Friday, May 14, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata III - Chreia

We come to our third exercise in Biblical progymnasmata, the chreia. Here is what Aphthonius says,

"Chreia (khreia) is a brief recollection, referring to some person in a pointed way. It is called a chreia because it is useful (khreiodes). Some chreias are verbal, some active, some mixed. One that makes the utility clear by what is said is verbal; for example, Plato said the twigs of virtue grow by sweat and toil. An active chreia is one signifying something done; for example, when Pythagoras was asked how long is the life of men, he hid himself after appearing briefly, making his appearance a measure of life. A mixed chreia consists of both a saying and an action; for example, when Diogenes saw an undisciplined youth he struck his pedagogue, saying, "Why do you teach him such things?"

He then goes on to elaborate on the different treatments the chreia can take:

"This is the division of the chreia, and you should elaborate it with the following headings: praise, paraphrase, cause, contrary, comparison, example, testimony of the ancients, brief epilogue."

Aelius Theon considers the treatments of the chreia a bit differently, but we'll stick with Aphthonius for simplicity's sake. Chreias are very similar to maxims, but differ in several respects, which I'll point out when we get to maxims. For now it is best to understand that a maxim can be a chreia, but not all maxims are chreias. The chief distinction of the chreia is its usefulness as an application for life.

Example: Proverbs 26:4-5

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."


This pair of verses form a riddle clothed in paradoxical expression. How can one answer and not answer a fool? It would be self-contradictory if the pair was intended to indicate the same thing in the same manner, but it doesn't. The first phrase intends that we not answer the fool according to the fool's own manner of understanding and expression--in other words, don't use the same assumptions and manner that a fool does. In apologetics, this would mean not granting the fool the assumption that God must be proven before He can be accepted as true. The second phrase intends that we answer the fool by pointing out his folly, in order that he not remain confident in his self-estimation. In apologetics, this would mean demonstrating the folly of the fool's assumptions and/or manner of reasoning. Thus, the saying has great import for life because it recommends in a very memorable expression how we are to engage with those who deny God by their words and actions--which is the Biblical definition of foolishness.

Summary & Use:

The treatments of a chreia in the progymnasmata are different inventions: different ways of inserting the chreia into a larger speech in order to lend credibility, garner praise, or highlight some idea, or add support to an argument. Aphthonius takes the several treatments and combines them into one example following the order: praise, paraphrase, cause, contrary, comparison, example, testimony, epilogue. Here is what our present example might look like given the same order.

Praise: It is just that Solomon is praised as the wisest of all men, for his facility with words is excelled only by his acuity of thought. His recorded sayings as as numerous as they are illustrious, and we would do well to consider each of them with keenness like unto themselves.

Paraphrase: Don't play the fool, he says, unless we wish to be foolish ourselves, but rather make play of the fool, in order that his foolishness be made evident to even himself.

Cause: It is a fearful responsibility to possess the truth, but it ought to cause men more fear to be in want of the truth. It is because of this twofold nature that truth-bearers must be ever ready to neither forsake the truth, nor let it be trampled upon by the slack-jawed ignorant--for the former is to become a semblance of ignorance, which is a betrayal of the truth, and the latter is to allow ignorance to be paraded as truth, which is also a betrayal of the truth. Therefore we see the truth-telling is both manner and means: its clothing must be both well-fit and visibly displayed.

Contrary: For if the fool is answered in foolishness, what can be the outcome but like for like? And if the fool is left to boast in his folly, what can come of it but compounded corruption? Therefore we must forsake neither the silencing of the folly within ourselves prior to our speaking, nor in our neighbor who speaks folly in his haste or ignorance.

Comparison: For it would be as though a father wished to correct his son's childishness in pitching a fit by engaging in a fit himself, or otherwise allowing the son to pitch his fit and feel no sting of guilt or remorse for having succumb to such madness.

Example: Consider Paul, who did not count it above himself to speak to the learned Greeks upon the Areopagus, nor below himself to teach them of their own ignorance. Yet in speaking of their religious beliefs, he neither failed to point out their ignorance of the One True God, nor did he speak to them by adopting their own philosophy, but openly proclaimed the resurrection of the dead, which to their ears was nonsensical.

Testimony: In doing likewise we agree with Elijah's words from the top of Carmel to the people of Israel:
"How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him," for what Elijah demands of Israel Solomon demands of us: to flee foolish duplicity and speak singularly on behalf of the truth.

Epilogue: Now then ought we seek obedience to Solomon's words and thereby fulfill what he also says: "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles."


The chreia are quite versatile for amplification of the teaching they contain. Nor should we necessarily limit our search for them to the Scriptures, but ought also include the pious sayings of our forefathers in the faith. For example, Augustine's famous theme of the Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Although I didn't do so here, the New Testament also makes great use of Old Testament references in ways that resemble the chreia, or at least are easily adaptable into chreia.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata II - Narrative

I'm continuing my series on Biblical Progymnasmata. Our second entry is narrative, which is already well-recognized as a central genre of the Bible. We'll focus on how Biblical narrative can be used in its own right, as well as how the Progymnasmata teaches how to craft narratives from narratives.

