Friday, January 23, 2009

Phillips Brooks

Today is the Feast Day of Phillips Brooks (1835-1893): priest, then bishop, and one of the nineteenth-century's greatest preachers.

Here's what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about Brooks:
Writing about Phillips Brooks in 1930, William Lawrence, who as a young man had known him, began, "Phillips Brooks was a leader of youth. ... His was the spirit of adventure, in thought, in life, and faith." To many who know him only as the author of "O little town of Bethlehem," this part of Brooks' life and influence is little known. 
Born in Boston in 1835, Phillips Brooks began his ministry in Philadelphia. His impressive personality and his eloquence immediately attracted attention. After ten years in Philadelphia, he returned to Boston as rector of Trinity Church, which was destroyed in the Boston fire three years later. It is a tribute to Brooks' preaching, character, and leadership that in four years of worshiping in temporary and bare surroundings, the congregation grew and flourished. The new Trinity Church was a daring architectural enterprise for its day, with its altar placed in the center of the chancel, "a symbol of unity; God and man and all God's creation," and was a symbol of Brooks' vision - a fitting setting for the greatest preacher of the century. 
This reputation has never been challenged. His sermons have passages that still grasp the reader, though they do not convey the warmth and vitality which so impressed his hearers. James Bryce wrote, "There was no sign of art about his preaching, no touch of self-consciousness. He spoke to his audience as a man might speak to his friend, pouring forth with swift, yet quiet and seldom impassioned earnestness, the thoughts of his singularly pure and lofty spirit." 
Brooks ministered with tenderness, understanding, and warm friendliness. He inspired men to enter the ministry, and taught many of them the art of preaching. He was conservative and orthodox in his theology; but his generosity of heart led him to be regarded as the leader of the liberal circles of the Church. 
In 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. The force of his personality and preaching, together with his deep devotion and loyalty, provided the spiritual leadership needed for the time. His constant concern was to turn his hearers' thoughts to the revelations of God. "Whatever happens," he wrote, "always remember the mysterious richenss of human nature and the nearness of God to each one of us" [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 142].

Here's what a New York Times article published on February 27, 1890 and entitled "Crowded to the Doors: Phillips Brooks' Sermon at Trinity Yesterday" says (note how part of this touches on themes from my previous posting on original sin):
Long before 12 o'clock yesterday every seat was occupied in Trinity Church, and when the Rev. Phillips Brooks ascended the pulpit at five minutes after the noon hour, the space set apart for standing room was entirely preempted. For the first time in the history of the parish the public were permitted to occupy the choir stalls in the chancel, while hundreds were turned away, unable to gain admission to the church. 
The theme of the preacher was "The Power of the Leadership and Liberation of of Christ Jesus." All men, Mr. Brooks contended, may be made more courageous to undertake the battle of life by contemplating the career of the Saviour of men. Many men do not care for the Gospel, but no man lives who has not at some time felt that he was made for something better and higher than this life. All men are essentially by their nature children of God. The story of the Prodigal Son was recited and enlarged upon and applied to the condition of the human race at the present time. The Lord Jesus had declared that men could not go to God, simply because God was here always and forever. When men attain to that condition of mind and heart where they say "I will arise and go to my Father," the Son will come to them. Men may loathe sin, but the only thing that will make it absolutely hideous is the realization that it keeps them from God. 
God blesses every soul that is blessable, forgives every soul that is forgivable, and saves every soul that is savable. Men may repent them of the sins they have committed, but those sins are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generations. Only the grace of God can remove the curse and do away the evil results of men's misdoings. The repentant man is freed through God's grace, but the sin goes on. We say that sin is necessary because men are mortal, that it is inevitable. No man ever did wrong who might not have done the right thing. No man ever committed a sin that he was absolutely compelled to commit. Man can never get his sins out of the way absolutely without the help and love of God. When he is willing to give up his sins, and to grieve over them, and seek after the great love and mercy and welcome of God, then, and only then, may he hope to come into the full measure of the Christian liberty which is in Christ Jesus.

And finally, here is an excerpt from Brooks' Beecher Lectures delivered to the Divinity School of Yale College in 1877 and published as Lectures on Preaching. In this excerpt from the first lecture entitled "The Two Elements in Preaching," Brooks expounds upon what Richard Lischer calls "the most durable of all definitions of preaching" [Theories of Preaching: Selected Readings in the Homiletical Tradition (The Labyrinth Press, 1987), p. 14]:

Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. It must have both elements. 
This was the method by which Christ chose that His Gospel should be spread through the world. It was a method that might have been applied to the dissemination of any truth, but we can see why it was especially adapted to the truth of Christianity. For that truth is preeminently personal. However the Gospel may be capable of statement in dogmatic form, its truest statement we know is not in dogma but in personal life. Christianity is Christ; and we can easily understand how a truth which is of such peculiar character that a person can stand forth and say of it "I am the Truth," must always be best conveyed through, must indeed be almost incapable of being perfectly conveyed except through personality. 
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.

[There] is an immense amount of preaching which must be called preaching about Christ as distinct from preaching Christ. There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message, and proclaiming Christ as a Saviour. I do not undervalue their discussions. But I think we ought always to feel that such discussions are not the type or ideal of preaching. They may be necessities of the time, but they are not the work which the great Apostolic preachers did, or which the true preacher will always most desire. Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. 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, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better.

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 [quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 24-25]. 
[There] is an immense amount of preaching which must be called preaching about Christ as distinct from preaching Christ. There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message, and proclaiming Christ as a Saviour. I do not undervalue their discussions. But I think we ought always to feel that such discussions are not the type or ideal of preaching. They may be necessities of the time, but they are not the work which the great Apostolic preachers did, or which the true preacher will always most desire. Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. 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, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better. 
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 [quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 24-25].

2 comments:

Perpetua said...

This really jumped out as me as it seems so contemporary, yet it was written in 1877:

Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. 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, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better.

Bryan Owen said...

It really is amazing how contemporary that sounds! Brooks' understanding of preaching - and how it differs from other forms of discourse - is, IMO, absolutely on the mark.