December 18, 2017

Truth through Personality (2)

Mark Minnick

Yesterday we began an article by Dr. Minnick which introduced the lectures of Phillips Brooks on preaching. This article is an edited version of Brooks’ first lecture. The key idea of preaching, in Brooks’ terminology, is found in our title, “Truth through Personality.” Part One introduced these two components of preaching and then discussed The Truth. Today we conclude with a look at The Personality and the two In Combination.

The Personality

Of the second element in preaching, namely, the preacher’s personality, there are two or three fundamental things which I wish to say to-day. The first is this, that the principle of personality once admitted involves the individuality of every preacher. The same considerations which make it good that the Gospel should not be written on the sky, or committed merely to an almost impersonal book, make it also most desirable that every preacher should utter the truth in his own way, and according to his own nature.

Now the deep sense of the solemnity of the minister’s work has often a tendency to repress the free individuality of the preacher and his tolerance of other preachers’ individualities. His own way of doing his work is with him a matter of conscience, not of taste, and the conscience when it is thoroughly awake is more intolerant than the taste is. Or, working just the other way, his conscience tells him that it is not for him to let his personal peculiarities intrude in such a solemn work, and so he tries to bind himself to the ways of working which the most successful preachers of the Word have followed. I have seen both these kinds of ministers: those whose consciences made them obstinate, and those whose consciences made them pliable; those whose consciences hardened them to steel or softened them to wax. However it comes about, there is an unmistakable tendency to the repression of the individuality of the preacher. It is seen in little things: in the uniform which preachers wear, and the disposition to a uniformity of language. It is seen in great things: in the disposition which all ages have witnessed to draw a line of orthodoxy inside the lines of truth. Wisely and soberly let us set ourselves against this influence. The God who sent men to preach the Gospel of His Son in their humanity, sent each man distinctively to preach it in his humanity. Be yourself by all means, but let that good result come not by cultivating merely superficial peculiarities and oddities. Let it be by winning a true self full of your own faith and your own love. The deep originality is noble, but the surface originality is miserable. It is so easy to be a John the Baptist, as far as the desert and camel’s hair and locusts and wild honey go. But the devoted heart to speak from, and the fiery words to speak, are other things.

Again, we never can forget in thinking of the preacher’s personality that he is one who lives in constant familiarity with thoughts and words which to other men are occasional and rare, and which preserve their sacredness mainly by their rarity. I am sure that often it weakens the minister. I am sure that many men who, if they came to preach once in a great while in the midst of other occupations, would preach with reality and fire, are deadened to their sacred work by their constant intercourse with sacred things. Their constant dealing with the truth makes them less powerful to bear the truth to others, as a pipe through which the water always flows collects its sediment, and is less fit to let more water through. And besides this, it ministers to self-deception and to an exaggeration or distortion of our own history. The man who constantly talks of certain experiences, and urges other men to enter into them, must come in time, by very force of describing those experiences, to think that he has undergone them. You beg men to repent, and you grow so familiar with the whole theory of repentance that it is hard for you to know that you yourself have not repented. You exhort to patience till you have no eyes or ears for your own impatience. It is the way in which the man who starts the trains at the railroad station must come in time to feel as if he himself had been to all the towns along the road whose names he has always been shouting in the passengers’ ears, and to which he has for years sold them their tickets, when perhaps he has not left his own little waystation all the time.

You must get the impulse, the delight, and the growing sacredness of your life out of your familiar work. You are lost as a preacher if its familiarity deadens and encrusts, instead of vitalizing and opening your powers. And it will all depend upon whether you do your work for your Master and His people or for yourself. The last kind of labor slowly kills, the first gives life more and more.

The real preparation of the preacher’s personality for its transmissive work comes by the opening of his life on both sides, towards the truth of God and towards the needs of man. To apprehend in all their intensity the wants and woes of men, to see the problems and dangers of this life, then to know all through us that nothing but Christ and His Redemption can thoroughly satisfy these wants, that is what makes a man a preacher. Alas for him who is only open on the manward side, who only knows how miserable and wicked man is, but has no power of God to bring to him. He lays a kind but helpless hand upon the wound. He tries to relieve it with his sympathy and his philosophy. He is the source of all he says. There is no God behind him. He is no preacher.

The preacher’s instinct is that which feels instantly how Christ and human need belong together, neither thinks Christ too far off for the need, nor the need too insignificant for Christ. Never be afraid to bring the transcendent mysteries of our faith, Christ’s life and death and resurrection, to the help of the humblest and commonest of human wants. There is a sort of preaching which keeps them for the great emergencies, and soothes the common sorrows and rebukes the common sins with lower considerations of economy. Such preaching fails. It neither appeals to the lower nor to the higher perceptions of mankind. It is useful neither as a law nor as a gospel. It is like a river that is frozen too hard to be navigable but not hard enough to bear. Never fear, as you preach, to bring the sublimest motive to the smallest duty, and the most infinite comfort to the smallest trouble. They will prove that they belong there if only the duty and trouble are real and you have read them thoroughly aright.

In Combination

These are the elements of preaching, then—Truth and Personality. The truth is in itself a fixed and stable element; the personality is a varying and growing element. In the union of the two we have the provision for the combination of identity with variety, of stability with growth, in the preaching of the Gospel. The truth which you are preaching is the same which your brother is preaching in the next pulpit, or in some missionary station on the other side of the globe. If it were not, you would get no strength from one another. You would not stand back to back against the enemy, sustaining one another, as you do now. But the way in which you preach the truth is different, and each of you reaches some ears that would be deaf to the most persuasive tones of the other. The gospel you are preaching now is the same gospel that you preached when you were first ordained, in that first sermon which it was at once such a terror and such a joy to preach; but if you have been a live man all the time, you are not preaching it now as you did then. If the truth had changed, your life would have lost its unity. The truth has not changed, but you have grown to fuller understanding of it, to larger capacity of receiving and transmitting it. There is no pleasure in the minister’s life stronger than this—the perception of identity and progress in his preaching of the truth as he grows older. It is like a man’s pleasure in watching the growth of his own body or his own mind, or of a tree which he has planted. Always the same it is, yet always larger.

The world has not heard its best preaching yet. If there is more of God’s truth for men to know, and if it is possible for the men who utter it to become more pure and godly, then, with both of its elements more complete than they have ever been before, preaching must some day be a complete power. But that better preaching will not come by any sudden leap of inspiration. As the preaching of the present came from the preaching of the past, so the preaching that is to be will come from the preaching that is now. If we preach as honestly, as intelligently, and as spiritually as we can, we shall not merely do good in our own day, but help in some real though unrecorded way the future triumphs of the work we love.

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.)

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