Mark Alan Bowald on the Ethos, Logos & Pathos of Scripture

Contemporary hermeneutics, including biblical hermeneutics, are held hostage to the myths of principles and to a “text versus reader” framework. This is reinforced by lingering investments in distinctly modern notions of objectivity that emerge from and are dependent upon an essentially deistic worldview. The perceived gap between us and the source of meaning, the human author, is besieged by the complications of the practice of historical investigation and the gnawing sense of “distanciation” is its companion. As long as these are the terms by which we enter into our understanding of reading the Bible there is no way out except by way of valiant efforts to uncover, protect and preserve the immanent historical lifelines between human authorial speech agency and human readerly actions: hermeneutical archaeology.

However, there is a better way to approach the reading of Scripture. This is achieved if we make a simple choice at the outset. This choice is not to begin by framing the act of reading the Bible as an investigation into the written speech act of a dead human author but rather as the encounter with the living Christ who is confronting us in his Word. The terms are thereby set under the boundless and limitless activity of the eternal Trinity, in the absolute and simple freedom that God possesses beyond, beneath, in, with, and under time and space. Freedom that manifests itself in the gracious reaching out to creatures. In this the basic terms for understanding the reading of the Bible emerge from the testament to the givenness of Jesus Christ’s ubiquity and clarity as the fulfillment of God’s opera ad extra. In this model the reading of the Bible begins less as an act of isolated and desperate textual archaeologists but more as spiritually hungry and thirsty creatures who are confronted with the abundant and bountiful gospel in the living speech of the very embodiment of life and truth himself. Thus, for biblical hermeneutics, there is a great divergence between its hermeneutics and those of all other books. The ancient study of rhetoric as the encounter with a living and breathing speaker affords us a great advantage in framing the hermeneutical encounter with God in the Bible in this fashion. Ancient rhetorical theory was concerned with perceiving and describing the terms under which speakers engage and move hearers in just such intimate encounters.

Aristotle at the beginning of Ars Rhetorica locates rhetoric within the universal sphere of human communication, insofar as all people communicate by means of constructing coherent arguments (Dialectic) and both promote and defend their arguments (Rhetoric). He defines three “species” in rhetoric that encompass all the varieties of things that speakers themselves provide or influence in the process of making their speech. These three are ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is the character of the speaker as embodied in the act of speaking. Logos is the shape of the speech itself. Pathos is the response produced in the hearers. For Aristotle all three of these are considered to be (more or less) under the control of the speaker. George Kennedy offers a helpful clarifying remark at this point when he suggest that

Ethos in Aristotle means “character,” esp. “moral character,” and … is regarded as an attribute of a person, not of a speech, … pathos [likewise] is an attribute of persons, not of a speech.

Kennedy’s point is that Aristotle sees Ethos as well as Pathos as being a genuine reflection of a person’s character and not, as the Sophists (and most modern studies of rhetoric) are prone to argue, simply an aspect of the speech that has relative independence of the speaker or hearer. Aristotle has a good case to be made on this point; one that has additional bearing on the relevance of our typology and attention to divine action in reading Scripture. We all read or hear things differently depending on the perceived character of who is saying or writing them. If a speaker has a certain reputation, demonstrates a capacity to speak, shows that he or she is informed and trustworthy and can present the message clearly then the message itself (logos) is both received and appropriated (pathos) in a way that is different than if the speaker is perceived or known to be shady, incapable, or muddleheaded.

Aristotle goes so far as to argue that “character is almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion.” This insight brings us back to our typology and strongly underscores the point. If the character of the speaker is the determinate, or even in any way a determinate factor in the appropriation of the message, and, if God is in any way an agent that “speaks” in, with, and under the reading of the text of Scripture, then there must be a fuller consideration of the location and function of the shaping role of the character of the divine speaker/author in any and all accounts of reading Scripture. This observation quickly expands immensely in scope when we consider the implications of moving from the role that the character of human speakers plays in the rhetorical speech-moment, to that which God as divine speaker plays in the disclosure of the divine Word.

