When We Talk About Heresy, Let’s Be Honest

When We Talk About Heresy, Let’s Be Honest

When We Talk About Heresy, Let’s Be Honest

Tom Ascol Torquemada’s name, with clouds o’ercast,
Looms in the distant landscape of the past
Like a burnt tower upon a blackened heath,
Lit by the fires of burning woods beneath.
–Henry W. Longfellow

Heresy. The mere mention of the word conjures up images of witch trials and invokes the memory of the notorious Spanish Grand Inquisitor, Thomas de Torquemada. It is a word which has become obsolete in the modern church, and the truth is that most evangelicals actually prefer it that way. If you want to ruin your next Sunday School class party, just wait for a break in the conversation and ask, “Why do you think we don’t hear much about heresy anymore?”

Amid the quizzical looks (“What planet is this guy from?”) and nervous laughter you probably will not get many thoughtful responses. That’s because we don’t think about such things anymore. Out of sight, out of mind. The modern atheological mind has been so shaped by the ideology of pluralism that it no longer has the categories with which to evaluate doctrinal deviancy. Consequently, heresy has become passé.

This could only happen where truth has become relatively unimportant. As David Wells and others have forcefully argued, such is the condition of American evangelicalism. Subjective experience has deposed objective truth as the foundation of evangelical Christianity. Whereas the New Testament regards doctrine as essential to the life of faith, most of our churches have no place for it on their priority lists. It follows that if sound doctrine is considered negotiable in the church, then false teaching will be looked on, at best, with ambivalence. Where such low esteem of truth prevails, heresy is not even a possibility.

This explains what is happening in Macon, Georgia, at Mercer University and among moderate Southern Baptists in the wake of Kirby Godsey’s provocative new book, When We Talk about God, Let’s Be Honest. Godsey, who is President of Mercer, has provided more grist for conservative Southern Baptists’ mill. The theological positions which he stakes out in this volume have made even a few of his fellow moderates nervous.

His book teaches heresy. This is a serious charge and should never be made lightly. Mere doctrinal idiosyncrasies or goofy ideas do not qualify. Neither do views which are simply unorthodox (not up to what they ought to be) or heterodox (beyond what they ought to be). Heresy has been succinctly defined by Michael Horton as “any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance.” Unfortunately, Godsey’s book meets the criteria.

His intention is to write “devotional theology” (p. 7) not primarily to give instruction but to promote an approach to faith which is serious enough “to talk about it” (p. 5). Consequently the style of the book is dialogical and testimonial. Godsey invites the reader to a literary fireside chat about the author’s experiences as a person of faith.

This method will undoubtedly appeal to the egalitarian spirit of this age. For Godsey, it is dishonest to assume that any one opinion is superior to others. “When it comes to honest talk about God, there are no right answers” (p. 4), which, of course, conversely means that neither are there any wrong answers. What schoolboy would not like to take all of his exams from this kind of teacher? Godsey’s statement reminds me of Spurgeon’s reference to the man who “went to school and said of it, `None of us know’d nothin’, and we each larn’d one another.'”

Godsey’s intentions are commendable. He writes partly in reaction to the superficial religion which he encountered as a child growing up in the Bible belt and which he suspects inevitably lives on in conservative Christian circles. He is concerned that the Christian faith is too often reduced to mere acceptance of a set of theoretical doctrines.

So far, so good. There is much shallow teaching masquerading as biblical Christianity today, and it ought to be exposed. Authentic faith is capable of entertaining doubt and of grappling with profound questions which cannot be answered with clever platitudes. Godsey is to be commended for trying to make this point and encouraging believers to move beyond trivial notions of faith which permeate American evangelicalism.

Tragically, his solution is more deadly than the problem. Godsey falsely creates a dichotomy between doctrine and devotion and opts for the latter to the exclusion of the former. Biblical Christianity, however, is both doctrinal and devotional. Doctrine without devotion is a foundation without a house. Devotion without doctrine is a house without a foundation. Both are absolutely necessary.

Healthy Christian theology will be devotional because it will include not only confession but also reflection and cultivation of life. Each of these three elements has a place in the study of doctrine. The seventeenth century Puritans were prodigious writers of theological works which combined these elements in a wonderfully balanced fashion. It is a tragedy that someone did not introduce Godsey early in his pilgrimage to the spiritual goldmine of Puritan literature. Perhaps if he had drunk from refreshing springs of devotional theology which is faithful to God’s Word he would not have become intoxicated with postmodern heresy.

Is this judgment too harsh? Many think that it is. Judge for yourself. In the interest of being just in providing an accurate assessment of his views, several lengthy quotes are provided. In addition to disdaining doctrinal Christianity, Godsey takes the following faith-destroying positions:

He denies the exclusivity of Christ as God’s saving revelation.

Christians seem to become remarkably troubled about whether Jesus is humankind’s only savior. Is Jesus God’s only word? The simple answer is “Of course not.” But beyond a simple answer, the issue is largely a mistaken one. There are no right answers to wrong questions….For me as a Christian, Jesus is the defining revelation. This confession that lies at the center of my faith does not require an exclusivist position whereby I should feel compelled to deny every other person’s claim to know God. I can say only that, for me, Jesus is the central event of history. I cannot speak for another (p. 133; cf. p. 119).

