Bryden on Preaching

Robert K. Anderson and his wife, Priscilla, were missionaries in Japan and currently undertake work in congregations in the Toronto area.

Walter Williamson Bryden, principal of Knox College from 1945 until his death in 1952, left his mark on a generation of preachers, teachers and scholars that, in the terminology of the day, "sat under him." Dubbed a "Barthian" by those who like to use labels, he claimed allegiance to no particular school of thought, except as it was founded upon and determined by the "holy Scriptures… the only rule of faith and obedience." Even so, he was no admirer of fundamentalism (he preferred the term "Rational orthodoxy"), and was openly critical of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the place allotted to it in the post-Union theological structure. He averred that it was not, properly speaking, a "confession" in the historical sense, but a "system of doctrine."

Those who only know Bryden from the somewhat severe portrait staring down from the walls of the Knox College Library, are not likely to discern the warm human being behind the scholarly figure. One could not easily guess that the same man, in his younger days, was a skilful soccer player and, to the very end, a passionate devotee of baseball. Nor would one expect to see the amused gleam in his eye which preceded one of his memorial bon mots, the meaning of which did not sink in immediately among the members of the note-taking class.

Scholar though he was, Bryden was, above all, a preacher. A research student, trying to get at the man behind the reputation, interviewed a parishioner from one of Bryden's parishes, and asked "What was Bryden like in the pulpit?" He got the answer: "He was like a flame!"

That same "flame-like" quality persisted even into his later years, when, after two strokes, he was at less than his usual strength. He rarely "lectured." Rather, he "preached" his lectures, and sometimes with such power that the students forgot to take notes, and listened raptly to his handling of the subject.

The following is an excerpt from W.W. Bryden's unpublished work After Modernism, What? In his lectures Principal Bryden often departed from his prepared script and enriched the time with personal observations and reminiscences. These were sometimes called "asides," but were really of the nature of a supplementary lecture. He was not pleased by overhearing the suggestion, made by some students, that his "asides" were better than his lectures. Nevertheless it was true that, given free rein to his imagination and rich background in preaching, pastoral work, study, and contact with great minds, he brought to the classroom something of the breadth of his scholarship and depth of his personal faith. The following excerpt is a small sample of the thing that the students experienced, valued, and remembered.

— Robert K. Anderson

There is nothing about Barth which is of greater importance than the fact that his theology is so vitally and essentially related to his task as a preacher, that is to say, to the task of the church. It is not enough, however, to simply recognize this fact. In order to understand Barth, to feel the power of his arguments, I am persuaded that we must also, in some real sense, have shared his peculiar difficulty.

On that account, therefore, a digression might perhaps be permitted at this juncture. The personal nature of what I am about to say can only be excused on the ground that a brief narration of my own theological and practical difficulties of some years ago will enable me, as nothing else can, to explain the real attraction both Barth and others of his school of thought have had for me since I first became acquainted with them not more than four or five years ago. It will help me also to reveal, as I otherwise could not, the difficulties I have found, and still find, with certain aspects of Barth's presentation of the Christian theology.

In the years immediately subsequent to the Great War, I found my theological and especially my practical difficulties as an active minister in a congregation, coming to a focus. Before this, I had passed through all the various phases of the modern critical and theological thought. Schweitzer's work… led me to give some years of intensive study to the eschatological problem; especially I had been led to study the subject under the guidance of H. A. Charles' works. I soon discovered for myself, however, that the whole outlook of the New Testament was eschatological in character, that the expectation of Jesus was distinctly so. In fact, it seemed clear to me that Jesus did not mean by the Kingdom of God either what the various modern views suggested, nor what particular ecclesiastical interests like those of the late Bishop Gore, in a sort of compromise between high-church ideas and distinctly modern conceptions, were at the time proposing. What I did not realize at that time was the fact that the eschatology of the New Testament was essential to its whole message. Furthermore, although I found myself at times satisfied with certain modern positions which I had attained (and I have been especially indebted, in this regard, to Principal John Oman) I increasingly discovered that I could find no satisfactory basis of authority for my Christian faith there or in the "historic Jesus" of the historical-critical schools. Besides, Ritschlian values, although helpful toward the understanding of many aspects of life and important for much that pertains to our deepest and surest convictions, could be far too widely applied, I deemed, to maintain adequately the particular claims of the traditional Christian faith.

