A Conversation With Edward Fudge
Edward Fudge presently practices law with the Houston firm of The Lanier Law Firm, P.C. His mother’s family were missionaries in southern Africa from the 1920s, and she was born and reared in what are now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Her parents were Will and Delia Short, and their story and hers are told in brief in Edward’s book, The Sound of His Voice. His father was Bennie Lee Fudge, a Christian publisher and preacher who influenced a generation of believers in Churches of Christ and Christian Churches through his “Use Your Bible” workbooks for Sunday Schools. Edward is an author of numerous Christian books and publications. He is a frequent guest speaker at many churches and gatherings, and operates the gracEmail ministry as well as maintaining its Web site.
For a listing of Edward’s books, writings, speaking engagements, and other works : click here.
(Fred) I don’t know if it’s fair of me to say that our heritage has a checkered history. So Edward, you can either correct me or help those who listen in our conversation understand how our tribe has navigated the last two hundred years. I guess what I’m asking is—have we been guiltier of polarization or galvanizing a movement born of the 1800s.
(Edward) “Our tribe” and “our heritage” would be the Churches of Christ, the traditionally non-instrumental descendants of the Stone-Campbell renewal movement that sprang up on the early 19-century American frontier and today is most heavily concentrated in a geographic belt stretching from Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky westward through Texas and Oklahoma. Yes, our history is as checkered as our origins, which involved the merger of two distinctly different “restoration” efforts led by Barton W. Stone of Kentucky and Alexander Campbell of what is now West Virginia.
As individuals, Stone and Campbell presented a major study in contrasts. Campbell was a northerner and Stone a southerner. Campbell was a well-educated and prosperous land owner who associated with the political and social movers and shakers of the time. Stone represented the poor and humbler elements of society in every way. Campbell was a man of this world; Stone’s perspective was other-worldly. Campbell’s “restoration” of primitive Christianity focused on external forms and rituals of the organized church. Stone’s “restoration” emphasized inward attitudes and the heart. Campbell utilized the power of logic and language; Stone looked to the Holy Spirit for results. Although they formally joined in their efforts, Campbell’s influence overpowered Stone’s in many respects in what came to be known as Churches of Christ.
Even considered alone, Alexander Campbell’s vision contained eventually-conflicting elements. With the still-fledgling American republic, its masterful Constitution and its sense of Manifest Destiny as a back-drop, Campbell envisioned a spiritual movement that would eventually encompass all nations, usher in the Millennium and prepare the way for Jesus’ (post-millennial) return. Based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17, he saw the unity of all Christian believers as a necessary requisite to the world’s conversion. And as the path to this unity he proposed the “restoration of the ancient order.” Campbell seemingly did not realize that his impulses for unity and for restoration would pull his followers in opposite directions, although he would live to see that occur.
Springing from these mixed origins and stirred by the social-political conflicts that produced the War Between the States, Churches of Christ eventually championed restoration rather than unity – a “restoration” focused on the corporate church rather than the individual believer and defined in terms of Campbell’s logic-driven external formalities instead of Stone’s religion of the Spirit-transformed heart. Stone’s inward and other-worldly vision continued within Churches of Christ also, but from the late 19th-century onward it was increasingly drowned out and either ignored or despised by the rising voices of debaters and pugilistic preachers whose fruit was a multiplication of divisions and a general spirit of legalism and sectarianism.
Returning to your either/or question, I believe the answer is “both.” Our tribe helped to polarize unity and restoration, then galvanized its brand of restoration as the basis and standard for any future unity. Even worse, this external and church-centered restoration often became the supposed basis for salvation within Churches of Christ. This unfortunate situation prompted me 25 years ago to write a gospel-based critique of our movement entitled “The Restoration Movement Fulfilled in Jesus Christ,” now available free online
(Fred) Don’t you have a history with the ultra-conservative branch of our heritage? Can you tell us a little of your story: your experience and thoughts as a young man. And what helped you break free from this ultra-conservative community?
