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“Lay Religion” in the Person and Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909, P.T. Forsyth, 1909

[This essay discussing “lay religion” which is essentially a Christianity with little to no theological content.  To this extent, Forsyth’s observations are timely and relevant to much of the current Christian church in North America – which is often even contemptuous of theology.]

 

The Gospel is a certain interpretation of Christ which is given in the New Testament, a mystical interpretation of a historical fact. It is the loving, redeeming grace of a holy God in Christ and His salvation alone. …But the Christian fact is not an historical fact or figure simply; it is a superhistoric fact living on in the new experience which it creates.3

Now such language may tempt one to wander off into a Christ who disappears in words or even less than words, a vague sort of “spiritual” sensation:

Spiritual sensibility is not Christianity, nor is any degree of refined unction. A spirituality without positive and even dogmatic content is not Christianity….4

Christianity has a definite space and understanding:

The essential thing in New Testament Christianity is that it came to settle in a final way the issue between a holy God and the guilt of man. All else is secondary. All criticism is a minor matter if that be secure. The only deadly criticism is what makes that incredible; the only mischievous criticism is what make that less credible. All the beauties and charms of a temperamental religion like Francis Newman’s, for instance, or Renan’s, or many a Buddhist’s, are insignificant compared with a man’s living attitude to that work of God’s grace for the world once and for ever in Jesus Christ.

A faith whose object is not such a Christ is not Christianity. 5

By “faith”, Forsyth means only that which can have God as its object.  Therefore, faith in Christ must entail a belief, a knowledge in the “Godhead of Christ” (6):

Theologically, faith in Christ means that the person of Christ must be interpreted by what that saving action of God in him requires, that Christ’s work is the master key to His person, that his benefits interpret His nature. It means, when theologically put, that Christology is the corollary of Soteriology; for a Christology vanishes with the reduction of faith to mere religion. It means that the deity of Christ is at the center of Christian truth for us because it is the postulate of the redemption which is Christianity, because it alone makes the classic Christian experience possible for thought. 6

Thus, Christianity hinges upon Christ’s work – and our understanding of Christ’s nature cannot be had apart from Christ’s work. Forsyth seems to have sufficiently protected theology from pure subjectivity by making plain that Christian experience must be explained theologically. He has sought to protect theology from philosophical speculation by grounding it in the knowledge  of God in Christ.

He demonstrates the principle of understanding Christ in light of his work by turning to the matter of who Christ is in light of what Christ had done. He states that Christ was not a mere man who had some divine insight which led him to a resignation to the world’s chaos and thus living above it all. Jesus was not a dreamer who simply ignored the world’s trouble and found peace for himself. Jesus did not avoid sin merely by not caring. The strength of Jesus was found in what he did:

But it was energy put forth in a positive conflict, in mortal strife for the overthrow of God’s enemy, through the redemption of the race, the forgiveness of its guilt, and its moral re-creation. 8

Forsyth then turns to an objection raised by academics: Okay, but the doctrine of the Incarnation is simply too difficult a matter for the common man.  Forsyth rejects that proposition by resort to the experience of faith and salvation in Jesus Christ. Anyone who has come to know God in Jesus Christ has come to know that Christ is God Incarnate:

It is the evangelical experience of every saved soul everywhere. …The theology of the incarnation was necessary to explain our Christian experience and not our rational nature, nor our religious psychology.9

And:

We begin with the facts of experience, not with the forms of thought. First the Gospel then theology, first redemption then incarnation – that is the order of experience. 10

At this point he defines “lay religion”:

It properly means an experienced religion of direct, individual, and forgiven faith, in which we are not at the mercy of a priestly order of men, a class of sacramental experts. It is certainty of Christ’s salvation at first hand, by personal forgiveness through the cross of Christ in the Holy Ghost.

It does not mean a non-mediatorial religion, a religion stripped of the priestly orders of acts or ideas. New Testament Christianity is a priestly religion or it is nothing. It gathers about a priestly cross on earth and a Great High Priest Eternal in the heavens.

It also means the equal priesthood of each believer. But it means much more. That by itself is a ruinous individualism. It means the collective priesthood of the Church as one. The greatest function of the church in full communion with Him is priestly. It is to confess, to sacrifice, to intercede for the whole human race in Him. The Church, and those who speak in its name, have power and commandment to declare to the world being penitent the absolute and remission of its sins in Him. The Church is to stand thus, with the world’s sins for a load, but the word of the atoning cross for the lifting of it. That is apostolic Christianity. That is Gospel. Evangelical Christianity is mediatorial both in faith and function. 12

 

The priestly aspect must not be lost in our understanding of Christianity, because without a priestly response to sin – a matter of sacrifice and atonement – sin becomes mere matter of misbehavior which can be corrected with a good example – to the loss of true Christianity:

Perhaps the general conscience has succumbed to the cheap comforts and varied interests of life; or the modern stress on the sympathies has muffled the moral note; or the decency of life has stifled the need for mercy; or Christian liberty has in the liberty lost the Christ[1]. But, whatever the cause, the lay mind has become only too ready to interpret sin in a softer light than God’s, and to see it only under the pity of a Lord to whom judgment is quite a strange work, and who forgives all because He knows all. 13

And thus, as Forsyth demonstrates, Christ becomes altogether lost.

