“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time.

The full exposition of Forsyth’s soteriology comprises several of his major books (such as The Work of Christ, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, and The Cruciality of the Cross) but since atonement figures so decisively for his doctrine of the church, let us begin by looking at how he speaks of it in three of the books he wrote specifically on the church: The Charter of the Church, 1896; Rome, Reaction and Reform, 1899; and The Church and the Sacraments, 1917.

In The Charter of the Church, Forsyth strikes the note he will repeat again and again throughout his life, with differing accents and changing nuances, to be sure, but never departing from his insistence on the centrality of the saving act of Jesus Christ on the Cross as the foundation of the church: “The Church’s Charter is the principle incarnate in the eternal and irreducible personality of Christ, and in Him chiefly as crucified.” (Forsyth, The Charter of the Church, iv)

Forsyth was well-acquainted, both in his native Britain and in Germany where he had gone to study, with a brand of liberal Protestantism that saw the uniqueness of Jesus in his sayings and in his character.

Already by 1896 Forsyth was clear that ” . . . The Charter of the Church is not in any saying of Jesus.” (Forsyth, The Charter of the Church, iv) And, again in 1899 in Rome, Reform and Reaction, in a discussion of Luther, he wrote:

This gospel was the true Word of God on which the Church was based. The Word of God, at the base of His Church, was not any phrase spoken by Christ founding a Church, nor an instruction or commission to the apostles. He is the Church’s one foundation; it is no edict or commission of His. Christ did very little (some say nothing) in the way of founding a Church; but He was everything. The Church proceeded from His work and person, not from words He said.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 134)

It is Christ who is the center of the church, and not merely Christ but Christ, crucified. So the Jesus of the gospels takes a back seat to a very Pauline crucified Christ. Forsyth admits as much. “The dear Christ of the Gospels — has he not obscured for some of us the great Christ of Ephesians? The prophet of the Kingdom has hidden the Founder of the Kingdom on the Cross. The infinite eternal meanings of the Cross, as the focus and measure of the spiritual world, have paled somewhat, and with them the due, vast, solemn sense of the church as resting on it. We must return to pore with thought, no less than heart, on the Cross, for the great sake of both Church and Kingdom among men.” (Forsyth, Charter , p. 40.)

When we turn to The Church and the Sacraments, 1917, written almost 20 years later, we find no backing away from this soteriological focus for Forsyth’s understanding of the church. One notices not a new but a renewed emphasis on the moral significance of Christ’s atoning work, and we shall turn again to this when we look at the moral character of the church. Christ’s act of atonement is the creative act which formed the church. The gospel is not the idea of Christ, or the idea of the atonement, it is the act itself which redeems humanity. He calls it the “moral Gospel.” “The creative center of the Church is not simply Christ but Christ crucified. The creator and charter of the Church is the moral Gospel of grace redeeming by atonement and answered by faith. We belong to the Church because we belong to Christ, not vice versa.” (Forsyth, The Church, and the Sacraments, p. 29)

Here we see the primacy of the creative act of God in forming the church. And the church was not created once and for all by this act, and can thereby go off on its own momentum. The church, on the contrary, has no life of its own apart from that act. “The Church rests on the Grace of God, the judging, atoning, regenerating Grace of God, which is His holy Love in the form it must take with human sin. Wherever that is heartily confessed, and goes on to rule, we have the true Church.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 34)

Forsyth likewise rejects an understanding of the church as the prolongation of the incarnation of Christ, again for moral reasons, for “Christ’s Incarnation was not simply His taking flesh but His entry on human nature, and especially on moral humanity, so as to become not only flesh but sin for us.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 83) Since the Church must be reborn, it cannot be a prolongation of the ever sinless. This view lends itself, he feels, “too readily to a view of the Church as the mere evolution of Christ, which squeezes the notion of a new creation outside.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 83) To this he says, “No. To express this second form [incarnation being the first] of His outward presence, the Church, we need some other word than the prolongation of the Incarnation, and one that does more justice to the cruciality of the Cross, and the reality of the new creation. The doctrine of Redemption is signally absent from the creeds, yet the Church has a more direct connection with Redemption than with Incarnation.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 83) It is only by the experience of redemption in the saving work of Christ on the cross that the church has a knowledge of incarnation. “The Church is not the continuation of Christ, but His creation and His response.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 83)

So we can see that Forsyth rejected both the “Dear Christ of the Gospels” of liberal Protestantism and the prolongation of Christ’s incarnation of catholicism (both Roman and Anglican) as the Christological foundation of ecclesiology. Instead he looked to Christ and his cross. “Where does the supernatural and Church-building element in Christ lie? It lies not in His character and teaching but in His office and work — in His atoning Cross and Resurrection, in His Redemption from moral death to eternal life.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 33)

A church constituted by Christ’s redemption has several intrinsic qualities by virtue of its founding charter. Among these qualities that Forsyth puts forth for the church are these four: (1) The church is evangelical, (2) the church is corporate, (3) the church is priestly, and (4) the church is moral.

