The Work of Christ in the Thought of P.T. Forsyth: Kenosis and Plerosis Revisited

To talk of “the work of Christ” in the theology of P.T.Forsyth is not to refer to merely a section of his systematic theology, but to point to the heart of his theology. Forsyth’s entire theological project looks to the cross of Christ as the decisive act of the Holy God. It mattered little what subject Forsyth approached in his writings, be it marriage, the arts, war and peace. He always returned again and again to the cross as his fixed point, his north star, his magnetic north. He used this navigational image himself: “The church must always adjust its compass at the cross.” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 62)

The term “the cross” functions as theological shorthand for Forsyth, as it did for Paul, to mean the whole dramatic activity of Christ culminating at Calvary and vindicated by Easter. “I desire to keep in view the Cross, the organic crisis of Christ’s whole life, earthly and eternal, as God’s one kerugma, as the burthen, key, consummation and purpose of Christ’s whole person and mission . . .” (The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, 83)

The cross for Forsyth is never merely an emblem of who God is, it is something God does, an act of the Holy God. It is constitutive for salvation rather than illustrative. It is the instrument that puts into effect God’s holy love rather than a symbol that only shows God’s love. Christ’s death on the cross is nothing less than God acting:

He (Christ) was God, therefore, and His death was God in action. He was not simply the witness of God’s grace, He was its fact, its incarnation. His death was not merely a seal to His work; it was His consummate work. It gathered up His whole person. It was more than a confirmatory pledge, it was the effective sacrament of the gracious God, with His real presence at its core. Something was done there once for all, and the subject doer of it was God. The real acting person in the cross was God.” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 358)

We can see here that Forsyth’s theology focuses on God as a personality, as one who acts, who is best understood not for who he is but rather for what he does, therefore not in metaphysical but moral categories.

And in the same way Forsyth’s Christology focuses on what Christ does rather than who Christ is; his person is known in his work, which is the work of God. Soteriology controls Christology. It is only Christ in his cross that does justice to New Testament Christianity; his teachings alone do not make him an object of faith and worthy of worship. Forsyth inists that:

Faith is an attitude we can take only to God. God is the only correlate of faith, if we use words with any conscience. Faith in Christ involves the Godhead of Christ. Faith in Christ, in the positive Christian sense, means much more than a relation to God to which Christ supremely helps us. It is a communion possible not through, but only in Christ and Him crucified. It means that to be in Christ is to be in God. It means that the experience that the action of Christ with us is God’s action, that Christ does for us and in us what holy God alone can do, and that meeting with Christ we meet with God.” (Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 6)

So in Forsyth’s theology a two–nature Christology is replaced by a two–act Christology, with an act from the divine side and a corresponding one from the human side. The divine kenosis, or self-emptying, coincides with the plerosis, or self-fulfillment, of Christ.

Kenosis with a difference: Moral not metaphysical

But if Forsyth holds to a kenotic theory it is a kenotic theory with a difference. It is construed in moral rather than in metaphysical language; it is dramatic and active rather than static, in keeping with its object, the free God who acts in the man Jesus Christ. The term kenosis is derived from the Greek heuton ekenõsen, “he emptied himself,” which the King James Bible of Philippians 2:7 renders “he made himself of no reputation.’ As a substantive it is used, in the technical sense, of the Christological theory which sets out “to show how the Second Person of the Trinity could so enter into human life as that there resulted the genuinely human experience which is described by the evangelists.” (H.R. Macintosh, New Bible Dictionary; See also N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, for a comprehensive rehearsal of the history of the interpretation of Philippians 2.)

In the late nineteenth century Kenotic theories of the atonement had been popular among German Lutherans (ie. Gottried Thomasius, W.F. Gess, F.H.R. von Frank) and with some British Anglicans, notably Charles Gore who gave the Bampton Lectures at Oxford in 1889. Kenotic views of Incarnation or Atonement put forth the idea in one way or another that, in Christ, God relinguished some aspect of his divinity.

