Truth through Personality

‘Truth through personality’. What a wonderful definition of preaching! Preaching is not just the communication of truth – it is the communication of truth through personality. This great definition was coined by Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) who exercised a powerful ministry as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Boston, Massachusetts – and who wrote the berautiful Christmas carol, ‘O Little town of Bethlehem’. In 1871, at the age of 42, Brooks delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching at Yale, and it was in those lectures that Brooks offered his now famous definition of preaching as the ‘communication of truth through personality’.

To my embarrassment, although I had often quoted Brooks’ definition, I had never really understood what Brooks had in mind – for I had never actually read his Lectures on Preaching. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term ‘personality’ means ‘the assemblage of qualities or characteristics which makes a person a distinctive individual; the (especially notable or appealing) distinctive character of a person’. I confess that I had equated these ‘qualities or characteristics’ with the natural attractiveness or winsomeness of the preacher, as if the effectiveness of the preacher has something to do with the preacher’s charisma or dynamism. In these terms a good preacher is a preacher with ‘personality’. But in fact Brooks had something else in mind. In this respect, let me quote some extracts from his very first lecture: ‘The two elements in preaching.’

“Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching. The truest truth, the most authoritative statement of God’s will, communicated in any other way than through the personality of brother man to men is not preached truth. Suppose it written on the sky, suppose it embodied in a book which has been so long held in reverence as the direct utterance of God that that the vivid personality of the men who wrote its pages has well-nigh faded out of it; in neither of these cases is there any preaching. And on the other hand, if men speak to other men that which they do not claim for truth, if they use their powers of persuasion or of entertainment to make other men listen to their speculations, or do their will, or applaud their cleverness, that is not preaching either. The first lacks personality. The second lacks truth. And preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. It must have both elements.”

He then went on to elaborate on his understanding of ‘personality’:

“Truth through Personality is our description of real preaching. The truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen. It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him. I think that granting equal intelligence and study, here is the great difference which we fell between two preachers of the Word. The Gospel has come over one of them and reaches us tinged and flavored with his superficial characteristics, belittled with his littleness. The Gospel has come through the other, and we receive it impressed and winged with all the earnestness that there is in him. In the first case the man has been but a printing machine or a trumpet. In the other case he has been a true man and a real messenger of God.”

In other words, for Brooks the effective preacher is a preacher whose character has been shaped by his experience of God. To quote Brooks again: “It is to be a message given to us for transmission, but yet a message which we cannot transmit until it has entered into our own experience, and we can give our own testimony of its spiritual power”. For Brooks preacher are not just objective “messengers” of God’s truth, they are subjective “witnesses” to the saving truth of God.

It was set against this understanding of personality that Brooks then wrote:

“Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. To discuss the relations of Christianity and Science, Christianity and Society, Christianity and Politics, is good. To set Christ forth to men so that they shall know Him, that is far better. It is good to be a Herschel who describes the sun; but it is better to be a Prometheus who brings the sun’s fire to the earth.”

In many ways Brooks Lectures on Preaching feel very dated. Yet although the language belongs to another era, the thrust of what he had to say is relevant as ever: the preacher’s personality must reflect the ongoing experience of Christ: As Brooks went on to say in his second lecture about ‘The Preacher Himself’:

“The Christian ministry is the largest field for the growth of a human soul that this world offers. In it he who is faithful must go on learning more and more for ever. His growth in learning is all abound up with his growth in character. Nowhere else do the moral and intellectual so sympathize, and lose or gain together. The minister must grow. His true growth is not necessarily a change of views. It is a change of view. It is not revolution. It is progress. It is a continual climbing which opens continually wider prospects. It repeats the experience of Christ’s disciples,. Of whom their Lord was always making larger men and then giving them the larger truth of which their enlarged natures had become capable.”

In terms of the modern sense of ‘personality’, I am not sure how colourful a preacher Brooks was. According to his biographers, he was shy, spoke rapidly, had a stiff sermon delivery and terrible eye contact – he usually stared at the sounding board above his head. Yet he became one of the great 19th century ‘princes of the pulpit’ – in part this may have been due to his careful preparation, in part because of his pastor’s heart, but in part too because of the way in which he spoke with sincerity and intensity. His personality reflected his experience of God.

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