(Edward) I was privileged to be born to devout Christian parents who were part of the 10-13% minority of the Churches of Christ known as “non-institutional” or “anti-institutional” because of their opposition to extra-church institutions such as orphan homes and intra-church centralized projects such as Herald of Truth. This sub-group broke away from (or was driven out of) mainline Churches of Christ in the 1950s as a result of the fractiousness of such men as Gospel Advocate editor B. C. Goodpasture on the one hand and debater/author Roy E. Cogdill on the other hand. My family lived in Athens, Limestone County, in northern Alabama. One-third of the county’s citizens belonged to one of 50 Churches of Christ, which they equated with “the Lord’s church” in contrast to all “the denominations” whose conversion they considered among their chief and fundamental duties.
My father, Bennie Lee Fudge, was in heart a true Stoneite (see above) in whom there was no guile. He always preached but did not look to that for his livelihood. He was a citizen of heaven who shunned politics, opposed war and never voted. He depended on God for daily life and its necessities as well as for salvation. He prayed fervently, constantly read the Bible and lived simply, humbly and joyfully. The truth is that he eventually adopted the non-institutional viewpoint but not its separatist attitudes. His C.E.I. publishing business produced primarily Sunday School materials and served Independent Christian Churches as well as mainline (and other) Churches of Christ. When he died in 1972, some non-institutional preachers boycotted his funeral because they considered him “too soft on liberals.”
My mother, Sybil, was a daughter of the W.N. Shorts, missionaries in Africa for 60+ years. She also is humble to the core, manifests total dependence on God and enjoys a broad Christian fellowship. Although my father died when I was 27, my mother turned 84 in January 2007 and has been for decades one of my most cherished spiritual advisers and faithful supporters. I had a wonderful childhood with such parents, which I joyfully describe in my spiritual memoirs The Sound of His Voice: Discovering the Secrets of God’s Guidance (originally titled Beyond the Sacred Page: A Testimony to the Guidance of God in the Life of One Man ). I started preaching in 1961 while in 11th grade and preached every Sunday with few exceptions until 1982 when we moved to Houston, Texas and joined the Bering Drive Church of Christ. Among dozens of “church papers” that my father received was W. Carl Ketcherside’s Mission Messenger. This paper advocated fellowship based on union with Jesus Christ and I began reading it regularly at about age 14.
After 12 years at Athens Bible School, which my father had founded a year before I was born, I attended Florida (Christian) College for three years and transferred to Abilene Christian College (where my parents had met) as a senior. At Florida College I met Sara Faye Locke of Franklin, Tennessee, with whom I celebrate 40 years of marriage in June 2007. There I also enjoyed taking about 50 semester hours of textual Bible classes under Homer Hailey – surely among the chief blessings of my life. At Abilene, I studied under old-timers such as Paul Southern and J. W. Roberts as well as (then) newcomers such as Everett Ferguson and Tom Olbricht. My major was Greek, in which I also earned an M.A. at Abilene Christian. I was viewed with suspicion at Florida College because I distributed Mission Messenger and by some at Abilene because I transferred from Florida College.
After Abilene, we moved to Saint Louis, Missouri where I preached for the Kirkwood Church of Christ, a non-institutional church with many members who also appreciated Brother Ketcherside. There I attended Covenant Theological Seminary, where I studied under R. Laird Harris and Francis Schaeffer, and Eden Theological Seminary, where my professors included M. Douglas Meeks. At Covenant, the Presbyterian professors prayed with a passion I had rarely seen and my heart (if not yet fully my head) knew that they had a powerful relationship with Almighty God. Again I was destined to be a square peg in a round hole: a sole Arminian in a Reformed seminary and later a somewhat Reformed teacher in my Arminian churches of origin.