But in the years aforementioned, that is, immediately after the War, the difficulty became more acute and more practical. I have to confess (although I believe I had the average success in the employment of these religious pedagogical methods — especially in the training of our youth — which have been the vogue in America and Canada for some decades) I was compelled to ask myself concerning such: what is the purpose of these? What is being achieved which is worth the labour expended? What genuine attachment to the church, to Jesus Christ, have Christian men succeeded in obtaining by means of all this bustle and activity? It appeared to me that the modern church was fighting a losing battle, and these and other methods were so many expedients by which we of the church were encouraging ourselves to believe that we were really attaining that for which the church of God stands. The real facts of the situation, however, were increasingly revealing that no deep and permanent loyalty to the church was being attained. The challenge of modern methods had not been sufficiently radical to create a true allegiance to the things of Christ.

The consequence of such reflections was the publication of my book The Spirit of Jesus in St. Paul in 1925. Although I see now that the treatment of my particular theme there was anything but consistent (my thought was oscillating between the modern and traditional views) yet I had, at the time, arrived at four distinctive and important positions, which diverged sharply from the modern outlook and from the basic principles which really govern modern religious thought. These may be set down in the following abbreviated form:

(1) I had distinguished sharply between the customary method of speaking of the spirit of Jesus in terms of the qualities of heart and mind possessed by Jesus and exhibited to men while he was here on earth, and which those who would follow him must themselves endeavour to adopt — between such and the Spirit which in the New Testament is always conceived as a creative source, or power, of new life. The Holy Spirit, for those who belonged to the early church, constituted "the creative power of their membership."1

(2) The whole problem and the profound perplexity of preaching the Word of God had long been before me, and in this book I strongly advanced the claim that the peculiar task of the Christian ministry could not be achieved by any kind of pedagogical instruction, however skilfully and sympathetically employed. Here again it was a matter of the Spirit of God and as expressed in St. Paul's great treatment of that subject in 1 Corinthians 11:10ff. The Spirit of God, however, only reveals this efficacy in the preaching of that man who is genuinely conscious "of his own bankruptcy in those things which matter to people." In such "self-abandonment he found his true freedom." I had been referring to Mrs. Humphrey Ward's Vincent, and had concluded as follows: "And this freedom of soul is the reality wherein is worked the one greatest miracle of life; he [Vincent] found he could speak to the souls of other people in the very realities of the soul's innermost life."2

(3) I had also been greatly impressed with the paradoxical nature of Christianity, not only in certain phases incidental to Christian life and experience, but as something integral to the whole revelation in Christ. "To Paul, Christ in his incarnation, life and death, is a complete contradiction of the fashion of this world and the pride of it." … "These antitheses dip deep into the whole significance of the Christian revelation of life, and for that reason, such knowledge particularly represents the distinguishing elements of the teaching of that Spirit which, Paul believes, imparts to men the deep and unsearchable things of God."3

(4) And in view of what I deemed must seem the truth to worldly men of every age, in respect to the life of St. Paul, namely, that the life he lived was indeed that of a fool — it indeed seemed a futile life to his contemporaries — and yet, in the face of the glorious achievement with which that life has been recognizedly been crowned, I was, in this book, impelled to ask this pertinent question: "Is the modern church real enough, earnest and true enough, noble enough in mind and spirit to acquire the courage to fail — to fail in some such sense that Jesus and Paul failed? Have we as ministers, as officials, as a Christian people much that is analogous to that spirit which is central to the life of Jesus and that of the greatest of Apostles? The courage to fail… which is imperative to Christian life… (and which) is indissolubly linked up with the character and teachings of the founder of the Christian religion."4

The burden of this whole book was to be found in an endeavour to demonstrate the fact that, so far as a Christian understanding of life is concerned, there is a natural man and there is a spiritual man, and to show, furthermore, that what is so often equated in modern religious thought with the spiritual, that is, man's higher ideals and values, is not at all what St. Paul meant by spiritual knowledge. I had stressed the fact that there were two kinds of religious knowledge, perhaps better, there were two kinds of religious cognition; and one of these alone might properly be said to be Christian. "The things of the spirit are spiritually discerned," means that man may be, and is, under proper conditions, uniquely apprehended and uniquely illumined by God's Spirit. Let me say, therefore, that it was not a little disconcerting to find that among the reviews of this book there was to be discovered scarcely one important reference to the points which I have just raised concerning it. That which had been my chief concern had apparently escaped the reviewers, or had been considered somewhat fantastic in a day when such thinking had come to be viewed as more or less obsolete.

