16. Hero or Heretic? - John Spong
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Thu Dec 27 00:19:43 EST 2001
Hero or heretic? - John Spong
Retired bishop John Spong stirs the ecclesiastical community with his
"I am a Christian," declares John Shelby Spong, the now retired
Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., in his most recent book A New
Christianity for a New World (HarperCollins, September, 2001) "Yet I do
not define God as a supernatural being ... I do not believe in a deity
who can help a nation win a war ... intervene to cure a loved one's
sickness ... I do not believe Jesus entered this world by a virgin
birth or did in any literal way raise the dead, overcome a medically
diagnosed paralysis, restore sight to a blind person ... I do not
believe that a literal star guided literal wise men to bring Jesus
gifts or that literal angels sang to hillside shepherds to announce his
birth ... I do not believe that the experience Christians celebrate at
Easter was the physical resuscitation of the three-days-dead body of
Like a reversed Nicene Creed, Spong's list of disbelief goes on,
confidently rejecting Christianity's core doctrines of incarnation,
atonement and resurrection. It is followed by Spong's equally confident
assertion that Christianity, as we know it, is dying. If Christianity
is to survive it has to discard such offensive notions as sin, and
abandon the language of worship in which the faithful grovel "as slaves
might be expected to before a master." It must recognize that Jesus was
totally human, that Love is God and God is Love. And that the way to
worship this God is by living fully, loving wastefully and being all
that you can be.
Spong has been making waves in the ecclesiastical community for years.
He has written 17 books, many of them bestsellers that have invited
media attention from programs such as 60 minutes, Good Morning America,
and Larry King Live and rebuttals from his own Episcopal community by
theologians such as Peter C Moore, editor of Can a Bishop be Wrong? Ten
Scholars challenge Spong (Morehouse Publishing, 1998).
For some, he is a hero and a prophet, for others he is an intemperate
modern day heretic. But whether he is perceived as a danger to the
Church and the Christian faith or an honest challenger who is breathing
fresh life into what many call Christianity, the debate he generates,
for theologians at least, is anything but dull .
"Anyone who takes the credal position of the Virgin birth and the
physical resurrection has to see the likes of Bishop Spong as a
heretic," says Karen King a professor of New Testament Studies and
History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard's Divinity School. "But then
I'm a historian. And for me there's a good argument to be made that
heretics have been the life of the Church. Christians were themselves
heretics in their own culture and one looks at the whole protestant
reformation, I mean there's a bunch of heretics for you that have
become the new orthodox, so that dynamic between orthodoxy and heresy
is one that pervades the history of the Church.
"Now I don't know in the end if we will think Spong is right,"
continues King, "but he's good for us, he pushes our boundaries, he
makes us think. He makes us say 'well you know, what do I really think
about these issues?' There are a lot of people out there in the
Churches who are simply silent and don't think. When someone like
Bishop Spong comes along and challenges their belief structure, it may
provoke a reaffirmation of their beliefs, it might provoke something
new. The point is, they can't just sit cozily anymore. They have to
really work at what they believe and that's good for the spiritual
For Harvey Cox, a colleague of King's at Divinity at Harvard there is
limited value to the debate Spong generates.
"He's still quite preoccupied with what really happened," Cox says.
"For example [Spong questions] the account that we read in the stories
of Jesus. Are they historically accurate? I think a lot of people are
just not concerned with that. There are vast numbers of people in the
world who have much more burning concerns like the question of how can
there be a God if there's so much hunger and injustice and destitution.
And he's so talented and so engaging that I wish he'd move on from his
agenda onto some of the more pressing issues of theology such as the
meaning of suffering and the meaning of the vast inequality in the
But while theologians like Cox and King are clearly delighting in the
debate offered by Bishop Spong, others are distinctly uncomfortable
with him. Gregory Baum, McGill's University's Catholic theologian, is
less than enthusiastic about the many challenges to doctrine that Spong
raised within the confines of the Episcopal Church that employed him.
Baum, a former Catholic priest who has recently married, is quick to
point out that "Bishops [like Spong] live by the money given by
faithful people. It seems to me," says Baum, "they can't regard
themselves as totally independent thinkers. If they do, they shouldn't
accept their wage. If you don't accept the salary and you work at the
university or you work somewhere else, then you can say I'm a private
person. This is what I believe."
Baum believes the issues Spong raises deserve to be discussed, but in
the context of adult education. To have a prelate espousing Spong's
views is confusing.
According to Baum, Spong cannot even really wear the title of modern
day heretic as many of his heresies are not new. "That Jesus was
totally human is a declaration of the fourth century," he says. "Spong
enjoys proposing his ideas in a provocative way because he thinks it
creates debate. I live and let live and I wouldn't dream of writing
against this good bishop," Baum continues with mild amusement. "But no
I don't go in for this sort of thing at all."
Harvard theologian Karen King acknowledges that the heresy of Jesus
being fully human is not new, but argues the dialogue Spong has
generated by raising it again is still useful.
"I think what Spong has done is point out that a lot of Christian
fundamentalists tend to only think of Jesus as God," says King. "They
haven't really embraced the notion that Jesus is supposed to be God and
human. And they haven't really thought about Jesus as a human being.
Spong's dialogue pushes us all to think about what would happen if
Jesus were truly human."
As for Baum's suggestion that Spong should renounce the Church
paycheque or stay quiet, King argues that "For Spong, what he's
declaring is necessary to his spiritual life. It's who he is."
King compares Spong to Saint Anthony, the saint who went out into the
desert and founded the whole monastic movement when everyone around him
told him he should stay at home and look after his sister.
"These people," she says "have always come up against those who have
said 'no you are not doing the right thing.' But people like Spong do
it because they have a call, because they feel pushed."
"I guess I think the bishop and the priest are always leading the most
honestly when they are searching and in some distress themselves," says
James Dittes, professor of pastoral theology and psychology at Yale
University. "So on that level Spong is to be commended. Jesus made
things easy for people, on a genuine honest and faithful level. There
was no pretense and the power of Jesus's life story is in his struggle
and wrestle. So I think religious leaders are called to likewise
struggle and wrestle. No one can claim to know or be the keeper of
As for Spong's assertion that Christianity is dying?
"Spong needs to get out more," says Cox laughing. "It may be dying in
parts of the Anglican Church. It may be dying in parts of North
America. But Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in other parts
of the world, in Africa, on the Asian Rim in Latin America ..."
"Dramatic Rhetoric is good," says King. "It always makes for much
better reading. But the death of Christianity has been predicted many
times, and I for one am just not going to worry about it."
THE NICENE CREED CHRISTIANS LIVE BY:
The Nicene Creed (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) was written by
the early Church and adopted (in a slightly different version) by the
Church Council at Nicaea in AD 325 and appears in its present form by
the Council at Chalcedon in AD 451. The translation below, recently
done by the ecumenical English Language Liturgical Commission, is true
to the Greek original. The words, "and the Son" (filioque in Latin),
later added in the West, are included in brackets.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and
earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus
Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from
God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of
one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and
for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy
Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was
crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On
the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he
ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He
will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his
kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the
giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the
Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through
the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We
acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the
resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
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