Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wright & Spong

I ran across this list of 12 areas where Bishop Shelby Spong takes issue with historic Christianity.

Instead of telling you why I think Spong is wrong, I thought I'd let N. T. Wright explain why he is not right. (Spong's words are in blue, Wright's in red, and mine in black.)

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

The New Testament is not free-standing. It is what it is because it points away from itself, to the One God of Jewish monotheism who is now known in Jesus of Nazareth and the events of his life, death, resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit on his followers. If the Bible, Jewish and Christian, does not refer to these extra-textual realities, it fails in its whole object. The biblical writers referred to the actual story of the creator and his world, focused on the story of the creator of Israel, on the story of Jesus and Israel, and on the story of Jesus' followers and the cosmos. In other words, whatever view of the Bible you take, if you are to be in any way obedient to the Bible you cannot make the Bible itself the centre or focus of your attention. It points away from itself ("The Book and the Story," The Bible In Transmission, Summer 1997).

If Spong wants to reject the God of the Old Testament, or the New Testament, then he is free to do so. But let's be clear what the reason is for this rejection. It is not because theism is dead, or that God himself has died.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of vocation, a vocation given him by the one he knew as "Father," to enact in himself what, in Israel's scriptures, Israel's God had promised to accomplish. He would be the pillar of cloud for the people of the new Exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God (The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology).

Spong's Jesus is just another incarnation of the great moral teacher a la Siddhartha.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

Most people rooted in contemporary Western culture assume, unless they have been specifically shaken out of this way of thinking, that the word "God" refers, more or less univocally, to a being who is detached from the world, living at some great ontological remove (most know that Christians and others do not believe in God as a being literally "up in the sky," but most assume a similar detachment in some other mode of being). They then tend to assume that when Christians talk about God becoming human in Jesus, about God addressing individuals or the world, or about God active within the world, this must be a matter of God's "intervening" from a distance. They assume, moreover, that all religions are basically trying to be about the same thing; this idea is frequently supposed to be a very recent innovation or discovery, but was of course the common coin of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and indeed has roots much further back in some aspects of classical paganism.

And they assume that this general thing — which may as well be called "religion" for want of a better term, though that word is so over- and ill-used that one wonders if a moratorium would not be a good idea — has basically failed. It has collapsed, so it is thought by those who think about these things, under the critique of Marx, who said that talking about God was what those in power did to keep the rest quiet; of Darwin, who said that we were all descended from the apes anyway, and that the world could be understood successfully without a creating or sustaining God, since it works on the basis of competition; of Freud, who said that God-language was projection of a latent father image; and of Nietzsche, who despised Christianity for being wet and wimpish while also exposing its truth claims as power games. Of course, as C. S. Lewis used to say, if people really thought about these things, it might become clear that the attacks, though sometimes interesting and important, are not ultimately valid. But most people in western Europe, and many in North America, do not think very hard about such issues. They assume, not least because the media tell them so, that "God" and "religion" are somehow out of date. Within the postmodern world it is feelings that count, not arguments; and there is a general feeling, widespread in much (though not all) Western culture, that all that sort of thing has had its day — certainly in any form that the culture has known for the last several hundred years (The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology).

If Spong is arguing against a 144-hour creation and a 10,000-year-old earth, then I agree. But there is nothing inherently anti-intellectual about the idea of a Creator. And anyone who really believes that Darwin is the final word on origins is just not very smart.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this God, Israel's God, my worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics. The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth. The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion. It is all very well to get on one's high metaphysical horse and insist that God cannot behave like this, but we do not know that ahead of time. Nor will the high moral horse do any better insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us (God's Way of Acting).

If we are able to produce babies by in vitro fertilization, why is it so incredible that some supra-human being did a similar thing 2000 years ago?

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

See above.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

The story the gospels are trying to tell is a story in which evil and its deadly power are taken utterly seriously, over against the tendency in many quarters today, in the ridiculous clinging to an older liberal idea that there wasn't really very much wrong with the world or with human beings. With a fully-blown theology of the cross such as the evangelists offer, there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is to hand. To be sure, it is humiliating to accept both the diagnosis and the cure, but as our world lurches more and more obviously into a demonstration that when you pretend that evil isn't there you merely give it more space to operate, so perhaps it is high time to look again at both the diagnosis and the cure which the evangelists offer (Evil and the Justice of God).

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

If we are to think in first-century Jewish terms, it is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that the kingdom of God had arrived when it clearly had not, that a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not, or that the resurrection occurred last month when it obviously did not. However strong the disciples sense may have been that Jesus had been vindicated, that they had been forgiven, or whatever, they would still not have said he had been raised from the dead (Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus).

