By Spencer D Gear
John Shelby Spong (public domain)
Review & Analysis: John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
This is a shocker! It is vintage Spong – extremely readable but heretical at its heart! He throws out core Christian beliefs such as the atonement (an “offensive idea”, p. 10) and 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” (pp. 3, 64, 74).
He rejoices that “the blinding idolatry of traditional theism [read, supernatural Christianity] has finally departed from my life” (p. 74). More than that, he proclaims, “Theism is dead, I joyfully proclaim, but God is real” (p.77).
Spong’s version of God
But what kind of God is he or it? He admits that his God-experience is a “God-concept that I grope to find words to convey” (p. 76). He’s not the only one groping. Throughout the book’s 276 pages, I tried to understand what Spong’s God was like, but all I could conclude was that this mystical “God-experience” is filled with unique Spongian content.
For prayer, he proposes “substitute words” that have been identified down through the centuries “with the mystical disciplines of spiritual development—words such as meditation and contemplation” that will include “centering prayer” and breathing exercises (p. 193).
He’s against evangelism and missionary enterprises, the latter being “base-born, rejecting, negative, and yes, I would even say evil” (p. 178). This shocking redefinition of missions as “evil” is associated with his universalism and theory that “we possess neither certainty nor eternal truth” (p. 179).
What would cause him to come to conclusions that are so contrary to classical Christianity? He’s all for life and love because they “transcend all boundaries” but “exclusive religious propaganda can no longer be sustained. The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema [a curse] and even dangerous in our shrinking world” (p. 179).
Beginning at the conclusion
When we throw out the Scriptures as the standard for theology, where do we go for answers? Here we have a new kind of religion, out of the minds of Spong himself and his friends. Their goal is to try to tell the world through the mass media and extensive publications that conservative, Bible-believing (“fundamentalist” is his term) Christians are out of touch for a postmodern, scientific world. When a religion comes out of the mind of Spong, it means that almost anything goes, religiously.
Spong claims that theism is dead. Is this true? He has not provided concrete evidence of churches supporting supernatural Christianity that are dying and his breed are growing. As we shall see, the facts do not support the death of theism. It’s the other way round. Spongism is killing faith and churches.
Spong’s first chapter is titled, “A Place to Begin”, but he begins with his conclusions. That’s cheating! His assumptions are: God is not a being; there is no literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead or a literal star at the birth of Jesus or a virgin birth — that’s mythology! There’s no ascension of Jesus Christ and Christ did not found a church. We are not born sinful. The fall into sin by Adam and Eve is mythical. Women are not less human and less holy than men (I agree!). Homosexuals are not morally depraved; the Bible is not the literal word of God and certainly is not inspired. Forget about absolute Christian ethics because “time makes ancient good uncouth” (p. 6). The colour of one’s skin or ethnic background does not constitute grounds for making one superior or inferior (I agree!). This kind of teaching amounts to Spong’s conclusions, but he claims it is where he begins.
The heresy continues with his repudiation of baptism and the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper. “Since the diagnosis (sinful human nature) was wrong, the prescribed cure (atonement) cannot be right.” Since the fall into sin is a wrong diagnosis, baptism “to wash away the effects of a fall into sin that never occurred is inappropriate.” As for the eucharist, this “reenactment of a sacrifice . . . becomes theological nonsense” (p. 124).
Spong’s primary question to answer in this book is: “Can a person claim with integrity to be a Christian and at the same time dismiss, as I have done, so much of what has traditionally defined the content of the Christian faith?” (p. 7) He sees his “task of seeking to redefine Jesus” as something that he does not take “easily or lightly” (p. 130).
Spong raises the question of whether he can be a person of integrity in his answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16).
Spong answers with further questions, “Is it still possible for me to use these same words? How flexible are they? How open to new meanings? Is it honest to wrench these words out of that past and to open them to new meanings?” His reply is, “I believe that it is. Words change” (p. 130). But he also is aware that he might be open to the charge that the “genuine reformation of Christianity” that he is seeling may be understood that he is “deluded and in my suppressed fear attempting to hid from or to cover up the death of Christianity” (p. 130).