The church is evangelical because it is the gospel of redemption that creates it, and faith in that redemption that lays hold of it. “The Church is but the social expression of the same principle of grace as saves and changes the single soul. The polity of the Church is latent in the principle of our saved experience.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 41) Nearly 20 years later Forsyth expresses the same thought in reverse: “To join a Church is simply to give outward expression and obedience to a fact existing as soon as we become Christ’s by faith.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 44) Without faith there can be no church, for it was faith (Christ’s faith) that creates the church in the first place. “It was faith that redeemed, and it is faith that lays hold of redemption. It was Christ’s faith that redeemed, and ours is but the trust of His.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 152)

For Forsyth the gospel means the very act of redemption itself, not the idea of it, or the news about it. It precedes both the Bible and the church, having created them both. One sees Luther’s “canon within a canon” here, and indeed it is in a discussion of Luther that Forsyth gives his most concise expression of what he means by gospel: “It [the church] stood and stands on the Gospel. And by the Gospel is meant, not a book, or a system, or a scheme, but the very act, deed, and revelation of God in Christ. The Gospel is not truth about God’s reconciliation; it is God Himself reconciling in Christ. The Gospel is God in Christ, God in His Cross, God in Redemption.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 152)

Much has been made of Forsyth’s anticipation of themes in the thought of Karl Barth. Certainly here we see a similar kind of priority given to God’s redeeming act before Bible and church, to that which Barth will echo in the priority he gives to God’s Word in his theology of the Word of God (and Forsyth was writing the same quote more than two decades before the second edition of Barth’s Romerbrief ). Both theologies are profoundly Christocentric but Forsyth’s focus on redemption as the key which unlocks both Christology and ecclesiology gives his method a particular ethical energy and vibrancy.

Because the gospel, so defined as the very redemptive act of Christ, created the church, we can look to no other principle or structure to define the church. Neither can we look for the unity of the church in some other place than in the gospel which made it. “We can never again identify the unity of the Church with one of its institutional forms whether of polity or rite. The real unity of the Church is of the kind which reflects the inner unity of the Gospel which created the church.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments p. 47)

In Rome, Reform and Reaction, 1898, written just 10 years after the historic Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 was put forth as the basis for church union, Forsyth reminds the Anglicans that there can be no other basis for unity than the gospel: “They [Anglicans] do not realise the full force of the fact that it was the Gospel that made the Church, and always must make it. The Church was before the Bible, but it was not before the Gospel, it was not before faith, which is the answer to the Gospel and not to the Church.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 63)

Years later he makes the same point, that ecclesiology has no life of its own apart from soteriology, the church doesn’t exist apart from the redemption that created it:

In Catholicism (divided hopelessly into Roman and Anglican) the Church’s unity is a great matter — as indeed it ought to be, since its disunion is so paralysing for effect. And it is now sought less by a demand for agreement over a dogmatic field than by concentration on one point. It rallies to one doctrine — the doctrine of the Church. For its unity the Church concentrates on the Church — with a certain egoism which makes a certain jar. But the principle is right enough. Concentrate. Let us also use the same tactics of concentration, but let us select differently. Let us find the unity of the church not in itself (‘He shall not speak of Himself’) but in its message, in the unity of the Gospel that made the Church. To be sure of the one Gospel is to be secure of the one Church.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 39)

Likewise, no part of the church may be the principle of unity. Forsyth rejects episcopacy as a sine qua non of church unity, although he confesses to be willing to live under it as a functional matter of church polity if need be. He rejects the argument that the episcopacy is the successor of the apostles. “The real successor of the Apostalate . . . was not the hierarchy but the canon of Scripture written to prolong their voice and compiled to replace the vanished witness.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 64)

But the Bible itself is not what makes the church or even where the church’s unity may be found; that must be sought in the gospel which lies behind and before the Bible. Neither should we look for the basis of the church and its unity in ideas, concepts or doctrines. “We need that more people should be asking ‘What must I do to be saved?’ rather than ‘What should I rationally believe?’ We need power more than truth. We need a new sense of the living God as the God whose Redemption is as relevant and needful to this age’s conscience as to the first. It is not a ministry we need but a Gospel which makes both ministry and Church.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 18)

The church is corporate because “it is the counterpart of a redemption primarily collective.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 54) Without this corporate emphasis Forsyth’s strong soteriology might make for a sectarian ecclesiology, as is so often the case today in those branches of the church who, unhappily, seemed to have claimed exclusive use of that important word, evangelical. But this is far from the case in Forsyth, and he would view modern evangelicalism as another of the unfortunate “isms” that so haunt the church. This would no more keep him from insisting on the evangelical character of the church, than Catholicism (of which he was so critical in both its Roman and Anglican forms) would keep him from insisting that the one church is catholic by its very charter. “When I speak of the Church, I mean, of course, the true Catholic Church, the Church of Christ, the Church in all the Churches, the community of the faithful.” (Forsyth, Charter, p. 38)

