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(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 ...
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]
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.
" 2. Since God can no longer be conceived in
terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the
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
creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian
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
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
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
sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of
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
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
universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the
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
writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical
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
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
forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment.
Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of
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
of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual
can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or
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.