My dad died suddenly in 1972 and we left Saint Louis to return to my hometown of Athens, Alabama to help my mother in the family publishing company. I also preached on Sundays for a very conservative non-institutional church in the county. The elders fired me in 1975, in part because I had left the impression that the Methodists and Baptists might also go to heaven. Meanwhile my mother, planning to move to Africa to care for her aging parents, sold the business to a group of non-institutional businessmen. These new owners secretly sold the business to a wealthy California businessman who also happened to fund the so-called Truth Magazine, of which Roy E. Cogdill was publisher. This ultra-hardline non-institutional paper had been attacking me for several years because of my teaching that we are saved by God’s grace and that we should acknowledge as family all others who also claim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The new owner took possession on July 10, 1975 and fired me the same day after I rejected Cogdill’s personal offer of a financial future if I “repented” of my teaching.
Shortly after this, Truth Magazine gleefully announced that while they had not completely destroyed my influence, they had succeeded in driving me underground. To me, it seemed they had decisively broken the last chain that bound me to their brotherhood, opened the cage doors and set me free. I was without a job, church or plan for the future but I trusted in a mighty God. As I was soon to learn, none of that was a problem for him!
(Fred) So can you briefly tell us how you moved from legalism to grace and how your perspective has changed?
(Edward) My general environment growing up was legalistic but my own parents were not. Their strict conservatism resulted from the way they interpreted the Bible and was motivated solely by the desire to please Christ our Savior, not from any thought of substituting our obedience for his own faithfulness that stands us right with God. They sang “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” and meant every word of it. Even so, over the years God used many different individuals to help me better apprehend the workings of his grace and to articulate it with greater clarity.
As a young teenager, I attended a debate between Roy E. Cogdill and Guy N. Woods on the “institutional” question. Both men had been trained in law and they reverted to technical legal concepts and jargon throughout their discussion. Even at that age I wrote in my notes that if what these men were saying was true, no one but lawyers could figure out how to get to heaven. Now, 50 years later and a lawyer myself, I am more sure than ever of that reaction.
Throughout college, I regularly read the “church papers” from across the spectrum. I was troubled by the emphasis they gave “the issues” that divided mainline from non-institutional churches, or which separated Churches of Christ from other believers, with practically no mention of Christ or the grace of God. When I went to Abilene Christian as a senior I was praying for God to show me the real gospel, and I promised that I would teach and live it for the rest of my life regardless of the consequences. I was a Greek major and that year we read Romans in Greek. Needless to say, the message of Romans came through with power and God answered my prayer. That same year I watched a Billy Graham crusade on television one night. I realized that although I had been baptized at age 10, rebaptized about age 13 and had been preaching for five or six years, I was not sure whether I had ever made a specific conscious decision to accept Jesus as personal Savior. I knelt by my bed and claimed Jesus as my Savior and Lord, asked him to forgive my sins and come into my heart. That was a moment of recommitment, in light of what God was revealing to me in my Romans Greek class.
Later at Covenant Seminary I came to appreciate the sovereignty of God in salvation, meaning that my salvation is his work from start to finish so that even my faith is his gift. An Australian theologian named Robert Brinsmead later helped me fit the biblical pieces together in what he called “the perfect doing and dying” of Jesus Christ in a way I found personally helpful and inspiring. I have tried to present the Bible’s Christ-centered message in my book The Great Rescue: The Story of God’s Amazing Grace.
Before he died, my father published my first booklet, titled “The Grace of God.” In it I distinguished God’s grace from license and from legalism, then showed how Jesus lived for us and died for us. Over the years, many have told me how God used that little booklet to help them gain a clearer vision of Jesus Christ. It is no longer in print but it is free online (…link)
(Fred) I can remember my early Christian days. Like so many of us, I believed that we were the only ones going to heaven and actually spend my time using the Open Bible Study (OBS) to proselytize others. I often wondered how I was so wrong! I’m a free thinker? Yet, I believe it’s an oversimplification to say this was all caused by preachers alone. What were some of the contributing factors to our pitiful legalistic bent?
