Truth through Personality (1)

Mark Minnick

One of the striking anomalies of church history is that God sometimes uses even unorthodox preachers to throw brilliant light on sacred subjects. A case in point is the 19th-century Episcopalian minister Phillips Brooks. Brooks considered himself an evangelical and even led in prayer during a series of evangelistic meetings held in Boston by D. L. Moody. But he wasn’t entirely clear about Christ’s atonement or man’s fundamental nature as a desperate sinner.

Nevertheless, Phillips Brooks grasped certain elements of preaching as well as any man probably has. In 1877 he was invited to express his views as the sixth of Yale’s annual lecturers on preaching, and the subsequent publishing of these presentations under the simple title Lectures on Preaching proved to be a true classic. Few will ever voice anything on the work of the pulpit that approaches its genius. R. A. Torrey, the future president of Moody Bible Institute, once thanked Brooks: I would like here to acknowledge the debt I owe you for inspiration in my individual religious experience and in my public work. … Give us other works still.

At the time Brooks delivered the series he was a veteran of eighteen years of pastoral work. He had been at the church in which he would eventually close his ministry, Trinity Church of Boston, for eight of those. By then he had come to feel, he told the Yale University students and faculty, that in a world where there are a great many good and happy things for men to do, God has given us the best and happiest, and made us preachers of His Truth.

Brooks lectured eight times and confined himself to only the core elements of preaching. Even his titles, though foursquare, were without advertising appeal: The Preacher Himself, The Preacher in His Work, The Making of the Sermon, and so on. For my part, I am startled when I think how few and simple are the things which I have to say to you, he announced the first day. But though his subjects were elementary, his insights into their working principles were profound, beginning with his definition of preaching. It’s been probably the single most often quoted description ever since. Preaching, Brooks proposed, is simply Truth through Personality. The preacher’s work, he said in his second lecture, is not the doing of certain specified duties, but the offering of himself as a medium through whom God’s influences may reach his fellow-man.

Someone who knows books very well and whose advice I don’t take lightly recommends that young preachers read Lectures on Preaching once a year for the first five years of their ministry and then once every other year for the rest of their lives. But unfortunately, few men today seem even to know the title. So I thought it valuable to reintroduce it from a sample of Brooks’s first lecture. I’ve had to cull out nearly two thirds of the content, but I trust that what remains will do its author justice and whet a new appetite for his truly masterful work on our life’s calling.

The Two Elements in Preaching

What, then, is preaching, of which we are to speak? 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.

Suppose truth 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 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.

If this be true, then, it establishes the first of all principles concerning the ministry and preparation for the ministry. 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 feel 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 and strength that there is in him. In the first case the man has been but a printing machine or a trumpet. In the other case be has been a true man and a real messenger of God.

This decrees for us in general what the preparation for the ministry is. It must be nothing less than the making of a man. It cannot be the mere training to certain tricks. It cannot be even the furnishing with abundant knowledge. It must be nothing less than the kneading and tempering of a man’s whole nature till it becomes of such a consistency and quality as to be capable of transmission.

Let us look now for a few moments at these two elements of preaching—Truth and Personality; the one universal and invariable, the other special and always different.

With Regard to the Truth

It is strange how impossible it is to separate it and consider it wholly by itself. The personalness will cling to it. There are two aspects of the minister’s work, which we are constantly meeting in the New Testament. They are really embodied in two words, one of which is message, and the other is witness. This is the message which we have heard of Him and declare unto you, says St. John in his first Epistle. We are his witnesses of these things, says St. Peter before the Council at Jerusalem. In these two words together, I think, we have the fundamental conception of the matter of all Christian preaching. 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. The minister who keeps the word message always written before him, as he prepares his sermon in his study, or utters it from his pulpit, is saved from the tendency to wanton and wild speculation, and from the mere passion of originality. He who never forgets that word witness, is saved from the unreality of repeating by rote mere forms of statement which he has learned as orthodox, but never realized as true. If you and I can always carry this double consciousness, that we are messengers, and that we are witnesses, we shall have in our preaching all the authority and independence of assured truth, and yet all the appeal and convincingness of personal belief.

The minstrel who sings before you to show his skill, will be praised for his wit, and rhymes, and voice. But the courier who hurries in, breathless, to bring you a message, will be forgotten in the message that he brings. Among the many sermons I have heard, I always remember one, for the wonderful way in which it was pervaded by this quality. It was a sermon by Mr. George Macdonald, the English author. The man struggled with language as a child struggles with his imperfectly mastered tongue. But as I listened, I seemed to see how weak in contrast was the way in which other preachers had amused me and challenged my admiration for the working of their minds. Here was a gospel. Here were real tidings. And you listened and forgot the preacher.

Take up, some Saturday, the list of subjects on which the ministers of a great city are to preach the next day. See how many of them seem to have searched in strange corners of the Bible for their topics, how small and fantastic is the bit of truth which their hearers are to have set before them. I suppose that all preachers pass through some fantastic period when a strange text fascinates them; when they like to find what can be said for an hour on some little topic on which most men could only talk two minutes; when they are eager for subtlety more than force, and for originality more than truth. But as a preacher grows more full of the conception of the sermon as a message, he gets clear of those brambles. He comes out on to open ground. His work grows freer, and bolder, and broader. He loves the simplest texts, and the great truths which run like rivers through all life. God’s sovereignty, Christ’s redemption, man’s hope in the Spirit, the privilege of duty, the love of man in the Saviour, make the strong music which his soul tries to catch.

To be continued tomorrow…

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)