Why Spong is Wrong

Hosted by The Star Course (Originally posted May 98 - last updated slightly 10 Oct 2003)
John Selby Spong in 1998 put forward 12 theses, with the pretension of comparing himself with Martin Luther.  This may bolster his notoriety and sales of his books.  No-one would pay attention had he not been serving as Bishop of Newark in the Anglican Episcopalian Church (ECUSA).  But instead of resigning, having denied the faith he is sworn to maintain, he clung on, demonstrating his true moral and intellectual status.  Furthermore, instead of honestly admitting that he has lost his Christian Faith, he tries to suggest that no-one else has any right to theirs. Fortunately he has finally resigned, but ...

More tosh from Spong

A correspondent has just sent me this latest outburst from Spong. He complains that Bp Rowan Williams describes Spong's 'theses' as "under-examined," "poorly thought through," "the sort of thing that might be asked by a bright 20th century sixth former." (well, fairly bright) and that this amounts to a personal attack. He refers to his theses "posted on the internet for debate" but of course forgets to mention that he never engaged in the debate, where they were torn to pieces".

I'm emailing his assistant bishops (Spong is [or was then] not on the internet) to see if any of them respond. I bet they don't! [They didn't - what a surprise]

To see responses from all over the world to this challenge click here.
To see what two outstanding scientists say about science & religion click here.
To follow and contribute to a debate between a Christian [me] and a leading philosopher click here.

Below I give Spong's 12 theses and offer preliminary refutations of all the ones (7) that are formulated clearly enough to be dealt with logically, together with some comments on the rest.  Spong says "I stand ready to debate each of them as we prepare to enter the third millennium."  So if he is a man of integrity he will enter into the debate, and I will post his replies here. {of course he didn't}

I have EMailed him this challenge. Christians throughout the world await his response with interest! If you want to EMail him a comment (via his PA) to encourage him to participate, click here. I have also EMailed the unofficial Diocese of Newark EMail list - no logical defense of Spong's theses has come from them either.

The Bishop of Rochester has now published his own response to Spong, which is here.
Spong's famous interview is posted here.
A set of articles exmaining Spong is here.

BTW: It is interesting that Spong's knowledge of science apparently stops with Darwin in the 19th Century (I understand that he also uses Freud, but Freud is not nowadays considered to have been a scientist).

Theses and Refutations

"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."
Theism means "belief in God".  Presumably by "is dead" he means "has no current intellectual life" (if all he means is "I, Spong, don't believe in it, and I know others who don't" then what he is saying is of no interest - there have been atheists for centuries!).  But all over the world theism is intellectually very much alive.  To give just a few counter-examples Dr John Polkinghorne FRS at Cambridge and Prof. Keith Ward at Oxford have both written masterly books explaining and 'defending'  theism in the light of the most modern developments in science.  A debate between me and Prof. Colin Howson at the LSE on the existence of God was published in May 98 in Prospect Magazine.  Similar examples could no doubt be found in most other countries.  Spong might disagree with the RC Church and with Judaism and Islam, but they are certainly not 'dead' and certainly theistic.  Hence this thesis is REFUTED QED.  Poor Spong seems to live in a 1970s time warp, following AJ Ayer who has been comprehensively refuted. "most God-talk is meaningless" is manifestly untrue since there are lots of speakers and listeners of God-talk who assign meaning to them. (has he never read later Wittgenstein?).  If Spong doesn't understand what they are saying, he should say so directly.

" 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."
"God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms." is a manifest lie. I, and millions of others can, even if Spong can't.  If Spong can't think about God in terms of belief in God, he should say so honestly, and not pretend that others, who have a real faith in God, can not.  Clearly, if Spong does not believe in God he will have  trouble seeking to understand the Incarnation!  But to say this 'bankrupt's Christology of the ages is ridiculous.  What does this rhetoric mean?  All it means is: "I, Spong, don't believe so I will pretend it's not my problem, but yours - but I will use loose language because if I stated it clearly it would be an obvious lie."  REFUTED QED.

