Thinking About Christ with Schleiermacher by Catherine Kelsey (WJK Press, 2003)

This is a slim volume of little over a hundred pages. The audience is, surprisingly enough for this sort of study, an adult Sunday school class. Interspersed throughout the text are blocks of discussion questions, guided by personal reflections and practical commentary. These are well-done and valuable for those who do agree with Schleiermacher’s emphases in The Christian Faith. The choice of following The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher’s mature systematic theology, is especially appreciated by yours truly. Kelsey does a fine job of explaining the method of dogmatics and the use of Christology (subjectively focused) as an organizing tool.

The criticisms I have, and others will have, are with the limitations of Schleiermacher’s approach. So, I do not share Kelsey’s enthusiasm for this approach, but it is instructive to read someone who does. Kelsey is fair throughout and briefly notes the departures from other, more common and more traditional, readings of Christ’s person and work. A focus on the Cross and substitutionary atonement is replaced by a focus on the affective life of Christ on his followers, the disciples who were first drawn to Christ by his God-consciousness. This origin of the church is the locus of salvation, such that ecclesiology and soteriology are equated. Atonement is entry into this community of God-consciousness, with Christ as the head. The perfection of Christ is in his God-consciousness, not his fulfillment of the Law before a Just and Holy God.

Interestingly, I am currently reading P. T. Forsyth’s The Justification of God, and the contrast with Schleiermacher could not be more stark. Forsyth is awe-struck by the holiness of God, whereas Schleiermacher is “moved” by the beauty of Christ. While the latter may have some minimal value as a corrective (albeit over-corrective) to the dominant themes of scholastic Protestantism, the former approach of Forsyth and his Reformation friends is truer to the strange otherness of God and his claim on our lives.

Okay, this hiatus went longer than I expected. Thanks to those who commented and queried, and I will shortly get to those who commented on older posts (thanks to Google search).

I just needed to lower my internet intake for a while, so I could watch more TV…just kidding, I actually spent more time reading (though I am LOVING the final season of Lost!). Most of all, I wanted to pray more, and I needed time to re-orient my thoughts and self-discipline. Prior to this, I contemplated a lot, and I often used that as a substitute for real prayer, supplication and praise. Two books have been of enormous devotional aid: John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer and Arthur Bennett’s The Valley of Vision. I cannot recommend these enough. And, of course, some of my favorite theologians have fantastic things to say about prayer. Here is a snippet from P. T. Forsyth:

The worst sin is prayerlessness. Overt sin, or crime, or the glaring inconsistencies which often surprise us in Christian people are the effect of this, or its punishment. We are left by God for lack of seeking Him. The history of the saints shows often that their lapses were the fruit and nemesis of slackness or neglect in prayer. Their life, at seasons, also tended to become inhuman by their spiritual solitude. They left men, and were left by men, because they did not in their contemplation find God; they found but the thought or the atmosphere of God. Only living prayer keeps loneliness humane. It is the great producer of sympathy. Trusting the God of Christ, and transacting with Him, we come into tune with men. Our egoism retires before the coming of God, and into the clearance there comes with our Father our brother. …

Not to want to pray, then, is the sin behind sin. And it ends in not being able to pray. That is its punishment — spiritual dumbness, or at least aphasia, and starvation. We do not take our spiritual food, and so we falter, dwindle, and die. “In the sweat of your brow ye shall eat your bread.”

(“The Soul of Prayer,” in A Sense of the Holy, p. 137)

clockwise, from top left: E. Y. Mullins, P. T. Forsyth, E. Brunner, K. Barth

In the comment thread to the previous post, I lamented the lack of serious engagement, from too many evangelical students, with the theology of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and kindred spirits. In response, Mike Cheek asked about recommendations for understanding their context and what they were accomplishing. Naturally, not missing an opportunity to proselytize, I wrote him a mini-lecture on early 20th century theology. I am reproducing it below for the possible benefit of others.

Note: I do make some brief remarks on the propriety of the “neo-orthodox” label.