So: in distinction from Aristotle’s discussion, which is only concerned with the nature of human communication, we need to recognize that there is an important point of departure in our typology insofar as we are considering divine communication and speech action. This is the origin of the utter uniqueness of the act of reading Scripture as compared to the listening to other persons or the reading of other writings. It is also in the purview of divine action that the distinctly modern proposal for reading Scripture “as any other book” is challenged. The uniqueness of reading Scripture is, from this point of departure, defined in two ways. First, the reading of Scripture is different from reading other books and thus will bear a stronger affinity with the rhetorical moment in that the speaker (God) is an “authorial” agent who is presently speaking in, with, and under the reading. Human authors can also be present in rare situations and can then personally assist us in clarifying what they intend in their written communication. However theories of reading tend to not give this situation attention and for good reason: human authors leave after speaking; human authors sleep and forget; human authors die.

Not only is the reading of Scripture unique because the speaking agent (God) is active and present, but also because it is God who is present. To the degree that God is different in nature and action from humans are to the same degree that God’s speech action will transcend attempts at building or drawing from human analogies. These two points of differentiation underscore the present need to develop a typological instrument which better accounts for God’s action as it shapes the perception of the act of reading Scripture.

We noted above that a limitation of our comparison to rhetoric is that Aristotle’s discussion only has the human speech act in mind. If his work still has value and relevance in indicating for us fundamental aspects of the way rhetorical human speech interactions proceeds, it bears asking what this implies about the hearing and appropriating of God’s speech by human creatures. Thus the consideration of the necessary and orienting role that ethos plays in the reading and interpretation of Scripture is raised. In other words, if we understand the reader and interpreter of Scripture to be responding to the viva vox Dei, then the question of how hearers receive and appropriate the rhetorical action of human discourse becomes a relevant and informing field of inquiry for also perceiving how creatures listen and respond to the speech of God. Further, if God’s ethos plays a directive role, following Aristotle’s suggestion, in how the human reader(s) construe the message (logos) and appropriate it in their own actions (pathos) then there arises a necessary reconsideration of the shape of confessions and doctrines as indications of the stance we bring as creatures to the reading of Scripture.

It will be illuminative at this point to overtly link our discussion of Aristotle’s view of rhetoric with the triangle typology. There is a sense in which the three facets—ethos-logos-pathos—can be linked with the three aspects of the triangle: The top corner (type three) as the divine ethos of theological hermeneutics; the bottom left corner (type one) as the logos; and the bottom right corner (type two) as the pathos.

Theological Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Redefining the Triangle

Theological Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Redefining the Triangle

We can then begin to reframe the analysis in the development of the typology in previous chapters and construct a methodological proposal for theological hermeneutics as divine rhetoric. Type ones, for example, tend to locate the decisive sphere for meaning in the logos, which is the message itself and subordinates and often neglects the roles of pathos and ethos. The second type, conversely, locates the decisive sphere in pathos, which is the appropriation and response of the hearers to the message downplaying or ignoring the roles of logos and ethos. The third type is the group that would be most in keeping analogously with Aristotle’s view of rhetoric, attributing the production of meaning primarily to the realm of ethos.

This image is helpful in showing the relationship between the three aspects of the triangle in relation with the three facets of rhetoric. However, this way of illustrating them undermines one of the goals of this work; to push towards a more dynamic understanding of divine agency as the proper horizon for theological hermeneutics. Therefore, having made this important link to the typology, we will now briefly comment on the new proposal presented here by refashioning the rhetorical schema as follows.

The Flow of Theological Rhetorical Hermeneutics

The Flow of Theological Rhetorical Hermeneutics

This way of representing the event of theological hermeneutics encourages us to do fuller justice to the fundamental character of divine agency in our thinking about theological hermeneutics. It presents us with the ubiquity of divine agency that permeates all aspects of biblical hermeneutics; the infinite and universal dimension of the trinitarian self-announcement to which Holy Scripture serves.

* * *

Adapted from Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency by Mark Alan Bowald.