The kenotic approach was criticized for a number of reasons: that it was pantheistic, blurring the line between God and humanity; that it undermined the doctrine of divine immutability; that it jeopardized the Trinity, for a humanized Son empty of divine attributes could be no part of the Trinitarian life; that it failed to recognize the proper relationship between divine existence, divine attributes and divine essence when it claimed the former can be separated from the latter; and, finally, that the kenotic Christ is neither God nor Man and therefore doesn’t solve the problem it sets out to solve. The popularity of the kenotic approach was already waning by Forsyth’s day. This he no doubt knew, as well as the criticisms and difficulties. “Many difficulties arise readily in one’s own mind” he wrote, “It is a choice of difficulties.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 294) He takes pains in places to separate himself from some of the more vulnerable of the kenoticist’s views.

Nevertheless, he does not shy away from the kenotic language as long as it is in his distinctive moral vocabulary. Although Forsyth’s full treatment of kenosis will wait until 1909 with The Person and Place of Jesus Christ we see a kenotic emphasis already by 1895 in a sermon on Philippians 2: 5-8 entitled “The Divine Self–Emptying” (later to appear in the anthology God the Holy Father) In that earlier treatment Forsyth already has in outline the the two–act Christology which will be spelled out in the kenosis/plerosis scheme of The Person and Place of Jesus Christ. Where the critics of kenotic theories worry about loss of divinity Forsyth wants to view kenosis as constitutive of Christ’s divinity. He understands Christ’s self–emptying as the very act which makes him Lord. It is only because of his Godhead that Christ can empty himself and in so doing He fufills his Godhead. So in this case limitation is understood as a power rather than a defect: “Well, notice here that Christ’s emptying of Himself is not regarded as the loss of His true Godhead, but the condition of it. Godhead is what we worship. Christ’s emptying of Himself has placed him at the centre of human worship. Therefore He is of Godhead. We worship Him as the crucified—through the cross, not in spite of the cross.” (God the Holy Father, 32)

One of the traditional objections to a kenotic theory is that if the divine nature is given up how can the subsequent human act be an act of God and therefore a saving act, since only God can save? But Forsyth’s view of kenosis doesn’t involve the loss of divinity so much as its self–retraction or self–reduction. This is language about a free personality who chooses to act and is known by his acts, rather than language about a deity known by his attributes.

From Kant Forsyth acquired a metaphysical agnosticism; this keeps him away from using the language of two natures to understand how the human Jesus relates to his Godhead. Rather than thinking about Christ in the language of two natures, Forsyth wants more active categories. He refers at times to “two modes of being” and elsewhere to “two moral movements:”

Let us cease speaking of a nature as if it were an entity; of two natures as two independent entities; and let us think and speak of two modes of being, like quantitative and qualitative, or physical and moral. Instead of speaking of certainattributes as renounced may we not speak of a new mode of their being? The Son, by an act of love’s omnipotence, set aside the style of God, and took the style of a servant, the mental manner of a man, and the mode of moral action that mark’s human nature.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 307)

This “setting aside” is the language one would use of a personal subject, and this is what Forsyth presses for, a move away from the terms of entities and their substance to the terms of personalities and their freely chosen moral acts. So:

As the union of wills we have in Christ, therefore, the union of two moral movements or directions, and not merely their confluence, their mutual living involution and not simply their inert conjunction. Much that may seem obscure would vanish if we could but cease to think in terms of material substance or force, however fine, and learn to think in terms of personal subjects and their kind in union; if our minds gave up handling quantities in these high matters and took up kinds. It is the long and engrained habit of thinking in masses or entities that makes so unfamiliar and dark the higher habit of thinking in acts.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 346)

Forsyth believes that construing the act of God in Christ in dramatic and moral terms is truer to the witness of the New Testament than the metaphysical language of Greek Philosophy and the Fathers of the early centuries. It is also truer, he is convinced, to the Christian experience of an atoning, saving Christ. There is a decidedly experiential dimension to Forsyth’s understanding of Christian authority: “It is the evangelical experience of every saved soul that is the real foundation of Christological belief anywhere. For Christ was not the epiphany of an idea, nor the epitome of a race, nor the incarnation, the precipitate, of a metaphysic—whatever metaphysic he may imply.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 9)

The Holiness of God

Kenosis is a moral necessity for the God who is holy love. The holiness of God requires the divine intervention of the atoning cross against human sin. For Forsyth God’s holiness is his defining attribute, God’s very nature. He writes:

The holy law is not the creation of God but His nature, and it cannot be treated as less than inviolate and eternal, it cannot be denied or simply annulled unless He seems false to Himself. If a play on words be permitted is such a connection, the self-denial of Christ was there because God could not deny himself.” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 79)

