Parenesis (also spelled paraenesis) is derived from the Greek parainesis, advice, or paraineō, advise, recommend, urge, exhort. The word has been taken over from Greek rhetorical vocabulary by Biblical scholars as a technical description for passages with an exhortatory content concerned with proper moral or religious living. In the NT the term is found twice, both times in verbal form (Acts 27.9, 22). Passages judged to be parenetic often contain the similarly used parakaleō, exhort (e.g., Rom 12.1; 1 Thes 4.1; 1 Pt 2.11; 5.1).
Parenesis tends to be expressed briefly by using a succession of imperative statements. It gives personal counsel on moral and spiritual matters, practical advice for the listener or reader. A dominant feature of such exhortation is the use of traditional materials, especially popular maxims of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. Parenetic writing is characterized by the author's selection of a topos, i.e., focus upon a particular topic of moral concern. The development of the topos often uses such figures as similes, metaphors, parables, allegories, fables, and myths. The parenetic teaching may also be set forth in antitheses, i.e., expressed in the distinctive dualistic motif of the "two ways." Finally, parenesis is inclined to use catalogues of virtues and vices, groups of sayings, and, in some instances, Haustafeln, tables of household duties.
Biblical Instances. While parenesis is easily recognizable in the OT (e.g., in the wisdom literature in Prv 10.1–22.16, the "Proverbs of Solomon," and throughout Sir), most attention has been directed to its presence in the NT. Major sections of Paul's writings are considered to be parenetic (1 Thes 4–5; Gal 5–6; 1 Cor 6–7; Rom 6, 12–15). Various other epistles have parenetic sections throughout (Heb, 1 Pt) or are entirely so (Jas).
Twentieth-century assessments by A. Malherbe and S. Stowers warn, however, that parenesis has been generally understood too narrowly in New Testament studies as the stringing together of traditional precepts and exhortations usually placed before the conclusion of a letter. In their judgment parenesis includes not only precepts but also such things as advice, supporting argumentation, various modes of encouragement and dissuasion, the use of examples, models of conduct, etc. Thus, it is argued, for example that 1 Thessalonians as a whole is a parenetic letter using such rhetoric. In this approach the pastoral epistles would also be termed parenetic insofar as they compare well with fictitious letters of exhortation written in the names of various philosophers. Romans is the letter of Paul that comes closest to having a discrete parenetic section (chs. 12–15), but this is deemed misleading because the earlier part of the letter also has exhortatory materials (ch. 6).
Patristic Literature and Moral Theology. Parenesis is also frequently found in patristic writings (see e.g., Didache; Epistle of Barnabas; 1 Clement ; Polycarp, Philippians ; Basil, Letter 2; Augustine, Letters 19, 112, 210). The most outstanding example of the "two ways" motif in all of early Christian exhortation is that found in the beginning of the Didache: "There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death; and the difference between these two ways is great."
The early Christian proclamation of Christ, the kerygma, is related by many to parenesis analogously as gift and task, indicative and imperative, and from the perspective of theological reflection as dogmatics and ethics.
Thus the good news of the gospel is seen as the basis for the claims of parenesis. At the same time, it has been observed that parenesis draws attention to an essential element in the preaching of God's word: "It does not merely instruct, but paves the way for and reveals the blessed reality that is preached, liberating, consoling, fortifying its hearers and enabling them to accept it: a law which gives to them the power they need to fulfill it" (Rahner-Vorgrimler, p. 336).
Parenesis has moved also into the vocabulary of some moral theologians (e.g., B. Schüller and R. McCormick) as a term designating a supposedly distinct type of moral discourse. These moralists stress a difference between, and the perils of confusing, normative ethics with exhortatory moralizing, i.e., parenesis. Parenesis is understood to be a kind of verbal or exemplary persuasion to behave in a way that is already conceded to be the right way of behaving; the parenetic discourse is basically motivational, while the normative ethical formulation is mainly declarative. It has been argued in response (e.g., by J. Gaffney), however, that such a distinction is too sharply drawn and that the exhortation these theologians call parenesis is in fact integrally part and parcel of the moral norms to which it refers.
Bibliography: j. gaffney, "On Parenesis and Fundamental Moral Theology," Journal of Religious Ethics 11 (1983) 23–34. a. j. malherbe, "Exhortation in First Thessalonians," Novum Testamentum 25 (1983) 238–256. j. i. h. mcdonald, Kerygma and Didache. The Articulation and Structure of the Earliest Christian Message, Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph 37 (Cambridge 1980). k. rahner and h. vorgrimler, "Parenesis," Theological Dictionary (Freiburg 1965) 335–336. d. schroeder, "Parenesis," The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible supplement, ed. k. crim et al. (Nashville 1976) 643. s. k. stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Library of Early Christianity 5 (Philadelphia 1986).
[f. m. gillman]