Greatest Living Christian Rhetoritician?

Tony Sig

In many circles of scholastic theology, the theological discourse can take on an entirely dry and mathmatical flavor.  As if, in perfect neutrality and impartiality, one is disclosing the secrets of the world.  However ‘true’ some of these types of treatise’s might be, it can be understandable that I might lose interest.  I’m certain of the fact that had I been tested as a child I would have been diagnosed with ADD.

I myself enjoy bombastic rhetoric.  Rhetoric need not imply sophistry or veiled-falsehood.  It can be coupled with precise argumentation and imagination and it can put joy into reading scholarly works.  This is why Gordon D Fee can be much more enjoyable to read than many other exegetes.  The man doesn’t pull any punches.

In the theological/philosophical world of today we have been blessed with a movement bravely entitled “Radical Orthodoxy.” Feasting as they do on modern Continental thought and mocking the false safety of analytical philosophy, RO, and many who could broadly fall under its banner, have given us royal treats in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Stanley Hauerwas and David Bentley Hart (among others).

But who among them can claim to reign supreme as lord of language?

There is of course Stanley Hauerwas.  A feisty Texan-high church methodist (though I do believe he is Episcopalian these days) known for his powerful testimony against liberalism and for the Church.  He has given us such treasures as

(in reference to “Atonement theories”)“If you need a theory to worship Jesus go worship your fucking theory” and

“Fighting violence with bombs is like screwing for virginity”

But I don’t think he can take the cake.

We might also point to the honorable ‘high-church Anglican’ John Milbank, student of the ABC Rowan Williams.  Turning randomly into his “Theology and Social Theory” (an absolute must read) we can see him at work.

“Parsonian sociology attempts to conjoin the ‘liberal Protestant meta-narrative’ as articulated by Weber and Troeltsch. . . with the evolution of Herbert Spencer which was part of his English adaptation of Comtean positivism.  In the Parsonian niew, society evolves through a process of gradual differentiation into separate social sub-systems: gradually art is distinguished from religion, religion from politics, economics from private ethical behaviour and so forth.  The upshot of this process is (as for Weber) that it is now possible for something to be beautiful without being good or true, and possible for there to be a valid exercise of  power without it having a bearing on either goodness or truth.  At the same time, a realm of ‘pure’ science emerges which (as in Spinoza’s ideal of intellectual freedom) can pursue truth independently of coercive pressure, or of practical consequences.” TST, 2nd ed, Blackwell p128

But still he cannot out-maneuver the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart.  From his stunning “The Beauty of the Infinite” to his devestating “Atheist Delusions,” Hart, it is often complained, cannot be read without the Oxford English Dictionary as his vocabulary is composed of so many odd and normally unused words (not counting his own neo-logisms) that it takes ages just to get through a book.  Be that as it may, he is never shy on vitrolic attacks on bad ideas and unbounded praise of the God who is God-in-Trinity.  Here are two quotes taken at random from his “The Beauty of the Infinite”

“But Nietzsche also reminds theology how great is its rhetorical burden.  The story of being that Christianity tells, of creation as a word of peace whose ultimate promise is also peace, looks so very frail standing alongside the imposing figures of “history” and “nature,” in their blood-dyed robes, trailing their clouds of contingency, cruelty, and ambiguity; the protological and eschatalogical tensions within the Christian story leave it vulnerable to the accusation of irresponsible idealism, or of an unwillingness to rein its narrative in when its messianic horizon threatens to engulf the clarity of “realist” thinking in a night of mythical abstraction (theology, not always unaware of this, even occasionally attempts to construct one or another kind of political “realism” of its own, even though this can be accomplished only through a series of tactical apostasies).127 – please note that that is one single sentence!

“What is truth?” – “If Christ, the eternal Word, is the Father’s “supreme rhetoric,” then the truth of his evangel is of a very particular kind.  As soon as one ventures appreciably past the bounds of logic’s unadorned and uncontroversial claims (and sometimes before one gets that far), one finds that what is called truth is usually a consensus wrested from diversity amid a war of persuasions, the victor’s crown of laurels laid upon the brow of whichever dialectical antagonist has better (for the time being) succeeded in rendering invisible his argument’s own ambiguities and contradictions (has better, that is, concealed the more purely rhetorical moments of his argument in the folds of his apparently unanswerable “logic”); and into the tumult of history Christ comes as a persuasion among persuasions, a Word made entirely flesh, entirely form, whose appeal lies wholly at the surface…”331

Take up and read.