Here again we can see how Forsyth’s understanding of God in moral rather than in metaphysical terms leads him to the logic of the cross. Human sin requires a real atonement. For Forsyth the wrath of God is not some arbitrary anger, but the response of the holy God to the very antithesis of holiness, which is sin. Divine holiness reacts to human sin with wrath and judgement. Forsyth’s theology takes sin and evil with utmost seriousness. God can not tolerate sin. It threatens his very being:

God is fundamentally affected by sin. He is stung and to the core. It does not simply try Him. It challenges His whole place in the moral world. It puts Him on His trial as God. It is, in its nature, an assault on His life. Its vital object is to unseat Him. It has no part whatever in His purpose. It hates and kills Him.” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 366)

So God is not just love, but holy love at war with sin. Liberal theology knows only a benign mercy that overlooks sin without overcoming it. That is why it can do without an atoning cross. But a theology that takes God’s holiness seriously must also take sin and evil seriously too andrealize that they are at war. God must not only forgive sin, but destroy it by an atonement. During the First World War Forsyth wrote these words to describe the holiness of God and the power of His holy cross:

The great Word of the Gospel is not God is love. That is too stationary, too little energetic. It produces a religion unable to cope with crises. But the Word is this—Love is omnipotent for ever because it is holy. That is the voice of Christ—raised from the midst of time, and its chaos, and its convulsions, yet coming from the depths of eternity, where the Son dwells in the bosom of the Father, the Son to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth because He overcame the world in a cross holier than love itself, more tragic, more solemn, more dynamic than all earth’s wars. The key to history is the historic Christ above history and in command of it, and there is no other. (The Justification of God, 227)

The Necessity of the Pre-existence of Christ

The phrase “the historic Christ above history” points to Forsyth’s high Christology. If Christ truly shares in the Godhead, then he cannot have been created or arrived in time, but must have been God from before the beginning. The idea of a pre–existent Christ is, of course, seen here and there in the New Testament, most notably in John 1 and in Colossians 1:15ff, and portrayed in the art and hymnody of the church, as in this verse from a hymn:

Low within a manger lies

He who built the starry skies

He who throned in height sublime

Reigns above the cherubim. (McGrath, Christian Theology, 293)

Forsyth’s Christology requires such a pre–existent Christ if the atoning cross is to truly be an act of the God who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. Against the claim of “the history of religions school” that such passages reflect Gnostic influences Forsyth wants to argue that the earthly career of Christ requires that he has been part of the Godhead from before the beginning:

He could never be king of the eternal future if he was not king from the eternal past. No human being was capable of such will. It was Godhead that willed and won that victory in Him. If it was God loving when he loved it was God willing as He overcame. The cross was the reflection (or say rather the historic pole) of an act within Godhead. The historic victory was the index and the correlate of a choice and a conquest in Godhead itself. (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 270)

An important passage for Forsyth is Matthew 11:27: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and know one knows the son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 81) He cited this text against liberal critics to show that it was not just in the Gospel of John but also in the Synoptics that a high Christology was present. He argues that pre-existence is not some add–on to the Gospel, but an intrinsic feature of the Christ who is God.

The Gospel requires a pre–existent Christ and Christian experience confirms it. For example he suggsts that Paul’s affirmation of the pre-existence of Christ came from his experience, that he “worked back from the faith that all things were made for Christ to the conviction that, as the end was in the beginning, all things were made by Christ; and by a Christ as personal as the Christ who was their goal. (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 269)

So Christ’s kenosis is not just an act in time but an act that was established from beyond time:

Christ’s earthly humiliation had to have its foundation laid in heaven, and to be believed but as the working out of a renunciation before the world was.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 270) His emergence on earth was at is were the swelling in of heaven. His sacrifice began before He came into the world, and his cross was that of a lamb slain before the world’s foundation. There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 271)

The Divine Self–Emptying

What does the kenosis involve? What is given up? Forsyth speaks of the self-reduction of God’s attributes rather than their destruction, they go from being actual to potential. It is not so much limitation as concentration. They are drawn in. He says that God’s attributes, such as omniscience, are not destroyed but are reduced from the actual to the potential. “They are only concentrated. The self-reduction, or self-retraction, of God might be a better phrase than the self-emptying.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 308)