The isolated, atomistic, individualistic Christianity of much contemporary Protestantism was a continual target of Forsyth’s pen. His polemic against such an understanding was as sharp and pointed as his polemic against the established church or Roman Catholicism. He wrote, “We Disown the Prince, the Prelate, the Priest — and the Individualist” (Forsyth, Charter, p. 48) He believed the Protestant individualist was a betrayal of the Reformation understanding of the church:

 . . . [the Reformers] . . . did all they did in the closest union with a Church and the deepest faith in it. They certainly did not believe that the Church was an ex post facto aggregate of saved units, a society formed at the option of individual believers who could be just as good believers without such association. A Church lay latent and imperative in the very nature of their faith. They would have said the faith that did not force a man into Church association was no real faith. They believed that the Christ redeems a community, a kingdom, not just so many units who might or might not gather into a community. It was a community that Christ redeemed, and it is into this ideal community of redemption that as units we are saved. We are saved as units, from being units, into a redeemed community, which must constantly take effect as a visible society.” (Forsyth, Charter, p. 63)

We see here how the corporate nature of the church is given in the creating act of redemption. ” . . . the same act which sets us in Christ sets us also in the society of Christ. It does so ipso facto, and not by a mere consequence or sequel, more or less optional. To be in Christ is in the same act to be in the Church.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 62)

This gives the church an objective basis. “It does not stand on Christian sympathies and affinities but on divine deed and purpose.” (Forsyth, The Church, p. 60) Forsyth looked to the apostolic church as a model for this catholicity (long before the development of either the episcopacy or the sacerdotal priesthood). In that earliest church the local community “was not self–contained” but “included spiritually all Christians elsewhere. In a word, the local Church was but the outcrop there of the total and continuous Church; one everywhere. The total Church was not made up by adding the local Churches together, but the local Church was made a Church by representing there and then the total Church. It was just where the total Church looked out at one point.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 65) For this reason neither a national church or a modern denomination do justice to the corporate nature of the church. “Christianity is not national in spirit. Its conception is catholic and universal, transcending and submerging national differences, ‘elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.'” (Forsyth, Charter, p. 49)

Neither is the church denominational. Created by a gospel of corporate redemption it must mirror that corporateness, hence, Forsyth writes, ” . . . no one can be saved by a denomination as such, but only by what Church there is in it.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 54)

Neither can the corporateness of the church be found in a common purpose or in some sort of fellowship. “Fellowship is a fruit and not a root,” he once wrote. ” . . . The Spirit that unites the Church has its source in Christ’s work on the Cross.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 60) Likewise, “to talk of unity being but a matter of brotherly love is not to gauge the problem.” (Forsyth, The Church, p. 54)

Finally, the church is corporate because the redemptive act that created it has a corporate and universal intent. “The object of the Gospel is no longer to save a group out of the world, but to save the world itself. That is felt to have been its original purpose. Souls, sects, and Churches are saved in a universal, a racial salvation.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 126) To carry out that universal intent the church is priestly and moral.

The church is priestly because it exercises under Christ the great sacrificial function of the world. Created by a sacrificial and redemptive act the church is priestly insofar as it represents that act. Forsyth wrote early on,

The reason why we are not in earnest enough, and our piety is of a poor flat, and unimpressive type, making too little appeal to the public soul and imagination, is because we have lost the idea that our Church is, in its nature, as the body of Christ, a priest among men. Our individualism has lost the sense of the Church as a real body; it is regarded as an association of people each having his own personal relations with God. And our secularity of mind has lost the idea of the Church as a priestly body exercising under Christ the great sacrificial function of the world. The name of priest, which we would refuse to the Church’s minister, we should urge for the Church itself, for the sake of the thing it represents. (Forsyth, Rome, p. 214)

This priestly character of the whole church, and not of its hierarchy, is what Luther and the Reformation gave back to the church. “It remodeled the Church after the pattern shown on the mount of Calvary, by way of redemption, of forgiveness, as a personal experience. The Church could only exist as a community of the forgiven, not merely of the absolved; as a society of priests, and not a priest-led society; as a congregation of the justified, living by their personal faith, and having their spiritual head in Christ alone.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 40)

As for the minister of the church, he or she is no longer a priest among the people, but a fellow-priest among the priesthood of all believers. He, like them, is priestly only in as much as he represents the cross of Christ. “The minister is what the Church is. He is a priest only in so far as he represents the essential priestliness inherent in the Church; and the Church is priestly only in so far as it can represent the cross and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” (Forsyth, Rome, p. 185)

