Christian Library Australia

...because God cares about you

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size


E-mail Print PDF


Tim Keller

‘When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior
wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to
know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I
came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and
my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a
demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's
wisdom, but on God's power.’ (NIV) 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

1. Paul on persuasion and the cross.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is a very controversial and important passage. It is the main
place in the Bible that Paul deals with the question of how he persuades people
when he communicates the gospel. A superficial reading of the text seems to
indicate that Paul did not use logic, argument, or learning, but he simply told the
simple gospel and expected the Holy Spirit to convict—or not. However, while
Paul says here he does not use ‘persuasive’ words, in 2 Corinthians 5:11 he says
that he does! So Paul cannot be saying that he makes no arguments, that he has
no strategies for changing people’s minds.

The fullest treatment of the meaning of the words ‘eloquence’ and ‘superior
wisdom’ and ‘wise and persuasive words’ is in Anthony Thistleton’s enormous
commentary on 1 Corinthians. In sum, Paul is rejecting

a) verbal bullying (using force of personality, witty and cutting disdain, superconfident
demagoguery to beat the listeners into wanting to be on the speaker’s
side) vs a spirit of humility,

b) (the opposite) applause-generating, consumer-oriented rhetoric (playing to a
crowd’s prejudices, pride, and fears) vs making sound, careful arguments) or

c) manipulative stories, or overwhelming the crowd with shows of verbal
dexterity, wit or erudition vs exposition of what the text says.

2. A basic model for persuasion.

a. Listeners (‘receptors’) automatically interpret communication from
the perspective of their own context. It is an extremely tiring and difficult
process for a receptor to comprehend communication which is not provided
within his or her frame of reference. Can you imagine reading a technical
computer journal if you have no background at all in the field. The technical
journal makes no effort to begin with a beginner's frame of reference. Soon you,
the receptor, "tune out" and become numb. By a "frame of reference" we mean a
person's culture, beliefs, language, vocabulary, life situation, perceived needs,
and so on.

b. There are two basic approaches to communication: sender-oriented
and receptor-oriented. When the communicator designates his frame of
reference as the one in which communication takes place, the receptor must
make most or all the adjustments. As we have seen, this is quite tiring, difficult,
and often unsuccessful. The receptor in this case is in a dependent position. He
must ask many questions, listen, deal with many strange and uncomfortable
concepts and conditions, look up many words, ask for a great deal of help, and
constantly check and re-check meanings.

In short, the receptor is forced into a vulnerable position. However, when the
communicator designates the receptor's frame of reference as that in which the
communication will take place, the roles are reversed! Now, the communicator is
in a dependent position. He must ask the questions, he must listen, he must deal
with many strange and uncomfortable concepts and conditions, look up many
words, ask for a great deal of help, and constantly check and re-check meanings.
He has become vulnerable. "Sender-oriented" communication is "1-way"
communication for the sender, but "2-way" for the receptor.
But "receptor-oriented" communication is "2-way" communication throughout.
The latter is much harder and more complex for the sender, but far more
comfortable for the receptor and far more successful.

c. God's communication approach: receptor-oriented. In the Bible we see
that God adapts his message without changing it. In Deut.18:15-19, we see that
God sends his message through the medium of a human prophet when the people
complain that they cannot listen to his voice directly. He does not simply
maintain the same communication channel and form. In Phil.2:6-7, we see that
incarnation is a form of communication. Jesus entered into our framework. We
could not see God's glory face to face (Ex.33) but now we behold his glory in
Christ (John 1:14 ).

d. We must nevertheless be "message-centered" not "contextcentered".
Many people get quite nervous when they hear a call to being
"receptor oriented", because they believe being "sender- oriented" is to be
"message-centered". Many authors, in the name of being receptor-oriented or
"contextualized", very obviously have sought to change rather than adapt the
Biblical message. We here the Bultmannians saying, "modern man can no longer
accept the miraculous element in Scripture." Thus the final authority in
communication is the context, not the message.

