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.
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.