Focus on Spong

This review deals with the recent double issue of "Apologia", the Journal of the Wellington Christian Apologists' Society -- a grouping of conservative Christians who are alarmed at what Bishop John Spong is preaching and the amount of media attention that he gets. This journal (Apologia volume 7 (213) - 2000) runs to 135 closely-typed A4 pages and follows the previous "Focus on Jim Veitch" which was reviewed in Newsletter 36. This journal announces, somewhat obscurely on page 86 that future issues will focus on Lloyd Geering and Don Cupitt.


The Editorial sets the scene. This issue "contains a careful analysis of Bishop Spong - the man and his message - from a conservative Christian position". Battle-lines are drawn: the media exhibits "fawning devotion"; "candidness" can get in the way of truth; there is error to be combatted. All of which is undertaken. Conservative Christians will be well-pleased by this journal.

Letters to the Editor is followed by biographical and bibliographical background information about Spong. He is credited with 16 books and 101 articles up to the end of 1997.

Spong's "Twelve Theses - A Call for a New Reformation" are reproduced and are savaged by the bulldog pen of George Duggan. One wonders how persuasive Duggan's analyses "garbage" and "nonsense" will prove to those not already against Spong. But, in a footnote, Duggan's better nature takes over and he gives a helpful analysis of how science, as we now know it, was helped into being by medieval natural theology.

This is followed by what promised to be a commentary on Spong's 1997 visit to New Zealand which includes a misreference (p13) to the Geering "Memorial" Lecture. (The editor also gets it wrong on page 17 by referring to the Geering "Fellowship" Lectures. The lectures are simply the "Geering Lectures" and they are arranged by The St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society. However, the article barely mentions Spong and instead gives a history of all the other "intellectuals attacking the Gospels" as far back as Celsus in the year 180. A reference to Spong's approach to Christianity as "theological snake oil" only adds to a reputation for intemperance on Duggan's part which threatens to rival Spong's. And of course, Darwin gets thumped, here and elsewhere. As earlier, Duggan's mood brightens at the end of this article with an attempt at a helpful discussion on Fundamentalism ... more of which below.

Then follows 33 pages of well-articulated criticism of Spong, by the editor David Lane, under the overall heading of "Redefining God In Man's Image". This is followed by a 20 page critique of Spong's autobiography Here I Stand -- an autobiography that might have benefited the author more by not having been published.

A mild rebuke of Spong by the later Brian Davies (Anglican Archbishop of NZ) straddles the fence -- some agreement, some disagreement.

A further twenty pages follow written by "Laymen" who restate the conservative Christian disagreement with Spong.

The book Can a Bishop Be Wrong? is introduced on page 93 and reviewed on page 116. Unsurprisingly the answer given, and with many details, is "yes".

Dr Stephen Smith, Professor of Theology and Ethics, rightly discerns that there is a "great gulf fixed" between Christian Theism and Monism. He attempts to show that Spong is a monist and therefore on the wrong side of the gulf.

A fluffy article by Wayne Jackson of The Christian Courier is padded-out with two anecdotes. This lowers the otherwise serious tone of the journal.

Spong's Resurrection: Myth or Reality is reviewed by Kathleen Loncar in a style that avoids citing the conservative theology of the rest of the journal. If you are bored by liberal and conservative Christians slugging it out like punch-drunk boxers, then you might find this the best item in the journal. It is followed by a less satisfactory review of the same book by Gerald O'Collins, Professor of Fundamental Theology, Gregorian University, Rome. He dismisses Spong's arguments as "not new" and without evidence writes that Spong "pushes a midrashic theory to his own idiosyncratic extreme" in order to explain the restoration of faith in Jesus on the part of the post-crucifixion disciples

An Australian, Frank Mobbs, reviewed Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die and sees it as a "recipe for the extinction of Christianity". He reasonably observes (p114) that Spong's reformulation of Christianity "means discarding all those beliefs which make someone a Christian ..". This pointed is expanded on below.

George Duggan returned to review Jim Stuart's The Many Faces of Christ (St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society 1998). Duggan's conviction that the Gospels are biographical material as distinct from the faith utterances of separate Christ-following groups, puts him at some scholarly distance from Stuart.

As if he didn't get done over sufficiently in the previous issue of the journal, Jim Veitch sustains another 8 pages from Justin Cargill, who brings in Jim Stuart, John Murray and Burton Mack to stand at the bar with Veitch.

I reviewed the previous issue of Apologia in the Sea of Faith (NZ) Newsletter 36 and that review is republished (with my permission) in this journal. It is followed by a "Response" from David Lane, the editor of Apologia. I will respond separately.


Starting Points Fundamentally Opposed

Conservatives do not, as do liberals, readily distinguish between "The Jesus of History" and "The Christ of Faith". This is evident in the casual interchangability between "Jesus" (a name) and "Christ" (a title). They take (and in the opinion of many liberals) mistake Christianity to be the extension through time of Jesus' ministry. Liberals tend to see Christianity as a series of reflections on the life and message of Jesus which have taken on an independent life of their own. Thus, attempts to remove layers of interpretation and to rediscover the "authentic" or "historical" Jesus are seen by conservatives to be "attacks" on Christianity. If one identifies Christianity with such layers of interpretation, then such an accusation has merit.