My purpose, however, in introducing this personal reference, has been to show that two important considerations have emerged which are of supreme significance for the particular approach which I wish, at present, to make to Barth and his theology. In the first place, in my study of the Corinthian letters (upon which the book referred to above was based) I found myself continually thrown back on the question: What is preaching? I was obliged, that is to say, to ask myself about the "Why" and "Wherefore" of Christian preaching. What has it availed for the minister and what has it availed for the people, and what should it avail for both? These never-ceasing activities, upon which we have depended so greatly in modern times, these highly-advertised pedagogical methods, what are such really seeking to achieve? Having considered every possible phase and necessity of the minister's work, it would seem that we moderns had succeeded in leaving aside the one thing needful — that thing, indeed, which is at the root of the Reformed Church's conviction, and in which the preaching of the Word is made the all-essential matter. Preaching had, in modern treatises, been considered as an art, as a method of education. The form, propriety and dignity were made matters of first importance, everything in fact, except the personal properties necessary to the minister, and the one definite objective for which preaching existed, and had come into existence at all.

What is, indeed, the purpose of Christian preaching, we may ask. Is it that, by Christian preaching, the world is expected to be merely leavened by Christian thought? Are ministers to be satisfied if they inform the minds and energies of the souls of men with moral and spiritual ideals? Or, are ministers to be satisfied if they can supply certain rational supports for what the people are prone in this day to conceive as obsolete beliefs? Is it that, to Christianize has become equivalent to civilize, and that the church of God is conceived as but an important instrument among others to further such work as would advance the interests of civilization? Have we identified the achievement of good honest citizenship with being a Christian?

If so, we must recognize that none of such aims have any particular relation with the challenge and expectation of the New Testament. To such interests, the early church gave no attention at all. A new order had appeared, this church believed, which spelled the doom of all ancient civilizations and of all man's boastings and achievements. Karl Barth has been severely censured by his critics, and, unfortunately, excused by his friends, for his caustic jibes at the Church, especially as in the power of new-born insight into what Paul was really speaking about, he delivers himself freely and explicitly in his Römerbrief. But, in my opinion, to censure or excuse Barth in this regard is to miss an important aspect of Barth's most vital challenge to the church. The disease can only be understood and treated when we have analyzed the symptoms. Barth speaks somewhere of a well-known new dignitary to the church, him, "who drives up in his jaunty little car of progress, etc." We all know this man; but perhaps here in America he is the least offensive and least dangerous among those who presume to give leadership to the church. Except for the fact that so many unsuspecting people mistake his "busyness" for moral purposefulness, and his jauntiness for having had something done, his influence, in these more straitened days, has no longer any great effect. This all too widespread sycophancy, grovelling for office, pandering to wealthy men, and powerful interests, is far more dangerous to the church, at the present time. This presumption on the part of ministers, modernist and orthodox alike, that they can speak with assurance and definiteness about God without, at the same time, giving the faintest impression of the radical, bottomless, endless contradiction which exists in their own present lives, has more than anything else destroyed the power of preaching in modern times. What honest person, minister, clergyman or priest dare to speak to his people in purely mundane assurance concerning the things of God? The truth is, as Barth claims, modern preaching has no absolute challenge. It does not, today, constitute an offense (skandalon). In characteristic modern fashion, a clergyman, in a course of addresses on the ministry, recently defined preaching as "truth strained through personality." This provoked the laconic observation: "Much preaching that is heard could rather be described as truth strangled through personality"; and with this comment Barth, I am sure, would heartily agree. We have taken ourselves so seriously, and this ministry of the Word with no great seriousness at all. The aims and motives of ecclesiastical life in modern times, whatever they have been, or have not been, in the past have found a level lower than that demanded by the conviction, which was the power of the early church, namely: that there is actually a new Creation, and for this world, an altogether new Hope. The knight-errantry of the soul in a great divine warfare has so often given place to a ghastly substitute — a man's poor plannings and schemings, one might even truthfully say, to man's craftiness. Fyodor Dostoievsky, as we know, has depicted the Christ, among our modern motives, aims and ambitions, as a simpleton — an "idiot." Part of the tragedy of our lives, perhaps, lies in the fact that we do not really appreciate the profound truth of such a contrast.

