Rick Floyd reviews Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameA recent edition of Theology Today (70.4, January 2014) includes Rick Floyd’review of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (T&T Clark, 2013). Therein, he writes:

Dr. Goroncy is a felicitous writer. He knows his Forsyth, and he also knows the late Victorian world in which Forsyth lived and worked. He leads us ably through the material and brings us to his conclusion, which is that the trajectory of Forsyth’s thinking should have led him to dogmatic universalism, but did not. This is the most controversial (and most interesting) part of the book. The subject of universal salvation has recently gained wide public attention sparked by the popular book Love Wins by Rob Bell (Harper One, 2011). Goroncy’s thoughtful, nuanced treatment of this timely subject adds depth to this conversation …

It is good to see a new generation of scholars take up this important theologian. And now that Forsyth’s writings, once hard to find and largely out of print, are widely available in print and electronically, I hope to see renewed interest by scholars and preachers of this great ‘‘preacher’s theologian.’’

Me too! Access to the remainder of the review is available here.

I am grateful to Rick for his kind words about my book, not least because he knows his Forsyth too! His own study on Forsyth’s thought, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement (Pickwick Publications, 2000) is a very clear reading of Forsyth’s testimony to God’s most unpopular work – the atonement. I warmly commend it.

Some notes from e-land

Piano

W. Travis McMaken reviews Hallowed Be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameThe latest issue of Reviews in Religion & Theology includes a review, by W. Travis McMaken, of my book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth. I’m very grateful to Travis for penning this review and for the prod to again consider turning my attention to the challenge of writing an intellectual biography on this most creative of theologians in the tradition of British dissenters.

Those who don’t have access to the journal can read a copy of the review here.

Ministry and theology for a ‘Post-Fukushima world’

The Rev. Dr. Naoya Kawakami is the Secretary General of Touhoku HELP, a highly commendable ministry birthed in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Touhoku HELP produced a video for a presentation at the recent WCC General Assembly in Busan. With Korean narration and English subtitles, it illustrates not only the recent (note: some of the footage was filmed last August) situation in Fukushima but also something of the inspiring ministry that is emerging from the rubble.

Naoya and I maintain a steady and prayerful correspondence. In a recent exchange, he wrote of the overwhelming number – over a half of million! – who live with the effects of radiation. He also wrote of his own need, amidst the crushing wave of need around him, to ‘keep time to think and read’, and of the urgency for what he calls a ‘new theology for this “Post-Fukushima” world’.

Naoya KawakamiHe mentioned too about a recent meeting of Japanese and Korean theologians who conversed about the situation birthed by the Fukushima tragedy. Among the topics discussed was the possibility of post-mortem salvation for the many victims of the tsunami and of radiation poisoning. He said,

In the tradition of the major protestant churches, there is no way of salvation for the dead who have not believed in Jesus Christ as Lord during their living time. But many Japanese theologians who have read PT Forsyth have spoken out against this tradition since the triple disaster. Yesterday, we talked about this issue. I shared the logic of Forsyth for this issue from his book This Life and the Next.

Inspired by Forsyth’s lively challenge (via his Protestant reappraisal of the doctrine of purgatory) that God alone – and not death – determines the time when creation reaches its maturity, these theologians found themselves, in faith and together, straining to hear – but hearing indeed – the promise of the Lord of hope in a land crushed under the burden of fear and despair.

Please join me in praying for Naoya (he carries a great burden for the people who live in the Fukushima area, and for the gospel), and please consider supporting the work of Touhoku HELP.

[Naoya’s dissertation was on Japanese receptions of Forsyth’s theology, and the subject of post-mortem conversion receives attention in the final chapter of my own study, Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All Things in the Soteriology of P.T. Forsyth. Naoya kindly described my latest offering on Forsyth, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History, as a ‘big present for Fukushima’.]

‘God dies in the world’: an interview with an artist

SAMSUNG

The front cover of my most recent publication, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth, includes a section of a painting (above) by my daughter Sinead. The decision to use her painting – a decision which, to be sure, required some grovelling for permission – was not, I hope, motivated by cutesiness but rather by a profound sense of the work’s fittingness to the book’s themes. The painting, which is used upside down, is called ‘Crosses’.

