Book Review of “Justice the True and Only Mercy: Essays on the Life and Theology of Peter Taylor Forsyth”

Justice the True and Only Mercy: Essays on the Life and Theology of Peter Taylor Forsyth. Edited by Trevor Hart. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1995. 333 pages.

For the small but avid company of P.T. Forsyth admirers the arrival of a book of essays on his life and theology is very good news indeed, doubly so when the quality of the contributions is as high as it is in this volume. Justice the True and Only Mercy gathers up the papers presented at a colloquium on Forsyth’s life and thought convened at the University of Aberdeen in June 1993.

One hopes this volume will bring to light Forsyth’s great theological gifts to a new generation of students, scholars and ministers. Although Forsyth has always had his circle of admirers there has been very little careful critical analysis of his thought and even less attempt to place him within a historical context. At mid-century there was a spate of dissertations and books about his life and thought, but they seldom looked below the surface of his published works to discern the influences that shaped his thought (he footnoted his writings very infrequently) and their biographical material was thin and over dependent on the charming but somewhat hagiographic memoir of his daughter Jesse, prefaced to his Work of Christ.

The rough outline of his life is this: Peter Taylor Forsyth was born in Aberdeen in 1848 to a family of modest circumstances, educated there through his university years, spent a semester studying in Germany, and became a Congregationalist minister serving in five successive congregations in England. At the turn of the century he became principal of his denominational college in London and proceeded to produce 25 books and hundreds of articles until the time of his death in 1921. Clyde Binfield’s historical article “P.T. Forsyth as Congregational Minister”, apparently gleaned from church and denominational minutes and records, fills in the gaps and gives some flesh and blood to the man. It is an engaging account of the day to day life of a minister serving suburban congregations. One gets a glimpse of both the life that shaped Forsyth’s thought and the then vital Dissenting churches that were his ecclesiastical milieu. One meets learned lay people with whom Forsyth engaged in regular conversation about the arts and culture and politics, and understands how the first half of Forsyth’s vocational life helped make the man we meet in his writings from his days as principal. We meet a scholar–pastor who doesn’t condescend to his people. Whenever a voice from the pew accused Forsyth the preacher of preaching over their heads, the sure response from Forsyth the theologian was always “lift up your heads!”

Colin Gunton describes Forsyth as “the best kind of Christian intellectual, the one for whom nothing in heaven or earth is irrelevant to the theological task.” Such catholicity of interests is reflected in the breadth of the subjects of these essays. There are essays on Forsyth and the arts, politics, prayer and the Lord’s Supper. Jeremy Begbie writes a critical but appreciative piece on Forsyth’s life-long interest in art. Forsyth took the works of art on their own terms, taking the time “to stand and stare at (and listen to) specific pieces of art.” He resisted, for the most part, the kind of theological reductionism that uses art merely to illustrate a system.

Was Forsyth a political theologian in the way one might use that term today? That is the question Keith W. Clements addresses in his contribution. There is something anachronistic about such speculation, but Clements does discover useful social motifs in Forsyth’s thought that prefigure some contemporary thought. Take for example Forsyth’s insight that “whatever is the unity of a moral God must be the moral unity of Society. The unity of a Tri-personal God is the foundation for a society of persons.” That could have been written by Moltmann or any number of other contemporary ecumenical theologians addressing the social implications of the tri-unity of God. Like Karl Barth, Forsyth was interested in socialism, but resisted the temptation to identify the kingdom of God with any social system. He was critical of R.J. Campbell, the chief exponent of the “New Theology” of his day, who did identify socialism with the kingdom of God. Forsyth’s assessment of Campbell’s views can be fairly used of many of today’s “new theologies”; he said they reminded him of poor photographs, “underdeveloped but overexposed.” The problem with the pale liberal humanism that often passed for theology in his day was that its notion of love was essentially sentimental and its ethic ameliorist. What was needed was “holy love”, a love that took the moral nature of God seriously and therefore took seriously the imperative for a moral society. Forsyth knew that justice is the expression of God’s holy nature and was therefore “the true and only mercy.”

For Forsyth, authentic community, the true at-one-ment between God and humankind and among humankind, has already been established by God in the cross. Forsyth would reject those strands of liberation theology that see the cross as primarily a sign of negation. For him the cross doesn’t show something, it does something: on the cross, Jesus the obedient Son, with and for the entire human race, confesses the Father’s holiness and establishes the foundation of a just society. The cross is not a sign but rather the point at which the new creation begins in the midst of the old, the kingdom of God which has not to be produced so much as introduced. Clements is right in saying that Forsyth located the social significance of Christianity in the atoning cross of Christ and its proclamation, and that his contemporary significance will be decided by whether this cardinal point in his theology still offers us a challenge and resource in today’s debate about political theology.

This volume takes a big step toward better understanding the intellectual influences on Forsyth. We have long known of his early indebtedness to Ritschl, with whom he studied at Göttingen, and of his later rejection of his mentor. We have known too that he was one of the few British churchmen of his day to have read Kierkegaard (translated then into German but not into English.) Donald M. Mackinnon, who died since the colloquium and for whom this volume is dedicated, explores some of the formative ideas behind Forsyth’s theology, especially those of Kant, and assesses where they have aided Forsyth and where they have not. In discussing Forsyth’s kenotic soteriology Mackinnon suggests that it is Forsyth’s Kantian metaphysical agnosticism that led him to emphasize the divine emptying in dramatic rather than ontological terms. Stanley Russell discerns in Forsyth’s writings a reliance on Hegel, as Forsyth utilized a Hegelian dialectic while rejecting the content of Hegel: “Hegel had made the fundamental mistake of considering human spiritual development in terms of a process rather than rising out of moral action.” For Forsyth this would never do; he resolutely resisted the progressive and evolutionary models that were so popular in the theology of his time.