At the same time, preaching is really a tremendous thing; and there is still great preaching, often in places where it is little honoured as such. As I once heard the late Professor James Denney remark in his classroom: "There is nothing more arresting and impressive than hearing a true man of God preaching God's Word truly." There is nothing greater for the enquiring soul than that, as many can testify. Preaching in which there is an unmistakeable

suggestion of something more and other than the preacher himself, the account of a man who has known, and accepted, himself in God, a confirmation from afar to the deepest hungerings of the human soul, a judging in which the hearer has no disposition whatever to turn to his neighbour to say: "Thou art the man," — herein is the greatest of all sacraments; for it is God speaking through new born, surrendered, dedicated personality; and there can be no higher medium in the world than that. I presume that it was for this reason that the Reformed Church recognized that the Church of God possessed but two "notes," namely, the "preaching of the Word," and the "true Sacraments." And it will be observed that the preaching came first, as it should, for it really embodies the latter. The Word of God was for the Reformers the greatest reality in the world. All praise, doxology, gratitude, love, faith and hope, and therefore all theology, are primarily therefore matters which are the consequence of "Christian Speech."

Then, in the second place, there emerges, out of the reference made to my own book, another consideration, but one in which I do not find Barth so clear or so helpful. Perhaps it is because I do not fully understand him. In that book, I had been obliged to place the constitutive principle of the Ecclesia, the Church or Fellowship of the Saints in the Holy Spirit, and especially in the creative aspect of his work. Barth does not seem to do this. To read what Barth has to say upon the Holy Spirit in his Dogmatik is most interesting and rewarding; but the emphasis there, I feel, is not on the creative positive aspect of the Spirit's work in the individual's heart, as it seems to be in the New Testament. Barth seems to have substituted something more negative, paradoxical, indirect. One can surmise his reason. He wishes to avoid the Catholic or Pietistic presumption of a claim for a human possession of the Holy Spirit. In this, he is like Calvin and the originators of the Reformed Church; but in such writers, although they put particular emphasis upon the necessity of the testimony of the Holy Spirit for the Christian faith, yet they at the same time always give the impression that the subject of the Holy Spirit is something attached to a specific logical system in which, after all, it has not a strictly coherent place. One could almost subscribe to the following arresting statement of Birch Hoyle. He writes:

    If there is one aspect which Barth could develop with gain to the whole of Christianity, it is this neglected doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

    One would gladly scrap a hundred pages of the DG to allow Barth to develop such a passage as this: "The Word of God is address, or speech of God, only through God Himself, if it is veiled through the human mode of being it has taken on itself (in the Son). Neither the human nature of Christ, nor spirit and letter of the first witnesses, nor word and sacrament of the Church are God's Word in and through themselves. They are it so far as they have received God's Word for this service, so far as God speaks through them."5

I have said I could almost subscribe to this assertion. The hesitancy herein implied, recognizes the fact that, after all, Barth has really dealt effectively and decisively with the particular claim which Hoyle's quotation embodies. The feeling is always present, however, that he does not attach the truth of his claim as definitely to the work of the Holy Spirit as is necessary. Notwithstanding — although I confess I have felt Barth in this respect to be unnecessarily ambiguous and his references to the work of God in the soul of man too negative and too complex — I find myself, through his influence, in fullest accord with his main contentions, namely, that theology is primarily a matter of Christian speech, that such speech itself is essentially a being apprehended by God in crisis. Moreover, I have no doubt at all that a genuine realization of the "absolute necessity," on the one hand, and the "utter impossibility" on the other hand, "of preaching," constitutes the one condition by which the preaching of God's Word is effected. Barth is surely right when he implies, almost everywhere in his writings, that the real "vacuum" in the church of this day is the outcome of the fact that ministers have acquired an appallingly superficial view of preaching. To some of us it has been "easy," to others a professional commonplace, "our business," to still others an art, even a joy, to not a few, a confessed drudgery; but to very few, it would seem, an "utterly impossible human task."

No art, no method, no pedagogy will ever, in itself, either comprehend or reveal what the servant of God is called upon to do, when he is commissioned to declare the Word of the Living God.


  1. W. W. Bryden: The Spirit of Jesus in St. Paul. London. James Clarke & Co. (1925) pp. 13ff.
  2. Ibid. pp.60-66.
  3. Ibid. pp.160-170.
  4. Ibid. p.236.
  5. Birch Hoyle: The Teaching of Karl Barth. pp. 257-8.