In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religious Rhetoric

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Journals
  • Conferences
  • Reference Works
  • History of Religious Rhetoric
  • Biblical Rhetoric
  • Hermeneutics
  • Sermons
  • Prophetic Rhetoric
  • Apocalyptic Rhetoric
  • Religious Rhetoric in the Public Sphere
  • Non-Christian and Nontraditional Christian Religious Rhetoric

Communication Religious Rhetoric
Michael Souders
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0117


The rhetoric of religion is the study of the linguistic and symbolic techniques involved in the propagating, reinforcing, teaching, or forming of theological beliefs or structures. Many contemporary scholars recognize that the relationship of rhetoric and religion is ancient and it is difficult to separate them. Many rhetorical devices and tropes originated in religious contexts and still carry significant religious connotations. Conversely, religion is deeply indebted to rhetoric since religion would be impossible to communicate, develop, defend, or spread without rhetorical sophistication. Indeed, many of today’s religious education institutions still require courses that develop rhetorical skill and understanding as a part of a balanced religious education. But religious rhetoric involves far more than the study of “God-talk”; the study of religious rhetoric can be extended to apply to all areas in which religion’s language of transcendence seeps into symbolic action, even when religion itself does not explicitly appear. Studying the rhetoric of religion—or religious rhetoric—can further our studies of history, meaning, politics, society, and language itself. Neglecting the study of religious rhetoric would result in missing out on a key part of the rhetorical tradition’s history and perhaps even misunderstanding a vital piece of the essence of rhetoric itself.

Core Texts

The core texts of a field are those texts that must be either explicitly or implicitly referenced in nearly all studies within an area. Such texts represent the essential bases of ongoing scholarly work across the subareas. In religious rhetoric, relatively few such texts link together all or most of the research. The most essential, classic text of religious rhetoric is Augustine of Hippo 1997, which lays out in detail the role, theory, and practice of rhetoric in Christian faith. Prior to Augustine, early Christian leaders had been skeptical of the “pagan” tradition in rhetoric. Augustine, in response, argues that Christians must be capable in rhetoric to spread the faith and combat its opponents. Augustine’s text provides a semiotic theory by which to understand signs in the scriptural context, Hermeneutics techniques for grasping the literal and allegorical meanings found therein and advice on Homiletics techniques appropriate to Christians. In contrast to Augustine’s 5th-century work, Burke 1970 reflects contemporary insights on the relationship of language and religious structures. Burke’s work, which develops the ways rhetoric and religion are deeply intertwined, forms the base citation of many contemporary studies on religious rhetoric. Following Burke, Booth 1991 argues for the essential linkage of rhetoric and religion across all disciplines interested in either one. Jost and Olmstead 2000 provides an excellent overview of key theoretical issues at work in contemporary studies of the rhetoric of religion.

  • Augustine of Hippo. 1997. On Christian teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Written in the 5th century, Augustine’s classic work reinvigorates the place of Greek and Roman rhetoric in Christian preaching. In outlining a Christian rhetoric, Augustine develops theories of semiotics and hermeneutics and locates the relative positions of truth, logic, and rhetoric in the emerging Christian church. Book 4, completed after the prior three, covers the performative elements of preaching, including style and delivery. R. P. H. Green’s translation is widely utilized.

  • Booth, Wayne C. 1991. Rhetoric and religion: Are they essentially wedded? In Radical pluralism and truth. Edited by Werner G. Jeanrond and Jennifer L. Rike, 62–80. New York: Crossroad.

    Argues that issues of rhetoric and religion are essentially bound together in a way that makes the study of both essential to any scholar interested in either one. Of interest to all scholars who are seeking to examine how religion is linked to human discourse, and vice versa, by their nature.

  • Burke, Kenneth. 1970. The rhetoric of religion: Studies in logology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An essential reference for studies in religious rhetoric, Burke argues that all types of language and rhetoric—secular and religious—are tied to the formal organization, hierarchy, and transcendence of religious rituals. Burke develops his study on the basis of logology—words about words—in contrast to theology, which Burke describes as “words about God.” Case studies emphasize the linkage of language to our conception of transcendence.

  • Jost, Walter, and Wendy Olmstead, eds. 2000. Rhetorical invention & religious inquiry. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    This edited volume contains a wide range of essays from eminent scholars, such as Walter J. Ong, S. J., Wayne C. Booth, Paul Ricoeur, and others. Essays include both theoretical looks at religious rhetoric and rhetorical criticism in particular areas. Its utility for those studying the rhetoric of religion extends far beyond the area of invention to deep investigations of the relationship between language itself to theology, philosophy, and more.

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