Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happy 163rd birthday, P. T. Forsyth!

It is not every week that one gets to celebrate the back-to-back birthdays of one's two favorite theologians, but this is the time.  Yesterday we raised a glass to Karl Barth's 125th birthday and today we raise a glass to P.T. Forsyth on his 163rd birthday.

Who was P. T. Forsyth?  Peter Taylor Forsyth was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on this day in 1848 to a family of modest circumstances, educated there through his university years, spent a semester studying in Germany, and became a Congregationalist minister serving in five successive congregations in England. At the turn of the 20th century he became principal of his denominational college in London and proceeded to produce 25 books and hundreds of articles until the time of his death in 1921.

Like Karl Barth his theology was hammered out on the anvil of weekly preaching and pastoring.  But he identified the inherent weakness of the human-centered “theology” that prevailed in his time (and dare I say ours)  two decades before Barth.

Not everything he wrote translates to our time, but his writings reflect his deep love for the Gospel and his prescient insights in what that Gospel might mean for all manner of human endeavors.  At the heart of his thought is the “work of Christ”, what God has done for us that we cannot do for ourselves in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ.  Understanding the love of God as “holy love” he called into question the flabby religious sentimentalism of his time in the name of the God who takes sin and evil seriously and has acted to overcome it.

Writing in the early 20th century, years before the two world wars and the holocaust, his was an isolated prophetic voice that we can now see in retrospect understood both the evil that humans can do and the vast love of God acting to redeem and save these same humans “not at their best, but at their worst.”

He is not a household name in the theological world, and he has had scant attention by the academy, but preachers of all stripes know and love his writings.  We give thanks to God for him and his labors on behalf of the church on this his birthday. 


  1. Well said Rick, and happy birthday PT! (BTW: I understand that it was a semester rather than a full year that Forsyth spent at Göttingen. You may wish to correct this.)