Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch13:1:Rhetoric replaces revelation

Rhetoric replaces revelation

Rhetoric replaces revelation

That is the answer: like philosophy and mysticism, rhetoric was a substitute. The synthetic glory of the panegyrist is, St. Augustine declares, most welcome to the church, which needs a spice and vigor in its doctrine that only rhetoric could give—so far had the church come from the day of Pentecost! For St. Augustine the Christian orators, properly trained in the schools, speak with the voice of God; they are angels mediating between heaven and earth; they are the tongue of Christ, the doctors of the soul, the mountain of refuge, sheltering clouds, nurses of the church, the feet of the Lord; they, in short, are henceforth what the prophets and Apostles once were to the church. To speak in tongues, says Chrysostom (whose own title means Golden-mouth), is not as great as to prophesy, since prophecy is the interpretation of tongues; but a greater thing than prophecy even is to be able to give a good oration! This was in answer to people who kept asking Chrysostom why the church no longer had the gift of prophecy: The answer is an enlightening one, namely that the church now has rhetoric, which is better than prophecy. John's own sermons, of which, fortunately, a great number have survived, clearly proclaim his intention of making rhetoric do the work of prophecy and revelation. The clarion voice, the waving arms, the flashing eye, the studied poses and sweet modulations, and ear- and mouth-filling words that thrilled the hearers like the clash of cymbals and had just as little meaning, the sweeping robes, the musical background (a very important adjunct of church-rhetoric)—what spells could they not weave? What multitude could resist them? St. Augustine himself reports that he listened spellbound to the electrifying sermons of the immortal Ambrose without paying the slightest attention to what the man was saying; carried away by his words; as he puts it, he remained indifferent or even contemptuous of their content.

Since the fourth century the Christian church has talked with strange voices, the voices of philosophy, mysticism, and rhetoric, coming to us from the decadent schools of late antiquity. The third of these voices, that of rhetoric, was designed for the manipulation of the masses, and has been the guiding voice of the churches throughout the centuries. Like the others, it is a substitute for the voice of prophecy. But even more conspicuously than they, its artificial vocabulary and studied delivery, not to mention its fully documented history, proclaim its true origin and its sad inadequacy. If the cerebrations of the philosophers and the fervid sighs of the mystics fall pitifully short of anything resembling true revelation, the careful sound- and stage-effects of the rhetorician are the ultimate declaration of bankruptcy. After attending the discourses of the greatest Christian orators, we can only repeat what we have said before: there is no substitute for revelation.[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 13, references silently removed—consult original for citations.