The church is moral because the act that created it is above all a moral act. Forsyth’s insistence on the cruciality of the cross for understanding the church makes his ecclesiology profoundly moral, and intrinsically ethical. As in every other quality we have seen the moral and ethical quality of the church derive their meaning from redemption. “As our Cross is, so will our Church be, such will our Gospel be, and such will be our control. And if we drop from the Cross any satisfaction of God’s holy demand, any reference to his holy judgment, we lose the royal thing from our moral centre. We lose what makes faith a controlling power. We are left with no more than an exhibition of love, or an apotheosis of sacrifice, which only cheers man by showing himself at his best, instead of humbling and quickening him by the salvation of his worst. The Church will be for the world just what it is made by its theology of the Cross.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 13) Forsyth insists on an atoning Christ, for apart from an atoning Christ the church is non-ethical. “No Cross, no Christ, only a saint.” (Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 33) You cannot start with ethics and posit the church. “Christianity is a religion and a faith before it is an ethic. It is ethical because of its faith in the supreme and all-inclusive ethical act of God in the Redeemer.” Forsyth, Rome, p. 239)

To sum up, the church is evangelical, corporate, priestly and moral because of the act of redemption that created it. For Forsyth ecclesiology finds its subject matter from soteriology, the church gets its charter from redemption, from the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Part II The Church and Society

Just as P. T. Forsyth’s soteriology controls his ecclesiology, so too, when we raise the question of what the church has to say to society, we must look to the cross for our answer. Does this focus on the cross in Forsyth’s theology restrict or limit the wider social implications of the gospel?

For Forsyth’s theology the holy God known through the cross of Christ is the starting point. We might say that for Forsyth “in the beginning was the act.” The cross is the divine act of salvation, not a preliminary, not a process, not “the revelation” but the “effectuation” (Forsyth, The Church,, the Gospel and Society, p. 20) of God’s holiness. The holy act of God in the cross is moral, not mystical or metaphysical. Its power is not to be located in the humanity of Christ but by the grace in Christ. The saving act that founded the church and will redeem society is founded not on incarnation but on redemption.

For Forsyth both the charter of the church and the ethic of human society are to be founded in that act. “It is not a rock foundation, but a soul foundation, that carries the great Church. It rests not on a solid substance, but on a saving will. The Kingdom took rise in a new creative act. In its beginning was not the word merely, nor the thought, but the deed. The whole person of Christ was here for the moral act in which he was consummated — for the Cross, the dying of the Holy One and Just. The Cross is the real foundation of the Kingdom. There was condensed the conscience of Christ and the holiness of eternity — and there arose, in consequence, the ethic of human society.” (Forsyth, The Church, p. 19)

We might term this approach “God-centered,” for the imperative and action are God’s and not ours, and therefore, we find the true understanding of church, the kingdom of God, and the ethic of human society not in anything these may claim for themselves but only in relation to God and in consequence of God’s act. “In any Kingdom of God, as Christ meant it, God is first and not man. It was to God’s Holy honour and glory first that Christ offered Himself in founding the Kingdom, and not to man — to man only for God’s sake. The man finds his true freedom and glory in seeking first the glory and honour of God, not in using God, in exploiting God and ‘making Him to serve’ human possibilities and resources for natural comfort or power.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 10) This was written in the context of a discussion regarding the church’s relationship to Socialism, but it speaks against all attempts to ground our understanding of God in some human act, idea, character or enterprise.

It is because it is the holy God who acts in the cross that the holiness of God is decisive for understanding Forsyth’s theology. “We need for the moral purposes of Society, a Christ who redeems because He atones, and atones because He is Holy, and is Holy because He is God.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 30) This holiness is not to be understood as mystical or metaphysical: “Remember always that the holiness of God is not a mystical idea but a moral . . . What Paul from his education calls the righteousness revealed in the Cross is what elsewhere is called holiness . . . It is the perfection of God’s moral nature . . . It is the supreme expression of His absolute perfection. But His moral perfection, observe. Holiness is not the calm balance and self-possession of an infinite of Eternal Being, as it appeared to Plotinus or Spinoza. It is more akin to the self-conquest, self-bestowal, and self-effectuation which belong to an eternal moral personality. This is the true Christian sense of holiness, as distinguished from the thought of God as the Supreme Being inviolable, self-sufficing, and splendid. In this latter sense holiness gives us but an aesthetic religion, culminating in a future more paradisal than heavenly. It is the Catholic idea, the Dantesque.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society , p. 19)

In the same way Forsyth understands the doctrine of the Trinity in moral terms, rather than in metaphysical, for it was reflection on the meaning of redemption that led to postulating the doctrine of the Trinity. “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 of unity for a Society of persons. But the unity of a Trinity of persons is a moral unity rather than a metaphysical. It is a Holy Trinity. And the foundation of our belief in it is (as it was for Athanasius) the Holy act of redemption rather than the stately philosophy of the Logos. That is to say, in the Holy Cross we have the moral principle of the universe which the Church has to administer and adjust to the successive phases of human Society.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 21)

But the holiness of God is not merely revealed in the cross, it acts in power, destroying evil, bringing in the kingdom of God. “The Cross of Christ is not the preliminary of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom breaking in. It is not the clearing of the site for the heavenly city; it is the city itself descending out of heaven from God.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 77) The holiness of God is thus not shown but established, but as a spiritual reality and as the destiny of human society.