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702Now that Sinead and I have both finally seen the book in real life, I wanted to ask her again about the painting, about what it ‘means’ (her word), and about how it relates to the material in daddy’s book. So while on the way to school this morning, I conducted a brief ‘interview’ with Sinead. As part of that conversation, Sinead offered the following statement:

God dies in the world, and the God who dies in the world is the same God who dies in heaven. And yet somehow these two deaths, which are really the same, are related. In the end, it’s all really a mystery – but in the mystery the church is created and the world is saved. And that’s what my painting is about.

I buzzed.

[Copies of the book are available here or via here or by contacting me directly. If you are interested in reviewing the volume, then please contact James Stock at Wipf and Stock. And if you are interested in a copy signed by Sinead, then it'll probably cost ya some serious dosh, or a packet of mints!]

‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ is now available

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702After a very long gestation period, I’m truly delighted to finally announce the birth of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth. As I mentioned in a previous post, it has been a pregnancy marked by great joy and hope, and, I might add, by very few bouts of morning sickness.

The book includes a marvelous foreword by Professor David Fergusson, a lengthy (and, I hope, helpful) introduction to Forsyth’s preaching ministry written by myself, and, from Forsyth’s pen, forty-eight sermons, over half of which are previously unpublished. It seeks to introduce Forsyth, his thought, his ministry, and the Word he served, to a new generation of readers, to provide those already familiar with his writings some new material to digest, and to encourage preachers – and those who hear the Word of the Lord through them, or in spite of them – to not abandon the ‘earth’s foremost part’ (as Herman Melville described the pulpit), especially at a time when the storms are so inexorable and the spoils of exile are so scrumptious.

It will, of course, be up to others to judge, but I think that the book would make a judicious gift for any minister, theology student, historian, or general reader. You can order copies here or via here or by contacting me directly.

If you are interested in reviewing the volume, then please contact Amanda Vanderhoof at Wipf and Stock.

Mother and baby are feeling great, and the siblings proud.

An(other) update on Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History

Forsyth.DescendingonHumanity.90702I’m delighted to inform readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem that it is looking increasingly likely that my forthcoming book Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth will be available sometime around October (and so in good time for Christmas). The project has taken considerably longer – and considerably more energy – than I had imagined when I first embarked on it many moons ago. That said, it has been a project marked by great joy, and with hope that the final product may be a blessing to all who take up and read and, beyond such persons, to others.

The folk at Wipf and Stock, and especially Charlie Collier, Matthew Wimer (the typesetter) and Amelia Reising (the cover designer), have again been great to work with.

A wee update on Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History

Forsyth - 1892A number of folk have written to ask me where things are at with my forthcoming bookDescending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. I’m pleased to report that things are progressing well. The proofs are looking great, and the cover designer is just working on producing something agreeable. In the meantime, the book has received the following kind endorsements:

‘Far from being a collection of cozy meditations, here are challenging, biblically rooted, theologically powerful, pastorally concerned essays and sermon notes by Britain’s most stimulating theologian of the twentieth century. Church members will be energized; preachers will be prompted towards relevant exposition. This book is the product of much persistent burrowing by Jason Goroncy, whose substantial introduction is an exemplary piece of scholarship in its own right. We are greatly indebted to him’. – Professor Alan P. F. Sell, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

‘Few modern theologians have displayed the combination of intellectual energy, rhetorical power, and pastoral commitment of P. T. Forsyth. In this valuable collection of Forsyth’s sermons, many of them hitherto unpublished, we encounter a conviction too often absent in church and academy alike – that theology and preaching belong vitally together. In these striking examples of that vision, contemporary readers will find much to learn, challenge, and inspire’. – Ivor J. Davidson, University of St Andrews