In the early history of the church when it was fighting for doctrinal survival and the promotion of orthodoxy, it took a hard line on false doctrine. If Spong had been Arius, Apollinarius, Eutyches or Nestorius in the early centuries of the Christian church, his views on the nature of Christ and other doctrines, would have been condemned at a General Council of the Church such as at Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople or Chalcedon.
But not so with Spong! Even though the Episcopal Church USA did not denounce his views as heretical, the former Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth (now Governor General of Australia), prevented his preaching in Brisbane Anglican churches on Spong’s visit to Australia in 2001. Instead, he spoke in Uniting Churches.
Space limitations prevent a refutation of Spong’s view in support of the genetic cause of homosexuality, that it is “more like left-handedness”. He considers those evangelical organisations that advertise that “they can cure homosexuality” are “not just ignorant, but actually fraudulent” (p. 14). Sexual orientations are “morally neutral” and he “cannot imagine being part of a church that discriminates against gay and lesbian people on the basis of their being” (p. 6). There is contrary scientific and biblical evidence to this view.
What is Spong’s biggest beef with the church? He can’t stand “the literal way that human beings have chosen to articulate that faith” (p. 7). Instead, he wants to continue as part of the church as “I seek the God-experience” (p. 8). Pity help me if I read his book with the same disdain for literal interpretation as he gives to the Bible.
Why would Spong believe that theism is dead? He wraps it in a package with his commitment to Darwinian evolution. The survival of the fittest means that we must move beyond supernatural Christianity to a more modern view – his view. Spongism enlarges on the ideas of people like his mentor and theological liberal, the late John A. T. Robinson, who wrote an assault on biblical Christianity in 1963, Honest to God. What was the bud in Robinson is in full bloom in Spong.
He says that it will “probably be the final theological book of my life and career” (p. xxi) – his swan song at last! I almost shouted, Praise the Lord, except that I know that his kind of “radically reformed Christianity” (p. 18) will continue with others and get continuing mass media coverage.
What are the characteristics of Spong’s new Christianity? The fundamentals are gone. He throws out the inspired and literal Scripture, the miraculous virgin birth, Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the Second Coming of Christ (p. 2).
The church of tomorrow
What will his “ecclesia (church) of tomorrow” look like? The supernatural is out. There will be no singing praises to a theistic deity. “I treat the language of worship like I treat the language of love. It is primitive, excessive, flowery, poetic, evocative. No one really believes it literally” (p. 204). There will be his ill-defined, mystical “God-experience”. We could do that in a mosque, temple, synagogue, holy place, or ecclesia (his preferred word). There will be no confessing our sins to a “parental judge” (p. 206). There will be no literalised faith story. It will “never claim that it already possesses truth by divine revelation” (p. 214).
The ecclesia of the future will be a place for “Catholic and Protestant, orthodox and heretic, liberal and evangelical, Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu” and where worship of this “god” will not be “bounded by our formulas, our creeds, our doctrines, our liturgies, or even our Bible, but still real, infinitely real” (p. 214). God is not a personal being, not even the highest being but the one he experiences as “the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary” (pp. 59-60). This is the rejuvenated liberalism of Paul Tillich.
This new community, the ecclesia, “must be able to allow God and Satan to come together in each of us. It must allow light and darkness to be united. It must bind good and evil into one. It must unite Christ with Anti-Christ, Jesus with Judas, male with female, heterosexual with homosexual” (p. 167).
This is a church built in cloud cuckoo land – out of the minds of Spong and his friends! It is beyond radical. It is blasphemous!
Is theism dead?
What’s the truth about the death of theism? Wherever theological liberalism has taken hold, church numbers have crashed. Based on The Episcopal Church Annual (USA), membership fell from a high of 3.6 million baptised Episcopalians in 1965, to 2.3 million in 1997– a loss of fully one-third of its membership (based on Crew, 2001). The average Sunday attendance in the year 1998 was 843,213 (Fairfield, 2001). Two years later (the year 2000), it had further declined to 839,760 (Crew, 2001a). The Episcopal Church USA has shown “30 years of membership decline and over a million members lost” (Episcopal Action, 2001; see also Crew, 2001). “Mainline [church] membership is down (by nearly 6 million members) since 1965” in the USA. “More than 20 million Americans still hold membership in mainline churches. The largest mainline denominations are the United Methodist Church, with 8.7 million members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.2 million members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), with 2.6 million members; the Episcopal Church, with 2.5 million members; and the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ, each with 1.5 million members” (Wuthnow, 2001).