On narratives, Aphthonius states:

"Narrative is an exposition of an action that has happened or as though it had happened. Narrative differs from narration as a piece of poetry differs from a poem. The Iliad as a whole is a poem, the making of the arms of Achilles a poetry.

Some narrative is dramatic, some historical, some political. Imagined narrative is dramatic; narrative giving an account of early events is historical; what orators use in their contests is political. There are six attributes of narrative: the person who acted, the thing done, the time at which, the place in which, the manner how, and the cause for which it was done.

The virtues of narrative are four: clarity, brevity, persuasiveness, and hellenism [i.e. purity of Greek]."

Before getting into examples and explanations, I want to provide a bit of preface. Although narrative is the second stage of progymnasmata, it is quite difficult if a proper method of use is not followed. It is much harder to craft an original narrative, and harder still when the narrative is left without a specific purpose or aim for its being given. Thus, narrative should be done with existing narratives from Scripture, which are then manipulated according to several methods: summarization, reversals of order in retelling (Aelius Theon identifies five ways of doing this), alternating direct and indirect syntax, using various types of expression (asking questions, making inquiry, expressing doubt, making a command, expressing a wish, expressing an oath, crafting a dialogue, stating facts, omitting conjunctions, or expressing a maxim, interweaving several narratives, including refutation and proof, as an extended example, or even as a myth--all things Aelius Theon names). Thus, while it is supposedly an easier step than later stages of the progymnasmata, it is clear that a lot of time and development can be spent on narrative.

Example I: Acts 7:2-53 - Stephen's speech before the Jewish council.


Stephen's speech might be classified as an historical narrative because it recounts the past, but it is probably better labeled as a political speech because it is aimed at making an argument before the council, rather than simply relating events in a more general way. Stephen's speech is a short summary of God's salvation history leading up to the Messiah and the rejection of Him by the Jews. Beginning with Abraham, Stephen retells the history of Israel through the episodes of God's preservation through faithful prophets and kings in the face of opposition from within Israel itself. He saves the provocative statement to the end, for it is likely that his narrative would not have been controversial had he not linked the rebeliousness of the Jews toward God and His prophets to the present-day leadership of Israel. The narrative provides the student with ample material for using the various methods above for manipulating the narrative for a specific audience--just as Stephen chose to recount the sweeping narrative of the Old Testament according to his apologetic and polemical purpose before the council. It would probably be good to have several other narrative accounts of God's salvation history, which are quite numerous throughout the Old and New Testaments. Here are several others large enough for comparison and manipulation: for a more metaphorical account, Ezekiel 16 is good, albeit graphic for younger children; Psalms 105 and 106 are excellent; Isaiah 42 has a more abstract example, and Isaiah 49 has a future-oriented example.

Summary & Use:

Biblical narrative occurs on several levels. Some narratives aim to recount Israel's history with a special focus on representing God's faithfulness in the midst of an unfaithful people, or in the face of threats to God's promises. Other narratives are more specifically aimed to instruct the faithful to remember God's promises, or to condemn the reprobate for their faithlessness. Biblical narratives in general can be useful in several ways: they teach us content that can be memorized, internalized, and remembered in times where our faith is tested; they show us how the Biblical writers themselves crafted narratives for specific occasions and intentions; they allow us opportunities to adapt the narratives for specific purposes we might have in preaching a sermon, witnessing God's faithfulness to an unbeliever, or instructing each other in the promises and commandments of God. For young children, using the Psalms or speeches in Acts by Peter and Stephen can be used as foundational instruction in God's historical purposes. As they grow older, the ethical tone of promise/curse can be heightened through exercises with Ezekiel 16 or the Major and Minor Prophets.


Although it is only the second stage of the Progymnasmata, narrative exercises can be quite elaborate and varied. They are simple because adaptation of an existing story is easier than developing something intuitively or for argumentation. However, as students become more proficient in the use of various methods of adaptation, assignments should be advanced to have the student adapt their narratives for a specific aim (exhortation, apologetic, reproof, etc.). Narrative is also in the second stage because besides being an exercise that stands alone, it can also form a part of later exercises, such as refutation and confirmation. Thus the student who masters the adaptation of Biblical narratives will have a solid grounding in the flow of Biblical history and God's plan of salvation in order that specific doctrines learned during the later stages of Progymnasmata remain connected to their applications in God's Church throughout history.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata I - Fable

I'm beginning a new series of posts on the Progymnasmata. The Progymnasmata are "preliminary exercises," which the ancient Greeks developed as teaching tools for students preparing to become orators. These exercises were a series of incremental stages beginning with the most basic and easy to understand elements (i.e. fable) and progressing up to longer, and more complex elements (i.e. introduction of a law). The Progymnasmata were a part of Greek and Roman education, as well as classical education in the Christian empires up through the 19th century in some places. The content that comprise the elements were drawn from classical literature, but the model is really an application of universal forms of linguistic expression, so almost any literature can be found with one or more of the elements. Biblical literature has all of them, and since I'm a proponent of exercises that actually teach something useful and true, I think the progymnasmata ought to be updated with Biblical examples. So I'll be following the Progymnasmata of Aphthonius the Sophist, using Biblical examples with explanation and possible applications as well. Let's make like Israel and Augustine and plunder the Egyptians!