Forsyth’s plea for an All Creatures’ Day

cow‘Now what day should we have for All Creatures’ Day? You will not find that in the almanack either. But what better day could we have than this selfsame Christmas Day? For was Jesus born among other children? Was He born into a nursery? Was there a crowd of other children all eager to see the new baby, and all clapping their hands when they did? Nothing of the kind. You know He was born in a stable, with a horse-trough for a cradle, with straw for a bed, and the cattle for company. There was the ass on which His mother rode, there were the asses of the other travellers who had got rooms in the inn; there were the cows belonging to the farm, and the fowls pecking in the straw; and there were the sheep—well, the sheep, of course, were in the fields, where the angels’ message came to the men who were taking care of them. The animals were nearer to the infant Jesus than any children were. And how often He spoke of the animals when He grew up; and He never spoke as if he despised them, but always as if He watched and loved them. And how very much the animals owe to Jesus! How much better the religion of Jesus has made people treat animals! The animals owe Jesus a great deal, if they but had a tongue to tell it. Yet they have tongues. I once saw a very old carving of the Nativity over a great church door. Now, I have seen several old pictures of the Nativity with the animals standing by or looking in with great interest at the stable window. But in this case they were still more interested; they were very affectionate to the baby, and their tongues expressed it. For it was two cows, and they had come up to the manger. You may know, perhaps, how curious cows are about clothes. They eat the cottage wash sometimes when it is hung out on the hedge. Well, among the swaddling clothes they found the baby; and they were so far from being disappointed that they felt quite loving, and they were licking it with their great rough tongues. I often think cows very kindly animals, but I never thought so more than then. Very likely the artist, with a kindly humour, wished to represent the homage of the creatures for the little Jesus. And he knew that they could not speak and praise with their tongues like men. So he made them worship in the only way their tongues could’.

– P. T. Forsyth, ‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk, 1903’ in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (ed. Jason A. Goroncy; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

On reading P. T. Forsyth

River bankRecently, I posted a snippet from one of my forthcoming books, another on P.T. Forsyth, titled Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. As the typesetter and myself put the final touches on the manuscript, I have been struck again by the gift that discovering Forsyth has meant for me. I share a little of that in the book’s Introduction. Here’s a taste:

There can be little doubt that one of the real gifts that this great Congregationalist and Edwardian theologian bequeathed to the Church is the encouragement of her ministers to forego the “affable bustle” that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world—and the Church!—of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves wholly to echo and bear witness to divinely-ordained foolishness—what Forsyth calls “the Folly of the Cross”—and to trust the outcome to God. Those who carry the burden—a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless—of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the sweat marks staining the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very impossible possibility of the preacher’s task—which is nothing less than witness to and confession of God’s self-disclosure—of addressing those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also those long deafened by the drums of seemingly endless counter-words, that feeling that despite all one’s best efforts the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon is made public. Such an experience is not uncommon among ministers; nor is the quest for some trustworthy guides. The pulpit is a demanding mistress!

A generation after Douglas Horton discovered Karl Barth’s Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie in the library of the Harvard Divinity School and in Barth’s “strange new world” a potent alternative to the dehydrated humanism in which he had been trained, Browne Barr, who later taught homiletics at Yale, made a similar discovery in 1944 when, as a green minister in a recently-vacated parsonage he found himself among old-looking and left behind books which lined the study walls where the “practice pulpit set up by his predecessor . . . faced the street.” He reasoned:

The church was in such poor shape—no worship center, no 16mm projector, no personality games in the youth society or new signs on the front lawn—because the old minister, the stricken one, was a Britisher who simply was not up-to-date, modern. It was obvious he did not understand American needs nor use contemporary methods. There wasn’t a single flannel cloth board in the whole church or parsonage, but he certainly had a lot of books! The young man glanced at the titles and his eye fell on one about “preaching” and the “modern mind.” He picked it up and flipped a few pages into it . . . He remained there transfixed for a long time . . . He read until darkness and cold woke him to the hours’ passing. He tucked that single volume under his arm and went down out of the attic and through the cold house and into the street. He had found the place where he was to study and practice to be a preacher for the next years of his life. He had also found the man, then dead 23 years, who was to be his instructor.

The cause of the hypnosis was Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and [the] Modern Mind. In many ways the origin of the book in your hands lies in a similar experience (or, more accurately, in a series of such experiences) in myself half a century and more since Barr’s encounter with “the homiletician’s theologian.” While sitting at a Melbourne bus stop some years before I entered pastoral ministry, the last bus for the evening had long departed before I looked up from my first reading of Forsyth’s The Justification of God. During those late hours, I was given to see myself as one having been carried into the very crisis where God and the world meet. There was something arresting, too, about Forsyth’s style. It seemed to simultaneously bear witness to the elusive nature of divine truth and to open up that space which had been cleared and invite—nay, command—me to enter, or, better still, to find myself already in, the new landscape created by the crisis, the view of and from which was entirely unexpected. Moreover, as I came to learn, this landscape, satiated as it is with the occupation of holy love, rendered hollow and disenchanting much of what my reading of theology had taught me, and what my own arrogance had assured me, and underlined the impotence of all creaturely aspirations, including and perhaps especially religion, to speak to the real issues facing human persons, their consciences and their communities. Here, I was confronted with a Word that one could live by with the honesty and integrity that being human demands, a Word which faced the world and not only a select minority within it living, as it were, in an ark, a Word destined to be made public to those living in the cynicism and despondency of the time, and of all times.

