Feast of Peter Taylor Forsyth (November 11)   2 comments

Above:  Peter Taylor Forsyth

Image in the Public Domain



Also known a P. T. Forsyth

Scottish Congregationalist Minister and Theologian


Revelation is redemption.

–P. T. Forsyth, quoted in Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, eds., A Handbook of Christian Theologians, 2nd. ed. (1984), 154


P. T. Forsyth was, toward the end of his life, especially, too conservative for many liberals and too liberal for many conservatives.  The author of twenty-five books and hundreds of articles did, from 1893, anticipate much of the theology of Karl Barth and of Neo-orthodoxy.  Forsyth alarmed fundamentalist by affirming science and critical (in the highest sense of that word) Biblical scholarship while he rejected much of the theology of his contemporary, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930).

Forsyth, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on May 12, 1848, graduated from Aberdeen University then, in 1876, became a Congregationalist minister.  After serving in a few pulpits, he became the President of Hackney College, London, in 1921.  Our saint held that office until he died, on November 11, 1921.  In 1904-1905 he served as the Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales.

Stale orthodoxy has inspired overreactions.  Philipp Spener (1635-1705) reacted and founded Pietism, thereby minimizing the sacraments, the role of the Church, and the importance of doctrine, as well as straying into works-based righteousness.  Adolf von Harnack, another German Lutheran, participated in the post-Enlightenment “flight from dogma,” as James Dunn called it in Jesus Remembered (2003).  Harnack argued that,

…true faith in Jesus is not a matter of creedal orthodoxy but of doing as he did.

–Quoted in Dunn, Jesus Remembered (2003), 38

In Harnack’s dogmaless version of Christianity, as Dunn wrote, the presentation was of

Jesus as a good example, Jesus as more the first Christian than the Christ.

Jesus Remembered (2003), 39

Forsyth had been a Harnackian.  Later in life, however, our saint quoted Harnack only while disagreeing with him.

Forsyth, without rejecting modernity, insisted that the church must define itself according to Christ, whom he referred to as “the Word,” knowable only via the Bible.  Biblical criticism has its place, our saint argued, but it must never be destructive, and must serve “the Word.”  In Forsyth’s Christocentric theology, the objective act of God in Jesus Christ is the origin of Christian faith.  Furthermore, the Gospel is always valid, regardless of whether one believes in it.

Forsyth’s break with Harnack was especially evident in his emphasis on deeds over words.  Our saint insisted that divine revelation was more a matter of deed than word, more a matter of act than declaration.  Forsyth argued that, although the words of Jesus are important, his deeds are more important.  In other words, our saint wrote that Jesus was like what he did, that the work of Christ revealed the person of Christ.  Furthermore, as Forsyth wrote, divine revelation in Jesus is an act that costs God much and restores human fellowship with God.  Forsyth’s focus on divine actions was consistent with his disregard for speculative theology–an attitude that led him to ignore aspects of official Trinitarian doctrine.

(Aside:  I do not criticize Forsyth for that last point.  My attempts to understand the orthodox Trinitarian theology lead me to confusion quickly and tie me into logical knots.  For example, if one holds that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal, how can one then say that the Father begat the Son and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and maybe also from the Son, depending on one’s position vis-à-vis the filioque clause?  I choose to think of the Trinity as a glorious mystery, and to affirm that the truth of the nature of God exceeds human comprehension.)

Forsyth’s theology of the Atonement was collective, not individualistic.  He argued that the Atonement was mainly for the human race, not for individuals.  Furthermore, our saint wrote, the cross represent both reconciliation and judgment upon himself.  Forsyth argued that God has objectively redeemed the world and curtailed the power of evil.  Therefore, our saint wrote, no Christian should ever feel overwhelmed by evil, for the battle between good and evil has ended; Christ has overcome the world.

Forsyth’s Christology was orthodox.  He wrote that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and that the fully human portion of that reality indicated human limitations–the self-sacrifice of God.  Yet, our saint argued, Christ did not sin, despite moral struggles.

Unlike many Protestants, Forsyth held a high view of the sacraments.  He wrote that they are not merely memorials but actually means of grace.

Forsyth contributed greatly to Christian theology.






Almighty God, your Holy Spirit gives to one the word of knowledge,

and to another the insight of wisdom,

and to another the steadfastness of faith.

We praise you for the gifts of grace imparted to your servant Peter Taylor Forsyth,

and we pray that by his teaching we may be led to a fuller knowledge of the truth

we have seen in your Son Jesus, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Proverbs 3:1-7 or Wisdom 7:7-14

Psalm 119:89-104

1 Corinthians 2:1-10, 13-16 or 1 Corinthians 3:5-11

John 17:18-23 or Matthew 13:47-52

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 61


2 responses to “Feast of Peter Taylor Forsyth (November 11)

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  1. Thank you for another post sharing the history of some of the great men of the faith!

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