P. T. Forsyth on the role of experience in the making of theology

On our Confessing Christ open forum the role of experience in the making of theology continually pops ups. Nobody wants to eliminate experience from the mix (indeed how could you?), but serious issues arise. Whose experience is privileged? What is the relationship of human experience to scripture, tradition, and reason, the other three legs of the Methodist quadrilateral. I find this passage from Forsyth from a hundred years ago insightful. His qualifying of experience with faith reminds me of Jonathan Edwards. This passage shows, too, that this issue is not new to our time:


“What we need is a theology that creates an obedient experience rather than experience that creates an interpretive theology. What is created from Christian experience is theologoumena rather than theology. Of course I understand by any experience which is used as the basis of theology the positively Christian experience of the regenerate man, and not mere experience of the world, or of life, or of the humanist pieties and ideals. But even the positively Christian experience of a quite new life cannot be the basis either of a gospel or of a theology. What can be such a basis is Christ’s experience and that of those in first and direct contact with His person and work. The value of our experience as a base, or even as a test, is small; it is too narrow, it is too variable, it is too impure. The fundamental thing is not experience, but the a priori element in experience; the thing of which we have experience; the datum revealed in it and to it; the thing which produces our experience, the object of our faith. Faith is the great thing; and faith is not an experience in the sense of a mood, but as response to a revelation. It is there in great measure to save us from our experiences as subjective states, and to enable us to do without them on occasion, as our Lord did in the world-saving moment of the dereliction on the cross. Besides, some of the greatest convictions of our faith are beyond the range of our possible experience. What can experience tell us of the pre-existence of Christ? What can it tell us of the final victory of Christianity in history, and the consummation of all things in the coming kingdom of God? Can any experience assure us that all things work together for good to love except an experimental faith in the love that has reconciled all things to Himself, and constantly sees in Christ a reconciliation hidden to us The reconciliation of faith and experience exists but in the object of our faith—the Reconciler. What we need is, not to see a reconciliation by Christ, but to experience heartily Christ as the reconciliation. Again, is Christianity the highest we have come to? Experience says Yes; comparative religion says Yes; the historic-religious method says Yes. But is it the highest we can come to? Is it a final revelation ? Is it absolute? To that question what can experience say ? But is there any doubt that New Testament Christianity claims to be final and absolute? It does not contemplate the possibility of another and more adequate gospel. Such was the experience of Christ, and, through Him, of the apostles. But was Christ’s experience here a mere part (though the highest part) of human experience Godward? The Christian contention has been that Christ’s experience was not man’s so much as God’s in man. He is a revelation in terms of human experience, but not a revelation of the resources of human experience. We go back to history not only to correct the Christian experience, but to found it, and to give it something to crystallize on. And we have this in the historic Christ, who is now neither debris left by the pyrrhonist critics on the one hand nor a mere part of history on the other, but an eternal reality in history. Christ corresponds in history to the a priori element given in individual experience. He is above the relativity of comparative methods. These and such things belong to our faith and not our experience, to the grand venture and not to the verification. Faith, indeed, is experimental or nothing. But we have surely got beyond the error which confuses faith with experience. A faith merely experimental becomes merely empirical, and at last dies of secularity.

(a paper read to the National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches at Birmingham, as reported in The Christian World Pulpit, 21st March, 1906. From Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses by P.T. Forsyth, edited by John Huxtable (London: Independent Press, 1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where I Ruminate on Preaching to Folks Who Don’t Know Their Bible

In my thirty years as a preacher I often had the feeling, when confronted by the fact that even the most committted churchmen in my congregation had scant knowledge of the Bible, that I had just missed some golden age when the pews were chockablock with folks who read their  Bible daily. But listen to this from P.T. Forsyth’s Yale Beecher Lectures from 1907, published as Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind:

“The Bible may be his (the preacher’s) text book, but it has ceased to be the text book of his audience. The Bible is not read by the Christian, or even by the churchgoing public, as a means of grace greater even than churchgoing. Our people, as a rule, do not read the Bible, in any sense which makes its language more familiar and dear to them than the language of the novel or the press. And I will go so far as to confess that one of the chief miscalculations I have made in the course of my own ministerial career has been to speak to congregations as if they did know and use the Bible. I was bred where it was well known and loved, and I have spent my ministerial life where it is less so. And it has taken me so long to realize the fact that I still find it difficult to adjust myself to it. I am long accustomed to being called obscure by many whose mental habits and interests are only literary, who have felt but a languid interest in the final questions of the soul as the New Testament stirs them, who treat sin as but lapse, God’s grace as if it were but love, and His love as if it were but paternal kindness.”

Does that strike a chord with any of you preachers?


A lifeline is literally a rope tossed to a drowning person, and figuratively something that provides escape from a dire situation. Sometimes we get thrown theological and intellectual lifelines!

One of the persistent features of my three plus decades in ministry has been my conviction that a pastor must be a theologian, and my own experience as a pastor-theologian has included several salient moments when I was thrown a theological life-line enabling me to carry on my work.

One was certainly in my first parish, where at twenty-six I was called to preach to two small congregations in rural Maine. After using up most of my seminary material in about a month the question loomed, what shall I say now?

