Chapter 161

Place of Pathos in Preaching

The critical importance of emotion in preaching

Pathos means "feeling or emotion" (Conley 317). When used in discussions of persuasion, it is "all those materials and devices calculated to put the audience in a frame of mind suitable for the reception of the speaker's ideas" (Thonssen and Baird 358). Pathos deserves a central place in homiletical theorizing and practice—a higher place than it currently receives.

Effective heralds demonstrate that the truth has gripped them and that it should grip the listeners.

I will argue that claim in the first section of this paper and make some suggestions in the second section, but before getting into the body of the paper, I need to make a disclaimer: This paper does not pit pathos against logos. I believe that preaching must include a strong cognitive element, or else it is not preaching. Without a dominant idea derived from a biblical text, supplemented with other ideas, a sermon is merely "sound and fury signifying nothing."

However, while preaching cannot be less than the communication of a biblical idea, it should be more. De Quincey compared the two arts of rhetoric, logos and pathos, to rudder and sail. The first guides discourse and the second powers it (Thonssen and Baird 358). Even a traditionalist like John Broadus argued that preachers need "the capacity for clear thinking, with strong feelings, and a vigorous imagination" to produce "forcible utterance" (in McDill 10).

An entire paper devoted to pathos may raise red flags since emotional appeal is the stuff of demagogues, so let me extend my disclaimer to say that no ethical communicator uses pathos to induce an audience to act contrary to reason. That is manipulation, not persuasion.

Jonathan Edwards wrestled with this issue in response to charges of sensationalism in the Great Awakening. His answer sets the tone for this paper: "I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with" (Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival in the Great Awakening, in Piper 80). Ethical (and effective) communicators use pathos to prompt people to act in accord with the truth.

This paper is not a plea to discount or circumvent logos. Neither is it a plea to bypass the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching. It is an argument that the Holy Spirit converts and sanctifies the whole person, not just the mind, and the Holy Spirit appeals to the mind and emotions to move the will. As Hogan says:

Effective preaching has a strong affective element. The first section of this paper presents why I make this claim.

Why does pathos deserve a central place in preaching?

Pathos influences decision making.

The old dichotomy between logic and emotion, the head and the heart, does not reflect how humans actually make decisions. As rhetorical scholar Roderick Hart argues, "To contrast people's 'logical' versus 'emotional' tendencies is to separate human features that should not be separated in analysis since they cannot be separated in fact. When people react to anything[they] react with all of themselves" (121-122). Arnold and Wilson state simply that "people do not reason or feel, they reason because they feel, they feel because they think they have reason" (318). The dichotomy between pathos and logos may be useful in the academy, but in the marketplace the two cannot be separated.

Even if we allow the dichotomy to stand, we find that pathos influences the will more than logos. This was Cicero's observation: "Mankind makes far more determinations through hatred, or love, or desire, or anger, or grief, or joy, or hope, or fear, or error, or some other affection of mind, than from regard for truth, or any settled maxim, or principle of right" (in Thonssen and Baird 360).

What is "reasonable" for listeners depends more on how well they believe the proposal will fulfill their desires or how congruent it is with their current attitudes than upon canons of formal logic. C. S. Lewis states, "People don't ask for facts in making up their minds. They would rather have one good, soul-satisfying emotion than a dozen facts" (in Martindale and Root 482).

Dozens of communication theories support this contention [1]. For example, "balance theory" explains human behavior by observing how people attempt to maintain a feeling of comfort and consistency when their beliefs or values contradict each another. Kenneth Burke's theory of "guilt" is similar as it demonstrates how people purge feelings of culpability. Even though I disagree with Maslow's determination when he argues that needs lower on his hierarchy must be fulfilled before we give attention to higher needs, I agree with his fundamental argument that internal drives and aspirations influence what we do. Simply stated, people do what they want to do, and what they want to do is more closely linked to pathos than to logos. Out of the heart flow the issues of life.

God in Scripture uses pathos.

At this point, the reader may be lifting his or her eyebrows, thinking that Athens has too much to do with Jerusalem in this paper. The argument so far may sound like an advertising handbook: "Just discover the hidden needs of your listeners, present your product so that it seems to fill those needs, and make sure you bypass rationality in the process." As I stated in the opening apology, many persuaders use pathos unethically. I place advertisers high on that list. But the fact that they manipulate with emotion does not mean that preachers should jettison it.

Pathos is primary in human decision making because God made us to respond to emotional appeals, and he himself uses pathos. He motivates us through awe of his immensity, fear of his holiness, confidence of his goodness, and joy of his grace. Pathos is crucial, not incidental, to God's communication.

As Robinson says, "Some passages are alive with hope, some warn, some create a sense of joy, some flash with anger at injustice, others surge with triumph. A true expository sermon should create in the listener the mood it produced in the reader. The task of the poet, the playwright, the artist, the prophet, and the preacher overlap at this point—to make people feel and see "(82-83). From the earnest pleading of Charles Spurgeon, to the pastoral warmth of Jack Hayford, to the exuberance of E. V. Hill, effective preachers represent God—his ideas and emotions. When preachers use pathos (and logos and ethos), they handle the Word skillfully.

