Forsyth on liberty, truth and thinking for yourself

forsyth-12A few days ago, I posted a cartoon which included the caption [from the lips of a teacher]: ‘When writing your essays, I encourage you to think for yourselves while you express what I’d most agree with’. The post drew a thoughtful response from Andre who suggested that the cartoon raised a number of important questions, including one about ‘whether the command to “think for yourselves” isn’t also a product of late-capitalism, a variant of the command to enjoy’. I’d been thinking about Andre’s statement when I re-read Forsyth’s 1908 essay on ”The Love of Liberty and the Love of Truth’, an essay, I think, which contributes an essential mix into the issues that the Andre raises, and which I will keep pondering:

‘The New Testament knows nothing explicitly of the liberty to pursue truth. That blessing is of science and the modern age. It is not religious in its historical origin. And, in so far as it is religious at all it is the inevitable, but indirect result of another and greater liberty, which is that of the New Testament, the liberty that truth must pursue because truth first creates it. Free thought is not a primary Christian interest’. (p. 160)

‘… freedom is a thing entirely conditioned by the nature of its authority, of the reality to which it answers and owes its being’ (p. 161)

‘… theological freedom must always be limited by the Gospel that makes a Church a Church, makes it live, and makes its life free. Theology in a university, as an academic science, has a freedom (and a feebleness) which it can have in no Church. A Church of free thought would be no Church at all, but the most sectarian of sects, and the most scholastic of schools. There is something almost boyish in the aggressive use of a pulpit for free thought propaganda’. (p. 162)

‘The Church of a real Gospel is called to something more than a vague zeal for liberty as an unchartered freedom. It is called to throw its weight upon the positive Evangel which makes it free. For liberty itself could become an idol, and could be used for a cloak to hide the poverty of our faith, and to express a sympathy too soft to be firm or true’. (p. 168)

‘It has been said that the creeds represent extravagances and eccentricities imported into a simple Christianity. But to the historic eye it is rather the other way. They represent on the whole the growing corporate life which normally shed the raw Gnostic extravagances of youth. Unfortunately they came to be canonised in perpetuity, and used as means of oppression and obscurantism by their epigoni. And it was to prevent such abuse that churches arose in which the form of faith was non-confessional, based on an honest evangelical understanding, which was declaratory at most, and not exclusive … But of course if such trustful freedom became an evangelical failure, there is a natural danger that many minds would for practical purposes turn from an internal to an external authority, and would return to the idea of a brief and revisable creed which should be of obligation, as the only means of saving the Churches from dissolving into star dust and luminous mist’. (p. 170)

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