LETTER TO THE EDITOR
in Evangelistic Education Ministries publication Notes & Quotes
December 5, 1991
This letter is a response to E. Calvin Beisner’s letter to the editor regarding my article “Heresy or HearSay?”
My article points to sincere belief as a delineator between heresy and sound doctrine. Mr. Beisner rejects this as a distinction empty of content. Are there not sincere “Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Armstrongites?” Admittedly, my position is open to a kind of ecumenism which could be seen to allow any position. Obviously, not all these contradictory positions could be true. I believe there is one right position, both as a complete view (though I would deny anyone but God knows it) and on individual points of doctrine. It is not my intention to imply that content is irrelevant, but rather that it is not the deciding factor when God assesses a person’s life. Sincerity involves not simply honesty to one’s present beliefs, but diligence to perfect one’s view of reality. This means honestly looking at all the above mentioned Views and having reasons for holding to or rejecting them (as Beisner himself says we should referring to 1 Peter 3:15). but such honesty does not guarantee we will all agree when we are finished, and we are never really finished. How will God decide who is saved and who is lost? Not by anyone having perfect doctrine, since none of us do.
The usual response is, by saving those who accept the essential doctrines. But what are those? What is essential is also a matter of discussion. If correct doctrine decides things, it would appear salvation is a matter of luck and chance, rather than something people can pursue reasonably.
Far from my article complaining Moral Government critics accuse us of Insincerity, as Beisner suggests, I was attempting to steer us straight to sincerity Is the deciding factor on how we should consider our relationship to other people. We need not agree with a system of theology someone holds to, in order o admit his apparent sincerity when we thoroughly discuss issues and differ. Perhaps such sincerity does not exist. Only God knows. But a heretic is someone who teaches people to sin, to be dishonest with what he understands to be required, according to Paul. In the Evangelical/Reformed/Arminian systems those doctrines taught in Scripture constitute correct doctrine, but contrary to Beisner’s suggestion, there is no consensus on most points of doctrine. A brief example illustrates the problem in his reasoning. Beisner suggests Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Wesleyans agree on the doctrine of original sin. This unity is illusory. One need only investigate these groups’ definition of this doctrine to realize what we have are four doctrines, in addition to the fifth one of Pelagius, or sixth one if we recognize the difference between Pelagius’ view and the common idea of physical depravity taught by many Moral Government teachers. These groups agree in their opposition to Pelagius (and Moral Government?), this does not mean they agree.
Beisner singles out “the denial of original sin in favor of human perfectibility, denial of vicarious satisfaction in the atonement in favor of the moral influence view, and a denial of the intellectual infinitude and immutability of God” as the distinct Moral Government doctrines which have been “opposed by every branch of Christianity that have confronted them.” This begs the question since by definition everyone historically who has held these views must no longer be considered part of the church. Many scholars would still consider Pelagius a part of the church, even if disagreeing with the correctness of some of his views. Beisner refers to Grotius as a source of Moral Government’s mistaken view of the atonement. (We will ignore for the time being his confusion of the governmental theory with the moral influence theory.) Grotius was an Arminian and his view has been held by many Arminians not to mention American Calvinists in the last century. It is a very coherent attempt to present a view of atonement which would allow the Arminian position of universal atonement without entailing universal salvation. (Weren’t Calvinists and Arminians supposed to have a consensus here?) Wesley taught the doctrine of entire sanctification, also an element of Moral Government teaching, though with different descriptions (Now we’ve lost the Wesleyan/Arminians too!).
The only Moral Government doctrines which do not seem to have been held by major portions of the church at some point in history are the denial of unlimited foreknowledge and the belief that God’s moral character is voluntary. Both of these views have been advocated in history, but not by major groups. Even in Moral Government circles the last mentioned doctrine is debated as to its implications.
The net result of the preceding is that Beisner’s historical consensus against Moral Government does not exist. By his own criteria we must discard Wesleyan/Arminians for their sanctification view, yet use them as authority against Moral Government’s view of omniscience; we must discard the Catholics because they only view man as born sick (see Luther’s attacks on Erasmus) yet use them in our consensus against a view denying any sinful moral inheritance; throw the Arminians who follow Grotius in his view of the atonement, yet claim them elsewhere.
“Yes, Virginia, there really is a historic Christian consensus against Moral Government theology.”
No one is hiding behind complaints of being charged with doctrinal insincerity. I am calling people to understand our humanness and realize God is not talking to us like he did to Paul. We have what God told Paul, but we have to interpret it. We can disagree with how to do that, but what right do we have to tell someone he is a heretic, just because he does not come to our conclusions? There is no historic Christian consensus, there is 2000 years of people expressing how they understand Paul and the rest of Scripture. That history includes Christians who held to every view Moral Government brings together, though they have not been presented in this systematic way before. Beisner says we should carry out the “hard exegetical, theological, and historical work…rarely encountered in the writings of Moral Government Theology adherents.” I am tempted to ask what books this gentleman has been reading? More than likely Mr. Beisner simply does not agree with the conclusions he has read by Moral Government teachers as they have exegeted, theologized, and studied history. Does this mean they “haven’t done their work? No. It means we disagree. And that is what we should do if we are honest. God would require that we do so.
Beisner last refers to Moral Government’s call to holiness, suggesting it fosters pride. Beisner’s Wesleyan Arminians have been hearing this longer than Moral Government advocates. I do not deny people who enter this teaching intellectually can become proud. If they do they are sinning and are not living up to what they are professing. Is this new to Christianity’ I am sure a few Calvinists convinced of their being one of the elect have sinned this sin in history. That does not make Calvinism wrong. If we are calling people to a false holiness, that is terrible. If people are being taught to expect sin in their life, when God desires their deliverance, that is also awful. I am glad for the call to holiness wherever it occurs, Calvinist circles included. As my article indicates, every camp has its flaws. I also have met some of the most Godly people I have known in Moral Government circles.
The end of the matter concerning Mr. Beisner’s view is this. We disagree. His paper The Heresy of Moral Government Theology attempts to present a historical/Biblical argument against this theology. The historical argument is the most important as it attempts to create the illusion of historical unity in the church in opposition to Moral Government doctrines. We have seen this is a failure, even at a cursory glance. This leaves us with what the Bible teaches. But here we seem to honestly disagree. That is what has always been the case historically. This disagreement no more makes Whitfield a heretic because Wesley disagreed with him, than Pelagius was a heretic because Augustine had more horses than him to buy people off with before they got to the church council. [Peter Brown in Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 19703, pg. 362, describes how Augustine and Alypius were able to turn Roman court laymen against Pelagius, partially through bribery: “On one mission, Alypius had carried with him the promise of eighty Numidian stallions, fattened on the estates of the church, as douceurs for the cavalry officers, whose views on grace had proved decisive.” I am indebted to my sister Phyl Good’s unpublished paper, The Theology of Pelagius for this reference.]
Neither does this disagreement make E. Calvin Beisner a heretic in my eyes. I think he is wrong, dead wrong, about a number of key theological ideas. If his heart is sincere in those beliefs and he lives honestly in the light he possesses, I expect to see him in heaven.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)