No wonder many evangelicals get nervous about audience adaptation. In reaction
to this kind of distortion, many evangelicals and Reformed pastors are quite
adverse to any talk of being "receptor oriented", of adapting our communication
to the perceived needs and frame of reference of non-believers. But this is to
misunderstand the options. We do not have 2 possible methods in
communication ("Word" or "God" centered vs. "receptor-oriented" or
"man-centered"). If that were so, we would have the following positions:


In I Cor. 9:19-22, we see the principle of communication that Paul practiced
throughout the book of Acts. There we can see significant adaptations in his
preaching from audience to audience. He varied his use of emotion and reason,
his citation of authorities, his vocabulary, his choice of points of contention
(avoiding unnecessary issues), and his identification of the hearers' concerns,
hopes, and needs.

In countless ways, God adopts familiar conventions, literary genres, and terms
that the hearers could relate to. For example, when God entered into a
relationship with Israel, he adopted a cultural form, the specific format of the
Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties of the second millennium B.C. John the
apostle takes over the Logos concept from modern Greek philosophy. The very
concept of Biblical theology shows us that God unfolds revelation in a history, in
stages, with each stage adapted to the ability of the people to whom he speaks.
But this is an inadequate framework. How can we explain the difference between
two communicators, both of whom are true to the infallible Word of God, yet one
of which is clear and persuasive and the other obscure and boring? They are both
"message centered", are they not?

I think it is better to think of four possibilities:
Sender Oriented
Context Centered

Receptor Oriented
Message Centered

Receptor Oriented
Context Centered


A. is a "traditionalist", concerned for truth but only with his own needs and
perspectives in view.

B. is a manipulator, thinking only of his own goals and using any message to
achieve his ends.

D. is an accommodator, doing nothing but re-enforcing the audience
and telling them what they want to hear.

But C. is a preacher. He is concerned with truth, but he enters the nonbeliever's
frame of reference to change both the frame of reference and the
receptor, not to accommodate him, to simply reinforce the frame of reference.
Because the preacher believes in truth, he can change the frame of reference, but
because he is a servant, he can enter it.

We, of course, are promoting option C! We have an absolute standard, an
unchanging body of truth--the Word of God. But we also have a job, namely, to
communicate it to changeable people who live in time, and thus our
communication of that truth must be changing constantly. The C approach
equally stresses formulation of a message from the Bible and communicating that
message in an understandable form.

But, in my opinion, the C approach is definitely a minority position. Generally, we
have "Conservatives" operating on A principles and "Liberals" operating on D
principles. The B option is in some ways the most insidious. In this approach the
communicator simply tells the audience what it wants to hear in order to get
them to follow his purposes. This inevitably leads to lies and misrepresentations.
But most evangelicals must be concerned about becoming mired in the "A"
approach. It makes us wooden. We are lost if receptors begin to ask us questions
which relate to their own perceptions and agendas rather than ours. It disrupts us
and we have to simply repeat ourselves or must start over. We cannot really
answer questions!

A terrible consequence of the "A" method is that preaching becomes a spectator
sport. The stated goals are lifechange, but the actual goals is a performance which
reinforces and wins the applause of the congregation who then reward the
preacher through compliments, attendance, and attracting
other attenders (who are unhappy with their own preacher's performance). No
one is changed.

3. Practice

a. Listen to feedback. Receptor-oriented communication means the
communicator become vulnerable, listens, adapts and adopts foreign vehicles.

How can a preacher "listen" to his audience?

a) By processing the small amount of feedback the audience gives you (interest
level, for example, tells you about length, emphases, etc.)
b) By knowing the audience beforehand,
c) by following up the audience afterwards (calling for response/visitation),
d) by anticipating internal, silent personal dialogues going on within
the listeners. Do so by anticipating objections and questions, talking very directly
and personally to the person. The best preachers have always done this.

b. Recognize three basic kinds of vehicles ("codes") for communication: Language
is the most important, but it not precise Words mean different things to people based
on experience. Feedback is necessary (see above). This is the aspect of persuasion
which Aristotle called "LOGOS".

c. Identify their frame of reference by discerning strong, weak, and anticommitments.
On a scale of 1-10, 1-3 are beliefs your audience holds very, very
strongly, 4-7 are beliefs they hold, but not very strongly, and 8-10 are beliefs they
reject very strongly.

d. Gain credibility by entering the frame of reference. These are the 1,2.3

Speak the language. Receptors will "tune out" a message unless the
communicator gets within the receptor's range of tolerance. How do we do that?
Design code credibility: Obviously, you must speak the receptor's language, by
using words and non-verbal cues he can understand. All sorts of verbal or
nonverbal codes that are highly inappropriate will be "tuned out". Also, develop
personal credibility as we mentioned above.

