PT Forsyth: Preaching the Centrality of the Cross

Mark Johnson has written a delightful piece on PT Forsyth: Preaching the Centrality of the Cross. It is an adaptation from his PhD Dissertation, ‘Christological Preaching for the Post-Modern Era’ (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1994). Because of a focus on this blog regarding Forsyth and his work, I reproduce it here:

Peter Taylor Forsyth was born May 12, 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. The son of a postal worker and a maid, he was raised as a member of the Black-friars Street Congregational Church. His family was devout, if not affluent. In spite of his family’s modest means, he was able to attend the university where he achieved an enviable reputation as a student.

In young adulthood, Forsyth was greatly influenced by the thought and writings of both F. D. Maurice and Albrecht Ritschl.[1] He would have opportunity to study under Ritschl for a term at Gottingen. In his early ministry, he gained notoriety for his liberal theological views and his “‘loud’ dress and unpredictable pulpit utterances.”[2]After serving in several pastorates, he was named principal of Hackney College in London in 1901, a position that allowed time for extensive writing. At least part of the reason for this move was the belief that the academic lifestyle would place less strenuous demands on his frail health than the pastorate.

I first became acquainted with Forsyth reviewing Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind during my first semester in Ph.D. studies. I delved deeper into Forsyth’s thought when writing a dissertation dealing with preaching Christ in the Postmodern era. The one contribution that sticks out above all others is his insistence that one remains relevant to his times by keeping his focus on the unchanging Christ. He urged preachers to “preach to their age without preaching their age.”In Christology he sides neither with those who quested after a historical Jesus nor with the idealists who heavily emphasized the divinity of Christ. Neither adequately expressed Christ’s dual nature as both God and Man.[3] In Forsyth’s earlier writings, he placed Christ at the center of his theology. In his later development, he sees Christ’s ministry on the cross as the central focus for theology.[4]

Perhaps it is this focus on the person and work of Christ that causes him to write with a warmth of devotion and piety, causing one writer to say in appreciation of his writings, “To read these lines is to be challenged to think theologically, but it is also to be brought into a reflective and devotional mood.”[5] That devotional style, as well as some insight into Forsyth’s reaction to modernity, can be seen in the following words of testimony:

There was a time when I was interested in the first degree with purely scientific criticism …. It also pleased God by the revelation of His holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school questions in weight, urgency, and poignancy. I was turned from a Christian to a believer, from a lover of love to an object of grace. And so, whereas I first thought that what the Churches needed was enlightened instruction and liberal theology, I came to be sure that what they needed was evangelization.[6]

Forsyth wrote sixteen books, five of which deal explicitly with Christ or christology – The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, The Cruciality of the Cross, Christ on Parnassus, The Holy Father and the Living Christ and The Work of Christ.[7]

His 1907 Beecher lectures at Yale University have been preserved in book form as Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. He speaks of finding his true and magnetic north in Christ and dedicates the book, “Unto him who loved me and gave himself for me.” Like most of his other works, Positive Preaching was a series of lectures which were compiled into book form. Subsequently, Forsyth lays out no major systematization of his thought. Part of this lacking is attributed to Forsyth’s reluctance to over-simplify the complex. Similarly, his writing is often difficult to understand. This is perhaps by design so as not to state the complex too simply.[8]

On Preaching
Forsyth’s most significant contribution to the field of homiletics came in 1907 with his Beecher lectures at Yale. In them, he coined many phrases which are still quoted in homiletics classrooms and in preaching conferences today. He defined preaching as the “organized hallelujah of the believing community,” and he maintained, “With preaching Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a gospel…. It is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself.”[9] Maintaining that the Bible is the “greatest sermon in the world,” he urged preachers to preach expository sermons using long passages of Scripture.