He rejects the Bible’s infallibility.

The Bible is complete. Revelation is not. To ascribe infallibility to the written words of the Bible is wrong (p. 51; [so much for no wrong answers!]).

He denies Scripture’s final authority in the Christian faith.

Our reason to believe reaches beyond the boundaries of the Bible. In all likelihood, the authority for our faith should not rest upon the Bible alone, or even primarily….The simple identification of the Word of God with the Bible is a grave mistake. Far from being the principal focus of our faith, the Bible is the record of God’s revelation and how people responded and interacted with God’s presence in their history….The Bible, then, should not be viewed as a boundary of belief (p. 50). When it comes to defining the foundations for belief, we need to be very careful about requiring infallible sources. The health of religion does not depend on infallible sources. The errors of religion spring over and over again from claiming too much for a single source of truth. The study of Christian history shows us claiming too much for the church or too much for the Bible or too much for our own experience with God. Genuine belief listens to all of these sources. Each can be reliable. On the other hand, the elevation of any of them to the status of final authority inevitably leads to error and conflicts (pp. 47-48).

He believes that God lives within everyone.

God lives within us–within everyone of us (p. 68; [this could presumably refer exclusively to Christians, but, as the following quote shows, it does not]). God is spirit, and describing God as spirit means that all of nature, and every person in nature, bears the presence of God (p. 70).

The Incarnation is God’s ultimate affirmation of Adam. It conveys powerfully that we are all of God. Each of us is God incarnate. Each of us bears God’s presence. We are God’s words in the world.

He affirms the essential goodness of all people.

The notion that “God created” also gives us a new assessment of human character. That we are born of God provides the foundation for affirming that people are essentially good….Our creation by God means that the essence of our being is good….At the wellspring of their life, people are good even when they do evil (p. 83).

He denies the omnipotence of God.

The notion that God is the all powerful, the high and mighty principal of heaven and earth should be laid aside….God does not abolish evil and suffering because God cannot abolish evil and suffering [think of what this does to our hope of heaven!]. “Cannot” may seem like a difficult word to use when we speak about God, but it is a word that we must have the courage to say if we speak honestly about God’s suffering (p. 99).

He denies the full deity of Jesus.

The deity of Christ can never be more than a confession of faith, and it shall never be less (p. 121).

We are like the wandering Israelites [who “longed for a golden calf that they could cherish”]. Jesus is our word. Like Israel, our first temptation is to make Jesus into an icon of devotion. We want to see God, touch God, clutch God, and make sure that God belongs to us. So, we make Jesus into an object of worship. Let us not make Jesus into a magic fetish. Jesus is God’s speaking to us. Jesus is not God. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the speaking of God (p. 128).

He rejects the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

This notion of substitutionary atonement leaves us with the irony that God’s chief concern seems to be to keep the books balanced. Over against one side of the ledger that records our sin must be another side that says the penalties have been paid. The books must be balanced. This theory, again, gives us a picture of God that looks more like a judgmental tyrant. It winds up making God responsible for Jesus’ death. God is a God who must get even (p. 141).

Atonement is not something that God has done for us in the sense that God has made Jesus take our place so that the books would be balanced. Atonement is something God does within us (p. 142).

He teaches universalism.

Jesus did not come to tell us how to be saved. Jesus came to tell us that we are saved (p. 144).

Jesus came to say that we are saved. We are forgiven. God’s forgiveness lies within us. We are loved. God’s embracing love lies buried within us underneath a load of guilt and fear. No conditions, no prerequisites, no plans to follow–grace is not a conditional affirmation (p. 145).

God’s word of grace is that we are free. The announcement comes. Jesus himself is the announcement. Everyone who has lived in this awful state of being trapped has been set free (p. 155).

Universalism has a very high view of God. God’s grace and God’s love are the ultimate realities revealed in Jesus (p. 202).

More examples could be given, but by now, surely, you get the picture. Let’s be honest, this book advocates heresy. As grievous as it is to see the President of a Southern Baptist University (the one that bears the name of Jesse Mercer, no less!) enmeshed in such heretical snares, there is an even greater tragedy found within the whole “Godsey affair.” More alarming than the book itself are some of the responses which it has provoked from various Southern Baptist pastors and leaders.

Comments from the “moderate camp” are rather predictable though nonetheless grievous. Cecil Staton, president and publisher of Smyth and Helwys said, “The only crime Godsey can be accused of is openly and honestly sharing his personal faith while encouraging others to do the same. The only thing he is guilty of is being a Baptist in the historic sense of the word.” Can a person who denies Christian essentials while maintaining Baptist distinctives really be a Baptist? Not historically. This creature is a modern invention. Staton could not be more wrong. In the historic sense, Godsey has left not only Baptist life but the Christian faith. At best, those who deny salvific truths while clinging to baptistic practices are neo-Baptists.

