Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Refining a Reformation: A Response to Spong

As I write on the need for a new reformation (see Nov. 3) for Christianity, many people have told me my ideas are similar to John Shelby Spong's, who wrote Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (a notion that I wholeheartedly agree with). Having never read him directly, I needed to, so delved into his latest book, The Sins of Scripture. What I discovered shocked me. Although I can agree with Spong on the need to rethink so much of what has become traditional Christianity (and agree with several of his conclusions), I believe he has succumbed to an emotional overeaction that reinforces to me the need for a more objective fact-based reform.

Spong believes much of the Bible is a fraud, stating, for example, that the idea of Jesus's suffering as atonement due to inborn sin is a human creation concocted by the early disciples to explain the crucifixion. He believes sadomasochism is in the heart of Christianity because God is portrayed as an angry Father who punishes people, and eventually His son, for the sin of humankind. But he doesn't offer objective evidence for this fraud, only a host of emotionally based arguments, some of them misusing Scripture the same way that fundamentalists do. He also ignores other evidences such as the NT manuscript evidence for historicity, Isaiah's predictions of a suffering servant who bares sin for the people, and the testimony of history of human evil that cries for justice--atrocities such as the Killing Fields, Rwanda massacres, the Holocaust, Stalin's purge, and the Armenian holocaust, to name only a few in our century.

Where Spong sees problems in Scripture, he often jumps to conclusions without attempting to understand the historical, cultural, and literary context, before making an intepretation--the very sin that proof-texting conservative Christians practice. For example, he says Matthew 27:25 (A Jewish crowd insists on Jesus' crucifixion in response to Pilate's plea of innocence, "His blood be on us and on our children.") is responsible for anti-semitism and untold Jewish suffering and therefore a "sin of scripture." The question is did that event really happen? If misguided people misuse and abuse the recording of that event to justify anti-semitism, how does that make the writings sinful? A careful study of related texts shows that the NT is not anti-semitic (all its authors and the whole early church was Jewish, Paul told non-Jewish believers to not be arrogant or boastful to Jewish non-believers), but that a segment of Jewish people simply rejected Jesus (as did many non-Jews as well).

A careful study also indicates that God is not laying a guilt-trip on people (as many churches do as a result of misinterpretation) just because He sent a sacrifice for sins. The overall message is grace, not guilt, another NT theme that Spong ignores.

Spong fixates more on Scripture being fraudulent or guilty of false teaching. I agree that there are real problems with some biblical passages, but the solution is not to reject its teachings outright, but pursue correct translation, interpretation, and application in today's world. The problem is not so much Scripture, but people and institutions twisting and abusing it to justify evil or falsehoods. Without a new reformation, fundamentalism and much of evangelicalism on the right, will continue to abuse Scripture, and people like Spong, on the left, will continue to overeact to such abuses.

I respect Spong for making a bold call for change and will continue to read his position. However, I believe the change must be in line with historical truth found through sound exegesis, hermeanutics, and an honest study of canonicity and the nature/limits of biblical authority and inerrancy.


marc said...

it's great to know that someone is as interested with the 'grace' concept. currently, i am reading the book 'what's so amazing about grace?' by philip yancey. i chanced upon this book left by a friend and i must say that even growing up catholic, grace has been an abstract term for me. i know it will take me some time to grasp it. wish me luck!

Michael said...


Yes, that's one of my favorite books on grace. Yancey is a wonderful author living on the fringe of evangelicalism but still acceptable by evangelical standards. Grace is the most undertaught and misunderstood concept in the church. After Yancey, check out Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel, another grace classic. Afterwards, read the first 10 chapters of Romans in one sitting and you'll see it with new eyes... and grasp it.

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Anvilcloud said...

It's interesting to read your views. I have read several of his books but not the two that you mentioned. The books that I have read have made sense to me. I think that if I could believe, it would be something along those lines.

meekster said...

Bishop Spong is obviously such an iconoclast, that it seems odd to me that he wears the traditional outfit. I wonder about men who appear one way, but speak another.