Here Forsyth responds by noting that the revelation we have received is not the matter of some opinion but the matter of some person.  The word of opinion as the beginning and the end of all less us without any true persons. It is an odd thing, but human personhood becomes lost when we true to understand the world or ourselves without reference to God – the actual source of Personhood. But, revelation is grounded in person:[2]

Revelation did not come in a statement, but in a person; yet stated it must be. Faith must go on to specific. 15

By failing to understand this fact, theology becomes solely a matter of academic exercise and lay religion – the religion left over for everyone else becomes

…simple, esay and domestic religion, with a due suspicion not only of a priesthood but even a ministry. …It is preoccupied with righteousness as conduct more than with faith as life indeed. It thinks the holiness of God a theological term, because nothing but love appeals to the young people who must be won. If it only knew how the best of the young people turn from such novelistic piety! And the view taken of sin corresponds. Sin is an offense against righteousness or love instead of against holiness; and it can be put straight by repentance and amendment without such artifices as atonement. It just means going wrong; it does not mean being guilty. The cross is not a sacrifice for guilt, but a divine object-lesson in self-sacrifice for people or principles….Christ saves from misery, and wrong  and bad habits, and self distrust; but not from guilt. He reveals a Father who is but rarely a judge, and then only for corrective purposes. The idea of a soul absolutely forfeit, and of its salvation and new creation, grow foreign to the lay mind. And the deep root of it all is the growing detachment of that mind from the Bible and its personal disuse. 17-18.

Forsyth then traces the trouble to failure of the Christian ministry as a preaching and teaching office. Since all Christian work is valuable before God, all work is the same and none takes precedence. Such a belief washes out the preaching office:

That is one result of the laicizing of belief, of the leveling of the Gospel to life instead of the lifting up of life to the Gospel. It is the result of erasing the feature unique I the Gospel and consequently o the office which preaches it. 19.

And thus he pronounces his judgment:

In a word, as I say, lay religion is coming to be understood as the antithesis, not of sacerdotal religion, but of theological, of atoning religion; that is to say, really of New Testament Christianity. 19.

He then goes to spend some analysis on the fact that there is no true “golden age” of the church – he is not contending that the former days were better. He then notes a characteristic which has only become more plain since his lecture:

What we are developing at the moment is an anthropo-centric Christianity. God and Christ are practically treated as but the means to an end that is nearer to our enthusiasm than anything else- the consummation and perfecting of Humanity. The chief value of religion becomes then not its value to God, but its value for completing and crowing of life, whether the great life of the race or the crowning of life, whether the great of the race or the personal life of the individual. Love Christ, we are urged, if you would draw out all that is in you to be. Our eyes is kept first upon our self-culture, our sanctification, in some form, by realizing a divine presence or indwelling, with but a secondary reference to the divine purpose. God waits on man more than man waits on God. God is drawn into the circle of our spiritual interests, the interests of man’s spiritual culture, as it mightiest ally and helper. 28

This is in contrast with true Christianity:

It [this new “lay religion”] is not theocentric. For in any theo-centric faith man lives for the worship and glory of God and for obedience to His revelation of Himself; which is not in man, and not in spirituality, but in Christ, in the historic, superhistoric Christ. Christ is not the revelation of man, but of God’s will for man; not of the God always in us, but of the God once and for all for us. Christ did not come in the first instance to satisfy the needs and instincts of our diviner self, but to honor the claim of a holy God upon us, crush our guilt into repentant faith, and create us anew in the act. 28-29

 

 


[1] If anything, the circumstance is far worse now in the common culture: when sin is devolved to sympathies, then the objectivity of conduct becomes lost.  The irrational retreat to “opinion” as a the basis for decision – one where all things are equally true (and thus nothing is actually True) – creates a space where redemption becomes impossible and distraction and a seared conscience are the goals of life. The Serpent’s promise, “You shall be as gods” has left us far less than human beings. One whose “opinion” or “feeling” has become the touchstone of decision lives no better than a dog or cat.

[2] Even the revelation contained in Scripture records the personal revelation of God to a prophet. Consider the story of Samuel, 1 Samuel 3.