Words from Czesław Miłosz come readily to mind: “I have read many books but I don’t believe them/When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.” One of those banks is called “reading P. T. Forsyth.” On that bank, I experienced not only a dying but also a resurrection, a resurrection into a new and still largely-unsurveyed world wherein everything and every one—including God—is viewed sub specie crucis; that is, under the vista or form of the cross. Forsyth’s thought, drenched as it is in the cruciality of God, came as a lifeline, even as something like a sacrament or as medicine which charged life itself with the Spirit who makes life life, with the Son who is the living content of God’s own good news and who experienced in a divine life our death “unsustained by any sense of the grandeur and sublimity of the situation,” and with the Father who in all the jealousy and joy of holy love transforms “bold and bitter” mutineers into the delighted and forgiven children of God who “in their living centre and chronic movement of the soul experience sonship as the very tune of their heart, the fashion and livery of their will,” and which cleared for me a way which bespoke of realities I can do little more than point to regarding the task of Christian ministry into which I was being called. Reading Forsyth, I also came to believe in preaching, and to keep on preaching when the content of my speech finds so little echo in the shape of my own living, or when my spirit is as dry as the Simpson Desert, or when it is soaking wet but off course and perilously close to the rocks, or when in darkness so overwhelming that escape seems impossible, and when, like Maurice Gee’s Reverend George Plumb, I make “loud noises to persuade back my memories.”

To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles; or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also “gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil. Of course, to believe in preaching is not the same thing as to believe in preachers. Forsyth too taught me that, and enabled me to hear what I later learnt and heard again in Barth and in others—that “the Church does not live by its preachers, but by its Word.”

– Jason A. Goroncy, ‘Preaching sub specie crucis: An Introduction to the Preaching Ministry of P.T. Forsyth’ in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (ed. Jason A. Goroncy; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

An update on my forthcoming book ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’

Forsyth 16A week or so ago, I received  finally  the first proofs for my forthcoming book Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (Pickwick Publications). I’m really delighted with the typesetter’s efforts, and genuinely excited to see this 350+ page baby  which consists of forty-eight sermons (most of which are previously unpublished), a Foreword by David Fergusson, and an Introduction by yours truly – finally near full term. All going to plan, she should be ready to pop in the next few months. Of course, I’ll announce the birth soon after I know about it. In the meantime, here is a wee taster, an ultrasound (to keep the running metaphor alive), from the Preface wherein I attend to the matter and logic of the book’s title:

A note about the title of this volume is in order too. The phrase “descending on men and intervening in history” appears in Forsyth’s Yale lectures. In the section wherein the phrase appears, Forsyth was concerned about religious liberalism’s tendency towards vagueness and detachment from a more intellectually and morally rigorous or “positive” religion that speaks to the deep crises of human history and experience. The former understands Christ to be the product rather than the creator of the Church, reduces the history of redemption to “the ascending history of the race developed with God’s aid,” and begins from ideas and ends in the theological suicide of positive belief and distinctive experience. The so-called “positive” theology of the New Testament, however, is chiefly concerned with God’s moral action of overcoming human sin and the hallowing of God’s own name in the creation in order that God might hear an echo of himself therefrom. Whereas the former merely proposes prerequisites for and conditions of reconciliation, the latter bears witness to the reconciliation that has already taken place in Jesus Christ, trumpeting that we are already in a healed situation and “not merely in a world in process of empirical reconciliation.” Also, the gospel descends on, rather than arises from, us:

It is not a projection of [our] innate spirituality. It is revealed, not discovered, not invented. It is of grace, not works. It is conferred, not attained. It is a gift to our poverty, not a triumph of our resource. It is something which holds us, it is not something that we hold. It is something that saves us, and nothing that we have to save. Its Christ is a Christ sent to us and not developed from us, bestowed on our need and not produced from our strength, and He is given for our sin more than for our weakness.