Before turning to suggestions of how preachers can incorporate more emotion into their preaching, one other observation helps establish the place of pathos in preaching.

Today's cultural shift

The well-documented shift to postmodernism in Western culture includes skepticism toward rationalistic logic. Modernists trusted logic and were comfortable with propositional truth, but postmoderns are more likely to adopt an "imaginative/feeling perspective that sees 'feeling' and 'imagining' as a more integrating key to the whole of reality than either 'knowing' or 'willing'" (Sims 332). Postmoderns desire an experience of reality, not statements about it. In this way, postmodernism is closer than modernism to biblical Christianity.

The "new homiletic," perceiving the postmodern shift in epistemology, or perhaps influenced by it, advocates that preachers focus on creating an experience for their listeners (Reid 5-8). That experience should engage the emotions as well as the mind, and it should proceed by indirection with narrative, induction, or images. This is the way people think and how they experience life; therefore (says the "new homiletic"), we should preach this way. As Buttrick states, "Homiletical form is usually experimental, because preachers are developing rhetoric to match the shape of a new, forming human consciousness" (67). The "new human consciousness" of postmodernism suggests that we should heighten the affective element in our sermons.

What are evangelical homileticians to make of this? In my opinion, as long as the sermon heralds God's message (which necessarily implies that the sermon embodies an idea), we should embrace the methodology of the new homiletic as a means of heightening the place of pathos in preaching.

Unfortunately, most of our training equips us to exegete and communicate the ideas of the text, not the feelings. Therefore, in the final section of this paper, I suggest three ways to upgrade the place of pathos in our preaching so that our sermons will not be, as Ralph Waldo Emerson described his own lectures: "Fine things, pretty things, wise things, but no arrows, no axes, no nectar, no growling, no transpiercing, no loving, no enchantment" (in Larsen 71).

Upgrading pathos

The three suggestions that follow relate to three standard areas of sermonizing: exegesis, delivery, and arrangement.

  1. Include identification of mood as part of exegesis.

    Literature prompts emotions as well as communicates ideas. Effective heralds attempt to embody all of God's message; therefore, they should identify the dominant mood(s) of the text. "while the emotion of a writer may be more difficult to pin down than ideas and their development, every passage has a mood" (Robinson 82).

    We can identify that mood by reading slowly and imaginatively. Even though hermeneutics texts offer few tools for exegeting the affective quality of texts, I believe that most preachers possess enough sensitivity to identify the dominant mood of the passage. Simply by keeping in mind that the text aims to create an experience, not just transmit an idea, preachers should be able to identify the dominant mood of the passage.

    However, if a preacher feels "literarily challenged, "I suggest reading in the disciplines of rhetoric and oral interpretation. Rhetoric identifies a writer's purpose and symbolic agency for achieving that purpose, and oral interpretation deals with embodying that purpose for an audience [2]. Another field to pursue is "the Bible as literature," [3] and another field could be reader-response theory. Although much maligned in evangelical circles, reader-response criticism helps interpreters identify the effects texts prompt in readers.[4]

    But to reiterate, I believe that specialized study in "affective exegesis" is not necessary for most preachers. We simply need to add a few more questions to our checklist when doing exegesis: "What is God trying to do with this text," and "How does pathos help achieve that goal?" We should ask not only "what does it mean," but also "how does it make me feel?" Identification of the mood is the first step toward communication of that mood. I have recently begun to state at the top of my sermon notes not only the subject and complement of the passage, not only my preaching idea and purpose, but also the primary mood. Identification of the mood in exegesis helps me embody the mood in delivery.
  2. Embody the mood in the sermon.

    Once the preacher has identified the affective content of the text, then he or she should embody it. I use the word embody because much of the communication of pathos occurs non-verbally. When preachers genuinely feel the mood(s) of the text, the audience will notice and may respond.

    Rhetorician and preacher Hugh Blair said, "The only effectual method [of moving the listeners' emotions] is to be moved yourself. There is an obvious contagion among the passions" (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, in Thonssen and Baird 364).

    There is nothing new in this insight. All effective preachers know it intuitively, but few if any can explain why it is so. Plato used theological categories to describe the power that a "rhapsode" (or singer/reciter) has over an audience (Ion 535b-536d). He said that the Muse inspires the poet, who inspires the rhapsode, who inspires the audience. The Muse is like a magnet which translates its power through various iron rings to the spectators.

    In contrast to Plato's theory, twentieth-century theory uses psychological categories to explain the "contagion among the passions." For example, oral interpretation scholars speak of "empathy." When a performer "feels with" the literature, physical response occurs. The audience perceives this response (although the perceiving is often unconscious) and adopts the same attitude (Lee and Gura 126-128; Aggertt and Bowen 146-150).