Hardy Clemons, former moderator of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, wonders “why someone would accuse Dr. Godsey of having a low Christology.” My guess is that it has something to do with his denial of the deity and redemptive exclusivity of Christ. Even theological liberals should recognize this.

Several who have rendered public opinion on Godsey’s book–including some who openly admit that it teaches universalism–have expressed fear that Baptists might “overreact.” Just what kind of reaction to universalism (to keep the argument focused on only one of Godsey’s multiple heresies) would be “over” for an evangelical Christian? Surely a call to burn all universalists at the stake would be an “overreaction.” Torquemada is no role model. But what about New Testament church discipline? And if this does not effectively correct and restore the erring advocate of universalism, then what about removal from leadership and a public repudiation of his views?

Universalism and denial of the deity of Christ are soul-destroying errors. But they are no worse than the legalism which first-century Judaizers propagated. Yet, Paul called these false teachers “dogs” and “evil workers” (Philip. 3:2). Further, he expressed his strongest imprecation on them in Gal. 5:12. Even the apostle of love warns that anyone who does not “abide in the doctrine of Christ” is not to be greeted as a brother (3 John 9-11). Is this overreaction? No! Not when the very gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. Rather, watchmen should sound the alarm. The danger should be identified in simple and plain language. God’s people–as well as the false teachers themselves–must be warned in no uncertain terms.

Fortunately, there have been a few who have renounced Godsey’s book in just such language. Far more, however, have spoken of it as if it were simply a minor mishap or an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise stellar Christian academic career that should not unduly alarm Southern Baptists.

One Georgia Baptist leader disavowed Godsey’s theology and ventured that “most Georgia Baptists would be uncomfortable with such positions as his belief in universalism.” Bad table manners might make one uncomfortable. A Southern Baptist University President who is a universalist ought to make those who have invested their trust and resources in him feel something a little stronger than this. Perhaps grief, sorrow, betrayal, and righteous indignation would be appropriate–but definitely something more than discomfort.

Amazingly, discomfort may be too strong a word to use in describing the response of the Mercer University’s Board of Trustees. The Georgia Baptist executive committee and state convention passed a resolution censuring Godsey’s views and calling on the Mercer trustees to deal with his book. They responded by affirming Godsey as “a Christian, as a Baptist, and as an able and effective leader” of the university. Further, they responded that “the views of President Godsey do not exceed the boundaries of academic independence in a Baptist university.” If this is true then someone has moved the boundaries.

Jesse Mercer, the principal founder for whom the school was named, warned against the very thing which the current president has done. In 1839, while editor of the Christian Index, he published the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith in installments. He introduced this project with the following explanation:

The Baptists as a denomination, have always regarded the Bible as being amply sufficient for all the purposes of faith and practice. But knowing that many persons, holding wild and visionary notions upon religious subjects, often use the same language, and say that they too make the Bible their standard; and knowing that their views and practices are often misunderstood and often misrepresented, our brethren have felt it important to get up certain briefs, or compends of their faith, so that their adoption of the Bible in general terms, might not seem to be a sort of shield for heterodox [not to mention, heretical] opinions, and that there might be a oneness of doctrine and practice among themselves.

I think Jesse Mercer and his Baptist contemporaries would have felt something more than a little discomfort over one of their leaders openly advocating universalism and denying Christ’s deity. It is a sad commentary on how far we have degenerated theologically when current trustees of a Baptist university affirm these teachings by their president in the name of academic freedom. These things point to the sobering reality that today, as in Isaiah’s day, “truth is fallen in the street” (Isa. 59:14). Truth has been relativized and theology has been marginalized. It is in just such an environment that heresy both disappears and thrives. It disappears not because it has been eliminated, but because it has become invisible. It is no longer seen. Like carbon monoxide, it murders its victims without their ever knowing it. For that very reason, soul-destroying heresy will continue to permeate its environs until it is detected.

So when we talk about heresy, let’s be honest. The refusal to acknowledge its existence and to renounce it in clear terms is a denial of the faith once delivered to the saints. Genuine confession of faith always consists of both an affirmation of saving truth and a denial of that which opposes saving truth. Thus in Galatians 1 Paul not only commends the gospel which he had preached and which his readers had received, but he also renounces any other gospel and pronounces anathema on anyone who would dare to preach another gospel. Even if we shudder to announce it, this apostolic curse remains in place.

Though I deeply regret and stridently deplore much of what he says, I sincerely appreciate Godsey’s honesty and integrity in his talk about God. We need a similar kind of honesty in talking about heresy. The Christian faith does have doctrinal boundaries. They are fixed and eternal. As Thomas Oden has suggested, the great task of Christian theology in the twenty-first century will be rediscovering them. When we talk about God, there are indeed some wrong answers. They need to exposed–not in the spirit of a theological pugilist, but with pastoral concern and conviction. And where they contradict the clear teaching of Scripture on points of salvific importance, they need to be renounced in the strongest of terms–even to the point of using the dreaded “h” word. Otherwise, truth really does not matter at all.