CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In the comments to a recent post entitled "John Loftus' Research -- or Lack Thereof -- into the Empty Tomb", Debunking Christianity blogger, John Loftus, in an effort to defend his claimed scholasticism links to an portion of a book authored by John Shelby Spong (I cannot bring myself to honor him with the title of bishop) as an example of good scholarship and reasoning. More fully, Mr. Loftus makes the following claim:

I personally like Bishop Spong. He has reached a number of people with his books and for that I'm very thankful. You ought to engage his views and see for yourself. He is a great communicator and a scholar in his own right. But if you don't think so then you must admit he more than adequately dispenses the results of good scholarship.

Here's an except from one of his books. It's well reasoned and reflects good scholarship. I defy you to say otherwise, even if you will no doubt disagree.

Well, risking the possibility that I will be said to be "nitpicking", I do say otherwise. John Shelby Spong is not a good scholar nor do I think that the excerpt from his book set forth in Mr. Loftus blog is well-reasoned.

I am not going to try to handle Spong's alleged theology in one post. Thus, this is only the first part of my analysis of the viewpoint of Spong.

Why are we Discussing Spong?

As a preliminary matter, this post will point out the context in which Spong came into the discussion. Layman's post points out that Loftus apparently used a book by Spong entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity,as a source for the claim that "Several mainline Christian scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, argue against the empty tomb, including C.H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Raymond Brown, Reginald Fuller, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, D.H. Nineham, along with many others." Loftus, for whatever reason, has thus far declined to confirm that his argument was based on the writings of Spong (quite possibly because he is rightfully embarrassed to admit that Spong is his source). Through good research (i.e., actually reading the writings of the scholars identified by Loftus), Layman proceeded to expose the fact that the scholars named did not actually "argue against the empty tomb".

In order to better evaluate Spong's writings, it is important to recognize that Spong is not a mainstream scholar -- heck, he's not even necessarily Christian in any recognizable sense.

Spong -- Not A Paradigm of Christian Thought

Oh, Spong definitely believes in something ... well, sort of. Mimicking Tillich, he claims to believe in the Ground of All Being which is his god. However, this "ground of all being" is not a personal god. Rather, as the Wikipedia entry on Spong (quoting from Spong's own website) points out, he believes that "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead," and that "God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms...." According to an article in Whosoever Magazine (an online magazine that appears to be open to Spong's worldview) entitled "Stranger in a Strange Land: Bishop Spong in Cobb County":

In his call for a "religionless Christianity," Spong rejects almost all of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, including atonement, the incarnation, and the trinity."

Since I didn't know if this was true, I picked up a copy of Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious ("JFNR") which I read over a couple of days. There is nothing particularly unique or original about the book. In fact, he tries to make the case that the attacks he makes on the Bible are regularly taught in seminaries across the country. Thus, even he admits that there is little new in the book.
However, what is new is his insistence that he is somehow still a Christian. The better question is how he can actually claim to be a Christian. He doesn't believe in a personal God. In his chapter entitled "Who is the God met in Jesus?", he never answers the question. Rather, he simply says that, "Theism ... is not who God is. Theism is a human definition of who God is." (JFNR, p. 224) Okay, so it seems fair to ask, who -- or even what -- is this God that he believes in? Spong cannot say.

I cannot tell anyone who God is or what God is. Neither can anyone else, though we have pretended to do just that for centuries through our creeds and doctrines. The reality of God can never be defined. It can only be experienced, and we need always to recognize that even that experience may be nothing more than an illusion.

JFNR, p. 285.

A few years ago, when we were refining what it meant to be a member of the CADRE, we tried to formulate a statement of beliefs. I came up with my own definition of core Christian beliefs that I submitted to the group for acceptance. Now, I am fairly conservative Christian, and I discovered that some teachings that I thought were well-settled across the entire Christian church were not embraced by several members of the CADRE. Finally, we agreed that the only test of membership would be to hold to the Nicene Creed as it is taught by their individual denominations. That, it seems, was a standard creed of the church that had been taught as defining orthodoxy since 325 A.D.

Spong's god, as found in the above-quoted portion of his book, shows that he cannot be held to that basic standard. He does not believe in God as the creator of heaven and earth. His God is an "it" who cannot be defined -- only experienced. And the experience itself may be nothing more than an illusion. So, nothing can be reliably known about Spong's god.