So Forsyth could describe the experience of faith as that which rests on God’s finished work and then “takes a line,” appealing to “our moral mettle” and calling us not to mere consideration and pondering but to “moral verve and vigilance,” to stake the entirety of our being and eternity on selection, decision, and committal. This choice, Forsyth averred, depicts the gulf faced by preachers, a gulf that Forsyth believed is as wide and as irreconcilable as that between being a herald of the gospel and an advocate of culture. The former, Forsyth said, “will make you strangers and sojourners in the world, the other citizens of the world . . . One will make you apostles of Christ, and one will make you champions of humanity. One will make you severe with yourself, one will make you tender with yourself. One will commend you to the naughty people, and one will commend you to the nice.” He continues:

Now of these two tendencies one means the destruction of preaching. If it cease to be God’s word, descending on men and intervening in history, then it will cease as an institution in due time. It may become lecturing, or it may become oratory, but as preaching it must die out with a positive Gospel. People cannot be expected to treat a message of insight from man to man as they do a message of revelation from God to man. An age cannot be expected to treat a message from another age as they treat a message from Eternal God to every age. Men with the passion of the present cannot be expected to listen even to a message from humanity as they would to one from God. And if humanity redeem itself you will not be able to prevent each member of it from feeling that he is his own redeemer.

In other words, Forsyth sees at stake here nothing less than the nature of the gospel as grace, as that foreign word that descends and intrudes and makes alive, rather than that which arises from our own situation and in the end merely coddles a frondeur race in its blindness and recalcitrance. The latter promises to raise the dead while having nothing but death’s machinery with which to do so—machinery reluctant, moreover, either to name the corpse as corpse or even to attend to the right grave. But not so the preacher of grace, the preacher who, with words given, names a thing for what it is and by such naming participates in grace’s continuing event by which all things are being made new. To so recall Forsyth’s plea here is to recall that he was, of course, ministering at a time when the theology of the day was radically out of joint with the situation confronting the human community in Europe, when the easy optimism heralded as the new orthodoxy was about to be crushed under the press of catastrophic historical events. In response, Forsyth attacked the amorality of established theology and raised a too-lonely voice in plea for a staurocentric theology of redemption.

Some scribbles on the elderly as gift

632614403133_0_BGOn a recent Sunday past, I had the joy of preaching on hope and memory to a wonderful group who were, on average, and at a guess, about twice my age. Not surprisingly, I loved being among them, and felt greatly privileged to share time together with them. And being with them made me do something I used to do a lot more of than I have in recent years – pause. More specifically, pause and reflect on why I really love being among the aged. That afternoon, I returned to my reading of Rowan Williams’ recently published book Faith in the Public Square (and therein to his address to the Friends of the Elderly, also available here) wherein he writes:

[A]geing brings much that is bound to be threatening; of course it entails the likelihood of sickness and disability and that most frightening of all prospects, the loss of mental coherence. But if this is combined with an unspoken assumption that the elderly are socially insignificant because they are not prime consumers or producers, the public image of ageing is bound to be extra bleak; and that is the message that can so easily be given these days. In contrast to a setting where age means freedom from having to justify your existence, age in our context is often implicitly presented as a stage of life when you exist ‘on sufferance’. You’re not actually pulling your weight; you’re not an important enough bit of the market to be targeted in most advertising, except of a rather specialised and often rather patronising kind. In an obsessively sexualised world of advertising and other images, age is often made to look pathetic and marginal. And in the minds of most people there will be the picture of the geriatric ward or certain kinds of residential institution.

To borrow the powerful expression used of our prisons by Baroness Kennedy, this is ‘warehousing’ – stacking people in containers because we can think of nothing else to do with them. From time to time, we face those deeply uncomfortable reports about abuse or even violence towards the vulnerable. Terrible as this is, we need to see it as an understandable consequence of a warehousing mentality.

As the Friends of the Elderly make plain in their literature, even if not precisely in these terms, the question of how we perceive age is essentially a spiritual one. If you have a picture of human life as a story that needs pondering, retelling, organising, a story that is open to the judgement and mercy of God, it will be natural to hope for time to do this work, the making of the soul. It will be natural to ask how the life of older people can be relieved of anxiety, and how the essentially creative work of reflection can be helped. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in such a perspective, growing old will make the greatest creative demands of your life. Furthermore, if we are all going to have the opportunity of undertaking reflection like this, it will be important that older people have the chance to share the task with the rest of us. The idea that age necessarily means isolation will be challenged. There is a sense that what matters for our own future thinking through of our life stories doesn’t depend on the sort of things that go in and out of fashion. That is why, in most traditional societies, the term ‘elder’ is a title of honour – as it is, of course, in the Christian Church, where the English word ‘priest’ is an adaptation of the Greek for ‘elder’. A person who has been released from the obligation to justify their existence is one who can give a perspective on life for those of us who are still in the middle of the struggle; their presence ought to be seen as a gift.