The core of the Cross is not merely the revelation of God as Holy, but the effectuation of His holiness, the practical establishment of it upon its destruction of the kingdom of evil. The soul of the atonement is only negatively and individually described as the forgiveness of sin. It forgives by establishing in the world of spiritual reality the inflexible supremacy of God’s ethical holiness, through an act which effects at once the whole of God and the whole of human Society. If such a one died for all, in that act al died. It therefore commits Society to a development to that Holy end. The object of historic Society is now, since the act at the creative centre of history, the evolution of holiness, and its actual establishment as the controlling principle of human relations. Society can only cohere and prosper in a faith with an ethical core, whose inmost place is holiness, andholiness its final goal.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 20)

A word is necessary here in regard to Forsyth’s use of the word “evolution,” a word he used seldom in regard to his own theology and more often as the object of his polemical ire as standing for some process intrinsic in nature or history apart from God. Clearly here he is using it in a non-technical sense of God’s holiness. In a later book he makes it quite clear that no evolutionary process is adequate to deal with the problems of humanity: “The same Holy who is imperative as law is also creative as life; He is creative and restorative by a necessity moral and not physical, of impulse and not pressure. The power that condemns is the only one that can reclaim. He even atones. As Holy He deals with His broken law in the Act which heals the broken soul. The Holy One is the atoning Redeemer. And the source of our moral fear is the goal of our Holy love. No evolutionary process, therefore can deal justly with the moral situation of the race but only a holy and redemptive. And its redemptive treatment is no mere process but a moral Act.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 67)

Forsyth wants to rule out any attempt to find in human nature or human history the answers to the problems of human society. Christ’s significance for us is not in his character or ethic, still less in any affinities we may have with him because of his humanness that might enable us to see Christ as the best in humankind, an example of our latent possibilities. On the contrary, Forsyth’s focus on the cross forbids any such attempt: “The ethic of Christian love is not founded on the humanity in Christ, but upon the unity of grace in Christ. It rests not upon the Incarnation, but upon an Atoning Redemption; not upon love which draws to its affinity for completion, but upon love which is drawn to its enemy to rescue and bless.   Christ is not the culmination of what is best in man, but God’s victory over the worst.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 19-21)

Society cannot save itself. For Forsyth it is the church, created by the act of the holy God by means of the cross of Christ, through which God acts to save society. “The call of Christ was not to a proletariat, or even a public, but to an elect. He must always act on the world through a Church when it is a question of saving Society.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 61) The church’s election is not to save it out of society, like some lifeboat rescue. Forsyth’s understanding of the act of redemption and of the church created by it is too corporate and universal for that. “As a matter of fact, the historic effect on Christ’s Holy work was social at once. It was to create a Society. It crystallized in a Church. And the Church is the collective missionary of the world. Society can only be saved by a Society. Individual evangelism, detached and isolated, is half wasted. It is only by Christ’s Holy work, translated into the Holy Society of the Churches, that Society at large can be converted into the Holy Kingdom of God.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 31)

The work of Christ on the cross determines the work of the church. It is the cross that the church must look for its authority and also for the scope of its work, which is the whole of society and not merely individual souls. Forsyth does not, then, see the church as being primarily a moral example, guide, or cultivator of religious affections, but rather ethical, a power of holiness. “The main work of the church is determined by the nature of the Savior’s work in the Cross, and not by human demands.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p.10) ” . . . I do not think of the Church as a moral example, but as Christ’s executor, as the trustee of the moral principle it has to apply as a standard to certain practices of Society; but it has also to do much more. It has to infuse it in the very structure of Society as its organizing principle.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 5) “For great public purposes of Church or State the principle of moral holiness in the Atonement is of far more value than the dear affections of the heart, more precious than the pity even of Christ, taken alone, and more effective than the teaching of Christ.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 7) “The authority in the Church is the moral Holy power of redeeming grace — the gospel of moral redemption by a God who saves rather than guides, and forgives rather than rewards.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 71) A church understood in such a manner stood in sharp contrast to the actual church Forsyth was addressing in his day: an undogmatic Christianity identified with culture, infected with ideas of immanence and pantheism, evolution and inevitable progress, and convinced that the ills of society could be addressed adequately by moral uplift and social amelioration.

