Review: P.T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind

Arcane and Germane Book Reviews #1

“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (C.S. Lewis)


If, as someone somewhere once said, the bark of Karl Barth (1886-1968) was worse than his bite, it can fairly be said of Peter Taylor (P.T.) Forsyth (1848-1921), that in each of his many books he demonstrated an almost prophetic fore-sight. One of his biographers wrote that “while Barth and Niebuhr commented on established facts, Forsyth was ‘seeing the invisible.’”[1]

While Barth and Niebuhr commented on established facts, Forsyth was ‘seeing the invisible.’

Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind
P.T. Forsyth
Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind
P.T. Forsyth

Forsyth’s series of lectures on preaching, which became, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 1907 (freely available here) is a favourite.[2] The original aim of these lectures was to inspire theological students, ministers and congregations who were at risk of becoming jaded; or even cynical about the value of preaching. He did this by setting down clear definitions of what preaching must be, and why we must keep on doing it. Forsyth rightly perceived that our understanding of the nature of preaching necessarily flows from our understanding of the person of Christ, and the Scriptures which reveal Him to us. As he states in chapter one,

… the great reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world. Above every other function of it, the Bible is a sermon, a kerugma, a preachment. It is the preacher’s book because it is the preaching book. It is still [i.e. after the rise of critical theory, etc.] a book with an organic unity of idea and purpose …

It is at once the expression of faith and its source … it is revelation- the self-bestowal of the living God, His self-limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls …

In the fullness of time, God came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself … He acted not only through Christ but in Christ … In Christ we have God Himself, and no mere messenger from God … ’

… the Spirit of Christ takes the work of Christ and shows it to the church. He leads the Church into all truth, but it is the truth as it is in the whole Jesus … it all comes from the Bible Christ, from the Christ of the Cross …

… the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the heart of the Bible’s message; the Gospel, for the worst condition of the whole energetic race. It has mankind’s inevitable word and its eternal destiny. [3]

A theologian converted

Born in Aberdeen to uneducated yet faithful parents, it was not long before Forsyth proved himself to be an exceptional academic. After graduating in 1872 with honours in Classics from King’s College Old Aberdeen, the young Forsyth journeyed to Gottingen to sit at the feet of Albrecht Ritschl.[4] He became enamoured with the German liberal school which at that time was at the height of its powers on both the continent and in the UK. On his return to his home country where he was later awarded the D.D., Forsyth was refused a number of posts by his denomination (the Congregational Union), because of his heterodox views on the atonement and the inspiration of Scripture.

He immersed himself in Scripture and was met by the living God. He emerged gripped by God’s grace revealed in his unique holiness, the dark reality of human sin, and, most significantly, God’s holy love demonstrated towards undeserving sinners

Thankfully, while Forsyth always retained a deep admiration for the academic precision and deep insights of the German writers,[5] in the few years after his return to Aberdeen, he immersed himself in Scripture and was met by the living God.[6] He emerged fundamentally gripped by the irrefutable reality of God’s grace revealed in his unique holiness, the dark reality of human sin, and, most significantly, God’s holy love demonstrated towards undeserving sinners through Christ’s once for all propitiatory sacrifice on the cross. Forsyth later described his conversion in this way:

It pleased God also 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.[7]

Forsyth saw in his own experience the scandal of Christ’s death on the cross; which is weakness and foolishness to the world (cf. 1Cor 1:18-25).

The offence of the Cross, the scandal of it, the blazing indiscretion and audacious paradox of it, has not ceased.[8]

Moreso, with the Apostle Paul (c.f. 1Cor 1:21, 25; 2:1-5), he was convinced that,

… if we shun that, and water that down, and extenuate that, we have no Gospel to preach … ’[9]

Because,

The solution of the world is what destroys its guilt. And nothing can destroy guilt but the very holiness that makes guilt guilt. And that destruction is the work of Christ upon His cross … The moral world, is the real world, the ever modern world. And the supreme problem of the moral world is sin. Its one need is to be forgiven. And nothing but holiness can forgive.’[10]

These core gospel convictions became the driving force for his theology and ministry and remained so for the rest of his life.

‘Positive’ not ‘liberal’ preaching

One of Forsyth’s greatest passions was to refute the sinful bias of the human heart which would dethrone God and seek to take His central place in our life and doctrine. He became a strong critic of the teaching of the liberal school which had once so captivated him; what his friend and admirer J.S. Whale called, ‘that dilution and reduction of the gospel which leaves it a trivial, flabby thing.’[11] With characteristic flair, Forsyth provoked his anti-Pauline opponents by calling the Apostle ‘the fifth evangelist.’ A practical theologian, Forsyth was strongly committed to training up committed gospel ministers. Once described as ‘the Preachers’ Theologian,’ his earnest desire was to see pulpits in every time and place filled with preachers who clearly and unashamedly proclaimed what he called ‘positive, evangelical theology.’ That is, our message is not ourselves, but rather the act of God which is central in history and critical for eternity: Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection for the salvation of sinners.

He became a strong critic of the teaching of the liberal school which had once so captivated him; what his friend and admirer J.S. Whale called, ‘that dilution and reduction of the gospel which leaves it a trivial, flabby thing.’