These “theologians of the Word” (i.e., early 20th century “neo-orthodox” writers) were working against an epistemological and metaphysical crisis — the fallout of Kant’s rejection of metaphysics, which was adopted by mainline Protestant theology (in various ways), from Schleiermacher to Ritschl to Harnack to Tillich.

With H. R. Mackintosh and P. T. Forsyth in Britain, E. Y. Mullins in America, and then Emil Brunner and Karl Barth in Switzerland/Germany, we have the first serious, in-depth offensive against this liberal tradition. [Prior to this, confessional critics of the dominant liberal academy were largely, with notable exceptions, on the defensive, resorting to apologetics or sometimes fideism.] All of the neo-orthodox theologians were trained in the liberal academy (e.g., Forsyth went to Germany to study under Ritschl), which contributes to their incisive critiques, as well as an appreciative appropriation of the liberal attack on metaphysics. Their response was, what I call, an “evangelical metaphysics.” In short, the power of the Word — the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit — creates a metaphysics of its own. Indeed, the Word creates the only metaphysics possible. Apart from this Word, Kant is right and metaphysics is impossible, except for certain moral postulates that never achieve a sure foundation outside of the human will’s self-determination (which Nietzsche correctly saw).

Thus, the liberals rightly (against the confessional orthodox) accepted the Kantian attack on a philosophical metaphysics but wrongly (against the neo-orthodox) extended this attack to any metaphysics whatsoever. As a result, the liberals rejected the agency of a God “out there” working and revealing himself “here.” Hence, we see the moralism and demythology that plagues this liberal tradition. Instead, the neo-orthodox, in a sense, humbled themselves before the power of the “wholly other” Word, which came in Israel/Christ, and comes now in the Spirit, and resides in His own self-sufficiency apart and above the created order (hence, meta-physics, above-the-physical).

The best introduction to all of this is to actually read the theologians themselves. They were fully conscious of what they were doing. I highly recommend P. T. Forsyth’s The Principle of Authority (currently published by Wipf & Stock) as an introduction to these issues and the neo-orthodox response. It should be noted that they did not think of themselves as “neo-orthodox” or even as a cohesive “movement.” Barth especially rejected any sort of labeling, in part because of his own eccentric approach (e.g., his vigorous attack on any natural knowledge of God, which nonetheless sort of allows for a natural knowledge of God!). The main problem with labels is that their use tends toward an over-emphasis of common traits, forgetting important differences (oh, like in the presentation you are currently reading!). Still, labels are unavoidable and helpful for students to organize the massive landscape of theology and philosophy.

Emil Brunner’s The Mediator (which can be found used for a reasonable price) is also a great introduction to this theology of the Word, especially the first two chapters where he positions himself vis-à-vis Schleiermacher and Ritschl, on the one hand, and Protestant orthodoxy, on the other hand. Barth is undoubtedly the greatest of all of these theologians, but because of the esoteric nature of his works and the shifts in his approach, from his more existential-deconstructive early writings to his more positive-constructive writings, he should probably be read after grappling with Forsyth and Brunner. However, Barth, like the others, always remained fairly existential, given his/their critique of scholasticism. I call this “good existentialism” as opposed to the bad existentialism which remains at the level of existentialism, lacking confidence in the new world of God’s re-creation. Barth’s Evangelical Theology is the best and most accessible introduction to this confidence amidst an existential critique of the world.

posted by Kevin Davis


For further reading, Paul Moser (Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Chicago) has an excellent faculty page with an extensive list of free pdf books by P. T. Forsyth, Emil Brunner, John Baillie, H. H. Farmer, H. R. Mackintosh, et al.

Edgar Y. Mullins’ dogmatic theology, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression, can be read or downloaded for free by clicking here or purchased from Wipf & Stock.


