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John Vissers, The Neo-Orthodox Theology of W.W.Bryden


John Vissers, The Neo-Orthodox Theology of W.W.Bryden.

Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2011. Pp.xi + 297.  Pb, US$40.00. ISBN: 978 0 227 17370 1.

The main purpose of Vissers’ book is to explore and assess the contribution of W.W.Bryden, sixth principal of Knox College (University of Toronto) and professor of theology, 1925-1952. To this end Vissers prosecutes a two-fold task: an examination of Bryden’s role in introducing and magnifying the theology of Karl Barth in Canada, and, in light of Bryden’s neo-orthodox convictions, an investigation of the nature and force of Bryden’s relentless criticism of church union in Canada (1925). In the wake of the union that gathered up all of the Methodists and seventy per cent of the Presbyterians, the minority “continuing” Presbyterians perceived themselves as having to identify, articulate and defend the grounds of their resistance to a development that most of the historic Protestants in Canada had assumed to be God-willed.

Bryden was never persuaded by those who facilely spoke of church union as one manifestation of the creation-wide reconciliation wrought in Christ. He feared, on the contrary, that those who spoke like this were unwittingly embracing neo-paganism. In the surge of Barth’s tidal wave he discerned a theological resource whose substance and logic could expose theological deterioration and help a jarred denomination contend for the integrity of the gospel; and in the course of helping contend for the gospel, help the church identify its lamentable (but not irreversible) accommodation and acculturation.

Bryden regarded the churches of his era as having put asunder what God mandates, and the Magisterial Reformation echoes, be kept together: Word and Spirit, or what God does for us (Christology) and what God does in us (Pneumatology). Bryden, astute reader of Reformation theology and church history, knew that Word divorced from Spirit renders Word lifeless orthodoxy, a rationalism that merely happens to employ religious words in its thinly disguised naturalism; Spirit divorced from Word renders Holy Spirit lethally indistinguishable from human spirit, whether philosophical idealism or psychological optimism or social evolutionism. Bryden saw unerringly that the Spirit alone is the power of the Word, while the Word alone is the substance of the Spirit.

For this reason Bryden was no less convinced that the way ahead for his denomination did not lie in a retreat to biblical fundamentalism or uncritical confessionalism.  While the Westminster documents unquestionably had served the church well and could continue to inform it, no less certainly their theological deficits and deficiencies would have to be specified and corrected.

Throughout the acrimony surrounding church union and the hostile stand-off following it, Bryden remained opposed to the theological indifference on both sides. The pro-union faction appeared theologically apathetic and historically amnesiac, wanting only to construct an ‘umbrella’ large enough to accommodate all who wanted to huddle together under it; the anti-union faction appeared too often to have opposed the union for the wrong reasons: e.g., to preserve Scottish ethnicity or to retain real estate or to repristinate Westminster orthodoxy or Reformed scholasticism. The path Bryden chose to tread was lonely, and invited rejection at the hands of those who regarded him as an impediment to their cause.

Profoundly influenced by Barth, Bryden was nonetheless never a sycophantic camp-follower. Rather he recognized in Barth not merely a rescuer of the silted-over treasures of Reformation figures like Luther and Barth but also someone who could help the Canadian church re-think faith in the judging-saving Word. This Word, supposedly irrelevant (according to the theological liberalism arising from Troeltsch and his school), alone was life-giving.

Bryden’s theology, Vissers points out, was at once a theology of revelation (God speaks and acts so as to acquaint us with himself ‘from above’ since no approach ‘from below’ –  natural theology – can render sinners savingly intimate with God), a retrieval of Reformation gains, and all of this addressed to a post-Enlightenment people who neither flee modernity fearfully nor fawn over it flatteringly. Bryden’s major work, The Christian’s Knowledge of God (1940, republished at Cambridge: James Clark & Co., 2011) embodied these convictions. In line with Barth’s characteristic emphasis he maintained that God’s speech is simultaneously God’s act: supremely at the cross God did something that was cosmos-altering, not merely said something. Correspondingly humankind’s declared response, “I believe,” is simultaneously act: faith is that gift of God which must be humanly exercised, humanly experienced and humanly exemplified. Not least, Bryden, aware that evangelism regularly heads the New Testament lists of ministries of the Spirit, insisted that a theology was useful only to the extent that it invigorated the church’s evangelistic ministry. Not surprisingly, two evangelical giants to whom he remained indebted in this regard were Reformation historian T.M. Lindsay and theologian James Denney.