Spong's Jesus

So, what is experienced in Jesus? Is the Jesus that Spong believes in the Jesus found in the Nicene Creed? Well, he isn't the only begotten Son of God. He wasn't born of a Virgin. He did not come for our salvation. As Spong says in the Introduction:

Traditional Christian doctrine continues to portray Jesus as a heavenly visitor who came from the God above the sky in a miraculous birth and who, when his work was complete, returned to God by way of cosmic flight. That completed work, says this orthodoxy, was to bring salvation to a fallen world, and this was accomplished by Jesus' death on the cross. On every level each of these assertions has become for me not only literal nonsense but also little more than theological gobbledygook.

JFTN, p. 8

Jesus didn't even rise from the dead. Rather, Jesus' tragic death was only given meaning and purpose by the Gospel writers who wrote (according to Spong's debatable timeline) "two or perhaps three generations after the tragedy of the crucifixion." JFTN, p. 283. The story of the resurrection is nothing more than "an invitation to journey beyond human limits, beyond human boundaries, into the realm of that experience that we call God, who is not above us in the sky, but rather is found in the depths of life." JFTN, p. 127. So much for the Nicene Creed's clear assertions that "On the Third Day He rose again...." (But, of course, Spong claims to believe that this claim is true (JFTN, p. 117-118) -- just not in the same way that Christians have traditonally believed it to be true. (JFTN, Chap. 11))

So, what is Jesus? He was the fully human person through whom Spong can experience Spong's god. He was a fully human man who broke prejudices and stereotypes (Chapter 23), broke religious boundaries (Chapter 24) and presented a portrait of the love of God (Chapter 24). But after spending much of the first 20 chapters of the book explaining why we cannot trust what the Bible says, one is left to wonder why we should believe that Jesus did any of these things. Simply because Spnong believes that something is good is not the reason to believe that Spong is correct that Jesus did those things or said those things that agree with Spong's philosophy. Why is it that it is believable that Jesus gave the Great Commission (JFTN, p. 245) but not that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God? Because Spong believes that the first claim is more believable than the second? That's the best he has?

As pointed out by John Makujina, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Erskine Theological Seminary, in his on-line essay Modern Era Marcionism: Critiquing The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong, Spong's techniques for critiquing the Bible have ancient roots:

For almost two thousand years Christian theologians have attempted to harmonize the distinctive theological emphases of the two testaments. One of the earliest and most memorable attempts simply involved cutting the Gordian knot: Marcion of Sinope, unable to reconcile the benighted God of the Old Testament with Christ and the gospel, expelled the entire Old Testament and parts of the New from the Christian canon. Although Marcion was condemned as a heretic (A.D. 144), rejection of biblical passages and doctrines on ethical grounds is a pathology that continues to plague the church.

The latest such voice comes from John Shelby Spong, the highly controversial Episcopal bishop and tireless opponent of historic Christianity, especially evangelicalism. In his recent book The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (HarperCollins, 2005), Spong continues in the tradition of neo-Marcionists like Frierich Delitzsch (Die grosse Täuschung, 1921). But whereas Delitzsch thrashed the Old Testament by measuring it against the New, Spong outdoes him, and many others, by subjecting both testaments to a remorseless flogging when he finds them in conflict with his modern sensibilities.

Spong is not mainstream. It is hard to take him seriously that he is Christian. He may think that my viewpoint is gobbledygook, but it has held the attention of many of the smartest people in history. Spong's view, on the contrary, seems to attract mainly those who are promoting social views contrary to the plain meaning of the Gospels and has its roots in a hermeneutic that was identified as heretical by the earliest church.

In the next part of this post, I will look more closely at Spong's claims about Judas that I find far from convincing and do not see as well-reasoned.

21 comments:

Nice research BK! I don't think I said Spong represented mainstream scholarship though. And I didn't expect you would agree with him. There are Christian atheists including Don Cupit, Robert Price and many others who embrace a religionless Christianity that inspired that "God is Dead" front page '60's headline for the Time magazine.

Like you, I think they should all just quit claiming to be Christians though. But by using the word Christian to describe themselves they do more harm to your views than to mine. It's becoming too elastic of a description, isn't it? Almost anyone can claim to be a Christian and it forces Christians to define themselves other than by using that term. They must now ask, "Wht do you mean that you are a "Christian"? I find this quite funny, really, especially if there is a God behind it all who supposedly revealed himself clearly in the pages of the Bible and the church. I call this the "Problem of Miscommunication" in a chapter I've written for a new book with PB to come out in March. Richard Carrier has read a few chapters and already thinks it's a tour de force.