On fables, Aphthonius states, "Fable originated with poets but has come to be used also by orators for the sake of the moral. Fable is a fictive statement, imaging truth. It is called Sybaritic and Cicilian and Cyprian, varying its names with its inventors, but calling it Aesopic has largely prevailed because Aesop composed fables best of all. Some fables are rational, some ethical, some mixed; rational when a human being is imagined as doing something, ethical when representing the character of irrational animals, mixed when made up of both, irrational and rational. When the moral for which the fable has been assigned is stated first, you will call it a promythion, when added at the end an epimythion."

Example 1: Mark 4:30-32

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like g a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”


Mark 4:30-32 is a promythion, for the "moral" or application of the fable is declared from the beginning: "With what can we compare the kingdom of God." We have an ethical fable, for though the Kingdom of God is comprised of people, it is really an abstract (i.e. spiritual) idea, here represented through the organic metaphor of the mustard seed. The kingdom of God begins small, with only a few disciples, but shall eventually grow into a Kingdom of vast proportions, as the tiny mustard seed becomes the much larger tree. Not only shall the Kingdom grow large, it shall be a boon to all who come under its sway, which is explained in the phrase, "that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Thus the Kingdom begins small and has small impact in the world, but it grows large and has great impact in the world. Here is the ethical teaching of the fable.

Example 2: Ezekiel 17:22-24

Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”


Ezekiel 17:22-24 is also a promythion, for the entire chapter up to these verses contains a double-sided parable previously stated and applied as a two-fold prophecy. The above verses are one side of the parable/prophecy. It is also an ethical fable, again describing the Kingdom of God and using an organic metaphor. In fact, we see Mark 4 as a direct allusion to Ezekiel 17, for it uses the same language of birds dwelling under the branches of the tree. The application is also similar: the twig that is small and insignificant shall become a tree that is large and has great impact in the world, for many will come to rest under its power and sway. An additional teaching is added: that all the "trees" of the field shall recognize God as Lord of all, faithful to His Word in bringing down the "high tree" and raising up the "low tree," dry up the "green tree," and make the "dry tree" flourish. Here the "high tree," the "green tree," and the "trees of the field" are all the other kingdoms, or rather all those under the "kingdom of this world" or the "Kingdom of Satan." God will crush His enemies and restore His Kingdom and its people to ascendency and right worship. The other additional teaching is the seal of assurance: "I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it." This teaches us that whatever inadequacies we see in the people of God, God Himself accomplishes in them all that He wills to do.


We have seen two Biblical examples of the progymnasmata category of "fable," which is a fictional image of the truth; a teaching tool to represent a genuine aspect of reality. In these examples, the reality being taught is that the Kingdom of God, though starting out insignificant, shall ultimately become triumphant in the world and become a boon to all who come under its influence. This truth is grounded in the character and promise of God, which cannot be broken, delayed, or otherwise thwarted; and which provides the assurance and impetus for God's people to be about His work despite all circumstances and appearances positive or negative in our limited estimations.


The use of these "fables" can occur in a sermon whenever the text brings to bear any discussion of the Kingdom of God. They serve as a reminder to God's people that He is faithful to His Word, and that His Word tells us that His Kingdom shall prevail over His enemies, and become a blessing for all the earth. It is also a reminder to God's enemies that no measure of present victory shall be enough to vanquish the Lord of Hosts, who is patient to bring in all who are His, and who will by no means relinquish His justice for those who are unrepentant. Another use of these particular fables is to teach the people of God humility. It is not their piety, nor their righteous efforts that shall accomplish the fulfillment of God's Kingdom. Rather, it is God's own power, His chosen means, His chosen time, and His Wisdom that shall make it so. There is great comfort to be had in knowing that the power to do all the will of God rests with God Himself, and it is great encouragement to seek obedience to God's expressed commands, for it is elsewhere taught that through our obedience (which God Himself provides to us by His Spirit in Christ Jesus, our Teacher) God shall bring about His Kingdom's reign. Beyond the sermon, in the home, the fables are a reminder to the child to put his confidence in the Lord God and His Word; and it reminds the parents that they are dependent upon God for all that He requires of them, and it teaches them both patience to see that what must begin insignificantly may become triumphant by degrees--the teaching of the organic metaphors here supported by another (this time rational) fable of the gardener or vinedresser.


We can see the great opportunity that the "fable" provides for young children as well as young Christians who can easily grasp the meaning of the fable and may enjoy its presentation in simple narrative form. We need not rely upon Aesop to entertain and instruct our own, for God has given us, through the Greeks, a model well-suited to the treasures God has hidden in His revelation to us. Up next: Narrative.