Forsyth’s theological understanding of the preaching event centers in his understanding of kerygma as the Spirit of the risen Christ revealing the meaning of His death and resurrection to the apostles whose writings are then understood as revelation.[10] Such an understanding runs counter to the liberal schools of thought of his day which maintained that the apostles perverted the simple message of Jesus into a system of doctrines which he never intended.[11] According to Forsyth, the Bible should not be reduced to a casebook of sterile doctrines and regulations. Instead, one should listen for the voice of Christ Himself preaching through scripture.

As Christ’s work of redemption is the center of faith, the center of the kerygma is the cross. Such an understanding of revelation means that the preacher stands more in the tradition of the Hebrew prophet bringing a revelation from God, than that of the Greek orator bringing inspiration. If one hears the voice of Christ speaking through scripture, it stands to reason that in the preaching act, it is Christ’s voice which should ultimately be heard as well.[12]

The point of Forsyth’s kerygmatic emphasis on biblical preaching is that a distinction should be made between the gospel and the Bible. He asserts “Biblical preaching preaches the gospel and uses the Bible, it does not preach the Bible and use the Gospel.”[13] He argues that the Bible itself is the preaching of Christ. He says:

The New Testament (the Gospels even), is a direct transcript, not of Christ, but of the preaching about Christ, or the effect produced by Christ on the first generation, a transcript of the faith that worshipped Him. It is a direct record not of Christ’s biography but of Christ’s Gospel, that is to say of Christ neither as delineated, nor as reconstructed, nor as analyzed but as preached…. The stories told are but a trifling selection, not chosen to cast light on the motives of a deep and complex character, but selected entirely from a single point of view– that of the crucified, risen, exalted, preached Saviour.[14]

Robert McAfee Brown paraphrases Forsyth by saying,” Christ did not “preach the Gospel”; he became a gospel to preach. (emphasis Brown’s)[15]

Forsyth believed that preachers should preach to their age without merely preaching the age. Preaching can keep its contemporariness by centering on God’s eternal act on the cross. In keeping the cross central, Christ works through the preacher to develop the faith of those who are already Christian. Forsyth lamented that there are many preachers who “scheme how to cover and capture the world’s mind rather than to develop that of the Church; how to commend Christ to those who are not Christian [more] than how to enrich Him for those that are.”[16]

If Forsyth views the cross of Christ as the final seat of authority, and uses the cross as the hermeneutical norm for his theology, that authority ought to be manifest through both the person and the proclamation of the preacher.[17] It is Forsyth’s contention that, “It is authority that the world chiefly needs and the preaching of the hour lacks – an authoritative Gospel in a humble personality.”[18] He decries the sentimentality with which the modern mindset tended to view the Bible and religion. He blames much of this sentimentality upon “The loss of a real positive authority, the loss of an objective grasp of the world’s moral crisis in the Christian Centre of the Cross.”[19] In sentimentalizing the cross, the Bible, and the atonement, the focus has shifted from God to humanity.

At the same time the church was sentimentalizing its religion, according to Forsyth, it ceded its authority to science. He says:

When a modern mind asks us for help to a footing we still turn to men of science, to men often who evidently never in their lives read a theological classic or an authority on moral philosophy, who indeed might scout the idea, and we ask them to assure the inquirer, with a certainty beyond ours, that things promise well for a soul…. Is it not a nervous and pusillanimous Christianity, devoid of self-respect? How can we hope to regain the influence the pulpit has lost until we come with the surest Word in all the world to the guesses of science, the maxims of ethic, and the instincts of art.[20]

One uses the Bible to preach the gospel rather than using the gospel to preach the Bible. “We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as … the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the church,”[21] asserts Forsyth. Neither do preachers treat the Bible with the respect it deserves when they sentimentally pay homage only to its beauty and its precepts. Instead, Forsyth encourages preachers to concentrate on the content of the Biblical message.[22]

In preaching long expository passages, Forsyth maintains, “one get(s) real preaching in the sense of preaching from the real situation of the Bible to the real situation of the time. It is thus you make history preach to history, the past to the present, and not merely a text to a soul.”[23]

