A 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and genuinely excited to see this 350+ page baby – which consists of forty-eight sermons (most of which are previously unpublished), a Foreword by David Fergusson, and an Introduction by yours truly – finally near full term.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.