He gives a series of examples of how a personality might freely choose to limit himself: a wise vizier to a foolish young sultan who voluntarily takes a cup of poison meant for his master and dies a prolonged and debilitating death; a musical genius in Russia who knowingly chooses to dedicate himself to political associations that cause him to be deported to a life in Siberia where he can never play the violin again; a university student brilliant in philosophical pursuits who, upon the death of his father, gives up his career to take over the leadership of the family business. (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 296–298) In each case a conscious choice, motivated by love, is made which limits the personality. In each case, something precious is lost, but more is gained, and love is the motivation of each choice.

In Christ’s case the free obedient act of the cross is not just love, but holy love concentrated at one point. Forsyth argues that since holy love is the supreme category of the Almighty, and the object for which His omnipotence exists, how could His omnipotence be imperilled by its own supreme act? “The freedom that limits itself to create freedom is true omnipotence, as the love that can humble itself to save is truly almighty.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 314) Far from imperiling the Godhead of Christ, the kenosis of incarnation culminating in the cross is the most powerful act of Godhead, even more powerful than the creation of the world:

To appear and act as Redeemer, to be born, suffer, and die, was a mightier act of Godhead than lay in all creation, preservation, and blessing of the world. It was only in the exercise of a perfect divine fullness (and therefore power) that Christ could empty and humble himself to the servant he became. As the humiliation grew so grew the exaltation of the power and person that achieved it. It was an act of such might that it was bound to break through the servant form, and take at last for all men’s worship the lordly name.” (Person and Place, 315)

So it is fitting that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10,11 NRSV) Here in praise and confession are represented the whole of creation according to the cosmology of the day.

So kenosis leads to plerosis, self-emptying to self-fulfillment, and not just at the final vindication but as a process throughout the life of Christ. Kenosis by itself is inadequate Forsyth says:

What we have chiefly in view is the sort of uniqueness in the man Jesus which is required for the final and personal gift of Godhead in him. Now for such a purpose a Christ merely kenotic is inadequate. We have already seen that all revelation is God’s self-determination. For any real revelation we must have a loving self-determination of God with a view to His self-determination and self-communication; and this self-determination must take effect in some manner of self-divestment. We have examined the kenotic, or self-emptying theories of such an act, and we have found them either more helpful or less. But whether we take a kenotic theory or not, we must have some doctrine of God’s self-divestment, or His reduction to our human case. Yet, if we go no farther than that, it only carries us half-way, it only leads us to the spectacle of a humbled God, and not to the experience of a redeeming and royal God. For redemption we need something more positive. It is a defect in kenotic theories, however sound, that they turn only on one side of the experience of Christ, viz., his descent and humiliation. It is a defect because that renunciatory element is negative after all; and to dwell on it, as modern views of Christ do, is to end in a Christian ethic somewhat weak, and tending to ascetic and self-occupied piety.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 328-9)

The Self-fulfillment of Christ

If kenosis by itself is inadequate what must be the corresponding plerosis? The question that Forsyth wants to address in his two–act Christology is how is the humanity of Jesus related to his Godhead? Forsyth want to take seriously both the historic Christ and his Godhead. He turns aside the liberal view that Christ is the apex of the spiritual evolution that emerges into a divine height in humanity, the divine blossom of thee race, or its “heaven–kissing hill.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 33)

No, the historic Christ comes to save humanity and not to exhibit humanity’s salvation. “The King makes the Kingdom, and not the Kingdom the King.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 334) It is an invasion not an evolution. “Man does not simply unfold to God but God descends and enters man.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 334)

It is not that divinity and humanity share in being, rather they meet in action. There are two movements, God to man and man to God:

God and man meet in humanity, not as two entities or natures which coexist, but as two movements in mutual interplay, mutual struggle and reciprocal communion. On the one hand we have an initiative, creative, productive action, clear and sure, on the part of the eternal and absolute God; on the other we have the seeking, receptive, appropriative action of groping, erring, growing man. God finds a man who did not find Him, man finds a God who did find Him.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 336, The capital “h” on the last word is either a misprint or, more likely, Forsyth’s subtle way of saying that God finds man only in Christ.)

