In yet another excellent sermon published in ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’ (ed. Jason Goroncy), P. T. Forsyth skillfully exposes, by force of logic, the poverty of ignorance in understanding Christian things in general, and specifically in this section of the sermon, Creeds in particular. He calls these contemporary interpreters of Christian things people of “narrow mind” and “narrow soul”.
By contrast, the Christian teacher, the “preacher-scholar” is an “exegete of the eternal” and that includes history, culture and so on, but especially the scriptures and the creeds. So many people, many of them Christians, are so quick to dismiss things they don’t understand, that (quoting Ernest Renan) he writes, “We begin examining before we have appropriated enough to fit us to examine. Very few people have acquired the right to disbelieve in Christianity.”
People dismiss great historic institutions like the creeds out of ignorance and even novelty for things that are new (as is supposed). But, argues Forsyth, “Our creeds are at once old and new. It is not abolition the need but reinterpretation. Many people don’t bother to understand, arguing instead for such deceptively slippery concepts as the “simple directness” of plain speaking, as though it were the only “mode of spiritual expression.” He writes, “Plainness of speech is not worth the price if it costs squatness of thought and baldness of vision.”
The task of the teacher-preacher-scholar is, as exegete of the eternal, to understand that “interpretation is slow and patient work.” Thus Forsyth paints a most excellent word-picture to make his point:
“Well, it is easy to be clear if you are small enough, one-sided enough, shallow enough, if you deny enough, exclude and destroy enough. To show clearly the position of the Tower of London, you could proceed as the great fire did; you could burn down all around it, leaving it sharply exposed against the desolate sky. Or you could proceed as those do who know London through constant business in it. You could become so familiar with the bearings of the Tower to every street around it that you could at once call up in your mind the connection between Tower and City, and give a clear idea of the relation between the two. So with Christ and the creeds. Christ and the City of God. You will not understand Christ better by burning the creeds He inspired, but by understanding them; not by abolishing the Churches, but transforming them, interpreting them, and finding them the old witnesses of things indestructable and truths ever new. Christ has a task to deliver us from that inelastic, rigid habit of mind, too prompt with notions and too poor in ideas, which offer us instead of the Christian reconcilliation of old and new the pagan dilemma. Old or new hatred of old doctrine is chiefly due to poverty of religion, as the idolatry of it may also be. It is a confession of lack of insight to discern, interpret, and renovate. In the long run the narrow mind is the narrow soul on both sides; and from that may Christ deliver us ever more!” (p.268-269)