Identify the all the 1,2,3 beliefs that you can affirm. Choose parts of the belief
system of the person that (accidentally or providentially) are similar to the
Christian world-view. Do your best to affirm it with integrity. Articulate it better
then they can. (For example, talk to secular kids about sex ethics showing Bible's
lack of prudishness, open discussion of the magnificence of sexuality.
Then challenge their flippancy and licentiousness. [This doesn't mean that their
Non-verbal communication is far more complex yet critical. Non-verbal codes
can be broken down into a (depressingly) complex outline. They include: space,
timing, gestures, facial expression, posture, tone of voice, pitch, rhythm,
stress, etc. Innumerable complex relationships show emotion and opinion.
Different audiences have different sets of codes.

No preacher can analyze for himself whether he is expressing emotion appropriately
without feedback from lay people. This is the aspect of persuasion which Aristotle
called "PATHOS". Person-as-communication. The preacher himself--his model or
example--is a major part of the communication, because words do not contain meanings,
people do. In a large group setting this means a speaker's reputation can be
helpful. Most audiences spend a long time deciding what they think of the
speaker! If there is already personal knowledge of the speaker outside of the
setting the credibility on non- is set! It is very difficult to change this credibility
(or its lack) by a poor or great communication.

But personal transparency, an evident knowledge of people's hearts--this can
bring about credibility even with a strange audience. This is the aspect of
persuasion which Aristotle called "ETHOS". Adaptation in this form is subtle. For
example, in more secular cities, ‘irony’ is valued--a very hard thing to create in
yourself! lack of prudishness was based on anything good!] But don't take this
approach with Muslims or Hindus! Start by talking of the sanctity of sex.)
GGPerhaps the most basic way to gain credibility is through articulating the
aspirations, hopes, and anxieties of the listeners that arise from these core beliefs.
Since all of these will find fulfillment in Christ, be very vivid it expressing them.
Quote references that convey them well. Provide illustrations and make it

e. Finally challenge the frame of reference.

First, show them the inconsistency. You do this not usually by
immediately taking on the 8-10 beliefs that your listeners feel vehemently about.
It is best to take on beliefs 4-7, things they believe but don’t feel as strongly about.
The key is to show them that 4-7 are inconsistent with beliefs 1,2,or 3. So for
example, the average college student is not an atheist, but a rather squishy
agnostic. They don’t think people can know if there is a God (belief 4-7) but they
are vehement that it is wrong to oppress and starve the poor (belief 1-3.) But if
you show them that it is very hard to demand that others respect human rights if
there is no God and we just evolved through the strong eating the weak, you
now have created a crisis for them.

You are de-stabilizing their framework. Or another example. A listener may
believe strongly in a God of love (1-3) but believe that the Bible probably has a lot
of errors in it and is not totally trustworthy (4-7.) But if you don’t have an
authoritative Bible through which God can contradict you, how can you have a
real, personal love relationship with God? How could he ever tell you something
you don’t want to hear.

Second, since showing them the problem in their framework is
de-stabilizing, re-establish equilibrium. When you discuss the cost of the
recommended change in the framework, you must always show the more-than
commensurate fruit. When a communicator shows a felt need can be met through
a change, he must realize that the receptor is weighing the cost that it will require.
You must know the cost the receptor will consider--what others in referent group
will say, etc. "Equilibrium" is the effort the receptor makes to minimize the
communication for change, which is always threatening. Essentially, the
Christian communicator upsets the old equilibrium and replaces it with a new

Tim Keller - Copyright
Dwell Conference - NYC - April 2008


Follow us on Twitter