"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."
Spong doesn't understand the creation or the fall (or science for that matter).  Creation was Good, not perfect.  And if humans have freewill (Spong probably denies this as well) the there must have been a time before it had been first exercised for morally wrong choices. Of course the Bible stories of Creation and Fall are expressed through myths (an ancient story telling a deep and timeless truth) but this does not make them nonsense, even if poor deluded Spong can't understand them.  This expression of at least one of the meanings of the fall is post-Darwinian and not nonsense. Hence  REFUTED QED.

"4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible."
Presumably he means 'humanity'.  But either way, this is just obviously untrue!  What new refutation has occurred to Spong that has escaped millions of much wiser and more thoughtful people?  (maybe: "by denying God as a Bishop and getting away with it I can make millions of dollars from TV, cable and book deals"  Wow.  Such deep thought!)  Since Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, has always included the idea of the Virgin Birth and although the meaning has never been nothing but biological, it has always included the biological statement, it cannot be true that this makes the traditional understanding impossible.  REFUTED QED.

"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."
Spong presumably thinks that Newton and his successors have shown that we live in a deterministic universe, wholly driven by immutable laws of cause and effect.  But this determinist paradigm is now recognised to be invalid (see eg here).  If Spong knew any modern physics he would know that there is no physical reason why miracles are impossible.   Although many atheists (eg Laplace, who denied the existence of comets) claimed support from Newton, Newton (who presumably understood his own theories) was a devout Christian and certainly believed in miracles, as have many of his successors. REFUTED QED.

"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."
St Paul had similar scoffers to deal with.  Of course for people who don't believe in God in Christ this is a problem.  But nothing has changed in 2000 years.   Since 'must be dismissed' is a piece of rhetoric, I cannot deny that it is Spong's opinion, but it is based on no new evidence.

"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."
This would only follow if God cannot act in history.  Spong, the atheist, may think this is impossible, but there is no logical reason why, if God exists, he cannot act in history.

"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."
It is perfectly possible to translate it:  "Heaven" is the state of being fully absorbed into the Godhead, and therefore completely de-localised with respect to the Physical Universe.  To get the disciples to understand that Jesus had passed into Heaven it was necessary that they should see him rise and be hidden by a cloud. This is a translation into a totally space-age set of concepts.  Thus Spong's statement is false. REFUTED QED.

"9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time."
Note how "tablets of stone" is imported - it adds nothing to the meaning and is just a rhetorical device.  Note also  the ambiguity of "govern our ethical behavior for all time" Clearly human beings sin and thus fall short of any standard.  But, even if Spong doesn't like "Love God and Love your Neighbour as yourself" there is no doubt that can set the standard for ethical behaviour for all time. Whether people choose to follow the truth is another matter.

"10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way."
Sez who?  Mine can, so are those of the billions who pray.  Here's one: "dear God, please induce Spong to withdraw his 'theses' on the Internet tomorrow."  Of course Spong doesn't believe in God, but that doesn't mean that my requests can't be made. (see eg here for a longer discussion). REFUTED QED.

"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."
So although (according to 9) there is no Holy Writ, the Pronouncements of  Spong are now binding on us all!  Perhaps he can explain how a society without control of behaviour might work or survive?!  Spong may abandon reality in his comfortable US media-pundit existence, but the Church has to live in the real world where fear and guilt exist as well as love.

"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."
Well, this could be true, but not in the way Spong means it.  He wants to infer that eg practising homosexuals should not be told that they are sinning, and should be free to 'marry' and be 'priests'.  But on that basis, you should not "discriminate against" burglars, embezzlers, rapists, paedophiles, mass-murderers.  Hate the sin and love the sinner seems to have passed Spong by. (see eg the excellent Kuala Lumpur Statement)

My open letter to Spong challenging him to a debate is reproduced here.

What do you think?

I've enjoyed hosting this debate, but it is becoming too time-consuming to keep adding comments. It has been inspiring what my fellow christians from many persuasions have said.  Many of the 'liberal' comments have been helpful and challenging, although none has provided a logical defence of Spong's Theses.  I suspect most of what can be said, has been said somewhere in the response pages.
If you have more comments, why not EMail Spong or go to Episco-talk. 
If you want to explore issues futher about Christianity in a modern and post-modern age, why not look here. 
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