Incidentally, one of the most worrying problems in the impact of Western modernity on traditional culture is that it quite rapidly communicates its own indifference or anxiety or even hostility about age and ageing. Generation gaps open and it is no longer clear what there is to be learned. On our own doorsteps, we now have to confront a situation in, for example, the British Muslim community, where the status of older family members has been eroded by the prevailing culture around, creating a vacuum: of course it is natural and in many ways healthy for the young to examine and explore the received wisdom of their elders as they move towards maturity but when younger members of a community are left without signposts, they are more easily shifted towards extreme behaviour of one sort or another. It is as if, in the crises of these communities and the challenge they pose to the rest of our society, we see an intensified image of the tensions and unfinished business in our whole attitude to age and ageing.

We must not be sentimental. Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom, and the authority of ‘elders’ of one sort or another can be oppressive, unrealistic and selfish. But when we completely lose sight of any idea that older people have a crucial role in pointing us to the way we might work to make better sense of our lives, we lose something vital. We lose the assumption that there is a perspective on our human experience that is bigger than the world of production and consumption. Work, sex, the struggle to secure our position or status, the world in which we constantly negotiate our demands and prove ourselves fit to take part in public life – what is there outside all this that might restore some sense of a value that is just given, a place that doesn’t have to be earned? A healthy attitude to the elderly, I believe, is one of the things that can liberate us from the slavery of what we take for granted as the ‘real’ world. Giving dignity to the elderly … is inseparable from recognising the dignity of human beings as such. Contempt for older citizens, the unthinking pushing of them to the edges of our common life, is a sure sign of a shrivelled view of what it is to be human. (pp. 244–46)

Here, Williams does a characteristically stellar job celebrating the invaluable gift that the elderly are to human community, and that while avoiding any sense of either reducing old people to commodities or apotheosizing them with a romanticism that seeks to shroud some of the ugliness that characterizes all human being.

From time to time I get asked how I feel about being part of an ‘ageing’ (which seems to be code for ‘dying’) institution like the Presbyterian Church here in New Zealand. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the incredible depth of memory that characterizes such a community, storied memory that helps us to understand who we are, why certain things matter, and why ‘realities’ like consumerism represent such an empty lie. Of course, I am grieved too that such an ageing community has fewer and fewer people each year to share its memory with – memory shaped by, among other things, decades of mistakes that need not be repeated, but will be.

This is part of the obligation laid upon the elderly; an obligation which, in my experience, too few rejoice to take up, and that for a great number of reasons that we need not go into here. But some do, of course, and in many such instances provide beautiful illustration of the claim that one really can teach an old dog new tricks; and, what’s more, many have learnt by now that there’s a joyous freedom in so learning some such tricks, and that not because by such one might progress anywhere but simply because learning new tricks can be surprisingly hilarious – the boisterous merriment of the Spirit. More importantly, such learnings-in-community – and the stories that accompany such – celebrate the relationality that lies at the deepest recesses of the universe’s grain.

Another great thing about being part of an institution filled with old people is that one is surrounded by so many more people who can teach me how to die – who have been given the time to teach me how to die and, hopefully, how to die well – and thereby be liberated from the horrible burden of having to always act as if one were younger, or older, or more indispensable, than one actually is. Exactly how this happens remains a mystery to me, although there seem to be conditions that surround the life of the aged that make such virtues real and not merely abstract possibilities. These include friendship, a humble assessment of human vocation, hope that rests in the all-embracing love of God, and a manifestly genuine aversion to twaddle.