In the first part, Forsyth is dealing with the contradictions (paradoxes) in 1 John, to wit, he who abides in Christ does not sin, yet we continue to sin and require daily confession (as also taught by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer). Now, Forsyth finds the solution to the contradictions in the two types of sin briefly mentioned in chapter 5. These are classic proof texts for the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin, which is not entirely discounted by Forsyth’s presentation. As per usual, Forsyth is in top form in his biblical exposition, and this is far better than anything you will find in the current academic commentaries on the Johannine epistles.


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Can the Christian — the elect and regenerate — sin? Do sins make him or her un-Christian — debaptized? If you think these are silly questions, then you haven’t read Paul, Hebrews, James, or 1 John. There is a wide range of options in the Church for dealing with the issue of the Christian’s relation to continuing sin. The Holiness option claims that the Christian does not sin, or, at least, this can be achieved. The Reformed option claims that the Christian sins, but it does not affect his salvation. The Catholic option claims that the Christian can sin, and, under conditions of clarity and type of sin, he can lose his salvation (though not a certain “indelible mark” of baptism). There are more options, and within these major options there are critical qualifications. The difficulty is largely thanks to scripture itself. The early fathers didn’t know what to make of it, as reflected in contradictory baptismal beliefs and understandings of penance. Eventually a more or less coherent and systematic tradition developed in the Medieval West, challenged by the Reformers, resulting in the confessions of the 16th century — Reformed, Lutheran, and Tridentine — which, of course, are still authoritative for confessional Protestants and Catholics. The Free Church of subsequent centuries has likewise offered a range in confessional response.

So, it is refreshing that P. T. Forsyth, Scottish Congregationalist minister-theologian, settled the matter for us in his 1899 essay, “Christian Perfection.” Okay, maybe that is an overstatement, but I love this essay. I am reproducing much of it here, in parts. The essay is a treatment of 1 John. The second part will brilliantly deal with the vexing issue of “sin that leadeth unto death,” while the first part (below) deals with the foundational matter of sin for those who have faith. Here it is:

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Too often the Church has thought her mission was to transform society through institutional means, through moral structures (laws and mores), to the neglect of personal means, through the individual’s conversion to a new Lord and Savior. If the latter becomes the Church’s mission, then cultural instantiations of Christian values naturally follow, in law, art, and personal relations. However, sometimes the Church must fight for the institutional recognition of moral truth for the sake of innocent victims (e.g., abortion) even if the moral foundations for this truth have been eroded in the larger society. This is part and parcel of being the Good Samaritan, of recognizing and defending the duties owed to our neighbors (=everyone), but it is not the peculiar mission of the Church, to baptize in the name of the Triune God of our salvation. The Church has often been tempted to make the Christian life the content of the Gospel, instead of the Christian death, i.e., our death, burial, and (only then) resurrection in Christ. The Church contents herself with half the Gospel — not surprisingly, it’s the easier half, the half more pleasant to preach and less a stumbling block. But the Church’s commission is “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). So, how we seek to promote and establish the Kingdom of God in our society is determined by our fidelity to the Cross and its claim on the lives of every individual. The Church’s commission is not, Gospel –> Culture –> Individuals, but Gospel –> Individuals –> Culture. It is a bottom-up movement. P. T. Forsyth understands this well:

“That was the Puritan dream [i.e., “a new order of society wherein should dwell the righteousness of God”]. But even a parliamentarian army was still an army; and a Cromwell ruled for God by the sword — as many of us who are his admirers today would seek the kingdom by the vote, that is, by our political tactics instead of by his military. It was what still makes, and always has made, the chief temptation of his Church — the reformation of society by every beneficent means except the evangelical; by amelioration, by reorganization, by programmes, and policies, instead of by the soul’s new creation, and its total conversion from the passion for justice to the faith of grace, from what makes men just with each other to what makes them just with God. It was the temptation to save men by rallying their goodness without routing their evil, by reorganizing virtue instead of redeeming guilt. …It is the error which leads men to think that we can have a new Church or Humanity upon any other condition than the renovation in the soul of the new covenant which Christ founded in his last hours, before the very Church was founded, and which is the Church’s one foundation in his most precious blood” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, pp. 303-304).