  1. While I was already familiar with Hauerwas, I had only just heard of Milbank, and never of Hart. Thanks for the introduction. Have you ever read Slavoj Zizek? He is no theologian, but he is a rhetorician of considerable prowess. Keep him in mind if you’re ever in the mood for some a devlishly playful mixture of “low” and “high” culture–he quotes Continental philosophers in the same paragraph as M. Night Shyamaylan’s “The Village” for instance–all of course along the entertaining but sometimes annoyingly cynical lines of a “post-marxist.”


  2. Have I heard of Slovoj? Milbank and Slovov have co-written books and done public debates. Milbank deconstructs Marxism (of which Zizek is a slave) and pushes for a Christian socialism. Their exchanges push the obscene hieghts of language. So much fun to read them.


  3. Hey, found my way over here after being an ass to you at Sabio’s blog. Cool site. I’m part of a small collaborative thing at and have taken the liberty of adding you to the blogroll. Don’t feel obliged to return the favour.

    I’ve been studying with Milbank this year for my MA. In one class he referred to a Vatican Cardinal who spoke out against Harry Potter as a “geriatric twat with a stick up his ass”. Brilliant, especially in a posh English accent.


  4. The site looks quite similar to ours. I added you to my Reader, and will most likely add to the blogroll. I am considering doing my doctorate at Nottingham. Is Anthony Thiselton still teaching anything over there.


  5. He is getting on a bit, but teaches part-time and is around the department quite a lot. There’s an interesting graduate community here, a weird mix of students, and not all are inclined towards Radical Orthodoxy either, some are even quite hostile to it, even though Nottingham’s very much the RO base these days.


  6. You’d enjoy it then, though hopefully challenged as well. They obviously have Milbank, Cunningham and now Simon Oliver, who are all RO, and John’s wife Alison who does literature stuff. What area for the doctorate?


  7. Not certain yet. It all depends on what I do for my graduate degree’s. I’m also quite interested in Westcott House @ Cambridge.


  8. I’ve heard of that. It’s more ministry oriented, right?

    Your unlikely to get a ministry orientation if you study at Nottingham. They’re very theoretical here.

    Anyway, let me know (somewhere e.g. my blog, or the D&L one) if I can be of help to you, like if you have any more questions about Nottingham or UK study or something.


  9. Rhetorical beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I like Hart, at least the little I’ve read of him. Can’t stand Hauerwas or Milbank, mainly because when I can understand them I don’t like what they’re saying. My preference runs more to Richard John Neuhaus, who provided more intelligent commentary on a wider variety of topics than any of these people; and always to Alvin Plantinga, who has a way of logically devastating his opponents and making you laugh at them at the same time.


  10. I definitely dig Plantinga. The Dutch Reformed I know are pretty cool, such as James K. A. Smith (a pentecostal). Certainly Neuhaus is great as well. Isn’t he dead now? I would have thought you’d like Hauerwas even though his ethical paradigm is decidedly different than yours. He can still preach!


  11. More from Hart… from First Things, a review of Daniel Dennet’s book “Breaking the Spell”

    …But, while they may not teach us much about religion in the abstract, they may help to explain the kind of thinking animating Breaking the Spell—for, in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.


  12. I’m just finishing The Atheist Delusion. It may be one of the most intelligent and blistering critiques of the new atheists that I have ever read. Geez, I wish I could write like that.


  13. George,
    Did you see the debate between William Lane Craig and Chris Hitchens at Biola? Usually, when Hitchens debates, the athiests claim he won and the Christians claim his opponent won. That was not the case with the Craig-Hitchens debate. Even the athiests admit that Craig was the overwhelming winner. I believe William Lane Craig is one of the greatest Christian apologists of our day.


  14. George,

    I haven’t read all of it. Just long sections and an overview of the argument. I can’t wait to get it. He is like a force of nature though isn’t he?


  15. Where can I find the Stanley Hauerwas quote. Is it in any of his works. I cannot find it anywhere. Is it a genuine quote?


  16. Dan,

    It could be apocryphal I suppose. I think I read that quote attributed to Hauerwas somewhere on the internet, so don’t take it too seriously.

    Either way it sounds like something he would say.


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