Christ embodies these two movements in which God and humanity meet. Forsyth says that in Christ we have two things: we have the action of the Godhead concentrated through one hypostasis (or mode of being) within it, and we have the growing moral appropriation by man’s soul moving Godward of that action as its own. This is the two–act Christology which is the heart of Forsyth’s project. It has God entering our world: “We have that divine Son, by whose agency the world of souls was made, not know creating another soul, but himself becoming such a soul.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 338) And he enters it to bring man to God as Christ acts in his humanity to be obedient to the will of the Father. Christ never ceases to be what he has always been, but grows in consciousness of his divinity through the unfolding moral crisis which he enters in the world:

. . .the history of Christ’s growth is then a history, by gradual moral conquest, of the mode of being from which, by a tremendous moral act, he came. It is reconquest. He learned the taste of an acquired divinity who had eternally known itas a possession. He won by duty what was his own by right.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 308)

Christ in his humanity shares the human reality of growth. Human life does not begin as a finished article. “It begins with certain possibilities, with a destiny engrained in the protoplast; but it only passes from a destiny into a perfection through a career.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 345) So Christ grows by moral struggle. He is tempted, but without sin. Again and again he must freely choose the way to go. Throughout his life he grows in his consciousness of what he was, although not in Godhead itself, which he always had. Here Forsyth is able to speak of a progressive incarnation, although in very qualified language:

We may speak of a progressive incarnation within his life, if we give it a kenotic basis. He grew in the grace in which he always was, and in the knowledge of it. As his personal history enlarged and ripened by every experience, and as he was always found equal to each moral crisis, the latent Godhead became more and more mighty as his life’s interior, and asserted itself with the more power as the personality grew in depth and scope. Every step he victoriously took into the dark and hostile land was an ascending movement also of the Godhead which was its base. This ascent into Hell went on, from His temptation to His tomb, in gathering power. Alongside his growing humiliation to the conditions of evil moved his growing exaltation to holy power. Alongside the Kenosis and its negations there went a corresponding Plerosis, without which the Kenosis is a one-sided idea.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ. 349)

Kenosis and Plerosis together constitute two movements of a single act of God. The more Christ laid down his personal life the more he gained his divine soul. “He lives out a moral plerosis by the very completeness of his kenosis; and he achieves the plerosis in resurrection and ascension.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 300)“

The moral struggle that Christ was involved in was the struggle to be obedient to the Father’s will. It is the struggle to become a servant. What does Christ’s becoming a servant mean? It means that he took on a state of subjugation in which he was called upon to render obedience. What Christ becomes by his kenosis is a servant, and it is the free moral act involved in his obedience to the Father’s will that is decisive for his Lordship.

It is not his suffering, but his obedience, that makes him Lord. Forsyth rejects the idea that what is satisfied in the atonement is God’s wounded honor or God’s justice:

We have further left behind that the satisfaction of Christ was made either to God’s wounded honour or to His punitive justice. And we see with growing and united clearness that it was made by obedience rather than suffering. There is a vast difference between suffering as a condition of Atonement and suffering as the thing of positive worth in it, what gives it its value.” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 67)

But although Christ takes on full humanity there is a limit. He remains without sin, and must for only the sinles one can acomnplish the work of the Holy God against sin. Forsyth counters the argument that this somehow makes him less than human. He argues that Christ was indeed tempted in every way that humans are, and that his struggles were real. “Because Christ was true man he could be truly tempted; because he was true God he could not truly sin; but he was not less true man for that.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 302)

What if kenosis involved the limitation of his knowledge of the impossibility of sinning? Clearly his struggles as recorded in the Gospels pursuede us that he took the possiblilty of sin seriously. In the Garden of Gethsemene Christ struggles with whether the cross is truly the Father’s will. Forsyth says that he chose not to knowthat for him sinning was impossible, and in doing so, shared the full human experience of temptation:

. . . to his own experience the moral conflict was entirely real, because his self–emptying included an oblivion of that impossibility of sin. As consciousness arose he was unwittingly protected from those deflections incident to inexperience which would have damaged his moral judgement and development when maturity came. And this was only possible if he had, to begin with, a unique, central, and powerful relation to the being of God apart from his own earthly decisions. So that his growth was growth in what he was, and not simply to what he might be. It was not acquiring what he had not, but appropriating and realising what he had. It was coming to his own unique self. I have already said that I am alive to the criticism to which such a position has been exposed, in that it seems to take him out of a real moral conflict like our own. And the answer, you have noted, is three-fold. First, that our redeemer must save us by his difference from us, however the salvation get home by his parity with us. He saves because he is God and not man. Second, the reality of his conflict is secured by his kenotic ignorance of his inability to sin. And third, his unique relationship to God was a relation to a free God and not to a mechanical or physical fate, or to an invincible bias to good.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 342)