The Pre-existent Lamb

October 2, 2008

This is Forsyth at his rhetorical finest:

“His emergence on earth was as it were the swelling in of heaven. His sacrifice began before He came into the world, and his cross was that of a lamb slain before the world’s foundation. There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all. His obedience, however impressive, does not take divine magnitude if it first rose upon earth, nor has it the due compelling power upon ours. His obedience as man was but the detail of the supreme obedience which made him man. His love transcends all human measure only if, out of love, he renounced the glory of heavenly being for all he here became. Only then could one grasp the full stay and comfort of words like these, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ Unlike us, he chose the oblivion of birth and the humiliation of life. He consented not only to die but to be born.”

The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, p. 271

In the first post, Forsyth looked at the intention of Christ in “rounding off” his revelation with his election of the apostles. Below I have provided three highly illuminating passages wherein Forsyth further explains his understanding of this apostolic primacy and why it alone is authoritative for the Church. Note especially the last passage.

“As we have God by the miracle of Christ, so we have Christ by the miracle of the apostolic inspiration. (Mat. xi. 27, xvi. 17). If the manifested deed is miraculous, so is the inspired. The apostles’ understanding of the cross is miraculous, like the cross itself. It is there by the direct and specific action of the same Spirit as that by which Christ offered himself to God, though the action took another form. So also the form of our illumination through the apostles is different from theirs by the very fact that they had no apostles to mediate the truth to them. As Christ was the direct mediator of the work itself, having himself no Saviour, so the apostles are the direct mediators of the central truth about it, having therein no human revealers.” (The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, p. 173)

“As to the authority of the Bible, especially on a matter like the Godhead of Christ, we may note this. The mere historical aspect of the Bible is a matter of learned inquiry. Its evidence for a mere historical fact must stand at what it is historically worth. The difficulty only begins with facts which are more than merely historical, whose value lies not in their occurrence, but in their nature, meaning, and effect. It is not the crucifixion that matters but the cross. So it is not reanimation but resurrection. And here the authority of the Bible speaks not to the critical faculty that handles evidence but to the soul that makes response. The Bible witness of salvation in Christ is felt immediately to have authority by every soul pining for redemption. It is not so much food for the rationally healthy, but it is medicine for the sick, and life for the dead.” (p. 178)

“The authority in the Bible is more than the authority of the Bible; and it is the historic and present Christ as Saviour. The Gospel and not the book is the true region of inspiration or infallibility — the discovery of the one Gospel in Christ and His cross. That is the sphere of inspiration. That is where inspiration is infallible. …The true region of Bible authority is therefore saving certainty in man’s central and final part — his conscience before God. …It is by the Bible that Christ chiefly works on history. All the Church’s preaching and work is based on it, on what we only know through it. As no man could succeed the apostles in their unique position and work, but their book became their true successor, so no book can replace this. The apostles are gone but the book remains, to prolong their supernatural vision, and exercise their authority in the Church. In so far as the Church prolongs the manifestation and is Christ’s body, the Bible prolongs the inspiration and is Christ’s word. The writers were and are the only authentic interpreters of Christ. They said so, under the immediate shadow of Christ’s action on them, whether his historic or his heavenly action. They never contemplate being superseded on the great witness till Christ came. If they are wrong in that, where are they right? And where are we to turn? To a critical construction of what they said — they including the evangelists? But does that not make the critics, the constructors, to be the true Apostolate? …In [the Bible’s] substance it is part of the revelation; its penumbra; and it is as authoritative in its way as the manifestation whose vibration it is. It is of eternal moment to the soul whether it take or leave the Christ that this book as a whole preaches to the world.” (pp. 179-181)

Every so often, the canon debate is renewed in the blogosphere. The latest manifestation is found at Parchment and Pen with Michael Patton’s latest consideration of Sproul’s dictum, “We have a fallible canon of infallible books.” Michael Liccione gives a Catholic response at Philosophia Perennis.