But, to repeat, it’s not like this for all. Some old people live with consciences and hearts which have become so calloused over many years – through, among other things, the skill of self-justification – that it seems that it will take as long in the time beyond this time to soften such sisters and brothers enough that healing might take place and growth begin again. To employ a different metaphor, it is no slack knot that grace must undo; and for the elderly this knot has had longer to tighten. For the elderly, as for all – Peccator in re, iustus in spe! Of course, one need not squint too hard to see how industrialisation has contributed too to the very environments in which such knots are formed and then made to be what seems permanent. Consider, for example, words penned by Helmut Thielicke as he reflected on his first visit to the United States in the Spring of 1956, and in which he diagnosed a dire picture:

Elderly Americans constantly made a depressing impression upon me. I can still see the large hall of a hotel on the coast before me. Old ladies were sitting there with wrinkled faces that were not just made up but, frankly, plastered with cosmetics. To me they seemed like masks, consumed with boredom. They stared straight ahead, or looked with unseeing eyes through the gaps in the sun-blinds onto a street where nothing ever happened, or sat for hours in front of the television. A few of them played patience. The same was true of the old people with whom I lived in a house together for a few days. None of them ever read a book, at the most they might occasionally read a magazine. And always that unseeing stare and always television as a desperate protection against drowning in boredom. Some friends confirmed the correctness of this impression to me.

What is the origin of this despairing attitude to old age? One of the reasons is certainly not least the fact that people’s exclusive dependence upon the car kills any real attachment to the countryside. One can indeed wander all over nature and get to know it inside out, but despite this never actually experience it. When Moltke retired he was asked what there was now left for him to do, since he had always been such an active man. He replied: I shall watch a tree grow. How many elderly Americans could give a similar answer? (This question could, of course, also be directed at many elderly Europeans.)

The life that is determined exclusively by external influences prompts a sham vitality on the part of the individual. However, when contact with the outside world becomes weaker as the individual’s receptivity for impressions decreases and he is forced to have a life of his own, the pseudocharacter of his vitality inevitably becomes apparent. The friendly manners in America only inadequately disguise the fact that elderly people are often regarded as a burden. ‘But we don’t have elderly people like in Europe’, a clever woman once said to me with whom I had been discussing this problem and whose memory had perhaps caused her to idealize the Old World too much. ‘Such a thing as the serenity of old age is here rather the exception’, she said. Alongside this, there is also a sociological side to the problem of aging. This takes the form of an idolization of youth. After the loss of youth, life is regarded as a decline and people live in fear of this. That is why people basically do not have a positive attitude towards aging and do their utmost to conserve their youth. (Notes from a Wayfarer, pp. 311–312).

Once upon a time, in the time when we (in the West, at least) were less eager to shove our aged into holding pens, or what Williams refers to as ‘warehousing’, to await their death (these pens are sometimes called ‘nursing homes’), we were more likely to grow up alongside those living in the winter of their lives; that is, alongside those who are moving to die, alongside those who appear to be beginning even now to undergo a translation of life from time (i.e., time as we know it) to eternity (i.e., time as we will know it). Insofar as this is true, the elderly, or at least those elderly who have ceased engaging in the kinds of groping for justification and celebration of independence so characteristic of other adults, are among us as a kind of ‘sacrament’ of true being before God, as icons of God’s presence in frail flesh, as parables of the truth of human being-in-dependence-upon-the-other, and as signs that ‘the glory of human beings is not power, the power to control someone else … [but] the ability to let what is deepest within us grow’ (Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).

In his final book to be published during his lifetime, P. T. Forsyth testified to the ways that ageing can also occasion immortal things becoming more real to us, of eternity being more deeply set in our heart. ‘We become’, he says, ‘more alert in a certain direction. We become more sensitive to what is deep than to what is lively, to a searchlight than to the flares, to what is the sure, permanent, and timeless thing in all movement’ (This Life and the Next, 54). This description does not tell the whole story, of course, but it does tell the story of some, perhaps even of many; and I consider myself blessed to be doing life among those who are alert in this way.

To be continued …

Two forthcoming books on PT Forsyth

Forsyth 16Regular readers here at PCaL may be aware that my book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) is due out very soon; in just over a week. (Tasters are available here and here). I am also pleased to announce that another book on Forsyth, specifically on his preaching, will, if all goes to plan, be out on the heels of the aforementioned, i.e., sometime in mid-2013. Here are the details and the blurb for the back cover:

‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2013.