I look forward to the rest of what you say.

1. Spong is a poor man's J. A. T. Robinson. Luke Timothy Johnson cut him down to size several years ago. And Johnson himself is fairly liberal. So that tells you what a flake Spong happens to be.

2. Christians have been defining Christianity since the church councils. There's nothing new about that phenomenon.

3. It's quite possible for people to reject or misconstrue, intentionally or unintentionally, what is clearly revealed.

That is not a problem of miscommunication. That's a problem with the reader. We can document this in many walks of life. It's hardly limited to how some people approach the Bible.

Why the quotes around "theology"? What kind of "research" is this?

The quotes around "Theology" are based on the fact thta he doesn't believe in theism. So, if you don't believe in theism, you can't have a real theology. Can you?

Steve said: That is not a problem of miscommunication. That's a problem with the reader. We can document this in many walks of life. It's hardly limited to how some people approach the Bible.

So how do you explain why Christians killed each other to the tune of eight million of them during the eight French Wars of Religion and the gruesome Thirty Years War in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, including what Catholics call the Protestant Inquisition? That's Catholic verses Protestant and that's Protestant versus Protestant!

Yeah, right, it's not God's fault at all. It's their fault. They should have know the correct theology and they should have known that they shouldn't fight over it. They were just utterly and completley stupid, right?

Cheers.

John W. Loftus said...

"So how do you explain why Christians killed each other to the tune of eight million of them during the eight French Wars of Religion and the gruesome Thirty Years War in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, including what Catholics call the Protestant Inquisition? That's Catholic verses Protestant and that's Protestant versus Protestant!"

Your way of framing the issue is a historical anachronism. It's not as if this was a grassroots movement of Catholics murdering Protestants and vice versa.

Rather, we're dealing with absolute monarchies in which Catholic subjects and Protestant subjects were pawns of royal policy. Kings had political as well as religious motives for instigating wars with neighboring lands as well as civil wars.

Monarchs were moving the pieces on the chessboard. It wasn't the pawns who were calling the shots.

Moreover, you objection is incoherent. If you think they were killing each other because the Bible clearly justifies that action, then the outcome was not the result of miscommunication.

If, on the other hand, killing each other lacks clear Biblical warrant, they you can't attribute their conduct to Biblical precept.

Steve, ever hear of the Peasants War and Martin Luther's utter distain for the Peasants? Ever hear of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre? Ever study the history of the Anabaptists? The "pawns" in those days were passionate about following the Monarch's who were calling the shots weren't they?

Religious violence is the most unnecessary kind of violence. Human beings have killed each other for economical and political reasons but they probably never kill more passionately than when it's because of religious reasons.

The different religious groups were distinct and identifiable. If there were no theological differences and/or if the people were enlightened enough to know not to kill others over any differences, then how easy would it to be for a monarch to say “Let’s go kill us some Huguenots (your theological ancestors)? You see, it's one thing to say, "let's go kill them because we want their property," and another to say, “let's go kill them because they are Huguenots” if the very people the Monarch wants to do the killing are themselves Huguenots." And you neglect the part about the influence of inquisitional thinking on the minds of these people, which involved both the Catholic and Protestant versions. The wars I mentioned were an outgrowth of that same kind of thinking applied to whole groups of people. “The heretic must die” was translated into “heretics must die.”

Your incoherence accusation fails on both counts. About the first half of it, I do think the Bible led these people to do the killing, but not because God clearly communicated this. It’s rather because the Bible was written and believed by barbaric people (hint: read Judges 19-21). Since this is what I think the second half of it is false as well. But even if killing other Christians “lacks clear Biblical warrant,” it was still warranted in the minds of the people doing the killing, and this is what I said. This shows us that if God divinely revealed the Bible he did not “clearly” communicate his will.

Cheers.

John, now that you're here, why not tell us whether or not your source was Spong?

John W. Loftus said...

I see that you’re running away from your original historical illustrations, and substituting different historical illustrations. So you already lost the first round of the argument. That was quick.

“Steve, ever hear of the Peasants War.”

To my knowledge, that war was based on political and economic factors. Try again.

“And Martin Luther's utter distain for the Peasants?”

And how is that a “problem of miscommunication,” exactly? What was miscommunicated?

“Ever hear of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre?”

A political power struggle, instigated from the top down. Try again.

“Ever study the history of the Anabaptists?”

