Spong’s deadly Christianity

Bishop John Shelby Spong portrait 2006.png

J S Spong 2006 (courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

I read the article, “An Evening with John Shelby Spong,” in the Uniting Church of Queensland’s, Journey magazine, online (28 September 2007). Then, I read the positive letter towards Spong’s Christianity by Noel Preston.

1. Dear editor

I wrote this letter-to-the-editor of Journey:[1]

Letters to the editor,
Journey
Sent 27 Oct 2007 to:
[email protected]

Dear Editor,

It is with sadness that I must disagree profoundly with Noel Preston’s assessment of  Bishop Spong as having “the positive impact . . . on behalf of Christian faith” (Journey, Letters, Nov. 07).    While Spong was Bishop of Newark, NJ, the Episcopalians voted with their feet.  Membership dropped by more than 40%.  That redefines “positive impact.”

Spong throws out core Christian beliefs such as the atonement, calling it an “offensive idea.”  He denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, yet still wants to say: “I am a Christian. I believe that God is real. I call Jesus my Lord. Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I believe passionately in God. This God is not identified with doctrines, creeds, and traditions” (A New Christianity for a New World, pp. 3, 10, 64, 74).

Luke T. Johnson, a scholar of NT & Christian origins, states that “having a bishop [Spong] with opinions like these is a bit like hiring a plumber who wants to ‘rethink pipes.’  Spong imagines that he has escaped his own fundamentalist past, but he has not.  He remains defined by the literalism he so doggedly battles” (The Real Jesus, p. 33).

Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and former Oxford scholar, N. T. Wright, takes Spong’s view to task in, Who Was Jesus?

Another has described Spong as “Mr. I-am-a-bishop-who-believes-nothing-of-the-Gospel”.[2]

Yet, Rev. Preston wants to link Spong to professing “his allegiance to Jesus Christ despite challenging certain questionable beliefs.”  Which Jesus?

Spong’s denial of central Christian beliefs makes him heterodox in his theology.  To call his ministry “prophetic” is an abuse of the word.  Spong’s Jesus is no more than regurgitated 19th century liberalism.

“Didn’t it happen to Jesus of Nazareth?” Rev. Preston asks?  Yes it did, but not for an anaemic Christ stripped of his essence by bishops like Spong.  Spongian “christianity” is deadly to church life.

Sincerely,
Spencer Gear,
Hervey Bay

2. The pro-Spong letter

This is the Noel Preston letter to which I was referring:

Spong again[3]

I write to commend you for the October Journey.

I was especially appreciative of the three commentaries on Bishop Spong’s public meeting in Brisbane.

I do not dissent from the impressions reported and share with Bruce Johnson a measure of disappointment that the address I heard from Jack Spong was short on the detail of “a new approach” to theology, though I have great admiration for the positive impact the Bishop has had on behalf of Christian faith throughout a courageous ministry lasting decades.

Your editorial on the subject mused over what it is that causes such a reaction by many to the 78 year old Bishop.

I suspect its intensity has something to do with his determination to profess his allegiance to Jesus Christ despite challenging certain questionable beliefs, moral codes and institutional norms which have been dubiously confused with the essence of the Gospel.

Perhaps his detractors might opine: “If he could just stop pretending to be a disciple it would be easier to tolerate him!”

This is not an unusual story.

As some of your readers would recognise, attempts to be prophetic from within a religious tradition often bring forth a vehement reaction.

Didn’t it happen to Jesus of Nazareth?

Noel Preston
Auchenflower

3. The edited letter

If you have written letters to editors of newspapers and magazines, you will know that an original letter can be edited to eliminate some of the original material. This is what happened with my letter.

This is how my letter appeared in Journey, December 2007, p. 19.

Spong again

It is with sadness that I must disagree profoundly with Noel Preston’s assessment of Bishop Spong as having “the positive impact on behalf of Christian faith” (November Journey).

While Spong was Bishop of Newark, the Episcopalians voted with their feet. Membership dropped by more than 40%. That redefines “positive impact”.

Spong throws out core Christian beliefs such as the atonement, calling it an “offensive idea”.

He denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, yet still wants to say: “I am a Christian. I believe that God is real. I call Jesus my Lord. Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being” (A New Christianity for a New World).

Luke T. Johnson, a scholar of New Testament and Christian origins, states that “having a bishop [Spong] with opinions like these is a bit like hiring a plumber who wants to ‘rethink pipes’.

Spong imagines that he has escaped his own fundamentalist past, but he has not.

To call his ministry ‘prophetic’ is an abuse of the word.

Spong’s Jesus is no more than regurgitated 19th century liberalism.

“Didn’t it happen to Jesus of Nazareth?” Rev Preston asks.

Yes it did, but not for an anaemic Christ stripped of his essence by bishops like Spong.

