no pagan form of speech that corresponded to Christian preaching. The grammarians who interpreted literary works in their classes and fulfilled a teaching role similar to that of Christian preachers were not too concerned about the rhetorical shape and delivery of their lectures. Moreover, when they commented on a text, it was not a matter of faith to them.
Preaching, therefore, was a form of public speech, and the early Christian preachers were able to make use of the rules and methods developed in the flourishing schools of rhetoric, which were considered the climax of education in the Roman Empire. If equipped by necessary instruction in order to do so, a Christian preacher could thus use the skills of rhetoric, and not be any the less truly a Christian preacher because of it. Indeed, hopefully he was then a better Christian minister.
Augustine in the pulpit: an orator or a preacher?
Augustine was both skilled and trained in classical rhetoric (the art of public speaking and of persuasion with words). When in the pulpit as a priest and then as a bishop, was he more a rhetor or a Christian preacher? The answer is that he was definitely a Christian preacher. The classical Roman writer, Cicero, whom Augustine greatly admired, said that well-chosen and well delivered words and sentences could actually sway a hearer in whatever direction the orator chose. One of the most significant transformations that Augustine brings to classical rhetoric is found in the goal he attributes to the spoken word. He no longer held on to the goal of pure persuasion (one of the goals of classical rhetoric).This was because Augustine realized that the acceptance of the Christian faith by a person was not the direct result of the preacher, but as the direct work of God personally.
In his work De Magistro ("About the Teacher"), Augustine attributes to the spoken word two functions of a more limited nature than Cicero had proposed. Augustine listed the functions as: (1) the first was to remind the hearer of what he or she already knows, and (2) the second was to help motivate the hearer to seek out what he or she did not yet know. This motivation towards inquiry steers the hearer to Jesus, whom Augustine calls the "Internal Teacher." But because God has opted to make use of the words of the preacher to have an effect within the souls of individuals, the spoken word is still significant.
Indeed, Augustine does not undervalue the role of the preacher as much as highlight the more central role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in following up on the preacher's prompting of the hearers. Thus the preacher is intimately involved in the work of God. The preacher is preparing the soil and awakening the seed to inquiry, so that Christ can enter it and bring forth a harvest.