Jeffrey Walton’s assessment of the decline in the USA Episcopal Church was:
The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.
The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons’ (Walton 2014).
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett), worldwide “around 17 million people become church members each year through conversion, and some 7 million leave the church.” This leaves an annual net growth of approx. 10 million people. We would love to see more, but this is hard evidence against Spong’s death of theism (Long, 1998).
There are some other strong indicators that Jesus is alive and well and the church is growing. In the Ukraine, in the past three years, some 70 new house churches have been planted in Crimea, most in places previously without a church (Ukraine, 2001).
In the city of Xinjiang, China, there were 20-30 small churches with about 300 believers in 1994. Through courage, vision and the Lord’s direction, five couples have been used to enable rapid growth. Over a period of three years, the growth has been so strong that there are now almost 500 churches with about 100,000 members in four districts. This growth has so concerned the Government that it has infiltrated the churches, persecuted the believers, and gone on television, accusing the groups of being a cult (China, 2001).
During the last 10 years of the “Decade of Harvest” among the Nigerian Assemblies of God in Africa, there has been extraordinary growth. The church has not only gained 1.2 million new members, but also ordained 5,026 new pastors and planted 4,044 new churches in Nigeria. The emphasis on reaching previously unreached people groups led to 75 churches being planted in areas previously untouched by Christianity (Nigeria, 2001).
The Pew Research Center has found this about Pentecostal and charismatic church growth in Nigeria:
The Forum’s 2006 pentecostal survey suggests that renewalists – including charismatics and pentecostals – account for approximately three-in-ten Nigerians. The survey also finds that roughly six-in-ten Protestants in Nigeria are either pentecostal or charismatic, and three-in-ten Nigerian Catholics surveyed can be classified as charismatic (Pew Research Center 2006).
Worldwide, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has grown from no adherents in 1901 to “well over 420,000,000 persons in 1993” (Synan, 2006). Yet Spong has the audacity to say that “Christianity as we have known it increasingly displays signs of rigor mortis [the stiffness of death]” (p. 8).
Lee Grady wrote that:
Third-World Christianity kept growing. There are now about 600 million Christians in Africa. Protestant Christianity grew 600 percent in Vietnam in the last decade. In China, where a 50,000-member megachurch was raided in Shanxi province a few weeks ago, there are now an estimated 130 million churchgoers.
“We have no reason to fear the future. Whatever challenges loom ahead, the same God who carried us through this past decade will give us sucess in the next one.”
Astounding church growth has occurred in Guatemala, Brazil, India and Ethiopia. In Nepal, which had no Christians in 1960, there are now a half-million believers. The Christian population of Indonesia has mushroomed from 1.3 million to 11 million in 40 years.
Smug scholars in Europe and the United States love to cite Islam as the world’s fastest-growing religion, but observers know the facts: Christianity, while waning especially in Europe, is growing faster than ever in the Southern hemisphere. Philip Jenkins, who wrote The Next Christendom in 2002, declared: “The center of gravity has moved to the global south. So if we’re looking for the religion that is going to affect the largest number of lives in the 21st century, it is almost certainly going to be Christianity (Grady 2015).
There certainly are areas where the Christian church is showing significant decline, especially in the Western world. About 100 years ago, Wales experienced a heaven-sent revival. The proportion of the total Welsh population attending church has declined from 14.6% in 1982 to 8.7% in 1995. This report went on to say that “the Church in Wales congregations (Anglicans) report that there has been a slight increase in the size of their congregations in the last five years [i.e. prior to 1997]. The report also found that Churches identifying themselves as Anglo-Catholic or Broad, or Charismatic were growing the most” (Wales, 1997).
Many of these statistics on church growth were obtained from the DAWN website.
Spong’s dislike of evangelicals
Spong is not interested in “confronting or challenging those conservative, fundamentalist elements of Christianity that are so prevalent today.” Why? He believes they will “die of their own irrelevance” as they cling “to attitudes of the past that are simply withering on the vine” (p. 12).