But Forsyth insists that the cross demands a church which challenges each age with nothing less than the ethical power of the holy God. “[The Cross] was for the holiness of Society in the ethical sense of the word holiness. It contemplates a Society in which the righteous Holy genius of the Gospel regulates all the energies and relations of life. And it contemplates a Church whose soul and goal this charge must be. It is a conflict which means the reduction in each age of something which idolizes the ego at the cost of the soul, and of God. Yesterday it meant a challenge to feudalism. Today it means a challenge to capital. But it does not challenge it as capital, only as an idol — as Mammon (and Mars) — as that which hampers moral growth in some, and makes it impossible in others.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 32)

Such a church is prophetic rather than pharisaic, conceived with challenging society with the holiness of God rather than preoccupied with the religious practices of its adherents. “It must be a very lopsided Gospel and a very partial Cross which has nothing to say to the present state of war — whether you take commercial or military war — which marks the capitalist age.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 33) Forsyth’s years as a pastor show when he writes, “We may write off as ethical vulgarism the frame of mind which resents moral intrusion into public affairs — the mental condition, for instance, which tells the best of the clergy to mind their own business when they press the moral aspects of economic questions. That is just what they are dong. It is their business to apply a Holy faith to the public conduct. To sever the economic question from the moral is to ruin both in the long run.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society p. 31) Likewise, to divorce personal religious experience from the holiness of God is a peril Forsyth warned of in his time, and might well be heeded today by many, both inside and outside of the church, who cultivate a “spirituality” without content. “It is dangerous to cultivate piety for our uplifting when we need to be acquainting ourselves with God for our peace; for spirituality is much easier than repentance.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 115-116)

Forsyth’s firm conviction about the complete and finished work of Christ on the cross means that both the church’s task and human destiny are secure, despite the apparent weakness of the former and the perpetual crisis of the latter. The holy God who acts in the cross can be trusted because He is holy and He is God. The cross therefore is not only “the beginning” and “the centre” but the end of God’s work. The kingdom established by the cross is the telos of human destiny. Both in 1905, when the lectures published in The Church, the Gospel and Society were given, during a time of peace and prosperity, and in 1917 when The Justification of God was written, during the tragedy of the Great War, Forsyth put forth as consistent teleology of the kingdom, although in the latter book he articulated its work as judgment.

In 1905 he wrote, “The Kingdom as a reality exists outside of us since Christ finished His work of establishing it. What we have to do is not to produce it but to introduce it. It works in us mightily.”   (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society p. 12) And, ” . . . it must make a vast difference to the action of the Church whether it is creating a Kingdom of God as we go on, or introducing one finished and foregone, whether it is laying the track or uncovering it.” (Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society, p. 12)

By 1917 with two great Christian nations at war with one another Forsyth pens a theodicy which, if anything, accentuates teleology against the contemporary crisis. “In many forms my belief will appear that the site of revelation and the solution of history is to be found, not in the moral order of the world, but in its moral crisis, tragedy, and great divine commedia; not even in the conscience, but in its Christ and His Cross.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 16) The war is seen as a judgment on society, the visible proof of the failure of inevitable progress, and the ineffectualness of a proud civilization. “As we become civilized, we grow in everything but power to control our power over everything. Man, from the land, can harness the seas to serve him, but the winds and the waves do not obey him.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 18) The World War is a symptom of world sin and indicates more than ever the necessity for an ethical solution to the problem of the race.

If we have no self-projected goal which is more than an ideal, have we one given, descending from God to be within us the final principle and deep dynamic of human growth? Is it there, in a redeemed destiny, that we find a faith and a unity refused by our first origin or our long career? . . . Such at least is the Christian faith, which is the religion of a historic point in Christ’s Cross, and of a moral point in the human conscience, with their crisis of grace and guilt. The focus of the race is moral, in the conscience. ‘Morality is the nature of things.’ Guilt is therefore the last problem of the race, its one central moral crisis; and the Cross that destroys it is the race’s historic crisis and turning point. Were there no sin, there would be no war. Were there no world sin, there would be no world war. (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 18-19)

The power to effect such a redeemed destiny is not ours in and of ourselves, but only ours in faith, for the power of the kingdom is constantly at work in both grace and judgment. For Forsyth the goal of a redeemed destiny can have no other basis than redemption itself, therefore “The only possible teleology is an evangelical. It is of grace and faith on an imaginative scale. To use the language of theology, it is a teleology only guaranteed by a soteriology. The only perfection is in salvation. We are born not to prosper but to be redeemed.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 54)

Judgment is the flip side of grace. Both are the power of the kingdom at work among us. “The Kingdom of God is the most tremendous power acting among us at this moment, though it is conspicuously working for the time in its negative function of judgment. But it is always judgment into positive salvation. It is the saving power that judges.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 157) “How can Christ be at once the living embodiment of the moral law (and so both standard and judge) and also the living grace of God and the agent of reconcilement? This is the issue in the Cross, and for many it has been its offence. And the line of answer is that the grace is the judgment; that grace, acting by way of atonement, has in its very nature a moral element, which does not leave the indifferent immune, but becomes their judgment. Judgment is the negative side of love’s positive righteousness.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 180) Forsyth believed that the individualizing of judgment and its removal to after death or at the end of the world, so typical of much of the theology and piety of his time, had robbed judgment of its power for persons and society. “The principle of a final judgment means an incessant and fundamental judgment, and not merely a terminal; it is immanent and not remote. It is a finality working in history, not after it.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 191)