    Whatever reason for the "contagion," we know that it is indispensable to preaching. Dabney says that the "law of sympathy" is the preacher's "right arm in the work of persuasion" (Sacred Rhetoric, in Hogan 2). Effective heralds demonstrate that the truth has gripped them and that it should grip the listeners. Effective heralds embody the text.

    But this is easier said than done. Each of us has his or her own habitual emotional state. This state may or may not correspond with the mood of the text. A mellow preacher will have trouble embodying the climax of the ages described in Revelation 21. A stern preacher who does not "submit to the atmosphere and spirit of" 1 Peter 1:3-9 will turn radiant hope into guilt for not having that hope (Robinson 83).

    In addition to the problem of habitual moods, the preacher's varying moods may or may not match the tone of the text. One week we are depressed, another week we are thankful. We feel hypocritical (and probably are hypocritical) if we attempt to embody a foreign mood. Therefore, the only solution is to actually empathize with the text. We must think and pray and imagine ourselves deeply into the text so that it rules our hearts and minds, and then we must speak naturally, not fearing to reveal our feelings in public.

    "Unless there is some measure of emotional involvement on the part of the preacher and on the part of his hearers, the kerygma cannot be heard in its fullness, for the kerygma speaks to the whole man, emotion and all, and simply does not make sense to the intellect and will alone" (Pitt-Watson 47-48). Of course, embodying the mood of the text will look different for each of us since preaching is truth through personality, but listeners will still be able to tell if we are emotionally attuned to God's message.

    Can "embodying" be taught? Yes and no. There is some value in drills which refine delivery, and exercises can help speakers be more comfortable projecting emotion, but the key is not technique. It is genuinely feeling. Teachers should raise consciousness about pathos in preaching, help their students identify the affective elements of the text, model "embodying," and exhort student preachers to "let it out." They need to know that "ordinary people listen for a preacher's feelings as much as his ideas, perhaps more. That is simply part of the power of the spoken word" (Shelley 102).
  3. Surface need.

    To upgrade the power of pathos in our sermons, we should give special attention to surfacing need in the introduction. This suggestion, like the previous one, is simply a reminder, but it is a reminder worth making. Surfacing need is crucial to oral communication. Early in the sermon, the audience must feel their need for the Word, otherwise the engine of pathos stalls.

    Classical rhetoricians spoke of the need to rouse emotion in the "peroration" (the finale), but modern theorists such as Monroe with his "motivated sequence" argue persuasively that listeners grant attention only to what interests them, and what interests them is what they feel they need. Therefore, to bring the world of the text into the world of the listeners, the preacher must demonstrate early in the sermon how the truth addresses felt needs. All learning begins at the feeling level.

    What tools are available for identifying need? Many, such as soliciting "feedforward," but perhaps the most powerful tool is simply imagination. Henry Ward Beecher went so far as to argue that "the first element on which your preaching will largely depend for power and successis imagination, which I regard as the most important of all elements that go to make the preacher" (in Larsen 108). We should imagine the emotions of the text, and we should imagine the needs of our people. Imagination increases identification, and identification is nearly synonymous with effective communication.

Pathos deserves a high place in homiletical theory and in preaching. When it works hand in hand with logos and ethos, powerful and holistic communication occurs. Effective heralds identify and embody the moods of the text while they speak to needs. Effective preachers value pathos and use it to the glory of God.


  1. See Charles V. Larson, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 6th edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992).
  2. In rhetoric (speech act theory), see John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Word (New York: Oxford U P, 1970). In oral interpretation, I suggest a standard text like Charlotte I. Lee and Timothy Gura, Oral Interpretation, seventh edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), and Todd V. Lewis, Communicating Literature, second edition (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1991) who teaches performance from a rhetorical perspective. Some homileticians provide help in determining and communicating affective content. See Michael A. Bullmore, "Re-examining Author's Intent: The Nature of Scripture, Exegesis, and the Preaching Task," unpublished paper, Evangelical Homiletical Society, Oct. 1997; Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1982); Mike Graves, The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament (Judson, 1997); and Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989).
  3. For example, Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible As Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).
  4. For example, Stanley E. Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1972).

Sources Cited

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Arnold, Carroll, and Wilson, John F. Public Speaking as a Liberal Art, third edition. New York: MacMillan, 1963.

Buttrick, David. A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994.

Conley, Thomas M. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. New York: Longman, 1990.

Hart, Roderick P. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1990.

Hogan, William L. "White Guys Can't Preach (What I Have Learned From African American Preachers)." Unpub. paper presented at Evangelical Homiletics Society, Oct., 1997, South Hamilton, MA. Electronic transcript.

Larsen, David L. Anatomy of Preaching: Identifying the Issues in Preaching Today. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989.

Martindale, Wayne, and Root, Jerry. The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1989.

McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986.

Pitt-Watson, Ian. Preaching: A Kind of Folly. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Plato. The Compiled Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1961.

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Sims, John A. "Postmodernism: The Apologetics Imperative, " in The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Encounter, 324-343. David S. Dockery, ed. Bridgepoint, 1995.

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