He goes to great lengths in denigrating traditional, evangelical Christianity, even to the point of making blasphemous statements such as these: “I am free of the God who was deemed to be incomplete unless constantly receiving our endless praises; the God who required that we acknowledge ourselves as born in sin and therefore as helpless; the God who seemed to delight in punishing sinners; the God who, we were told, gloried in our childlike, groveling dependency. Worshiping that theistic God did not allow us to grow into the new humanity” (p. 75).
Among Spong’s 205 items in his bibliography, there is not one that refutes his views or presents a scholarly evangelical perspective. I looked for Don Carson, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III., N. T. Wright, J. P. Moreland, Ravi Zacharias, Australia’s Paul Barnett, and other leading defenders of the evangelical faith., but they were absent. Dixon and Torrey’s, The Fundamentals, is included but Spong’s overall thrust is to denigrate these essentials of Bible-believing faith.
Early church leader of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, gets a mention because Spong believes he is seeking “some experience inside my life” that “is that restlessness about which Augustine spoke that remains unresolved until we rest in God” (p. 193). I think Augustine would turn over in his grave if he considered his restlessness was anything akin to Spong’s mystical inner experience.
His partners in postmodern theological liberalism from the “Jesus Seminar” and other liberals are everywhere – John Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Michael Goulder, John Hick, John A. T. Robinson, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Don Cupitt. Spongism is one-eyed religion that is intolerant of opposing views, especially those of the “fundamentalists”.
Spong’s religion linked to death
God’s church is being persecuted around the world, but is showing growth internationally. Spong’s thesis is dead in the water. It is his ideology, a la John A. T. Robinson, radical theological liberalism, that kills churches.
The Episcopalians of Spong’s diocese voted with their feet while he was bishop there. One report said that
Spong [had] been the Episcopal Bishop of Newark [New Jersey] since 1976. He has presided over one of the most rapid witherings of any diocese in the Episcopal Church [USA]. The most charitable assessment shows that Newark’s parish membership rolls have evaporated by more than 42 percent. Less charitable accounts put the rate at over 50 percent. (Lasley, 1999).
What can we learn from Spong?
Is there anything of value for evangelicals in reading Spong? I exhort leaders to be familiar with his views for several reasons:
1. These kinds of perspectives will continue to command mass media coverage. On his recent Australian visit, there were articles by Spong in The Agenewspaper, Melbourne (eg., Spong, 2001), The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney. There also was significant television and radio coverage. You must know the enemy.
2. For the sake of all Christians committed to the Gospel, but especially for the young, we need a strong apologetic against his views — from the pulpit and in other teaching ministries. Spong sees “a new portrait of Jesus” (p. 131). It’s an heretical view against which there is a substantial refutation in the Almighty Lord God, the Christ of the cross, the God-breathed and inspired Bible, and the living Christ (through the Spirit), who lives in every true believer and among the people of God. The ministry of apologetics has fallen on hard times in many churches and Bible-training institutions in Australia. This must change with this new breed of Bible-bashers from the liberal theological establishment.
3. What’s the truth? Evangelical, Bible-believing Christianity is growing throughout the world, not Spong’s brand of “Christianity”. Spong’s views need to be refuted with solid evidence.
4. Spong has a point when he says that “most churches will die of boredom long before they die of controversy” (p. 125). Solid biblical teaching must communicate with today’s generation. I observe that some of today’s preaching is boring. This is a call to vigilance in the training of pastor-teachers and the practice of preaching that connects with people.
5. Christ always is relevant to any people, but sometimes the dirge of the church service turns people off. I believe Spong is correct in observing, “For vast numbers of modern people, including modern religious people, the church is less and less an option” (p. 126). We must investigate why this is so, especially in the West, and begin to address it — immediately. Examining what we do is often difficult for the church. This must change. Does Spong have a point when he says that “premodern symbols do not work in a postmodern world. To do nothing is to vote for death” (p. 126)?
6. The time is long overdue for the church to become more proactive in addressing some of the big questions of today. Spong does this from his liberal theological view. Some of the big questions include: Why is suicide becoming an option for more people, especially the young? Why is divorce on the rise? How can the church help with better parenting in families? Is the Bible trustworthy for a modern world? How can I be genuinely Christian in a multicultural Australia? What does it mean to proclaim “Jesus is Lord”? Why are evangelicals not as strong as the liberals in the areas of social responsibility? Is the CEO pastor biblical? When we gather as a church, why are most Christians mute? What can we do about teenage rebellion? Is there a biblical perspective on the use of drugs? Is the Holy Spirit too often just a force to be noticed for some Christians? How can relevant Christianity be communicated without froth and bubble or dry irrelevance?