Spongian ‘Christianity’ is deadly to church life.

Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay

a. Please note what was edited from my letter

blue-satin-arrow-small The page reference numbers for Spong’s A New Christianity for a New World (Spong 2001) were eliminated. Not including these prevents others from checking out my quotes with ease. But that is inconsequential compared with other more substantive issues that were edited out.

blue-satin-arrow-small  This is what I stated about Luke Johnson, ‘Luke T. Johnson, a scholar of NT & Christian origins, states that “having a bishop [Spong] with opinions like these is a bit like hiring a plumber who wants to ‘rethink pipes’.  Spong imagines that he has escaped his own fundamentalist past, but he has not.  He remains defined by the literalism he so doggedly battles’ (The Real Jesus, p. 33). How was it edited in my published letter?

Luke T. Johnson, a scholar of New Testament and Christian origins, states that “having a bishop [Spong] with opinions like these is a bit like hiring a plumber who wants to ‘rethink pipes’.

Spong imagines that he has escaped his own fundamentalist past, but he has not.

The Journey publication of my letter reads as though I wrote the last sentence. That sentence was not created by me. It is a quote from Luke T Johnson (1996:33). This is unacceptable editing when I am made to say something another author wrote. It makes it look like plagiarism when that is not the way I presented it in my letter.

blue-satin-arrow-small What I stated from Anglican scholar, N T Wright, was excised. I wrote: ‘Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and former Oxford scholar, N. T. Wright, takes Spong’s view to task in, Who Was Jesus?

It was important to note that Wright provided a refutation of Spong in Wright’s book, Who Was Jesus? (1993). This is because both Spong and Wright are Anglicans but reach radically different conclusions concerning Jesus. Wright’s scholarship is regarded by many scholars as more substantive than Spong’s, and there are reasons for this.

Wright challenged Spong:

In particular, talk of ‘my Christ’ is the kind of thing that, as Spong must realize, leaves him wide open to the charge of sheer subjectivism – especially when it is combined with a continual downplaying of historical truth. How do we know that Spong’s ‘Christ’ is the real Christ?…

Spong has, in short, cut himself off from serious historical study. The world that he has opened up is a world which he himself calls midrash, however inaccurately. It is a world where the modern exegete can reconstruct a fantasy-history in the interests of a current ideology (Wright 1993:67, 91).

4.  A theologian’s critique of Spong

Gerald O’Collins, Professor of fundamental theology, Gregorian University, Rome, reviewed Spong’s book, Resurrection: Myth or reality (1994). In the first paragraph of his review, O’Collins stated that Spong ‘seems a caring, prayerful person. But a kindly heart and lots of fine rhetoric cannot make up for the lack of scholarship and critical judgement shown throughout this book’ (O’Collins 2000:112).

He wrote of Spong’s inaccuracy as a scholar:

What is said about a key verb St Paul uses in Gal. i:15f. shows that the bishop has forgotten any Greek he ever knew….

Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer are listed among those unfortunates who have “found themselves removed, silenced, harassed, or compromised in some way”. This is news to me. Fr Brown has been and Fr Fitzmyer is a member of the papal biblical commission. Is this a Machiavellian way of compromising them?

Later in the book both turn up again in company with 15 other “New Testament scholars”, who all allegedly join with the bishop in “rejecting

the literal narratives about the Resurrection” as no more than “Christian legends”.

They and some others on that list might well consider bringing a legal action against the bishop and/or his publishers for professional defamation.

Brown and Fitzmyer have repeatedly gone on record as accepting the historicity of the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances and the discovery of his empty tomb – all of which Spong rejects.

In a curious fashion the bishop talks of his seventeen “New Testament scholars” in the present tense: “we who are convinced”, “we who reject”, and so forth.

Half of them (like William Albright, Rudolf Bultmann, C. H . Dodd, E. C. Hoskyns and Karl Rahner) are long dead and have no chance of dissociating themselves from Spong and his views.

Some of them, such as Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx, cannot be classified as New Testament scholars in the proper sense of the term. Does the bishop really care about accuracy and truth? Or is all this part of what he calls floating with him “on a sea of timelessness”? (O’Collins 2000:112).

So what is O’Collins estimate of Crossan’s scholarship?

His work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholars will be taken in by this book. But ordinary readers who are not too familiar with modern biblical studies could easily be impressed by Spong’s title of “bishop” and his pretended scholarship (O’Collins 2000:113).

5.  Spong’s shoddy Greek knowledge

Wphthe vs. apokalupsa

What was O’Collins’ complaint about Spong’s use of Greek in relation to Galatians 1:15? He did not present details in his review but it becomes obvious with an examination of what Spong wrote, if one has a introductory knowledge of NT Greek.

Galatians 1:15-16 states, ‘But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood’ (RSV). The RSV was the version used in Spong (1994).