The Gospel accounts do not describe a "physical resuscitation." The resurrection is something very different.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

We would be wrong to assume that the language of heaven and earth, and of clouds veiling the passage between the two, was heard with a naive literalism in the first century. People who use three-decker language by no means necessarily think in three-decker cosmological terms, any more than we who say that the son rises in the east are committed to pre-Copernican astronomy. Often enough in the Bible, heaven is simply God's space, interrelated with our space in ways char are usually opaque. Stories about Jesus' being exalted to a place within God's space are stories designed to safeguard the bodily resurrection on the one hand and the transformed nature of the body—what Paul calls the "spiritual body"—on the other. We do not, of course, find it easy to come to terms with this latter reality. That problem does not start with the ascension narrative; it is there as soon as we distinguish resurrection both from resuscitation and from disembodiment. If we thought it was easy to talk about this new embodiment, that would just go to show that we had forgotten what we were talking about (Early Traditions and the Origins of Christianity).

It appears that the Bishop has a very limited imagination. One possible interpretation of what really happened is that Jesus went up into the sky, was obscured by clouds, and then went to heaven—traveling in direction (dimension) that we are unable to perceive (as of now).

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

"Ethics," then, understood as Paul's arguments about Christian behavior, function within Galatians not as an appendix to "theology," … but rather as part of the inner working of the gospel itself. Through the gospel events of Jesus' messianic death and resurrection, the God of Israel delivers Israel and the world from the rule of evil and the "powers" who perpetrate it. Through the Spirit-inspired proclamation of the good news of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, this same God calls into being the redeemed family he had promised to Abraham, whose distinguishing mark, over against those of Judaism, is "the faithfulness of Jesus" — i.e., Jesus' own faithfulness, reflected now in the faith/faithfulness … of Christians. Precisely because this family is the Christ-and-Spirit people, they are set free from the destructive powers and solidarities (including social solidarities) of evil, and are under the obligation of freedom, namely, to sustain this life by Spirit-given love for one another (The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology).

I'm not sure what his point is here. I think he is trying to say that we must update our "rules" as culture changes. Anyone who thinks that Christianity is culturally bound has not understood Christianity. Right from the beginning, Christianity clearly was free of any cultural limitations.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

In prayer, we are invited, summoned, to become more truly human, to worship the God in whose image we are made and so to find ourselves interceding for the world he loves. The start of God's address to the world, following the death and resurrection of his son, is the creation and vocation, by the Spirit, of a people drawn from every family who will live consciously out of tune with the world as it presently is and in tune with the way God intends it to be (Romans 12.1–2: do not be conformed to this present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds – a statement that might serve as a title for this whole lecture), and who by bearing that tension in themselves, and turning it into prayer, become agents of that new world beginning to break in to the present one in healing and hope. Prayer thus lies at the heart of the task of the people of God, their glorious, strange, puzzling and ennobling vocation (Evil and the Justice of God).

Why not? However, if one accepts that there is no God (in a theistic sense), then this statement is a tautology.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

A generation ago, liberal thought managed to get rid of sin; and, with sin, most theories of atonement were dismissed as odd and unnecessary. But in our own generation we have rediscovered guilt; we have plenty of shame and violence; we have alienation at all levels. And we don't know what to do with it, either at a personal or at a corporate level. Cleansing of the conscience is what is required; and the only way to do that is by the total offering of the human life to God (The Final Sacrifice: Hebrews).

Spong sure has a limited understanding of Christianity for a Bishop. "Life after death" is not about "behavior control." Christianity does not depend upon guilt as a motivation for moral behavior.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

Christians must be active not only in advocacy of the moral standards in which all are treated as full human beings, not as toys or as trash, but also to stand alongside and help those who, having been treated like that themselves, treat others the same way because that is the only way they know. In these and many, many other ways, those who would tell the story of Jesus must first live it, bearing a measure of the world's pain as they do so (The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology).

OK. But without Christianity (as it is historically understood) there seems to be no basis for making this argument. What we need is not less Christianity or a different "Christianity." What we need is more and truer Christianity.

I keep looking for some intellectual challenges to Christianity that I can take seriously. John Shelby Spong sounds intelligent and sophisticated, but his argument does not hold up to scrutiny. If he wants to reject Christianity, then he should just be honest about it. But don't give me this nonsense that he is recovering the "real truth" of Christianity.

His "faith" no more requires a historical Jesus Christ than Buddhism requires a historic Gautama Siddhartha. In fact, what he is advocating seems to be essentially a westernized Buddhism.

What do you think?

(While I have been somewhat dismissive of Spong's assertions, I would welcome debate and dialogue on these points. I would especially like to hear from atheists who think that I'm wrong and Spong's right.)

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


Peg Bowman said...


I came across your blog while surfing from the Jesus Creed blog, and came across this post... thank you for it! As an Anglican/Episcopalian this is the first I've had the opportunity to read Spong's position first-hand. Now I know what our bishop (Pittsburgh) and priests are fighting against. God bless 'em. Keep the good stuff coming!

And I wanted to toss out one more possible response to Spong's point #12. re: "All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is" -- Dude. I thought you just said that God is dead.

Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. While you have Spong, you also have N. T. Wright. Thank God for people like him.

Good point about #12. Being created in God's image kind of loses its meaning if you follow Spong's theology, doesn't it.

God Bless,


david rudd said...

"And anyone who really believes that Darwin is the final word on origins is just not very smart."

i love that line...

Pastor Rod said...

Thanks, David. Welcome.