In his classic recommendations for seminary curriculum, B.B. Warfield of old Princeton called for “scholar-saints” in our pulpits today. Few have better embodied that ideal than Peter Taylor Forsyth (1848-1921). Born and raised in Scotland, he served five English congregations and then in 1901 became principal of Hackney College in London where he served until his death. He was a prolific writer, an influential schoolman and a uniquely gifted preacher. His productive career has many lessons for us.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, as the eldest of five children in rather deep poverty, he was raised in a devout environment and nurtured within the bosom of the Congregational Churches of Great Britain under whose aegis he conducted his entire ministry. When once he forgot his daughter’s birthday he profusely asked her forgiveness and explained that there never were “presents” at any time in his upbringing. His mother took in boarders among whom was George MacDonald, later renowned for his clergy novels.
Brilliant in his studies at Aberdeen, upon finishing he went to Germany to study a year with Albrecht Ritschl at Gottingen upon the recommendation of his friend and classmate, William Robertson Smith, the young Old Testament genius who had himself studied with Ritschl and was subsequently to become the center of great controversy in the Free Church of Scotland over his concessions to higher criticism and the Ritschlian denial of the substitutionary atonement.
Forsyth returned to assume pastoral responsibility having deeply imbibed German rationalism; he was a “fighting flamboyant liberal.” Even his dress shocked traditional sensibilities as he appeared in the pulpit in shepherd’s plaid trousers and a flaming red tie. His church was called “the Cave of Adullam.” He had moved from faith in God to faith in man.
In this time he married and became the father of his only child. One Sunday a month he preached to the children of the parish. He was a political activist after the model of F.D. Maurice, the Christian Socialist. But some new notes began to creep into his naturally gifted pulpit discourse. He preached an epochal sermon in Leicester on the holiness of God entitled: “God the Holy Father.”
While at Emmanuel Church in Cambridge his wife died and his never robust health collapsed. He was not the only preacher converted while he was in the ministry but in this time-frame he made what he called his “miraculous entry into the Christian life.” He abandoned Schleiermacher’s “feeling” psycholgism and Hegelian pantheism and broke with Ritschl over the atonement and justification. The Bible now became his starting point and not just the point of departure. He became a kerygmatic preacher – the Gospel was everything and at the center was the Cross of Christ. His classic work The Cruciality of the Cross expresses his new allegiance to a strongly evangelical soteriology.
The Kingdom of God was not what the liberals argued but he positioned himself much closer to where Albert Schweitzer and Rudolph Otto would be. In fact he challenged R.J. Campbell of City Temple, whose abandonment of substitution was tearing English Congregationalism apart. He was not afraid of taking up the cross of controversy where it was necessary in the interest of the faith.
R.W. Dale of Birmingham paid him tribute by saying “He recovered grace for us.” His preaching was profoundly Biblical and very theological – even Emil Brunner called him “the greatest dogmatic theologian Britain has given the church in modern times.” Always sounding the characteristically Calvinist emphasis on God’s sovereignty, he was relentlessly Trinitarian and Christo-centric, with an always recurring stress on the holy love of God.
He brought an electrifying sermon to the World Congregational Assembly in Boston in 1907 on “The Evangelical Principle of Authority” to which the entire congregation responded by rising and spontaneously singing “In the Cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” J.D. Jones who was there said that “He flamed, he burned.”
On this visit to America he also gave his famous Beecher Lectures at Yale entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, still a classic. Moving from the premise that “with its preaching, Christianity stands or falls,” Forsyth warned against gaining an audience and losing the Gospel. He took a strong stand for Biblical exposition and lamented the growing lack of any note of authority in contemporary preaching. “We need more Scripture!” he exclaimed.
He warned against subjectivity that does not really use the Scripture. In contrast to the social do-gooders of his time he insisted that we cannot usher in the Kingdom – the King alone can make the Kingdom! It is refreshing to reread this venerable classic and underscore his thoughts on preaching as worship. The world cannot supply us with the agenda. The sermon is not sacerdotal but sacramental. We must distinguish between novelty and freshness. Our goal is not to be original in the pulpit but to bring home that Word which has been from the beginning. We are to declare the truth not to dazzle with the truth! Indeed, preaching is the chief part of the evangelical ritual. We do not step into the pulpit to say how things strike us or to update our hearers on the latest. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity short of fiber.
