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Admittedly, such claims do not themselves entail a full-blown universalism, but in their light it seems a bit churlish not to go all the way. At any rate, Forsyth holds to a “hopeful” rather than “dogmatic” universalism, which is certainly a respectable theological position. But Goroncy persistently pushes Forsyth on this point, and his persistence pays off. As he shows, Forsyth cannot take refuge, as others have, in the doctrine of divine freedom because for him God’s freedom is “already bound up in his determination to hallow all things”. And since what is at stake in this hallowing is the very being of God, the price of one everlastingly unrepentant sinner is not the existence of hell, nor even the defeat of the purposes of God, but the collapse of divine being itself.
There is simply no possibility of the coexistence of divine holiness and its antithesis. While Forsyth makes this point repeatedly, he does not follow his own logic, which Goroncy shows, “demands either universalism or annihilationism”, to its end. As Goroncy also points out, there are serious difficulties with the idea that God might, after a suitable term of punishment, annihilate creatures that he had brought into being. Forsyth really has only one option available to him. And yet he hedges.
It is interesting to speculate – and here this is all that can be done for lack of evidence – as to why Forsyth tacitly refuses to draw the necessary consequences of his theology. The author of This Life and the Next (1918) was hardly unconcerned with the last things, so that cannot be the reason. In all likelihood, as Goroncy suggests, ecclesial and theological politics played a role in Forsyth’s public agnosticism, which may have seemed to the principal of a congregational college and leader within the congregational community to be the most prudent course. There may have been another REVIEW reason, which Goroncy does not mention. It is possible that in hedging on the question of dogmatic universalism Forsyth was, perhaps even unconsciously, questioning the Hegelian assumptions that made that universalism a necessary consequence of his theology. There is a lot of Hegelian in Forsyth’s work. Perhaps in the end he wanted to say something different.
And perhaps in the end he did. Forsyth was often tempted to “flirt with the mythological”, as one of the most astute of his 20th century admirers once remarked. This is true not least when he talks of the “dying God” or construes sin as the antithesis of, and a threat to, the divine being itself. The Augustinian conception of sin as privation, along with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo on which it depends, is an attempt to rule out something like Forsyth’s account of sin (and with it, any notion that God’s being might be subject to threat). Forsyth was nervous about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, because it seemed to him not to be ethical enough – a criticism which suggests that he was reacting against the rationalist orthodoxies of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than Augustine or Thomas.
Curiously, while he rejected the metaphysics of what he calls “Chalcedonianism”, and for all his Kantian objections to speculative thought, what Forsyth offers is nothing if not a profound essay in the metaphysics of divine being. Goroncy, perhaps Forsyth’s finest interpreter, captures the heights and depths of this metaphysical vision in Hallowed Be Thy Name, revealing the richness and coherence (questions about universalism aside) of Forsyth’s thought, because he knows that the metaphysics are always in the end an attempt to wrestle with the “evangelical centre”.
In his wonderful and authoritative study of Forsyth, Goroncy shows how breathtakingly audacious his metaphysical theology is in both form and scope. But perhaps in order to gain the measure of the man, we also need a comprehensive study of his engagement with the Bible. One might begin with Goroncy’s recent publication of Forsyth’s sermons, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Pickwick, 2013).
Jason A. Goroncy, Hallowed By Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T.
Forsyth (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 9780567066824; xvi + 291pp.