Vissers helpfully informs the reader of the formative influences bearing upon Bryden, of the intellectual currents flowing in early twentieth-century Canada (e.g., the philosophical idealism then in vogue at Queen’s University and whose conflation of the divine and the human was thought to be essence of Christianity), of the varieties of Continental and Scottish Calvinism that had found their way to the New World, and of Bryden’s social awareness wherefrom he consistently protested, in the name of the gospel, glaring social inequities that were nothing less than iniquities.

A major highlight of Vissers’ book is its chapter on Bryden’s theology of the Holy Spirit. Bryden rightly recognized a serious underemphasis in Barth’s thought, the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating sinners, assuring them of their new nature in Christ and bringing forth such fruits of the Spirit within them as to transform character. This operation of the Spirit begins with God’s address to sinners, God’s address being nothing less than God-in-person speaking to us so as to render us persons.  (Not mentioned in the text but presupposed is the biblical notion that humans are the only creature to whom God speaks, God’s address being one of several ways of understanding what it is to be made “in the image and likeness of God.”) The Spirit, therefore, has everything to do with one’s experience of the living God (not merely with acquiring information about God), and with one’s awareness that God’s address has occasioned a crisis within the sinner that can be relieved only as the sinner embraces the crucified one whose arms have already embraced her. Reading the New Testament closely in this matter Bryden correctly recognized the emphasis given to the work of the Holy Spirit, that power of God which Christ uniquely bears and bestows, and the concomitant emphasis on faith’s experience of Christ. Where Barth had appeared reluctant to discuss Christian experience lest he be accused of pietism, Bryden boldly forged ahead, confident he had read the apostles aright. Bryden’s talk of “Christ mysticism,” then, was not a religious vagueness blurring creator and creation or melding sin and righteousness. Rather it was a Spirit-fostered apprehension that the cross exposes the sinner as enemy of God, and simultaneously a Spirit-facilitated inclusion of the sinner in Christ’s life, which inclusion entails an intimacy that finds language forever inadequate. In expounding the scope and depth of the Spirit’s work Bryden was helped chiefly by John Calvin, recognized among Reformation scholars as ‘the theologian of the Holy Spirit.’

Implied in Bryden’s insistence on the reality of the Spirit was his insistence on the reality of the church, the creation of the Spirit. Eschewing a voluntarist notion of the church Bryden rejected the widespread notion in North America that the church is an association of like-minded individuals whose commonality happens to be Christianity. Rather he averred, with the Reformers, that the church as Body of Christ is divinely constituted as the elect in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) and to which individual believers are admitted by faith.

Bryden did not lack opponents. Fulton Anderson, formidable chair of the University of Toronto’s philosophy department, fumed over Bryden’s doggedness concerning sin’s distortion of reason. Frank Beare, church historian at McGill University’s Presbyterian College, deemed Bryden’s theology a “chain” that crippled its catholicity. Yet James D. Smart, one of the twenty-plus students of Bryden who became professors, pronounced him an exemplary representative of the Reformed tradition.

While Bryden’s work is now more than half-a-century old it remains timely. Note, for instance, his discovery, as early as the 1920s, that the church was understood less as the community of the Spirit joyfully embracing the crucified and more as a locus of business expertise and management technique.

Vissers’ book will find readers eager to probe Bryden’s major work (in print once again) and therein assess the influence of a continental giant on a major Canadian thinker who, like Barth, never scoffed at the vocation of village pastor. It provides insight into the genesis, challenges and resilience of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In looking back to the latter’s most formative theologian it may even suggest a way forward for a denomination that struggles as much now as it did in 1925.

Victor Shepherd
Tyndale University College & Seminary
Toronto, Ontario
Email:  victor.shepherd@sympatico.ca