To Forsyth, in words we desperately need to hear again in our time, we are not to be wandering stars. We must not be eager to drop the language of Canaan (shall we no longer speak of the precious blood of Jesus?) – our culture asks for half a gospel but that is no gospel at all. Ours is not a gospel of give and take but the mercy of God which gives all and claims all. He saw the dominant culture as casting God and heaven and hell to the rear of their concerns. The summons is for short sermons and long socials. Rather, he advises us to take good, long passages and open them up for our people. The need is for more than petty sentiment in the pulpit – we must not succumb to triviality, uncertainty and self satisfaction. Pelagianism is the peril. Beware of theology ala mode, after the fashion. The grave danger in modernization of the message is the moralization of the message – but our message is “the eternal, supernatural Gospel!”
Still, to read after Forsyth – even in his greatest work The Person and Place of Jesus Christ or The Soul of Prayer – is to encounter some obscurity, some “dark sayings.” J.H. Jowett, the craftsman of pristine clarity (and a fellow Congregationalist), asked him about his preaching on the Cross: “I do not understand what you mean.” He was more the prophet than the architect, more incisive than persuasive, more corrective than attractive. He spoke of pulpit poets but he was not one.
There was a treacherous fault line in Forsyth. Karl Barth praised him and stated that in England they do not need Barth because they have Forsyth. He is sometimes called “Barth before Barth.” In other words in fleeing the house of liberalism he did not come all the way home to orthodoxy. Some of the leaves of higher critical and evolutionary thought were still clinging to the branches in the spring thaw. The Bible contains the Word of God but is not to be identified with it. Like the Barth of Romerbrief (1918) he has no truck with verbal inspiration, shrinking back from propositional revelation (showing his retention of the Kantian epistemology of neo-orthodoxy). Like Barth he does not believe in general revelation. Like Barth he was exceptionally pastoral (remember Barth’s prison preaching).
At a time when we see the continuing influence of Barth on evangelical thinking, it is imperative to mark the fault-line in Forsyth and – in his compromised condition – his inability to ward off theological disaster for the Congregationalists of Britain. His denigration of sound doctrine was lethal.
Yet in his insistence that the Cross of Christ is our final authority and that redemption is the highest reality, he needs to be heard in our hearts and echoed in our proclamation. “He found his center and stayed there” needs to be said of us. He knew his new stand made him something of a museum piece but that did not faze him. His verbal thrusts were not always chivalrous and he was the classic hypchondriac. He loved Kierkegaard and Germany and World War I greatly depressed him when he thought of his old German friends. His library was one third in German.
He was both praised and scolded for his style. He was, as are we all, a human preacher with the treasure in the clay pot. But we love him because he championed the Cross of Christ as central and penal. He preached, “The Cross must carry us before we can carry the Cross.”
His fully realized eschatology leaves us on empty but he so well protested against vagueness in theology which is like “Thomas Hardy’s moorland in a dark winter” as he put it. He disliked pietism (like Ritschl) but adored Bernard of Clairveaux. This epigrammatic genius in the pulpit has much to offer those who search out his still very relevant books.
David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Marvin W. Anderson,ed. The Gospel and Authority: A P.T. Forsyth Reader (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971)
Robert McAfee Brown, P.T. Forsyth: Prophet for Today (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962)
Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907). His Beecher Lectures at Yale., The Cruciality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1909 rep.), The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1909), The Soul of Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1916), Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses (London: Independent Press, 1962)
Gwilym O. Griffith, The Theology of P.T. Forsyth (London:Lutterworth,1948)
A.M.Hunter, P.T. Forsyth (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974)
Donald G. Miller, Browne Barr, Robert S. Paul, P.T. Forsyth: The Man, The Preacher’s Theologian, Prophet for the Twentieth Century(Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1981)
John H. Rodgers, The Theology of P.T. Forsyth: The Cross of Christ and the Revelation of God (London: Independent Press, 1965)
B.B. Warfield, “The Purpose of the Seminary” in Selected Shorter Writings, I (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970) 374-378