He recognizes that the vital question for preaching in his context is the question of authority. He asserted, in his day, that criticism no longer allowed the Bible to hold that place. “Yet,” he says, “the gospel of the future must come with the note of authority.”[24] The Gospel itself carries this needed authority. After denying that authority comes through creeds or theology, he states, “The preacher does not call one to believe statements, but the Gospel of an urgent God.”[25] Forsyth maintained that the “one great preacher in history is the church,… And the first business of the individual preacher is to enable the church to preach.”[26] Indeed, Forsyth provides a model of one who, by focusing upon the centrality of Christ and the cross preached to his times without preaching his times.

[1] While most scholars writing about Forsyth note the influence of F. D. Maurice, W. L. Bradley indicates that the influence of Maurice upon Forsyth is probably overestimated. See William L. Bradley, P. T. Forsyth: The Man and His Work (London: Independent Press, 1952).
[2] Samuel J. Mikolaski, “The Theology of P. T. Forsyth,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 36 (1964), 27. The use of the term “liberal” in this article is not done pejoratively but as an attempt to define a historic theological position.
[3] John H. Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth (London: Independent Press, 1965), p. 77; see also Gwilym O. Griffith, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth (London: Lutterworth, 1948), pp. 36-60.
[4] See William Lee Bradley, The Man and His Work (London: Independent Press, 1952), p. 82. Such a shift is evidenced by such titles as “The Cross as the Final Seat of Authority” and “The Cruciality of the Cross.”
[5] John E. Steely, “Introduction,” in P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (Wake Forest, North Carolina: Chanticleer Press, 1983), p. 5. Forsyth first published these lectures in 1909.
[6] P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907), pp. 282, 283.
[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1909); The Work of Christ, (London: Independent Press), 1st edition 1910; The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910); Christ on Parnassus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911); The Holy Father and the Living Christ (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1898).
[8] See Bradley, The Man and His Work, p. 66.
[9] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 5.
[10] See P. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1949).
[11] The liberals based their belief on their perception that the Jesus painted in the Synoptic gospels did not give much explanation to the meaning of the cross. Forsyth argued that this was because the risen Christ explained it to his apostles after the fact.
[12] Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth, pp. 103-131.
[13] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 37.
[14] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 13.
[15] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet for Today (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952), p. 71.
[16] P. T. Forsyth, “The Soul of Christ and the Cross of Christ,” London Quarterly Review, 116 (1911), 195-196.
[17] See William Ray Rosser, “The Cross as the Hermeneutical Norm for Scriptural Interpretation in the Theology of Peter Taylor Forsyth” (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990).
[18] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 200.
[19] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 178.
[20] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 184.
[21] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 15.
[22] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 146.
[23] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 166.
[24] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 41.
[25] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 44.
[26] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 79.


  1. Thanks Jason. In Forsyth’s book ‘the Justification of God’ NCPI, reprint, Dean Carter says in the foreword that critics have called this book his greatest writing. Would you know who said that?


  2. Hi Trevor.

    Great to hear from you. Not a few commentators of Forsyth identify ‘The Justification of God’ to be his best book. [It was the first Forsyth book I read.] I’m not sure exactly who Dean had in mind here, and none of the reviews I’ve read on this book employ the description ‘greatest’, though John Hick suggests it may be. One anonymous reviewer in The Expository Times (1917) has written of the book: ‘Not every one will read it because it has all Dr. Forsyth’s nimbleness of intellect in almost exaggerated illustration. But it is a great book, and simply must be attacked again and yet again’.

    Sorry I can’t be of more help at this time, though if I come across it I will let you know.


  3. I am the person whose dissertation is mentioned in footnote 17 of this article. I’m delighted that at least one person knows I wrote it (whether Mark read much of it or not)! I am alive after all! I’m surprised that Southern Seminary allowed another dissertation on Forsyth so soon after mine. Perhaps they felt that mine was woefully inadequate! At any rate, the more that can be written about Forsyth the better.


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