On the sermons of PT Forsyth

It might well be argued that before he was anything else, PT Forsyth was principally a preacher. It would certainly not be going too far to say that the greatest portion of Forsyth’s public life was given over to preaching, and to encouraging preachers. To be sure, and by any standards, his literary output was significant. But by far the majority of the words in his published articles and books are sermons, or were ideas developed from sermons. And even those that are not betray the rhetorical form of one shaped by the pulpit and the task that attends that space. And this is not so strange, for Forsyth believed in preaching.

I too believe in preaching. I also believe that Forsyth has much still to teach us about preaching. To be sure, not everything about his own manner or approach remains helpful today, or is particularly worthy of emulation. (But of whom might that not be true!) Still, regarding the things that really matter, it is difficult to go past the likes of one like Forsyth. (We could add here too the names of Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, James Denney, Helmut Thielicke, Paul Tillich and others.)

I have suggested before that one of the real gifts that the Aberdonian bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of 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 to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness – what Forsyth calls ‘the folly of the cross’ – and to trust its effects 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 final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long-deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday-night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is to simply trust that something that one says might find fertile soil. 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.

I’m in the near-final currents of preparing a manuscript of some unpublished, and hard to find, sermons of Forsyth’s. This will be published by Wipf & Stock under the tentative title of ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. To those who also believe in preaching – or who wish to believe in preaching in spite of all appearances – I hope that the words of this volume might come as as much an encouragement to them as they have been for me.

As I write, I’m thinking about why people read Forsyth, why they should, and what strikes them when they do. One of my friends, who has himself published on Forsyth, has suggested that the answer lies somewhere in the fact that ‘Forsyth loved the Lord, knew the scriptures, and understood ahead of his time the pitfalls of both a vague liberalism and an obscurantist fundamentalism. He also knew the difference between theology and anthropology. And he could turn a phrase’. Another has been struck by the ‘affective tone of the whole; the desire to really embrace the Triune God in all the beauty, terror, majesty and mystery’. I agree with both of these statements, and the latter reflects too what Forsyth so appreciated about Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and Calvin’s for that matter. I will post some more thoughts in due course, but for now I’m very keen to hear yours. If you’d prefer to email rather than leave a comment online, then you can reach me here.


  1. It seems to me that there are so many “great” theologians and critical scholars that receive the lasting recognition — and yet so many great preachers in their own times who seem lost in history, simply by the passing of time. I look forward to the book!


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