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Honesty or Orthodoxy — Must We Choose Between Them?

The controversy swirling around the president of a Georgia Baptist university is moving outward in ever-enlarging circles. It is no wonder — the most serious and consequential of theological issues are at stake. In the interest of clarifying the issues of the controversy, SBC LIFE is reprinting the following edited review by Pastor Timothy A. McCoy of the Ingleside Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, which appeared in The Christian Index of Georgia.

In When We Talk about God ... Let's Be Honest, R. Kirby Godsey, President of Mercer University, offers a "devotional theology" that it is not so much "a rigorous, systematic treatise," but a "confessional interpretation" of his own faith (p. 7).

True to his confessional intention Godsey states clearly his own personal experience of God's grace in Jesus Christ. "For me as a Christian," Godsey writes, "Jesus is the defining revelation" (p. 133). He also introduces some of the people who have influenced his journey of faith and transparently narrates several faith-informing experiences.

The personal and confessional dimensions of this work, however, should not obscure its serious theological intentions and concerns. Beginning with a consideration of revelation and concluding with a discussion of eschatology, a carefully crafted and well integrated theological perspective is at work from start to finish.

One insight is essential to understanding Godsey's theological perspective. In a significant departure from the standard that has been normative for Baptists from the beginning, Godsey asserts that "the authority for our faith should not rest upon the Bible alone, or even primarily" (p. 50).

He believes that "the simple identification of the Word of God with the Bible is a grave mistake," and "to ascribe infallibility to the written words of the Bible is wrong." The Bible must take its place alongside "the church" and "spiritual experience" as one of three "reliable sources," none of which should be elevated to "the status of final authority" (pp. 47-55).

The consequences of such a low view of Scripture can be far reaching. As Herschel Hobbs has written: "Once one departs from the New Testament as the one authority in Christian belief and practice, he becomes a potential victim of every kind of distortion and error" (The Axioms of Religion, rev. ed., 1978, p. 32). Unfortunately, in Godsey's case, Hobbs is right.

In a Christology that is at best ambiguous and at worst bordering on blasphemy, Godsey downplays the "historical fact" of the Virgin Birth (p. 120-121), suggests that "Jesus is not God" (p. 128), and contends that making Jesus "into a divine figure to be worshipped ... is largely a mistake" (p. 120, cf. pp. ix, 117, 128).

In his soteriology, Godsey ridicules what he calls "sterile and misguided theories of atonement," including the substitutionary atonement, and concludes that they all "turn out to be clanging buckets of nonsense." The problem, he argues, is that "they have isolated the death of Jesus as the saving act of God. It is a serious and unfortunate error. The cross is not the central nor final revelation of God." Put more bluntly, Godsey contends that "Jesus did not have to die" (pp. 140-144).

If, as John Stott has written, "all inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and man" (The Cross of Christ, p. 109), then it should be no surprise to find that Godsey's doctrine of God is skewed.

He so magnifies the grace and love of God that the holiness and righteousness of God all but disappear. Likewise, Godsey's view of the human condition apart from Jesus Christ is far too optimistic. He believes that "the essence of our being is good" (p. 83) and that "each of us is God incarnate" (p. 131). Our need is not to repent of our sin (pp. 115, 145) nor to accept Jesus (p. 146), rather we need only to live in the light of "the truth of the Christian gospel ... that God loves us and forgives us already — no conditions (p. 115).

Furthermore, notwithstanding the clear testimony of Scripture (cf. John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5-6), Godsey is unwilling to affirm that "Jesus is humankind's only savior." He poses and answers the question as follows: "Is Jesus God's only word? The simple answer is 'Of course not'" (p. 133).

As a consequence, Godsey radically redefines Jesus' mission and ours. "Jesus did not come to tell us how to be saved. Jesus came to tell us that we are saved" (p. 144). Likewise, "our calling is to bear witness to God's presence in Jesus and to listen to those who follow a different way. They, too, are God's children" (p. 137).

Finally, in an eschatology consistent with the remainder of his theology but quite at odds with more than 300 years of Baptist confessions of faith, Godsey affirms ultimate universal redemption. He follows the example of his friend and fellow universalist, Nels Ferre (p. 197; cf. Christian Understanding of God, pp. 217-249) and adopts a position not unlike that of John A. T. Robinson (the title of Godsey's last chapter, "In the End, God," is the same as Robinson's 1968 book espousing universalism).

"Universal redemption means that while God will never coerce, God will never abandon," Godsey explains. "God's caring pursuit of all persons will endure, and God's forgiveness knows no boundaries. Time is not a boundary. Death is not a boundary. Hell is not a boundary. Whenever a person chooses to accept God's forgiveness, the power of forgiveness becomes effective in his life. God's patient grace will finally win all persons to the new creation" (p. 202).

Godsey's intention in this work is clear. "This book is first and foremost," he writes, "an acknowledgment of my own journey of belief. I intend to speak plainly about where I stand" (p. ix).

While I appreciate Godsey's candor and honesty, there has been no joy for me in finding that his journey has led him to embrace "a different gospel" (Galatians 1:6). I am personally saddened that he has chosen to stand far from "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).

And despite his repeated protests to the contrary, the Bible teaches that there is such a thing as "sound doctrine" (e.g., 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 2:1). Indeed, one who is entrusted with God's work is admonished by Scripture to "hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:9).

On May 9, 1883, John A. Broadus delivered the annual sermon before the Southern Baptist Convention in Waco, Texas, entitled "Three Questions as to the Bible." After noting the departure of some from the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, Broadus offers the following guidance, which I believe is applicable as we consider Godsey's theology today: "In every case we must remember — the man may be noble and devout, worthy of respect and esteem — the opinions he teaches may be very hurtful to devoutness in others, and requiring earnest opposition."


Editor's note: The title of the book raises the question of honesty, to which we reply: Honesty does not require departure from the teaching of Scripture and the embrace of heresy — indeed, most in our family of faith are honest people who honestly believe the teachings of Scripture. Southern Baptists have demonstrated the will to honestly confront heretical departure from Biblical faith among us, and repudiate that heresy in no uncertain terms.

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November 1996 Edition
Volume 5, Issue 2
November 1996