When We Talk About God…: Let’s Be Honest. R. Kirby Godsey. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1996. 214 pages.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. The bad theory, bad theology, and bad faith found in this book do a fine job of illustrating why the Conservative Resurgence was necessary.
For years concerned parties complained that R. Kirby Godsey was intentionally leading Mercer University, a Southern Baptist institution, away from the central tenets of the Christian faith. His defenders countered that such claims were being leveled in an attempt to steal control of the university and establish a fundamentalist regime.
Godsey put all questions about his orthodoxy to rest when he published this book “When We Talk About God…Let’s Be Honest.” I have been told that moderates begged him not to publish the book as it made it perfectly clear that Godsey was not only not in line with historic Southern Baptist theology, but that Godsey was not even a Christian.
When I say that Godsey was not a Christian I am not intending to be unkind. And, I am not making a claim regarding his personal salvation. I am simply using the term as one might find it discussed in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or J.Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism. According to them, one cannot lay claim to the Christian name while at the same time denying apostolic doctrine. Godsey’s book makes is clear that he denies apostolic doctrine.
Godsey would claim that such a metric is impossible to apply. He claims that;
“When it comes to honest talk about God, there are no right answers.” (page 4)
“There are no right theologies. The most significant ways of speaking of God emerge from the honest reflections and conversations among a community of believers about their commitments of faith.” (page 16)
“All our doctrines and creeds will not bring hope. We should not be tempted to depend upon the stability of our own fragile statements. We should not rely unconditionally upon our limited theological truths. Whenever we try to build doctrinal empires that admit or reject people on the basis of agreement and consent, we are simply wrong. Believing should never be equated with doctrinal soundness. Doctrinal soundness is arrogant theological nonsense.” (page 17)
It is not surprising that Godsey would claim that doctrinal soundness is arrogant theological nonsense given his view of the Bible.
“In searching for a place to stand, many Christians, especially since the Reformation period, have placed an extraordinary focus on the Bible. Christians will often describe themselves as ‘people of the book.’ ‘Bible believing’ becomes a code phrase for being a real Christian. It is largely a foolish error, an effort to force upon the Bible a role that the Bible never claims for itself.” (pages 49-50)
“To ascribe infallibility to the written words of the Bible is wrong.” (page 51)
“The notion of the Bible’s infallibility, instead of giving honor to the Bible, actually leads to a treacherous idolatry of the bible.” (page 52)
“While not being an absolute authority, the Bible is indispensable to a full understanding of our life of faith.” (page 53)
Rather than arrogant theological nonsense (doctrinal soundness), Godsey opts for the standard of following
“When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he gave them no statements to accept. He gave them no tenets to adhere to. Instead, he asked that they follow him. There lies the heart of believing.” (page 32)
Please note that I did not say following Jesus. I simply said following. Godsey frowns at soteriological exclusivity.
“The challenge of faith is to live by the highest and best light we can see. For me, that has been the light of Jesus Christ. But you must follow your own light and believe.”
“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.” (page 133)
“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.”
Given the above statements it should not be a surprise that Godsey is a universalist (page 202) who believes;
“Jesus did not come to tell us how to be saved. Jesus came to tell us that we are saved.” (page 144)
“Accepting Jesus is not the basis of salvation. Jesus came to say that we are saved.”
If all mankind is already saved, what was the cross about? Oh, for Godsey the cross was a mistake. “Jesus did not have to die.” (page 142)
Since the crucifixion was just a group of misguided men “doing the best they can” (page 143) all of man’s theories regarding the atonement are “treacherous” (page 140). He says of the substitutionary theory of atonement:
“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.” (page 141)
However, it is not Godsey’s attack on the idea of objective Christian truth, nor his belief in universal redemption, nor denial of a literal Hell, nor his assignment of cosmogony and eschatology to the realm of metaphor and myth, nor his redefinition of the virgin birth from historical fact to religious truth that will bring the greatest level of discomfort to Southern Baptists. The issue that will be most distasteful is Godsey’s handling of Jesus. Early in the book Godsey hints at the direction he will take regarding the deity of Christ when he says,
“The message of the Christian faith is not to worship Jesus. It is to follow him.” (page ix)
With each passing page it become more clear that Godsey sees Jesus not as the fullness of the Godhead bodily, but as one light among many.
“All world religions have important persons who play central roles for interpreting the meaning and character of the world. To say that Jesus is God’s word is not to say that Jesus is God’s only word. For the Christian’s faith, Jesus has defining and ultimate significance…. So, in the Christian’s experience, Jesus is neither a prophet nor a god.” (page 119)
“Jesus is not a god to be worshiped or the founder of a world religion to be admired.” (page page 117)
“The relationship of Jesus with his followers was a relationship of extraordinary power. It is not surprising, therefore, that the significance of Jesus’ life began quietly to overshadow his simple historical presence. This historical person to be followed was soon changed by his followers into a divine figure to be worshiped. This transformation is largely a mistake.” (page 120)
While stating several times in the book that Jesus is not God. Godsey still claims to affirm the deity of Christ. However, he redefines the deity of Christ to reflect his functional Christology and in the process purges the words of all meaning.
“To confess the deity of Christ is to assert that our understanding and our relationship to God have been defined in an ultimate manner through this person called Jesus. In that confession, the historical Jesus becomes the Lord Christ.”
He goes on to explain that Lord Christ really is no more than a simple declaration of enlightenment. Jesus functions as a light to humankind, but any attempt to claim any ontological status for Jesus other than historical personage is an expression of bad faith.
“The children of Israel wandering in the wilderness wanted more than words. They wanted a god they could see and touch. They longed for a golden calf that they could cherish. That way they could keep their eye on their god. We are like the wandering Israelites. 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.” (page 128)
Godsey goes out of his way to emphasize that Jesus is not God. However, he hesitates not at all to claim that mankind is God with a capital G.
“The Incarnation is God’s ultimate affirmation of Adam. It conveys powerfully that we are all of God. Each of us is God incarnate.”
Early in this review I pointed out that Godsey claims that doctrinal soundness is arrogant theological nonsense. Personally, I think that almost the entirety of this book is arrogant nonsense.
Thoughtful Christians who are seeking to influence the direction that the Southern Baptist Convention takes in coming years need to be reminded what is at stake. So, buy this book and read it. (And find a copy of Called To Preach, Condemned To Survive while you are at it.) The small changes that are made in policy and polity today will determine whether our convention becomes the convention of R. Kirby Godsey and Herbert Reynolds, or if it will continue in the way of B.H. Carroll, John Broadus, E.Y. Mullins, etc.