The authorities viewed them as a socially destabilizing force.

You have yet to explain how your examples single out religion as the primary motive. Historical causation is complex. Motives are mixed.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we’ve had wars throughout history. Was the Vietnam War a religious war? No. What about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge? Or the Rape of Nanking?

What about the Punic wars? Peloponnesian wars? Gallic wars? &c. &c.

So explain why you think religion was the primary incentive rather than an incidental feature in so many conflicts?

BTW, what books on modern European history have you actually read? List the names and titles so that we can evaluate your source of information.

“Human beings have killed each other for economical and political reasons…”

Like the examples you just cited, you mean?

“But they probably never kill more passionately than when it's because of religious reasons.”

What about festering ethnic animosities? Ever heard of Rwanda and Burundi?

“The different religious groups were distinct and identifiable.”

What about the Vietnam War? Were the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese distinct and identifiable?

If not, then you can’t cite that as a major motive. Try again.

“The wars I mentioned were an outgrowth of that same kind of thinking applied to whole groups of people.”

Really? The peasants revolted because the king was a heretic? I don’t think so. The king suppressed the revolt because the peasants were heretical? I don’t think so.

“It’s rather because the Bible was written and believed by barbaric people (hint: read Judges 19-21).”

So if a Bible writer describes a barbaric event, then the Bible writer must be a barbarian? Do you apply that same quality of reasoning to modern war historians? If a historian writes a book about the My Lai Massacre, then both the writer and the reader must be barbarians?

“But ev’n if killing other Christians ‘lacks clear Biblical warrant,’ it was still warranted in the minds of the people doing the killing, and this is what I said. This shows us that if God divinely revealed the Bible he did not ‘clearly’ communicate his will.”

I see. So if the Bible clearly taught pacifism, then no one would ever commit murder or go to war. We could convert the Pentagon to another Wall-Mart. Police depts. could disband the homicide unit.

After all, people always do what the Bible says. Folks in San Francisco are trying to regulate their sex lives by what they think the Bible teaches.

Cheers

John,

God did clearly communicate his will -- at least on this point. People have an endless capacity to muddle up what is clear (see, e.g., Spong's effort to redefine the Bible's clear meaning when it says that Jesus rose again from the dead) -- especially when they have a motivation to do so.

Most of the wars that are entered into in the name of Christianity were (as Steve appopriately points out) political wars which used Christianity as a tool to inspire soldiers to fight. Since many of the wars occurred while the Bible was kept out of the hands of the laity, you can look to the political motives and greed of the leaders to see the real motives. And, BTW, Christianity teaches from Genesis 3 forward that men do fail in their efforts to follow God. So, what you are saying isn't only not new, it is part and parcel of Christian teaching.

Steve, I am not saying that religious causes have to be the primary reasons for these wars--wars which are merely illustrative of the many conflicts caused because God did not do a better job of communicating to believers. But if we took the religious justifications out of the picture there would be less violence. That point seems to me to be both obvious and non-controversial.

That Judges 19-21 is included as a straightfoward narrative without comment is itself a telling comment about the morality of the people involved. These people never show a disinterested newspaper neutrality when discussing events in most any other narrative. The authors were at best redactors with axes to grind. And so it shows us the complete barbaric nature of the very people themselves. Why, oh why should I ever listen to what these people had to say about morality if this account is accurate?

We've gone round and round before. I know you'll always get the last word in. But the last person who speaks isn't always the one who speaks the truth.

Okay, you can also end with the "what is truth by your standard" if you want to.

BK, the real reason why Christians don’t agree is because of a multifaceted set of problems including the problems of language, and the fact that God supposedly revealed himself in a high context superstitious society of the ancient past. My contention is that if God revealed his will to believers he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so, and that makes an omniscient God look stupid as well as uncaring. Even if he was right to reveal what he did at that time, which I doubt very much, he did nothing later to rectify the problems he caused. An omniscient and caring God should have known better, and the Holy Spirit should have done his job better.

One would think with very good reasons that an omniscient God would be the best communicator in all of history. One would expect he would express his will in a crystal clear fashion with an eye on how believers might misunderstand it. And one would expect that the Holy Spirit would do his job too. That God did not do this strongly disconfirms the hypothesis that the Bible was inspired by him.

