By David L. Larsen
Monday, March 01, 2004
The ascendency of audience-centered, problem-solving preaching in our time finds its roots in these earlier advocates of preaching as psychotherapy. While we would not give way for a moment to those extremists who rant and rave incessantly against psychology (after all there is psychology and there is pop psychology), psychological insight can never be a substitute for Scriptural Revelation. Sound insights from this discipline are relevant for the preacher, the counsellor, the exegete, the historian, but psychology is not theology and is severely limited in what it can yield to us. Since "nature abhors a vacuum," we see in Weatherhead a tragic instance in which psychical research replaced "sound doctrine."
Leslie D. Weatherhead was born into a Wesleyan home near London in 1893. He early felt the nudge to overseas ministry and matriculated at Cliff College and Richmond College, Methodist training schools. In 1916 he went to Madras to serve the Georgetown Church where in response to his public invitations, many stood to be counted for Christ. In his younger son's memoir (Leslie Weatherhead: A Personal Portrait), we trace his growing faith in human nature and his capitulation to liberal theology. He served briefly as a military chaplain in Basra in Iraq in World War I, and then after marrying in India, returned in 1922 to England.
Weatherhead served two substantial Methodist churches, in Manchester and the famous Brunswick Church in Leeds where his successor was W.E. Sangster, a true gospel-preaching Methodist. Weatherhead drew crowds wherever he preached. He did this even with a rather unattractive highly-pitched voice. What was his secret? He always appealed strongly to the emotions — he was a "feeling" preacher and would use the proverbial tearjerker. He loved language and could turn a phrase but was always forthright if not blunt. He had a great sense of humor and after his preaching at St. Giles in Edinburgh it was said that it was "the first time they had laughed in St. Giles." His language was quite free and had to be edited for publication. He delighted in the loud laconic whisper. But above all, he genuinely cared for people. He could embrace a crowd of people.
In 1936 he took the call to the venerable Congregational citadel, the three hundred year old City Temple at Holbum Viaduct, the only non-conformist church in the City of London itself. Tracing back to the Poultry Chapel and Thomas Goodwin in Puritan days, this was the domicile of such worthies as Joseph Parker, R.J. Campbell, Joseph Fort Newton and F.W. Norwood. During Weatherhead's 24 year incumbency, the building was destroyed in the Nazi blitz of 1941 and the congregation wandered until the new City Temple was dedicated in 1958, built largely through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller and American funds. He retired in 1960. Even with a successor such as Leonard Griffiths, the City Temple did not survive very long and today is used by a zealous group of American Presbyterian charismatics.
The fact is that Weatherhead jettisoned historic Christianity and something had to fill the vacuum — current events, preferring Q&A to preaching in the services and above all his deep immersion into modern psychology all made a gallant effort for something to say. He early on denied any transactual atonement or the efficacy of the Blood of Jesus (A Plain Man Looks at the Cross) and the bodily resurrection of Christ (The Manner of the Resurrection in the Light of Modern Science and Psychical Research). The Virgin Birth was dismissed early and "the legion" of demons probably meant that the man had been molested as a child by Roman legionnaires. He regularly attended spiritist seances and used hypnosis in his healing practice. Like his friend, Donald Soper, he was an ardent pacifist and a leader in the strong movement in England in the thirties which kept England from arming itself against the rise of Hitler. He ultimately finished his PhD at the University of London (Psychology, Religion and Healing). This volume also includes his Beecher Lectures of 1949 which Yale asked him to change "late in the day" because they were so manifestly psychological and not in any way homiletical.
Privately almost a recluse but publicly a man of immense charm and "awful nerve," he himself grappled with very serious physical and psychological problems throughout his long life. The Book of Joshua was "irrelevant nonsense" to him and the Apostle Paul was hopelessly neurotic. He inclined to believe that the priest Zechariah was the father of Jesus and Archbishop William Temple was more inspired than the Apostle Paul. No wonder his sermons are vacuous and empty. In such collections as That Mortal Sea and This is the Victory we see a good example of a brilliant preacher's efforts who believed that we would be advised to seek our theology more from the poets than the Church Fathers. Of course John Wesley appeared to him in a seance so he had special sources. In Over His Own Signature he does seek to base the message on the "I am" sayings of Jesus, but this was very rare.
What strikes me as one who has kept somewhat abreast of the discipline, is that his psychology and Freudianism are now so severely dated. No one today talks about odic force and the leakage of psychic energy. His 55 books are virtually unread today. Yet "the genius of the gospels" and the writings of the Apostle Paul continue their contextualized impact around a modern and post-modern world in the winning of many to Christ and the building up of the Church. There are insights to be valued in a thoughtful psychological probing of human behavior, but I doubt the sea of Galilee in John 21 is a picture of the unconscious mind or that the psychic scar Moses bore from his exposure to the Nile as a baby explains his striking the rock in the Book of Numbers.
In one of his first books, After Death?, he concludes that hell is subjective, judgment is self judgment and forgiveness is absolute. A critic of the liberal mainline (one of their own, James D. Smart) diagnosed the problem as The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Can evangelicals expect any different fate if there seems to be a growing "Strange Silence of the Bible" among us? Can anything take the place of the opening of the Word and the exposition of the Gospel of Christ?
_______________________________David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching of Trinity Ev. Divinity School.