Trevor Hart explores Forsyth’s “ontology of holiness”, his belief in the moral order as the real as opposed to the actual empirical world. To say that ‘ultimate reality is moral’ is to say in effect that God is holy love. It is from this view that Forsyth’s notion of atonement must be understood. Atonement is not addressed primarily to the moral or legal status of individuals or even to humanity as an abstraction but rather to the objective and universal order within which human beings exist. The death of Jesus on the cross is an act of God judging human sin. In the light of the cross the Christian must confess that we live in a saved world because we live in a judged world.

Colin Gunton’s essay on authority concludes that Forsyth’s theology is a theology of power and offers to the contemporary church a corrective against some of its false approaches. Specifically, Gunton is referring to the “theology of success” associated with John Wimber and the spate of theologies of the cross that posit a suffering God, “or at least one whose primary concern would sometimes appear to be the equality of the sexes or the economic development and /or ecological salvation of the world.” Forsyth’s theology of power defined by love rejects both a theology of power without a cross and a theology of powerlessness with a cross. The cross is not merely a sign of divine sacrifice and God is not to be construed as an indulgent Father. The focus for Forsyth is not the suffering of God in Christ, which risks losing the meaning of the human act. Rather it is the saving action of God in the suffering of Christ that is decisive.. “It is Forsyth’s theocentrism that is so salutary for an era of deities made in the image of man or woman.”

Did Forsyth understand the Lord’s Supper in too narrow and exclusive a manner? That is the conclusion of Ian R. Torrance’s essay Dominated by His Own Illustrations? P.T. Forsyth on the Lord’s Supper. This intriguing article should invite new debate on Forsyth’s sacramental theology. Gordon S. Wakefield’s essay about Forsyth on Prayer shows Forsyth’s ideas of prayer as congruent with his theology of an active God. No quiet mystical contemplation here, but prayer as importunity, petition, wrestling. Prayer is a cooperation with the divine will, often after a striving that may in some way change it. Prayer is theology not psychology, and not just any theology but a theolgia crucis. George Hall looks at Forsyth’s work through the lens of the concept of tragedy, and finds a recurring emphasis not previously given close attention.

In his essay Stephen Sykes locates Forsyth’s mature views on the church within the context of an English Nonconformity which was fast losing influence. In the face of that decline Forsyth looked for a new theology that would turn to “what makes the church the church,” and in so doing, Christianity will rediscover itself as it comes to understand the nature of God’s righteousness in the world. Thus ecclesiology provides the way to social renewal.

When Sykes takes a critical look at Forsyth’s understanding of the church he finds much to like but some things to question. Among the latter is an emphasis on redemption that excludes the wider creation and too narrowly restricts the activity of God to the church. Sykes writes that “the dangers of creation-immanentism and romantic spirituality have so strongly steered Forsyth away from any alternative to redemption–centred ecclesiology that a legitimate trinitarianism has been sacrificed.” Here Sykes is taking up Daniel Hardy’s critique of Forsyth’s negativity toward creation, and arguing for the existence of a created sociality, “a natural koinoinia productive of many forms of good.” Which is to say that Forsyth’s debate with Anglicanism continues.

In his essay P.T. Forsyth as Unsystematic Systematician Alan P. F. Sell assesses the perennial charge that Forsyth is unsystematic. He concludes that Forsyth was not a systematic theologian in the technical sense and can not therefore be our intellectual refuge. But that is not, Sell insists, our greatest need. “Forsyth proclaims an eternal refuge, in the victory of whose holy love we may trust.” Forsyth’s own words about Independency are true of his thought: “Its note has not been theological system but theological footing, not an ordered knowledge of divine procedure but an experienced certainty of divine redemption.”

John Thompson, a former student of Karl Barth, carefully answers the often asked question, Was Forsyth a Barthian Before Barth? with a qualified “yes.” Both Forsyth and Barth have a high view of the scriptures but refuse a strict identification of the words of Scripture with the Word of God. Both understand Scripture to have an event character, and both center revelation in Christ whose life and work are consummated on the cross as an atonement. Both believed that God acts in grace and judgment within the historical process, and both were partisans in their respective world wars and saw them as God’s judgment on nations and national sin. For example, Forsyth said during the First World War that the war was God preaching judgment, “And now God enters the pulpit, . . . and his sermons are long and taxing, and they spoil the dinner.”

Thompson concludes that the similarities are no accident but arise from a method that is scripture soaked, christologically focused, and respectful of the whole of tradition. Both theologians were “thoroughly engrossed in penetrating biblical exegesis which formed the basis and gave the content of their dogmatic works.”

The volume includes a comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Forsyth compiled by Leslie McCurdy, building on the magisterial research of Robert Benedetto in his 1981 work. One couldn’t hope for a more useful volume about Forsyth. May it be widely used and lead many to Forsyth’s own writings and to a deeper engagement with the Holy God to whom they always point.

(This review by Richard L. Floyd appeared originally in the Bulletin of St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, No. 38, Spring 1996)

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