On reading P. T. Forsyth

River bankRecently, I posted a snippet from one of my forthcoming books, another on P.T. Forsyth, titled Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. As the typesetter and myself put the final touches on the manuscript, I have been struck again by the gift that discovering Forsyth has meant for me. I share a little of that in the book’s Introduction. Here’s a taste:

There can be little doubt that one of the real gifts that this great Congregationalist and Edwardian theologian bequeathed to the Church is the encouragement of her ministers to forego the “affable 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 wholly to echo and bear witness to divinely-ordained foolishness—what Forsyth calls “the Folly of the Cross”—and to trust the outcome 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 sweat marks staining the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very impossible possibility of the preacher’s task—which is nothing less than witness to and confession of God’s self-disclosure—of addressing those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also those long deafened by the drums of seemingly endless counter-words, that feeling that despite all one’s best efforts the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon is made public. Such an experience is not uncommon among ministers; nor is the quest for some trustworthy guides. The pulpit is a demanding mistress!

A generation after Douglas Horton discovered Karl Barth’s Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie in the library of the Harvard Divinity School and in Barth’s “strange new world” a potent alternative to the dehydrated humanism in which he had been trained, Browne Barr, who later taught homiletics at Yale, made a similar discovery in 1944 when, as a green minister in a recently-vacated parsonage he found himself among old-looking and left behind books which lined the study walls where the “practice pulpit set up by his predecessor . . . faced the street.” He reasoned:

The church was in such poor shape—no worship center, no 16mm projector, no personality games in the youth society or new signs on the front lawn—because the old minister, the stricken one, was a Britisher who simply was not up-to-date, modern. It was obvious he did not understand American needs nor use contemporary methods. There wasn’t a single flannel cloth board in the whole church or parsonage, but he certainly had a lot of books! The young man glanced at the titles and his eye fell on one about “preaching” and the “modern mind.” He picked it up and flipped a few pages into it . . . He remained there transfixed for a long time . . . He read until darkness and cold woke him to the hours’ passing. He tucked that single volume under his arm and went down out of the attic and through the cold house and into the street. He had found the place where he was to study and practice to be a preacher for the next years of his life. He had also found the man, then dead 23 years, who was to be his instructor.

The cause of the hypnosis was Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and [the] Modern Mind. In many ways the origin of the book in your hands lies in a similar experience (or, more accurately, in a series of such experiences) in myself half a century and more since Barr’s encounter with “the homiletician’s theologian.” While sitting at a Melbourne bus stop some years before I entered pastoral ministry, the last bus for the evening had long departed before I looked up from my first reading of Forsyth’s The Justification of God. During those late hours, I was given to see myself as one having been carried into the very crisis where God and the world meet. There was something arresting, too, about Forsyth’s style. It seemed to simultaneously bear witness to the elusive nature of divine truth and to open up that space which had been cleared and invite—nay, command—me to enter, or, better still, to find myself already in, the new landscape created by the crisis, the view of and from which was entirely unexpected. Moreover, as I came to learn, this landscape, satiated as it is with the occupation of holy love, rendered hollow and disenchanting much of what my reading of theology had taught me, and what my own arrogance had assured me, and underlined the impotence of all creaturely aspirations, including and perhaps especially religion, to speak to the real issues facing human persons, their consciences and their communities. Here, I was confronted with a Word that one could live by with the honesty and integrity that being human demands, a Word which faced the world and not only a select minority within it living, as it were, in an ark, a Word destined to be made public to those living in the cynicism and despondency of the time, and of all times.

Words from Czesław Miłosz come readily to mind: “I have read many books but I don’t believe them/When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.” One of those banks is called “reading P. T. Forsyth.” On that bank, I experienced not only a dying but also a resurrection, a resurrection into a new and still largely-unsurveyed world wherein everything and every one—including God—is viewed sub specie crucis; that is, under the vista or form of the cross. Forsyth’s thought, drenched as it is in the cruciality of God, came as a lifeline, even as something like a sacrament or as medicine which charged life itself with the Spirit who makes life life, with the Son who is the living content of God’s own good news and who experienced in a divine life our death “unsustained by any sense of the grandeur and sublimity of the situation,” and with the Father who in all the jealousy and joy of holy love transforms “bold and bitter” mutineers into the delighted and forgiven children of God who “in their living centre and chronic movement of the soul experience sonship as the very tune of their heart, the fashion and livery of their will,” and which cleared for me a way which bespoke of realities I can do little more than point to regarding the task of Christian ministry into which I was being called. Reading Forsyth, I also came to believe in preaching, and to keep on preaching when the content of my speech finds so little echo in the shape of my own living, or when my spirit is as dry as the Simpson Desert, or when it is soaking wet but off course and perilously close to the rocks, or when in darkness so overwhelming that escape seems impossible, and when, like Maurice Gee’s Reverend George Plumb, I make “loud noises to persuade back my memories.”

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. Of course, to believe in preaching is not the same thing as to believe in preachers. Forsyth too taught me that, and enabled me to hear what I later learnt and heard again in Barth and in others—that “the Church does not live by its preachers, but by its Word.”

– Jason A. Goroncy, ‘Preaching sub specie crucis: An Introduction to the Preaching Ministry of P.T. Forsyth’ in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (ed. Jason A. Goroncy; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

2 thoughts on “On reading P. T. Forsyth

  1. Browne Barr was a dear friend of mine. I may have been the first one to notice the symmetry of his experience in the parsonage reading PTF with Douglas Horton’s reading Karl Barth in the HDS library. These incandescent moments when we find the right interlocutor at the right time and place in our lives are precious, and life-changing. Can’t wait to see this book, Jason. A big year for you!

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  2. Jason, I admire you so much for keeping the PTF flame burning! We’ve corresponded before. I did my Ph. D. dissertation on him in 1996. He deserves to be better known. Although I never found any evidence that Barth had heard much of him, Forsyth shows how Barth’s diagnosis of the liberal captivity of the church did not occur in a vacuum. Keep up the good work.

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