For Forsyth the death of Christ is really a sacrifice, but it is not to a sacrifice made to God as much as a sacrifice made by God. “Atonement to God must be made, and it was only possible from God.” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 365) Christ became sin for us, and took the penalty for that sin on himself. So the cross is penal but God doesn’t punish Christ:

He was made sin. God did not punish Christ, but Christ entered the dark shadow of God’s penalty on sin. We must press the results of God’s holy love in completely identifying Himself with us. Holiness is not holiness till it go out in love, seek the sinner in grace, and react on his sin by judging it. But love is not divine identification with us until it become sacrifice. Nor is the identification with us complete till the sacrifice become judgement, till our Saviour share our self–condemnation, our fatal judgement of ourselves on Christ’s name. The priest, in his grace, becomes the victim, and completes his confession of God’s holiness by meeting its acting as judgement. To forgive sin he must bear sin.” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 362)

 This makes for a priestly Christ, a priestly religion and a priestly church. (See my “The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P.T. Forsyth” ):

New Testament Christianity is a priestly religion or it is nothing. It gathers around a priestly cross on earth and a Great High Priest Eternal in the heavens. It also means the equal priesthood of each believer. But it means much more. That by itself is ruinous individualism. It means the collective priesthood of the Church as one. the greatest function of the Church in full communion with Him is priestly. It is to confess, to sacrifice, to intercede for the whole human race in Him.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 12)

The atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace.” (The Cruciality of the Cross, 41)

Atonement is substitutionary, else it is none. Let us not denounce or renounce such words, but interpret them. they came into existence to meet a spiritual necessity, and to seep them away is spiritual wastefulness, to say no worse. We may replace the word substitution by representation or identification, but the thing remains. Christ not only represents God to man but man to God. Is it possible for nay to represent man before Holy God without identifying himself in some guiltless way with human sin, without receiving in some way the judgment of sin? Couldthe second Adam be utterly untouched by the second death? Yet if the Sinless was judged it was not His own judgment He bore, but ours. It was not simply on our behalf, but in our stead . . . .” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 83)

The atonement is penal but not penitential. The punishment of sin fell on Him:

The suffering was penal in that it was due in the moral order to sin. It was penal to Christ’s personality, to His consciousness, but not to His conscience. It was not penitential. There was no self–accusation in it. He never felt that God was punishing Him, though it was penalty, sin’s Nemesis that He bore. It was the consequence of sin, though not of His sin.” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 85)

Forsyth offers this illustration:

Schamyl was the great religious and military leader of the Caucasus who for thirty years baffled the advance of Russia in that region, and, after the most adventurous of lives, died in 1871. At one time bribery and corruption had become so prevalent about him, that he was driven to severe measures, and he announced that in every case discovered the punishment would be one hundred lashes. Before long a culprit was discovered. It was his own mother. He shut himself up in his tent for two days without food or water, sunk in prayer. On the third day he gathered the people, and pale as a corpse, commanded the executioner to inflict the punishment, which was done. But at the fifth stroke he called, “Halt!” had his mother removed, bared his own back, and ordered the official to lay on him the other ninety-five, with the severest threats if he did not give him the weight of each blow.

 Forsyth concludes this story by saying, “this is a case where his penalty sanctified her punishment both to herself and to the awestruck people. Every remission imperils the sanctity of law unless he who remits suffers something in the penalty foregone; and such atoning suffering is essential to the revelation of love which is to remain great, high and holy.” (The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought, 88)

In Conclusion
His hermenteutical daring. “Criticism is a good servant but a dangerous master.”

How would we assess Forsyth’s kenosis/plerosis proposal? Its purpose is twofold: 1. to safeguard the full humanity of Christ against a docetic view, and 2. to assert against liberal theology the full participation of Christ in the Godhead. If doctrine is the conceptual redefinitions of the biblical narrative than Forsyth has tried to keep scripture clearly in view. He depicts Christ as one engaged in a mighty moral struggle, freely acting finally in obedience to the Father’s will at the expense of his own life. The human struggle is not passed over lightly, yet the whole action is seen as an act of God.