Today’s Christians say the churches of the past that committed atrocities were wrong. And that’s correct. They were wrong. But not for the reasons stated. They claim the Christians of the past were wrong because they misinterpreted the Bible. The truth is that they were wrong to believe the Bible in the first place. They were wrong just like Christians of today are wrong, and just like the Christians of the future will be too. My contention is that there is not a single statement in the Bible which reveals a divine mind behind the human authors. Everything in it can be more credibly explained by the hypothesis that it’s just the musings of an ancient, superstitious barbaric people, period.

John W. Loftus said...

“Steve, I am not saying that religious causes have to be the primary reasons for these wars--wars which are merely illustrative of the many conflicts caused because God did not do a better job of communicating to believers.”

This assumes that “believers” do what they’re told. The OT chronicles a long history of “believers” who don’t do what they’re told. Covenant-breakers.

“But if we took the religious justifications out of the picture there would be less violence. That point seems to me to be both obvious and non-controversial.”

How is that obvious and non-controversial? If you had non-Christians instead of Christians, all you’d have are non-Christians waging war for non-Christian reasons. There are many historical examples, both ancient and modern.

Moreover, I, as a Christian, don’t have to defend all religions. I don’t have to defend jihad.

“That Judges 19-21 is included as a straightfoward narrative without comment is itself a telling comment about the morality of the people involved.”

Were you always this clueless about the narrative viewpoint of Judges? Judges is a cautionary tale. It chronicles of the cyclical apostasy of the Israelites. Any good commentary or OT intro will explain that to you.

“And so it shows us the complete barbaric nature of the very people themselves. Why, oh why should I ever listen to what these people had to say about morality if this account is accurate?”

Secular ethics has no basis for objective morality. You’re in no position to moralize about Judges 19-21.

Yep, everyone is clueless except the all-knowing Steve Hays, right? As far as judging the people in Judges 19-21 goes, which Christian would agree with them and join in the fighting? It's based on YOUR OWN standards where I find the problem and suggest that you should see it too.

Cheers.

John W. Loftus said...

"Yep, everyone is clueless except the all-knowing Steve Hays, right?"

Nice try, but I didn't appeal to myself, now did I? Rather, I mentioned commentaries and OT intros. To take some specific examples, the commentaries on Judges by Block and Younger as well as the OT intros by Hill/Walton and Longman/Dillard.

John W. Loftus said...

"As far as judging the people in Judges 19-21 goes, which Christian would agree with them and join in the fighting? It's based on YOUR OWN standards where I find the problem and suggest that you should see it too."

i) It's a pseudoproblem generated by your illiterate grasp of the narrative viewpoint in Judges.

ii) Moreover, when you say the event is "barbaric," you are applying your own moral standards to the event. Therefore, you're still on the hook to justify your moralizing. Try again.

John, was your source Spong?

Its Gotta Get Old said...

This is the way it seems to always go. I'm thankful that you all at the CADRE (and Steve) have the patience to do this over and over again.

I would get tired of constantly making the stronger point only to have people change topics, shift the goalposts or insult me. The shame of it is that they think stringing these shallow arguments together with a moving personal testimony make a cumulative case (yes John I've read your book...please don't respond by quoting some reviewer of your book...that doesn't help).

Anyways, thanks for continuing to argue for truth. Thanks for patiently responding to the same bad arguments over and over again!

Incidentally, the first part of my analysis of Bishop Spong's argument concerning the fabrication of Judas Iscariot, is now posted (as the next Cadre Journal entry) here.)

JRP

Mr. Loftus' position that God has miscommunicated with man, particularly through the Bible (resulting in numerous atrocities and religious wars by man) has at least two major problems: 1) Within the Bible, murder is prominently linked with the issue of power and Who Will Be God? (The Crucifixion, Satan's rebellion and the murder of Abel being significant examples); and 2) in certain cases where God has tried to communicate with man, man has told God to shut up. I've blogged about both on these issues on my website under John Loftus and Miscommunication, Parts 1 and 2.

Gerald Garvan said...

I am reading Sprong's Christianity must change or Die, and the fact that Sprong is not a Christian is immaterial. Jesus did not send his disciples out to make Christians, He sent them out to make disciples. Given that direct from Christ, Sprong becomes irrelevant and what he says is irrelevant in the fact there is nothing in his writings that says he considers himself a disciple, or even desires to be known as a disciple.
I have seen many men come through my classes like Sprong, highly intelligent, inquisitive, and totally unable to believe that their mental acuity isn't sufficient to laser through all thought and arrive at the truth other men can not. In that belief about themselves they become their own gods. That is what I am picking up from what Sprong writes.

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