What is the relationship between a church whose source and goal is redemption and the society in which it finds itself? Forsyth refuses to identify the church with any particular form of society. The church outlasted feudalism and Forsyth expects it to outlast democracy. “Christianity is not bound up with any particular scheme, dream, or programme of social order. Its essence is redemption as forgiveness or eternal life, and the Kingdom of God as flowing from these. And the eternal life can be led under almost any form of Society.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 6)

Forsyth is not in favor of the church identifying itself as church with a particular political party or ideology, although individual Christians can and should be involved in political life. But when Christianity gets involved with ideologies it is not as a passive recipient or an uncritical cheerleader, but as that which has its own charter and goal, its own life and energy given by God in the act of redemption in the cross of Jesus Christ. Forsyth writes, “Discuss Socialism by all means on its economic side. Let Christian people descend from their impatient idealism, and harness their resentful pity to discuss the economics of the position more and more. But do not forget that Christianity has the right of moral criticism on every scheme of economics or fraternity, because it represents the greatest moral, fraternal, and international force that has entered history as yet. Fraternity means the unity of the race, and the race is one only in God, and in His Christ. The Church is not committed to any theories or classes of Society which do not rest on that. And it is not to be sneered at if it refuses to place itself wholly on one side or the other of a mere economic, social, or political question and stake its Lord’s fortunes there. It is bad for a Church, and it might be fatal, to be only on one side in a civil war.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 33)

For Forsyth the church’s task in regard to society is evangelical in both the personal and public sense. “The first business of the Church is not to set up the Kingdom of God among men, but in men. The Kingdom among men must follow.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 51) “Nothing but the righteousness of Christ’s Cross through faith can so work upon the righteous passion of mankind as to give it power to re-create Society for the righteousness of Christ’s Kingdom of God. The Church has not to solve the social problem, but to provide the men, the principles, and the public that can.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 72) “The social ideal can only be realized by the Church’s word. And the Kingdom of God has no religious meaning except as the Sovereignty of Jesus the Savior of souls.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 73)

But despite the personal dimension of the church’s evangelical task, reflected in the above quotes, Forsyth wants to distance himself from individualism in theology. Redemption is personal but also public. Forsyth anticipates his critics by answering, “But is it enough to say ‘Make every man a true Christian and the social question will be solved. Therefore let us be satisfied to preach conversion and promote missions, and philanthropies, and institutional churches?’ No. We cannot, indeed, do without these; but to stop there shows some lack of insight into the complex nature of a great public problem. It would show that the speaker had not realized how dependent the single soul is on the moral state of the public mind, how impossible it is for any man to be at his best except in a society looking toward its best.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 28)

The power and dynamism that drives the church is the same power that causes the kingdom of God to rise up in society, the act of grace in the cross. The gospel which drives the church is creative rather than preceptual or organizational. “The gift of God was not a truth, which we must hold, but an act of grace, performed in the person of Jesus Christ, and practically changing human destiny, an act which is met by our living faith; and then the true theology comes to the Church of itself when the faith is real. So the Kingdom of God rising socially from this act of love is not a matter of organisation. It is not a matter primarily of social readjustment. It is a matter of spiritual recreation. It is primarily a matter of changing our centre, as I have already said, from self to God, from egoism to obedience, from mere natural freedom to service.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 48) This dynamic, creative gospel is the principle behind all Christian ethics. The church cannot merely follow the precepts of Jesus in relation to society, rather the church must be guided by the creative gospel, which is the gracious and redemptive act of God still at work in the church and the world through the church. For example, of the relation of Christians to property Forsyth writes, “[This] must be determined, in the last resort, not directly by the precepts of Jesus, but by the principle of His Gospel, which must settle the place and sense of His precepts. This principle, indeed, is the central foundation of Christian ethics. The Gospel is not preceptual, but creative.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 70) Forsyth approves of legislation as a vehicle for social righteousness because, “Laws themselves have a moral and educative effect. They can be agents of grace — like the Factory Acts. Where would these have been but for the Christianity of Lord Shaftesbury? Laws can forward the Kingdom of God, and thus serve in their own way the cause of Redemption.” (Forsyth, Socialism, p. 29)

The question to be answered is whether Forsyth’s theology, so focused on redemption and on the church as the means of bringing that redemption to its fullness in society, is an adequate construal of what the Christian gospel has to say to society, or does it in some way limit or restrict the wider social implications of the gospel? Just such a charge is made to Forsyth’s theology by Daniel W. Hardy in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community in an essay “Created and Redeemed Sociality.” Hardy admires and appreciates Forsyth in many ways but has two chief criticisms (which he also has against Dietrich Bonhoeffer): “They suppose the necessity of God’s specific work in Christ as the solution of the social problem; the other is that they suppose that witness to the work of God is specific to the Church.” (Hardy, On Being the Church, p. 39) This is a fair assessment of Forsyth’s position.