Spong stated of Gal 1:15-16a,

The word for ‘reveal’ in this text is ?phth?, the same word used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the appearances of God (theophanies) or angels of God (angelophanies). The Septuagint uses ?phth? to describe a theophany to Abraham: ‘then the Lord appeared [?phth?] to Abram, and said, “To your descendants I will give this land”’ (Gen 12:7. What was the nature of the theophany? Was it really ‘physical’? What was the means of hearing God’s voice speak? Was it audible to any ear? Was it capable of being recorded or objectified?…

?phth? means to have one’s eyes opened to see dimensions beyond the physical. It means to have a revelatory encounter with the holy. It relates to the nature of visions, but not so much subjective hallucinations as seeing into that which is ultimately real, into God or God’s inbreaking future.

Luke used this same word when he had the disciples say Jesus ‘has appeared to Simon’ (Luke 24:34) [Spong 1994:53-54].

Spong’s shoddy understanding of Greek comes to the fore here. He is completely wrong with the verb he names and then expounds in Gal 1:16a. The word used in this verse is not ?phth?, but apokalupsai, which is the present tense, middle voice, subjunctive mood verb of apokalupt?.

Spong named the wrong Greek verb and set about expounding a wrong verb in Gal 1:16a that did not exist in that verse. This accounts for O’Collins’ sarcastic comment ‘that the bishop has forgotten any Greek he ever knew’. So what Spong said about the verb for ‘reveal’ in Gal 1:15-16a was wrong because that was not the verb used for ‘reveal’ in Gal 1:16a. How could an author, published with a major publisher, make such a basic error I his knowledge of NT Greek?

6.  Further objections to the edited letter

  • The letter that I sent to Journey, stated: ‘Another has described Spong as “Mr. I-am-a-bishop-who-believes-nothing-of-the-Gospel”’. This was eliminated from the published letter, but this is only a minor point of editorial deletion.
  • However, this statement by me was a signification deletion in my published letter: ‘Yet, Rev. Preston wants to link Spong to professing “his allegiance to Jesus Christ despite challenging certain questionable beliefs.”  Which Jesus?’ Why not publish this statement? I was challenging Rev Dr Noel Preston’s positive support for Spong’s unorthodox teaching. Spong’s Jesus is not the Jesus revealed in the New Testament. So to ask, ‘Which Jesus?’ is a valid inquiry. Spong’s view of Jesus versus that revealed in Scripture should be exposed, whether in a letter or in an article.

These articles discuss the demise of liberal Christianity:

7.  Conclusion

John Shelby Spong is promoting a radical agenda of ‘another Jesus’ who is not revealed in Scripture. Spong’s Jesus is that of liberal, historical-critical Christianity that has proceeded to empty churches for more than a century.

It is important to review the content of a letter-to-the-editor published when compared with the original. Take opportunities to write again to that newspaper or journal to take up the editorial censorship/deletions by the editor of letters. If this second letter is not published by way of correction, use online facilities to correct it – as I’ve attempted to do here.

For my other exposes of Spong’s unorthodox (heretical) teachings, see my articles:

Works consulted

Johnson, L T 1996. The real Jesus: The misguided quest for the historical Jesus and the truth of the traditional Gospels. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

O’Collins, G 2000. What of the Spong song? “Resurrection: Myth or reality”, A bishop’s search for the origins of Christianity; Review by Gerald O’Collins (online), [4]112-113. Apologia: The journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society (Inc.), vol 7(2/3). Available at: http://www.christian-apologetics.org/pdf/SpongRev20Web.pdf (Accessed 21 November 2013).

Spong, J S 1994. Resurrection: Myth or reality? A bishop’s search for the origins of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Spong, J. S. 2001. A new Christianity for a new world. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Wright, N T 1993. Who Was Jesus? Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.[5]

Notes:


[1] This letter was published in ‘Letters’, Journey, December 2007, p. 19, available at: http://www.journeyonline.com.au/download.php?pdfId=66.

[2] Amazon review by ‘matt’ of N T Wright’s, Who was Jesus? (1993, Eerdmans), available at: http://www.amazon.com/Who-Was-Jesus-Wright/product-reviews/0802806945 (Accessed 21 November 2013).

[3] The following letter is in “Letters,” Journey, November 2007, p. 15. Journey is published by the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod. This is available online at: http://www.journeyonline.com.au/download.php?pdfId=65 (Accessed 21 November 2013). However, on 1 December 2015 it was no longer available online.

[4] This republishing of the article stated that it was ‘First published in the Tablet (London) (10 September, 1994). Republished in Welcome (September 1994, No. 101)’ [O’Collins 2000:112].

[5] This was first published by SPCK, London, in 1992.

 

Copyright © 2007 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 October 2015..