I think the canon debate (=authority debate) might be better served if we actually start with what is actually going on in scripture instead of epistemological categories (e.g., certainty). To this end, here’s an excerpt from P. T. Forsyth’s brilliant lectures, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909):

In Christ God redeemed once for all. To make this effective in history it must be declared. What is the work for us without its word? It must be interpreted, unfolded, in thought and speech, else men would not know they were saved. The work alone would be dumb as the word alone would be empty.

There are some who recognize in Christ’s death no action beyond what it had, and has increasingly, upon mankind. It did not act on God but only from Him. Those who so think may be particularly asked what provision Christ made that a work with that sole object should be secured to act on history, and should not go to waste. He wrote nothing himself. If he had it could not well have included the effect of his death — unless he had done with a posthumous pen what my plea is he did by his Apostles. He did not even give instructions for a written account which should be a constant source for the effect on us intended by his life. Nor did he take any precautions against perversions in its tradition. Yet it is hard to think that a mind capable of so great a design on posterity should neglect to secure that his deed and its significance should reach them in some authentic way. He surely could not put himself into so great an enterprise, and then leave it adrift on history, liable to the accidents of time or the idiosyncracy of his followers. He could not be indifferent whether an effective record and interpretation of his work should survive or not. He would then have shown himself unable to rear the deed he brought forth. It would have been stillborn unless the close of it in some way secured its action on the posterity which we are told was its sole destination, on those whom alone it was to affect or benefit. But the completion of his work he did secure if he inspired its transmission and interpretation in the Bible. If he died to make a Church that Church should continue to be made by some permanent thing from himself, either by a continuous Apostolate supernaturally secured in the charisma veritatis, as Rome claims, or by a book which should be the real successor of the Apostles, with a real authority on the vital matters of truth and faith. But, we discard the supernatural pope for the supernatural book. And so we come back, enriched by all we have learned from repudiating a verbal inspiration and accepting an inspiration of men and souls, to a better way of understanding the authority that there is in the inspiration of a book, a canon. We move from an institutional authority to a biblical: and then from Biblicism to Evangelism. But it is an Evangelism bound up with a book because bound up with history. …And this because, for all the pronounced personality of each Apostle, he was yet the representative of a whole Church, an Eternal Saviour, and a universal salvation. The interpretation of the manifold work of Christ should be a corporate matter. …[Christ] rounded off his great work by inspiring an authoritative account of it, in records which are not mere documents, but are themselves acts within his integral and historic act of salvation. …[They] form an integral part of the deed itself….They are part of the whole transaction, integral to the great deed. And we do not get the whole Christ or his work without them.

(pp. 170-172)

parish church

“Christ, with the demand for saving obedience, arouses antagonism in the human heart. And so will the Church that is faithful to Him. You hear people saying, If only the Church had been true to Christ’s message it would have done wonders for the world. If only Christ were preached and practised in all His simplicity to the world, how fast Christianity would spread. Would it? Do you really find that the deeper you get into Christ and the meaning of His demands Christianity spreads faster in your heart? Is it not very much the other way? When it comes to close quarters you have actually to be got down and broken, that the old man may be pulverised and the new man created from the dust. Therefore when we hear people abusing the Church and its history the first thing we have to say is, Yes, there is a great deal too much truth in what you say, but there is also a greater truth which you are not allowing for, and it is this. One reason why the Church has been so slow in its progress in mankind and its effect on human history is because it has been so faithful to Christ, so faithful to His Cross. You have to subdue the most intractable, difficult, and slow thing in the world — man’s self-will. You cannot expect rapid successes if you truly preach the Cross whereon Christ died, and which He surmounted not simply by leaving it behind but by rising again, and converting the very Cross into a power and glory.

Christ arouses antagonism in the human heart and heroism does not. Everybody welcomes a hero. The minority welcome Christ.”

P. T. Forsyth
The Work of Christ (1910)
Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp. 20-21