Now as preachers we must choose between these two versions of Christianity … For the Gospel of liberalism, whatever it may be in theory, is in effect but man calling to men; while a positive Gospel is man called by God.’[12]

What we need is a power to enter and save us which is possible only to the God we wronged; we do not need simply the most interesting of historic figures. Our trouble is not our ennui and not our ignorance, it is our sin. It is our Holy One that spoils our feasts and troubles our dreams.[13]

Herein is love, not that we loved who easily forgo propitiation, but that He loved, Who so loved as to make His own unsparing propitiation under the conditions of judgment. Herein is love, not as we love, but as He loves who loves His holy name before all His prodigals, and therefore spared not even His only Son. Herein is our salvation … [14]

Jesus is the final authority for Christianity

For Forsyth, the authority of our Redeemer is the final authority of Christianity. Herein lies the true power of the preaching of the word of God: We are being addressed by our holy and loving Lord Jesus Christ, who breaks into our world to grant us the true freedom of God’s children (cf. Colossians 1:12-14).

Jesus, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever, is not a dead identity, a monument that we leave behind, but a persistent personality that never ceases to open upon us.[15]

We are mastered but not concussed. For it is the one influence, the one authority, that gives us to ourselves, and puts us in possession of our moral freedom. The true freedom of man springs from the holy sovereignty of God, which we only know in Christ in redeeming action. There our freedom has its charter not its doom … ’[16]

Forsyth understood that when it comes to preaching, the stakes are high. The preacher as the servant of Christ and of His church; has been given a particular task to perform, and he is commanded to be faithful to the charge: Preach the word (cf. 2Timothy 4:1-5)!

The professor should know the last thing written, but the preacher need not … He is there to declare the eternal, equally present, equally real for every soul, everlasting, final, insuperable for every age. He is not in the pulpit, as the place where he can get most scope for his own individuality, and most freedom for his own idiosyncrasy. He is there, as the servant both of the Word and the Church, to do a certain work, to declare a certain message, to discharge a certain trust.[17]

As Jerome wrote in the fourth century, ‘ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’ Christians must settle for nothing less than the proclamation of Christ from all the Scriptures: Jesus who became one of us; who died and was raised to God’s right hand in glory.

It is not our experience we preach, but the Christ who comes in our experience. We preach not ourselves, but Christ. [18]

The matter of the moment is the reality of the risen Lord, the identity of the Christ now in heaven with the Jesus of the finished victory in the Cross … It is to realize that the victorious Jesus was seen of many, and was in converse with them; that as Christ, He still rules the Kingdom He set up; and that He is not sitting apart, solemnly superannuate like a retired and cloistered emperor … Nay, but He watches the Kingdom as the king who ever rules. And the Kingdom will never be but what He is continually making it.[19]

We preach Christ Crucified

Forsyth’s thinking developed in the turbulent decades leading up to the outbreak of World War I. He was a man of his age, and as with theologians of every age Forsyth had his blind-spots and idiosyncrasies. If we were to use labels, Forsyth emerged from liberalism into an evangelical neo-orthodoxy not completely unscathed by his past, and we are wise to read him discerningly with our Bibles open.[20] However like all the great ones, Forsyth resisted labels in his genuine desire to be a ‘Bible and a gospel Christian.’ Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind provides clear evidence of this, and its cultural and spiritual diagnosis has on many counts proved to be profoundly prescient of our own time.

Above all Forsyth, like his close friend James Denney,[21] was a theologian of the Cross. After one memorable lecture in Boston in which he pleaded with his hearers to recognise the atoning blood of Christ as central to the Christian faith, instead of dissecting his lecture, all who were present rose and with one voice sang, ‘In the Cross of Christ I glory.’[22] Forsyth’s burden for preachers was clear:

If we are to fill life full, and spread the reign of love, let us preach the holy God, and the Cross where He is at His fullest and Holiest of all. Our Gospel is not simply God is love, but God’s love is holy, for the Holy One is love.[23]

On the memorial tablet to him in New College Chapel London is inscribed a Latin motto, which aptly describes Forsyth’s testimony, ministry and theology.

       Per Crucem ad Lucem – ‘Through the Cross to the Light.’


[1] A.M. Hunter, PT Forsyth- Per Crucem ad Lucem, (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1974), 11, 12.

[2] P.T. Forsyth., Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, (South Australia: New Creation Publishing, 1993// First Pub. England: H&S, 1907; developed from the ‘Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching,’ delivered at Yale University in the same year). The quotations which follow are original to the 1907 edition, and retain non-inclusive language.

[3] Ibid., 6, 10, 17, 21.

[4] Ed. F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (London: OUP, 1974), 1189.

Ritschl began as a follower of Baur and the Tubingen school, later to abandon it and form a ‘new’ theology which emphasised as central, ethics and the life of the Christian community, while fully repudiating metaphysics and religious experience. Other influential theologians of the school included Adolph Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch.

[5] Apparently about a third of his own library was comprised of texts in German.

[6] Hunter, op.cit., 15, 17. ‘The Liberalism which he early espoused, and on which he later came down like a hammer was that version of Christianity which so sought to accommodate it to the modern mind as to make shipwreck of the historic faith.’

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Forsyth, op.cit., 203.

[9] Ibid, 203.

[10] Ibid, 228.

[11] Ibid, viii., Quoted in the Preface by Geoffrey Bingham (1993).

[12] Ibid., 150.

[13] Ibid., 153.

[14] Ibid., 174.

[15] Ibid., 10-11.

[16] Ibid, 43-44.

[17] Ibid., 70.

[18] Ibid., 45.

[19] Ibid., 175-176.

[20] For example, Reformed Evangelicals would want Forsyth’s espoused doctrine of Scripture to be much tighter and clearer.

[21] E.g. James Denney, The Death of Christ, (1903); The Atonement and the Modern Mind, (1903) & The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation, (1917). One contemporary Australian theologian who engages with Forsyth is Graham Cole in, G.A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement brings Shalom, (NSBT; Downer’s Grove Illinois: Apollos/IVP; 2009), 25, 30, 37, 46, 75, 134.

[22] Hunter, op.cit., 19.

[23] Forsyth, op.cit., 224.

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