This collection of forty-eight sermons, most of which are previously unpublished, discloses the integration of vocation and imagination in one of the greatest of Free Church theologians, P. T. Forsyth. At a time of fragmentation, when theological study has become too much removed from the task of the preacher, Forsyth’s work can remind us of the invigorating power of Christian doctrine interpreted and expounded in situations of pastoral and political exigency. Its capacity for the renewal of the church is evident again from this rich and timely anthology, here brought together and introduced by Jason Goroncy.

And Alan Sell has again been kind enough to compose the following deathless prose for its back cover:

Far from being a collection of cosy meditations, here are challenging, biblically rooted, theologically powerful, pastorally concerned essays and sermon notes by Britain’s most stimulating theologian of the twentieth century. Church members will be energized; preachers will be prompted towards relevant exposition. The book is the product of much persistent burrowing by Jason Goroncy, whose substantial introduction is an exemplary piece of scholarship in its own right. We are greatly indebted to him.

There are some tentative plans too to work on two additional books on Forsyth; but more on that at a later time …

Logos announces the P.T. Forsyth Collection

It’s always wonderfully encouraging to see that PT Forsyth continues to be read. And while all of Forsyth’s major publications are easily and freely accessible in various formats, Logos are planning to make them available in one place in e-book form with their PT Forsyth Collection. Here’s the product description:

The P. T. Forsyth Collection brings together 24 works from this celebrated Scottish theologian and preacher. After studying at the University of Göttingen under the notable theologian Albrecht Ritschl, Forsyth went on to become one of the early twentieth century’s most influential theologians—his ideas are largely thought to have anticipated, and mirrored, the neo-orthodox movement of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

The P. T. Forsyth Collection includes Forsyth’s best-known works, including The Cruciality of the Cross, his strong plea for the orthodox doctrine of atonement, and The Justification of God, a moving collection of lectures written at the height of World War I, when many Christians were having trouble reconciling their faith in God with the horrors of war. In This Life and the Next, Forsyth studies the doctrine of immortality and its impact on our current lives. Christ on Parnassus contains lectures on the connection between art and religion. The still-popular Positive Preaching and Modern Mind contains advice to future ministers—advice still relevant for and needed by today’s teachers and preachers.

Also included is the The Holy Father and the Living ChristChristian Perfection, and The Taste of Death and the Life of Grace, which were later reprinted in a single volume titled God the Holy Father, as well as The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society, which was later republished as The Church, the Gospel, and Society.

Plus, there are works that examine the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, the connection between economics and the church, the ethics of war and Christianity, and much more. In the Logos Bible Software edition, all Scripture passages in the P. T. Forsyth Collection are tagged to appear on mouseover. For scholarly work or personal Bible study, this makes these resources more powerful and easier to access than ever before. Perform powerful searches by topic or Scripture reference—finding, for example, every mention of “resurrection” or “Mark 9:2.”

Forsyth buffs may also be keen to know that Logos also plan to make available the works of James Denney. Good stuff.

Another update on ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’

T&T Clark have published another endorsement for my forthcoming book, Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth. This time it is from Professor Alan P. F. Sell, who writes:

‘P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) has been described as a “Barthian before Barth” (not entirely accurate, but a great compliment to Barth). His works enjoyed a revival in the middle years of the twentieth century, and now we are in the midst of a second great awakening inspired by Trevor Hart and others in the mid-1990s. Since then articles and monographs have appeared, and among the best is this book by Dr. Goroncy. He has fastened upon the thus far insufficiently-studied theme of sanctification which pervades Forsyth’s works. His treatment is stimulating, his research is unusually thorough, his style is fluent. The result is an important book which should be read by ministers of religion and church members, as well as by professional toilers in the theological vineyard—especially, perhaps, by any who have somehow momentarily mislaid the gospel’.

I am grateful to Professor Sell for his kind words. All going well, the book should be out in late March next year.

A wee update on ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’

I was deeply encouraged this morning to discover that Professor Murray Rae has penned the following review/endorsement of one of my forthcoming books, Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (T&T Clark):

In this fine book Jason Goroncy engages in a critical and appreciative assessment of the theological work of P.T. Forsyth by directing our attention to the ways in which Forsyth understands divine action in terms of the Lord’s prayer’s first petition. This focus serves well the task of exploring the richness of Forsyth’s work. Goroncy’s beautifully crafted prose and astute theological judgement combine in a compelling case that Forsyth deserves to be reckoned with still.

I have just learned too that the book is scheduled for publication in March next year.