Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) famously defined preaching as ‘the bringing of truth through personality’.
I have long considered this definition to be pregnant with meaning, for it seems to suggest a number of important corollaries. It suggests that in addition to the non-negotiable truth content that is fundamental to the preacher’s message:-
- the preacher is not ‘anonymous’, but is a real person, speaking to real persons
- each preacher should have something distinctive (unique, perhaps) to offer by way of style and emphasis that arises from the distinctive (unique, perhaps) aspects of his own personality
- it is proper (desirable, perhaps) for the preacher to draw on his person characteristics and life experiences while shaping his message
- Christian truth which has not been, and cannot be, ‘lived’, is mere theorising
- this seems to confirm John Owen’s dictum that, ‘no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart.’
But how did Brooks himself view preaching, and what did he mean by his celebrated definition?
According to Charles W. Fuller:-
In many respects, Brooks’s life reveals an embodiment of the nineteenth-century swing toward a liberal, romantic form of the Christian faith…The general effect of this romanticized Christianity on evangelicalism was a move from cognitive doctrines to a religion of the heart, rendering a form of the faith that was “too amorphous to be threatened by Darwin or the higher critics.”
This form of romanticism
paved an easy path away from dogmatic Christianity toward a more subjective, experiential, and doctrinally ambiguous form of the faith.
It was this shift towards romanticism that made it possible for Brooks to minimise the importance of objective truth and maximise personal experience:-
By mitigating external authority and maximizing personal experience, Brooks took only one component of Christian preaching and made it central—namely, the personality of the preacher. Brooks, in his lectures, goes as far as to maintain that the preacher’s personality, fully engaged, is the key to effective preaching, and that preaching itself is a revelation of the preacher’s personality.
Insofar as Brooks had a doctrine that was central in his thinking, it was the doctrine of the incarnation. Fuller quotes another biographer:-
Over the mystery of the Incarnation Phillips Brooks was perpetually brooding, till it became to him what the doctrine of the ‘Divine Sovereignty’ had been to his Puritan ancestors.”
But, in Brooks’ thinking, Christ’s incarnation becomes primarily a model for the possibilities of human potential. Fuller quotes Ensley:-
‘[He] regarded Christ’s Incarnation as a specification of a universal principle that holds in all life. What he found in Jesus Christ he generalized. If the Incarnation portrays the actual humanity of God . . . it equally proclaims the potential divinity of man. If Jesus Christ is a revelation of what God is, he is also a sign of what man may become. . . . The Incarnation is at heart a doctrine about human potentiality, a confirmation of human hopes.’
While Brooks could sometimes sound quite orthodox regarding the doctrines of atonement and justification, he seems on the whole ‘to locate redemption in humanity’s innate ability to follow the pattern revealed in the incarnation.’
Fuller concludes that an essentially humanist approach lay at the heart of Brooks’ thinking and preaching:-
Out of Brooks’s romantic and incarnational theology emerged a homiletic that had as its goal the perfection of those who are already “full of the suggestion of God”—a decidedly humanistic aim.60 Although Brooks used evangelical terminology and engaged his preaching with evangelistic fervor, he nevertheless formulated “truth through personality” in a manner inconsistent with evangelical convictions. His idea that preaching is the “continuation, out to the minutest ramifications” of Christ’s incarnation presents a relationship between the preacher and God’s Word that—while permissible within his romantic anthropology—borders on heresy. There is only one incarnation, and preachers are witnesses to it, not replications of it.
So, is preaching the impartation of ‘truth through personality’? Maybe, up to a point. But not the way that Phillips Brooks supposed.
In A Legacy of Preaching: Two-Volume Set—Apostles to the Present Day. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.