Forsyth is right to insist that any theology that does justice to the New Testament must involve some sort of kenosis, for the Gospel is quite clear that God does enter our world to engage sin and evil. As Donald M. MacKinnon has rightly noted:

If the atonement shows God himself profoundly engaged with human evil, it is an engagement (even when its authenticity is affirmed by Jesus’ resurrection) that leaves many questions unanswered. And this most certainly Forsyth acknowledged through his insistence on the reality of the divine kenosis. Jesus enters on the climactic stage of his via dolorosa, suddenly and traumatically unsure that this is the way for him. If, unlike the Anglican kenoticists, who were his contemporaries, Forsyth in an indifference to metaphysics interprets the divine self–emptying in dramatic terms, at this point he rejoins those for whom the incarnate’s limitedhuman knowledge was a central theological concern. For the most part, his Kantian metaphysical agnosticism enabled him to avert from ontological exploration, and emphasize the cruciality of dramatic action. But the realities of Gethsemene refuse to allow him to neglect the extent to which the passion was suffused by a kind of terrible uncertainty. (Hart, Justice the True and Only Mercy, 108)

Forsyth’s captures this uncertainty and the powerful moral drama that is the passion. There is great rhetorical power to Forsyth’s theology as he addresses issue after issue returning always to the cross as the center.

Forsyth speaks of the subordination of Christ to the Father, risking subordinationism, although his other statements make it clear he does not believe by this in the Son’s generation from the Father. Again Forsyth is more concerned with the describing the flow of God’s activity in the biblical narrative than with metaphysical assertions, and by the standards of Nicene orthodoxy, even the New Testament itself is subordinationist in tendency.

If “doctrine is the conceptual redefinition of the biblical narrative” (Frei) then has Forsyth done justice to the biblical narrative? Here, too, Forsyth has been successful for he has successfully kept Scripture clearly in view throughout. He deals with both the high Christology of John and the epistles and the human Jesus of the Synoptics, the one who went through the full experience of the pas-sion. Donald MacKinnon wrote that “the realities of Gethsemane refuse to allow him (Forsyth) to neglect the extent to which the passion was suffused by a kind of terrible uncertainty” (Hart, Justice the True and Only Mercy, p. 108). Forsyth’s captures that “terrible uncertainty” and the powerful moral drama that is the passion.

There is great rhetorical power to Forsyth’s theology as he addresses issue after issue returning always to the cross as the center. In The Person and Place of Jesus Christ he offers a highly nuanced theological interpretation that tries to make sense of the meaning of the cross. His kenotic Christology attempts to explain the mystery of the incarna-tion and the inner workings of the atonement without using the metaphysical language of which he was so suspicious.

Both Donald MacKinnon and Colin Gunton have criticized Forsyth for eschewing metaphysical language, particularly ontological language, and for his too easy dismissal of the truths of Chalcedon. I have to agree in part with Colin Gunton’s charge that Forsyth imported a metaphysic through the back door; after all, when you talk about “modes of being” you are pretty close to metaphysics if not already there. Gunton is right when he says: “Forsyth’s kenotic the-ory of the incarnation . . . . is essentially an attempt to make logical sense of the incarnation conceived as something that really happened in human history. It thus belies his pro-claimed lack of interest in metaphysical theories” (see Gunton’s critique of Forsyth in Yesterday and Today, pp. 168- 173).

Having acknowledged the charge, let me say that I think Forsyth’s attempt to articulate a Christology outside the usual metaphysical framework is part of what gives his writings such rhetorical punch and dramatic power. He is a good theologian, but he never stops being a preacher, which may account for his continued popularity with preachers.

In some respects he anticipates the various canonical and narrative approaches that are associated with the “Yale theology” of Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and their students. Like them (and like Karl Barth) Forsyth’s theology is thoroughly exegetical and takes the final form of the canon as the decisive text. He doesn’t eschew historical criticism, but recognizes that it is “a good servant but a dangerous master.”

