Sunday, December 22, 2013

Forsyth on Liberal Christianity

Nearly every week in the ODT there is an article on the Opinion page from Ian Harris, a man who follows in the line of thinking of Lloyd Geering, and the Sea of Faith school of thinking (someone once said to me that they had their name the wrong way round; it should have been Faith at Sea).

Harris comes from the liberal Christianity approach, a line of philosophical thought that has been around for a good 150-200 years, and which has systematically cut the life out of Christianity, until it's a virtual corpse. They are good people at heart, except that their heart isn't quite in the right place. And because they use the same words as Christians, but mean something different (in fact can often mean several different things with one word) they're hard to pin down.

I've been reading a good deal of P T Forsyth recently - you'll find plenty of extracts from his work on one of my other blogs, The Daily Writer. Forsyth bore with the liberal thinking that went on in his own day - the late 19th century into the early 20th - but he saw through their philosophy. To give you an example of his thorough thinking in this regard, I'm going to quote a longish extract from his book The Cruciality of the Cross. This will give you not only an example of his thinking, but will clarify why he believed liberal Christians had got it wrong.  This extract begins on page 64 of the New Creations Publications edition. (I've included some paragraphing to make it a bit more readable on the computer screen, and you'll have to excuse the gender-biased language.)

"Let us see exactly where the point is, and let us be quite fair to the kind of liberal religion in view. It does not, of course, exclude God. It does not say that the religious development of man is a smooth or an automatic thing. Progress still needs the help of God, or whatever stands for God. It needs even the act of God. The origin of faith within man is an act of God. But the point is that this act is not a revolution in man, not a new creation, not a regeneration, not an absolute redemption but only a release, an impulse from God, the extrication of our best, a delivery of the innate spirituality and goodness of man with which history is in travail until now.

It is not a salvation from death but only from scanty life. [Love that use of the word, scanty!] There is no real critical life-and-death catastrophe in the moral history of the race; but what we have is a deep consistent progress, harmonious on the whole, each step attaching to the step before. We have the happy perfecting of those decent, just, or tender instincts which are the original righteousness of human nature, the gradual surmounting by moral culture of sense and self. God is our helper and no more. He is not [in] a real sense, but only [in] a figurative sense, our Redeemer. He helps us to realise our latent spiritual resources and ends. There is no break with self and the world, only a disengagement from an embarrassing situation.

[Having now summed up liberal Christianity, he continues] It should be clear that this is another religion from that of redemption; and it has no room or need for atonement. And if it be true, then Christianity is not so necessary as we were led to think. Its whole complexion has changed. Nothing so very serious has taken place. Things can be bad enough, but no so bad as all that. Human nature is very mysterious but there is nothing marvellous, miraculous, in God's relation to it, nothing perilled on an eternal edge, nothing like a new creation, nothing that needs much penetration or agony of holy thought.

Incarnation becomes a metaphor. These greatest words are felt so great and useful because they can be made to mean anything. Well, faith in the incarnation is bound to become a metaphor, and to sink, if we count it mere theology to take it seriously that God was in Christ reconciling the world [a reference to one of Forsyth's all-time favourite verses, from 2 Corinthians 5:19], and to press on to understand the mighty God thus hallowed in the atoning cross. It is bound to sink, so as to become the incarnation of man instead of God, if in the cross we see but the extreme suffering of the most loving man instead of the supreme act and victory of the most holy God.

If Christianity do [sic] not make a revolution in human nature we make a revolution in Christianity. A religion centring wholly in the graciousness of Christ, or His submission, or His spiritual insight can be no foundation for a commanding ethic or a triumphant faith. It lacks the virile note. Christ did not come as a grand spiritual personality, but as a Redeemer. It was not to spiritualise us that He came but to save us. Moral verve is bound to relax if the religion of the cross become but a hallowed addition to life's spiritual interests or touching moods, if we do not carry the stamp of moral crisis and personal decision for death or life. Ethic is bound to grow less strenuous, even while we bustle about ethical conduct, if the sublime ethical issue of the universe is not the marrow of our personal divinity and the principle of our personal religion.

We can find a strong foundation only in that centre where the holy God both bears our load and performs His new creative act. If in the cross we have but the greatest of love's renunciations instead of the one establishment of God's holy will, if we have but the divine Kenosis and not also the divine Plerosis, then the sense of God's presence in the cross, and in the Church, and in the world's moral war, is bound to fade." 

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