Justice the True and Only Mercy – A Review

Justice the True and Only Mercy: Essays on the Life and Theology of Peter Taylor Forsyth by Trevor Hart.

A review by John J. Friesen.

This volume consists of thirteen articles written for a P. T. Forsyth colloquium in June 1993, convened by the department of theology and church history, University of Aberdeen. A fifty-page bibliography of works by Forsyth and a twenty-five-page bibliography of studies about Forsyth are appended, both compiled by Leslie McCurdy. The purpose of the publication is to draw attention to an important modern British theologian who, the editor maintains, has generally been neglected. To indicate the significance of Forsyth, Hart in the preface quotes Emil Brunner, who referred to Forsyth as “the greatest of modern British theologians” (p. ix) .

Both Trevor Hart in his article on Forsyth’s theology and John Thompson in “Was Forsyth Really a Barthian Before Barth” argue that the significance of Forsyth’s theological contribution lay in his critique of liberalism. Forsyth studied under Ritschl and in his early theology was thoroughly shaped by a Ritschlian liberalism. The influence of Ritschl’s thinking was evident in one of Forsyth’s early speeches which he entitles “Mercy the only and true Justice.” According to Hart, in this phase of his theology Forsyth focused on the human response to God; it was centered on love. Both Hart and Thompson show the change which occurred in Forsyth’s thinking over the years. From an emphasis on love he moved to grace. His focus became “Justice the true and only Mercy.” It was in this change from love to grace the authors argue, that Forsyth not only anticipated but helped to create theological shift in Europe away from liberalism.

Forsyth’s theology of grace, according to another article by Alan P. F. Sell, was founded on his understanding of the cross. The cross became increasingly central for Forsyth. It shaped his understanding of the gospel, his view of ethics, and his view of the relationship of church and state. Sell suggests that it was Forsyth’s grounding of the gospel in the cross that allowed him “to give to his students a gospel to preach” (p. 145). The centrality of the cross in Forsyth’s thinking provides Sell with the key to Forsyth’s significance. Forsyth’s significance, Sell maintains, was not that he provided a well-thought-out systematic theology-because he did not do that. What Forsyth did was to provide theological “footing” (p. 144). In this sense, Sell claims, Forsyth could be called “a systematic theologian par excellence” (p. 145).

Other writers in this volume develop different dimensions of Forsyth’s wide-ranging interests. Keith W. Clements probes Forsyth’s political theology, in particular his critique of the church’s response, or lack of response, to the horrors of World War I. Clyde Binfield pursues Forsyth’s role as Congregational minister. Although Forsyth had a deep love for the sacraments and ceremonies of the church, he was committed to being a Congregationalist and declined an invitation to join the Anglican Church. The eclectic nature of Forsyth’s interests are probed in articles on Forsyth’s view of prayer, his understanding of teleology, and his use of tragedy. The article about his view of the arts probes his interests outside of the area of theology.

The picture that emerges in this volume is that of a person who, although he stood tall in the church of his day, has been largely forgotten. No major monograph has been published about Peter T. Forsyth since 1948. [We have now McCurdy’s excellent work]. This excellent volume of articles is designed to remedy this situation, and bring the profile of Forsyth contribution to the church and to theological discourse into clearer focus.

This review first appeared in Church History, Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep., 1997), pp. 643–4.

One comment

  1. Thanks Jason! I’ve been reading a lot of PT Forsyth this week and he well and truly astounds me! I look forwards to reading this book.


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