Yet, unlike at least some interpretations of the Yale School, he insists that the Gospel is more than a cultural-linguistic narrative which sets norms for a community, the church. For Forsyth it is also God’s truth for the whole world. In this he remains decidedly evangelical, and his hermeneutic has an important experiential dimension.

But this is not just any experience! Forsyth would have under-stood “experience” more along the lines of Jonathan Ed-wards’ view of Christian experience than that of those to- day for whom autonomous personal or group experience is authoritative. He would have had little use for the idea of “re-imagining” God in light of our experience. “See to the Gospel,” he said, “and experience will take care of itself.” For Forsyth it is not human religiosity that matters. Rather, the primary actor in the drama of human redemption is al- ways God in Christ, known chiefly by his great act on the cross.

Let me conclude with a Forsythian doxology:

“And now may he who so emptied himself that he was filled with all the fullness of God dwell fully in us; may he raise, rule, and perfect us in all holiness; to the end that, bowing before him with every knee both in heaven and upon earth, and ever more calling Him Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, we may be, in Him, to the praise and glory of the Father’s Grace Who made us acceptable in the Eternal Son, world without end. Amen.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, p 357.)
Works Cited:

Trevor Hart, Editor, Justice the True and Only Mercy. Edinburgh: T&;T Clark, 1995

P. T. Forsyth:
The Atonement in Modern Religious Thought. New York: Whittaker, 1901.

The Cruciality of the Cross. London: Independant Press, 1948.God the Holy Father. London: Independent Press, 1957.The Person and Place of Jesus Christ. London: Independent Press, 1948.The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ. Blackwood, South Australia: New Creation Publications, 1987.

The Work of Christ. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.

(This is the original paper that I presented at the United Reformed Church Centre at Windermere, England in May of 1998, at a conference: P.T. Forsyth: Theologian for a New Millennium. It was gathered with the other papers into a book by the same name edited by Alan P. F. Sell.  It later appeared also as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.  Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock, 2010.

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4 thoughts on “The Work of Christ in the Thought of P.T. Forsyth: Kenosis and Plerosis Revisited

  1. >Rick. I'd be interested to know what (if anything) you might change with this piece if you were to write it today, and particularly whether you might advance MacKinnon's and Gunton's critique of Forsyth's tendency to discard the grammar of metaphysics, even while trumpeting the realities to which they are seeking to bear witness.

  2. >Sir–Wow, this is grand. Jesus is grand! I’ll have to go after your book too.I’m so glad to read this and learn. I appreciate how you (and Forsyth!) acknowledge the common “problems” with kenosis and get into act-centered goodies. Sara Coakley mentions something along the lines of how folks come at a kenotic creator from generally two angles, the scientists generally from the observation of creation and the theologians from Jesus (Sorry I don’t have this with me, but I’m paraphrasing something from the last chapter of The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne). Your early point about Forsyth always beginning and ending in the cross made me think again how we surely had to see this kenotic stuff in motion to ever conceive it!It is also good for me to get some good parallax on terms like substitution too.You and Jason G. are giving me a great introduction to Forsyth!Thanks,Mike C.

  3. >Jason,I'd actually have to read this one again, but a quick reply is this: I think PTF thought the metaphysical language had been laid on top of the Biblical narrative as a useful tool to get at the truth of the narrative, much like the way doctrine functions. But he was convinced that this helpful tool was also limiting at this place (remember his quote about historical criticism being a good teacher but a bad master)?So in keeping with his moral emphasis (which you know a thing or two about, yourself) he conjured up this two act template, which I think is very useful and fits the Philippians text. But I think the polemic against metaphysics in general weakens what he is trying to do, and as I said back then, he is, in a sense, offering an alternative metaphysic or something close to it. That's just off the top of my head.I think you've seen this one before in the Sell book or in mine, slightly edited.I wish MacKinnon and Gunton were still around to ask them about it. I did ask Gunton about it once, and all I got was that the claims about PTF being like Barth were overblown on this very point, since Barth was so into Ontology.-Rick

  4. >Mike,One could do a lot worse than reading Forsyth. He represents that much lamented missing bridge between the academy and the preacher. This is theology on the ground, so to speak.I like your point about needing to think of kenosis in motion to understand it, something like perichoresis in Trinity talk. And Forsyth was stretching language to get at something like motion that the traditional metaphysics were lacking because of their reliance on static terms like essence.-Rick

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