(Edward) Our problem was that we confused the body of Christ with our particular historical movement. We were neither the first group nor the last to make that mistake. We also erroneously thought that “restoring the church” was the way to salvation and mistakenly supposed that we had accomplished that goal. Such bad thinking has little need for God – Father, Son or Holy Spirit. It results in a rationalistic form of external righteousness but denies the power needed for a transformed life.
Not only did we often displace Christ with “the church,” we also frequently put baptism in the position the New Testament puts trust or faith. Sometimes we insisted that a person not only must be baptized but must understand and express that understanding of baptism in just the “right” way to be saved. The New Testament sees baptism as an integral initial part of the process of discipleship but always as an outward expression of the heart’s absolute trust in and dependence on Jesus Christ and him alone as the one whose work sets us right with God. We still have some work to do in biblically relating this gospel ordinance to what Luther called “the empty hands of faith” that receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
(Fred) Not many in our tribe have as keen an understanding (and experience) of the Christian tradition as you. Can you tell give us a summary of your broader ministry experience through the years and then your thoughts on borrowing from the best of what these other tribes have to offer?
(Edward) In the late 1970’s, I had an experience with God resulting in my promising him that I would go anywhere he opened doors to teach salvation by grace through faith (the theme of my booklets “The Grace of God,” “Four Gospel Slogans,” “One Life, Death and Judgment” and “A Journey Toward Jesus.” Since then I have been privileged to preach, teach and lead retreats for Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Advent Christians, Pentecostals, charismatics and nondenominational believers.
Since about 1971, I have also been involved in the Evangelical Theological Society and have had articles published in Christianity Today, Moody Monthly, Verdict and Review of Books & Religion as well as in Churches of Christ papers across the spectrum. I am persuaded that God has entrusted to each Christian “tribe” a treasure which all other Christians also need. When I move among believers from other Christian traditions, I not only ponder what I can share with them but what they can teach me. These contacts have enriched my own spiritual life, understanding and experience as I have worshiped, studied and enjoyed fellowship with people from throughout the one universal body of Christ. Alexander Campbell once stated that whenever he found a bird of a beautiful color he plucked a feather and stuck it in his own cap. We should feel free to do the same since God is the author of all truth and beauty wherever it is found.
(Fred) You have what you call gracEmail. Can you tell us a little about this ministry? How many subscribers? How far reaching? The most memorable response you’ve received.
(Edward) At my wife’s urging I went “on line” in 1996 and quickly joined two chat groups hosted by Abilene Christian University. Occasionally I would email my particular comments to a number of friends. Others gradually asked to be added to my address book and the number steadily grew. A year or two later, Rubel Shelly suggested that I standardize the format, which had become largely question-and-answer, and a friend named Daniel Massey proposed the name “gracEmail.” For several years gracEmail went out five days each week. While listening to Chris Smith at a men’s retreat, I was convicted that I should reduce the frequency to three per week and pay more attention to my wife.
Today gracEmail goes to approximately 4,200 “subscribers” (free) in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and islands of the seas. I estimate that 95% of the subscribers are Christian believers, of whom I guess 60-70% are related to Churches of Christ. Readers include many pastors/preachers as well as thoughtful “lay” Christians. I probably benefit more from gracEmail than anyone else but readers frequently are kind to say that particular articles speak to their immediate needs, help them see Jesus better or encourage them in faithful living. Sometimes I spend hours researching and writing a gracEmail. Most often I sit at the keyboard and the gracEmail flows effortlessly from my fingers – leading me to credit God for the non-biblical spiritual gift of digilalia.
ACU Press has published GRACeMAIL, an attractive hardback that includes a gracEmail reading for each day. To read more about gracEmail, go to GracEmail; to subscribe free of charge, e-mail EdwardFudge-subscribe@MyInJesus.com. My son Jeremy built and maintains this website which serves as my cyber-headquarters. It includes thousands of pages and regularly receives “hits” from around the world.