To complicate matters, one of my congregations had a committed group of warm-hearted Jesus Freaks (this was 1975) who lamentably knew nothing about Paul Tillich’s “ground of all Being” or “ultimate concern,”and insisted on talking about matters liked being saved and the rapture. I felt like I had been dropped off on the far side of the moon, and often went back to my empty parsonage to pray and wonder if I was really a Christian.

Early lifelines came from books like Helmut Thielicke’s “Waiting Father” and “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” The first real rescuing lifeline was Karl Barth. A neighboring young pastor, Charlie Ford (about 25 miles away) had just returned from Bonn after working on a Ph. D. in New Testament. We would meet and read Karl Barth and study Greek.

Here was a towering intellect taking the tradition seriously, and now I finally had a common tongue to speak with my pietist friends of sin and grace, of righteousness and salvation. The first Barth I read was not the massive “Church Dogmatics,” but the short work, “Word of God and Word of Man,” translated and edited by Douglas Horton.

Horton’s preface includes his own lifeline narrative of seeing the little book at the Harvard Divinity School library and reading it in German. Horton found this “strange new world” a powerful alternative to the dry desiccated humanism in which he had been trained.

Another lifeline narrative comes from my friend Browne Barr, who died on February 1 of this year at 91. Browne had been a homiletics teacher at Yale, and for many years in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s he was the pastor of the big UCC church in Berkeley, California, where he was known for his engaging attention to both Word and World.

In the 1981 Pickwick Press reprint of P. T. Forsyth’s 1907 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Browne wrote an essay called “The Preacher’s Theologian.”

A generation after Douglas Horton, Browne Barr tells a similar tale. The setting this time is not a divinity school library, but his recently deceased predecessor’s study in the old parsonage where Browne, a young minister, comes across Forsyth’s book on preaching.

It is 1944, and as he puts it, “In Europe the hinge of history had not yet yet shown which way it was going to swing its door.”Reared and trained after the First World War on prohibition, pacifism, and “the integration of personality” he wondered what he would preach on his first Sunday. It was hard to say much about Christian pacifism when most of the men were at war. “The integration of personality? It was also hard to say much about that to a congregation absorbed with news of the nightly bombing of London and weary with their work on airplane propellors and parachute cloth. They really appeared fairly well integrated.”

Browne Barr’s lifeline was P. T. Forsyth, 33 years dead, but whose words on preaching still carried the ring of truth. And over the decades how many of us have had this same lifeline thrown to us, so that at difficult times in our ministry we were put in touch with the living Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy God he called Father?

Where I Ruminate on How Communication Technology has Changed the Scholarly Life

My friend and former parishioner Martin Langeveld has been encouraging me to start a blog, so here goes.   Martin, the former publisher of the Berkshire Eagle, our daily paper here in Pittsfield, is himself a blogger for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, where he has regular insights into the rapidly changing fate of newspapers.

I have been a sometimes blogger for several years on the site of The Confessing Christ  movement in the United Church of Christ.  There I have limited myself to matters theological, so here I can expand the lens a bit and include other interests.

I have been reflecting on how information has become available during my adult lifetime.  This is the 20th anniversary of my first sojourn to Britain to study.  I went to the University of Oxford to study the British Theologian, P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) at Mansfield College.  All my arrangements were made by phone or mail, and letters often had a turnaround time of two months.  Phone calls meant waking in the wee hours to catch people in the UK during business hours.

To study Forsyth’s writings I had to go one of the libraries, and the books for the most part had to remain there, so I spent a great deal of time in reading rooms.  I also scoured secondhand bookshops, most notably Blackwell’s, for Forsyth’s books.

The card catalogue at the Bodleian library was in huge leatherbound ledgers, and you had to fill out a call slip for items to come out of the bowels of the library.  I remember one of the books, a collection of Forsyth’s prayers, had the name of a former reader on the list in the back of the book: Robert McAfee Brown, who did his Ph. D. Dissertation at Union Theological Seminary under Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett.  It was dated 1949, the year I was born.  Sitting in the Duke Humphrey room at the Bodleian, built in 1488, four years before Columbus hit the Americas, made time slow down.

Six years later I went to St. Andrews University to do more on Forsyth, and that time there were fewer letters and more e-mails, and I brought a laptop with me, a Mac PowerBook, albeit with a very slow dial-up connection through CompuServe, remember them?

Six years later (another sabbatical) I was in Cambridge University and most communications were done by e-mail.

Today most (perhaps all) of P. T. Foryth’s writings, once so hard to find, are available on-line, and also many have been cheaply reprinted by Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Today I wouldn’t have to drag my family across the Atlantic to study Forsyth.  I can sit in my kitchen in my pajamas and read his stuff on-line, which is so much more efficient, but also way less cool than sitting in the Duke Humphrey room.

So by the new communications technologies distances of time and space get compressed, and one finds interlocutors as never before.  Twenty years ago a number of my United Reformed Church friends at Oxford thought I was just a little off to have come to study this old theologian from their tradition that most of them didn’t really know or care about.  But today I have a handful of on-line interlocutors I have never met, in the flesh, but who share a passion for this insightful figure from our past.  And now a blog, a word I never heard until a few years ago!