“The great appeal of Christianity, from which all else flows, is to the conscience, and, in the actual situation, to the sinful conscience. It is easy to make any assembly we may address cry with a few pathetic illustrations. . . . But, to follow evil to its inmost cell, to track the holy to the heart of things, to touch the devious and elusive conscience of a world, to rouse, to renew it – that is hard.”
So wrote P. T. Forsyth in ‘Congregationalism and Reunion’ (p. 16).
He is addressing the preacher and preaching’s importance. “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls’ he stated boldly in his Yale lectures (from whence ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’ was birthed).
What I love about the “great appeal of Christianity”, is the way Forsyth knowingly and quite deliberately mocks the sentimentalism that must have characterised much preaching in his day (as in our day!) – the “pathetic illustrations” designed to provoke tears in the hearer, and heart warming puppy-love towards the speaker/preacher! When I first read that line, I laughed out loud. How we see this in our day, and no doubt I may even stand accused myself of such Gospel-mockery – the Lord forgive me!
As Forsyth was, we need these prophetically-empowered, theologically astute voices in our day too – because the problem persists. One such voice is Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University. In the outstanding book ‘Relating Faith’ (mentioned on this blog before), Dr Rob Knowles, a theologian shaped by the life’s work of Thiselton, we see how “pathetic illustrations” and their ilk, are the mockery of the pulpit and the church: When Christianity becomes a “mere vehicle of self-affirmation, peer group self-promotion, or triumphalism that espouses a notion of “God” that amounts to a projection of human desires and interests”….we discover “neo-pragmatic pastors who ape chat-show hosts and design their sermons in such a way as to create a pragmatic rhetorical effect and win ‘local’ audience applause. With every effusion. . . . . greeted with a storm of ready-made applause”, however, “[t]he result is vanity and self-sufficiency” (p. 103).
Pathetic illustrations are designed to accomplish exactly that.
But the challenge from Forsyth is laid plain: Preaching is to track evil to its heartless and beastly core. It is to similarly trace to the heart God’s holy things, to expose, to touch, to point out in loving but salvific tones, the devious and elusive conscience of the world. It is nothing but the hard graft of Gospel proclamation. And it is hard!
If ever it were easy, I doubt it is being done at all.