Hardy sees one effect of these views to be the elimination of what he has called general or created sociality present in the human condition. Inasmuch as Hardy’s concept of “the social transcendental” (the social character of the human being) is a natural and intrinsic dimension of human life, he is accurate that Forsyth would turn elsewhere for the unity of human life, namely to redemption: “God’s revelation does not range the field of history, it goes to its centre — to its moral centre, to the cite both of its power and its impotence, to the conscience. The matter is not one of speculative nor of scientific theology. It is ethical. The certainty is morally mystic. The conscience is the creative region of all history, and when that is set right with its Holy Creator all will be right in tail. It is there that Humanity is one [italics mine] in that which God has done for the conscience of the race, in the Reconciliation which undoes guilt, and makes moral peace and endless power for the soul and for the race. Man is most surely one only in his divine destiny, only as redeemed.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 81)

Hardy writes, “Rather than trace the social transcendental, as the element which underlies all society and thus informs social pragmatics, to God’s specific act of redemption in Christ, it should be traced to the Logos of God operative in creation. This divine ordering is what ultimately implants in the human condition the ‘being-with’ which is natural to it.” (Hardy, On Being the Church, p. 42) Forsyth would certainly reject the ontology on which Hardy wants to establish his social transcendental, and as for “the Logos of God operative in creation,” Forsyth might reply, “Creation does not explain Christianity but Christianity creation.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 57)

Nevertheless, once one has acknowledged the different presuppositions, does the charge stand that Forsyth’s views “narrow God’s work unduly,” “privatising the Christian contribution to society” and lending “substance to the views of those who underrate the importance of religious faith”? (Hardy, On Being the Church, p. 40, 41)

The latter criticism seems the least important and the most easily dismissed. An authentic Christianity will always have its detractors, not least among “the cultured despisers of religion.” It is fair to ask of a theology that it be reasoned and articulate. You may not agree with it or find it helpful or true. Whether one finds Forsyth congenial the case can be made that he presented his theology in a reasoned (if somewhat rhetorical) manner.

In regard to the charge of “privatising the Christian contribution to sociality” there is a sense in which Forsyth “sets apart” the church, but only by election as apostles to the whole of society. This is, of course, no different from the construal of “church” by the apostles and traditional Christianity to this day. There may be a danger of elitism or a sectarian viewpoint in such an ecclesiology, but since Forsyth keeps his view of the church so tied to its source and goal in the holy God and His activity, this seems less of a danger than in ecclesiologies founded on some other basis. The church for Forsyth is not the object of God’s redeeming act so much as the means by which that act is brought to the whole society.

The power of Forsyth’s theology lies in his appreciation of the ethical locus for salvation, seen in the cross of Christ as the act of a holy God. If one doesn’t view Christianity in this ethical context then his theology will not be convincing. It is prophetic and powerful, more Hebrew than Greek, more biblical than philosophical, more dynamic than aesthetic. The cross of Christ is at the center of it, controlling every other theme. If one finds his ethical analysis of the human situation convincing and his explication of the gospel compelling, one must say no to the charge that he narrows God’s work. Far from it. During the Great War he wrote: “[The Cross] . . . is the theodicy of the whole God dealing with the whole soul of the whole world in holy love, righteous judgement, and redeeming grace. There is no universal ethic but what is based in that power and deed.” (Forsyth, The Justification, p. 133)

 Works Cited

 Peter Taylor Forsyth. The Charter of the Church: Six Lectures on the Spiritual Principles of Non- Conformity. London: Alexander and Shepheard, 1896. Pp. iv, 40, 38, 48, 63, 49.

Peter Taylor Forsyth. The Church and the Sacraments. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917. Pp. 29, 34, 83, 33, 44, 47, 39, 64, 18, 54, 6260, 65, 54, 60, 13.

Peter Taylor Forsyth. The Church, the Gospel and Society. London: Independent Press, 1962. Pp. 20, 19, 31, 10, 5, 7, 71, 32, 33, 31, 12.

Peter Taylor Forsyth. The Justification of God. London: Latimer House, 1948. Pp. 77, 67,115,116, 16, 18, 19, 54, 157, 180, 191, 81, 57, 133.

Peter Taylor Forsyth. Rome, Reform and Reaction: Four Lectures on the Religious Situation. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899. Pp. 134, 41, 152, 63, 214, 239.

Peter Taylor Forsyth. Socialism, the Church and the Poor. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908. Pp. 10, 61, 6.

Daniel W. Hardy. “Created and Redeemed Sociality” in Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy, editors. On Being the Church: Essays on Christian Community. Edinburgh: T. &  T. Clark, 1989. Pp. 39, 42, 40, 41.

The Reverend Richard L. Floyd, ANTS 1975, is Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1989 he spent four months of sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford University, where he did research on the writings of P.T. Forsyth.

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