(Fred) One of the rare gifts you’ve been blessed with is the ability to write in a very personal engaging way, while at the same time being able to write a thoughtful, 500-page scholarly book, with 1,600 footnotes and 1,000 biblical references as well as a foreword by F.F. Bruce. Can you tell us a little about this and also give us a little more information about some of your books?
(Edward) The book to which you refer is The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, first published in 1982. It is a modern example of the ancient principle that God uses the “nobodies” of the world (in this case me) to accomplish great results. In about 1975 Australian theologian/editor Robert Brinsmead, a former Seventh-day Adventist who published Verdict Magazine, saw an article of mine in Christianity Today on the New Testament’s teaching about hell. Two or three years later he invited me to do a year-long research project on the broader subject, covering the Old Testament, the intertestamental Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, and major Christian writers from the Apostolic Fathers to the 20th century. At the time I was earning a living as a typesetter in a printshop and serving as the unpaid and unofficial pastor of the 35-person, undenominational Elm Street Church in Athens, Alabama which met in a renovated barn. I undertook the research project, using the Vanderbilt Divinity School library in Nashville, Tennessee.
To my great surprise, my research revealed that the traditional view of unending conscious torment sprang from pagan Platonic views about immortal souls and that the Bible instead taught the total, final destruction of the lost in what Revelation calls “the second death.” Trembling half in excitement and half in fear, I asked Brinsmead for permission to write a book setting out what I had found. He agreed, published the 500-page book himself and sold out the first printing in five months. The Evangelical Book Club made The Fire that Consumesan alternate selection. Paternoster Press, a leading theological publisher in Great Britain, produced an international edition featuring a foreword by Oxford scholar John Wenham as well as the original foreword by Manchester’s Professor F. F. Bruce. The original edition is now available through Barnes and Noble while Paternoster has made a classic reprint of its international edition.
The Fire that Consumes has been a catalyst prompting a restudy of final punishment among evangelical scholars worldwide, along the way garnering the support of such scholars as E. Earle Ellis in the U.S., Clark Pinnock in Canada and John Stott in England. The year 2007 marks its 25th year in print and it is regularly mentioned today in theological textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias. In 2000, InterVarsity Press published Two Views of Hell, in which I presented my view, Presbyterian theologian Robert Peterson set forth the traditional view and we each responded to the other.
The Fire that Consumes has been the subject of an Oxford doctoral dissertation, a master’s thesis in America and has elicited eight or more books in response. I have had the good pleasure of lecturing on this subject at both Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the U.S., and at seminary, college and university venues in New Zealand. God alone could have known what he intended to accomplish through the work of an Alabama typesetter who preached in a barn.
My other books are described (and many smaller ones are actually available) on my website. I want to mention particularly two books which in my mind go together in a special way. They are The Great Rescue and The Sound of His Voice . The first tells the “big Story” of God’s salvation revelation centering in Jesus Christ from Genesis through Revelation. The second book tells the “little story” of my own walk with this supernatural God who still works in his people’s lives today and whose faithfulness endures forever.
(Fred) With all our history, now decades later, what feelings do you have about our heritage’s direction?
(Edward) I praise God that many Churches of Christ have escaped the sectarian attitudes and legalistic understandings that once held general sway. It is so very important that these evil spirits be replaced by the Christ-centered gospel of grace and the new life which that gospel engenders, lest other demons swoop in to fill the vacuum. We must learn that the proper alternative to legalism is neither indifference nor permissiveness but ardent discipleship in the context of a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is good, I believe, that many of “our tribe” are learning to embrace brothers and sisters from other parts of God’s kingdom. It is wholesome for us to inspect our traditions and our distinctives, honestly distinguishing between what is biblical and what is not. We desperately need to learn our proper place before a sovereign God, our total dependence on God’s Spirit to accomplish God’s work, and the joyful supernatural possibilities that await anyone willing to abandon self-sufficiency and leap out into the everlasting arms. I am hopeful for the future, for God controls it and he will finally complete his saving purpose. I pray that Churches of Christ will play an important part in that purpose alongside our other brothers and sisters from throughout the universal church.