Spong does not want to deal with conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, and believes that it has no application to life today. He comments that “nowhere is this better seen than when one observes how the word Christianis used in our contemporary world” (p. 12). This is the pot calling the kettle black! It is Spong who has demolished the Bible’s definition of a Christian.
Yet he thinks his views are the future of faith, a new Christianity for a new world! Welcome to Spongism, “Christianity” with a killer instinct.
1. A version of this article was published in the British magazine, Vanguard, June 2002.
China 2001. 100,000 new believers in Xinjiang in 3 years, Pulpit Helps, September.Available at: http://www.pulpithelps.com/www/docs/988-5476 (Accessed 31 March 2015)
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Crew, L 2001a Growth and decline in ECUSA [Episcopalian Church USA] attendance, 1991-2000 (online). .Available at: http://www.andromeda/rutgers.edu/~/lcrew/growthdecline90-00.html (Accessed November 17, 2001). URL unavailable online, 31 March 2015.
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Fairfield, L. P. 2001. Modernist decline and biblical renewal: The Episcopal Church from 1870-2000,” American Anglican Council. January 24. Available at: http://www.americananglican.org/Issues/Issues.dfm?ID-91 (Accessed October 15, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.
Grady, J L 2009. Where is God going? Seven spiritual trends of the ‘00 decade. Charisma magazine (online), 29 December. Available at: http://www.charismamag.com/blogs/fire-in-my-bones/8433-where-is-god-going-seven-spiritual-trends-of-the-00-decade (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Lasley, D. M. 1999. Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian, review of John Shelby Spong’s, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, for Anglican Voice (online) , posted June 2 1999. Available at: http://www.anglicanvoice.org/voice/spong0699.htm (Accessed November 4, 2001). On 31 March 2015 it was available as, ‘Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian – A Baptist looks at Spong’, David Virtue (June 2, 1999). Available at: http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/1999-June/000415.html (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Long, J. 1998. World Christian Encyclopedia:David Barrett (Assoc. Ed.). Worldwide statistics plus news from Bulgaria, Chile, Brazil, DAWN Fridayfax 1998 #04. Available at: http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/1998/dawn9804.html (Accessed November 4, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.
Nigeria 2001. Assemblies of God plant 4,044 new churches in 10 years, DAWN Fridayfax 2001#3 (online). Available at: http://www.jesus.org.uk/dawn/2001/dawn03.html (Source: AoG news, January 3, 2001) (Accessed November 14, 2001). URL unavailable, 31 March 2015.
Pew Research Center 2006. Historical overview of Pentecostalism in Nigeria (online), October 5. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/historical-overview-of-pentecostalism-in-nigeria/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Spong, J. S. 2001. Meditation on the reason for prayer. The Age, October 6. Available at: http://theage.com.au/news/state/2001/10/06/FFXAEOBCFSC.html (Accessed October 11, 2001). The URL was unavailable, 31 March 2015.
Synan, V. 2006. The origins of the Pentecostal movement. Holy Spirit Research Center (Oral Roberts University). Available at: http://www.oru.edu/library/special_collections/holy_spirit_research_center/pentecostal_history.php (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Ukraine 2001. 70 new house churches in the Crimea. National Pastors’ Prayer Network: Global Update (online), 13 July. Available at: http://www.nppn.org/images/GlobalNews/Global07132001.htm#a21 (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Wales 1997. Church decline generally but slight increase for Anglicans, Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS), 7 March. Available at: www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/acnsarchive/acns1100/acns1153.html (Accessed 3 November 2001).
Walton, J 2014. Episcopal church continues shedding members. Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Blog (online), October 14. Available at: http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/10/14/episcopal-church-continues-shedding-members/ (Accessed 31 March 2015).
Wuthnow, R 2001). Still toeing the mainline. Available at: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/31/story_3171_1.html (Accessed November 14, 2001).
Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated, 7 October 2015.