"Antecedent Assumptions"

Liberals are accused by Duggan (p14 right column; p118 right column) .... of having "antecedent assumptions", by which we can understand something like "prior assumptions". These are offered as evidence of a closed mind in regard to, for example. the existence of a supernatural order and supernatural beings. As Duggan writes (page 118, right column) "One can approach the Gospels with and open mind or with the conviction ... that such notion as "the supernatural order" or "miracles" [are illusory]" (emphasis added).

But conservatives also have "antecedent assumptions" as the Statement of Belief inside the front cover eloquently sets out. If liberals can be accused of wielding Occam's Razor with reckless abandon, then cannot the conservatives be guilty of passing up the opportunity to re-state their faith in terms accessible to 21st century people?

Are Conservatives Fundamentalist?

Yes ... and by self-declaration. On page 16, George Duggan attempts a distinction between "moderate" and "extreme" Fundamentalism, which may be little more than a difference of degree. In his analysis, the moderate form is that which David Lane referred to on page 30 and which has its origins in a series of pamphlets issued around 1910 in the United States dealing with what the Protestant authors took to be "the fundamentals" of Christian faith. Apologia's Statement of Belief, both in content and its creedal centrality, bears a strong resemblance. The extreme form of Fundamentalism is relentlessly literalistic in its dealings with biblical texts.

In recent years, Lloyd Geering has identified "fundamentalism" in areas of life other than the overtly religious. "What all fundamentalists have in common is their conviction that they are absolutely right". One of the more surprising examples that Geering quotes is in what came to be called "New Right" economic theory and is summed up in Margaret Thatchers (in)famous phrase "there is no alternative".

What Christian liberals appear to worry about in Christian Fundamentalism is not so much the reduction of Christianity to a credit-card-sized manifesto but rather the ferocity of its proclamation. In the end, Fundamentalism starts with the view that "we" have the truth and that there is no scheme of thought, philosophy or discourse that can cast any doubt on it. The implied licence to act from this base of such certainty (what, in the Christian sense, Geering refers to as "idolatry of the Bible") should keep the rest of us alert for our safety.

In his St Andrew's Trust lectures series Crisis in the Christian Way (1993) Lloyd Geering talked of a prophesy made in 1923 by the scholar Kirsopp Lake, that (at least in mainline Protestant churches) the traditionalists would force out the radicals and then become gradually absorbed by the fundamentalists. "Thus, he said, the church would shrink from left to right". And, so it has.

Biblical Inerrancy and Figurative Language

This is the subject of the first item in the Statement of Belief of the WCAS and it is the major plank in rebuttals mounted by George Duggan - apart from declarations that some offending statements are "nonsense". Claims of inerrancy are often confused with claims of "literal truth" by opponents of WCAS, but they don't make that claim - although it is not clear what gives one licence to treat a given text as "metaphorical" or even "mythological".

As further justification for a view of biblical inerrancy (expressed as "infallabilty"), a guest contributor (page 83) takes the view that unless we ascribe inerrancy to Scripture, then we will ascribe it elsewhere. Although this is a possbility - even one with a high probability - its is not necessarily true. As those who follow the subject of postmodernism note, the opinion that there are permanent truths is qualified by the knowledge that we create a great proportion of what we formerly though to be reality.

On page 44 Lane writes "All conservative New Testament scholars would agree that the Gospels and the birth narratives do not have only a flat, literal meaning." He then goes on to deny Spong's claim that the Gospels are midrash, something which does not concern us at this point because we need to note that we are left with a hanging concession - if not "flat, literal" then what? Lane offers only "great artistry at the level of narrative and theology." Why not be specific and allow that there is parable, hyperbole, metaphor and myth (see below)? Although a guest contributor (page 95 left column) does concede that "No thoughtful Christian would deny the symbolic dimension of the Ascension", we are not told whether this is symbolic in addition to or in place of a literal reading.

Only a literal reading of the NT would allow Lane to write (p43) "the founder of no other religion in human history besides the Lord Jesus Christ, has predicted his own death and bodily resurrection, fulfilled that prophecy, and convinced generations of His followers, including a band of disgruntled and broken-hearted disciples, that He overcame death and lives for evermore." Similarly on page 63 his series of statements that "The Bible teaches ..." requires a literal reading in that he quotes without qualification, biblical texts. On page 68 (right column) we are left wondering on what points and texts Lane would surrender a literal for a non-literal reading of biblical stories. On page 76 (right column) a guest contributor quotes a book on biblical inerrancy which states that "the Scriptures ... properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true" [emphasis added]. What counts as "proper" interpretation and who does it, is not covered, leaving us to suspect a tautology - that a proper interpretation is that which puts the Scriptures in the best possible light. To say that Christ believed the Scriptures to be inerrant seems like question begging in that his alleged beliefs are recorded in Scripture.

The late Anglican Archbishop, Brian Davies (who died four months before Spong's 1997 visit to New Zealand), writing in 1994 and commenting on Spong's Resurrection, Myth or Reality? offers (p72) a quite inadequate antithesis: "The reader must judge for himself or herself which account is more credible, the biblical account or that of Bishop Spong." There are other explanations, not relying on Spong's debatable midrash account, which are more credible. For such a senior churchman to write (p72) "The discrepancies in detail between the Gospel accounts underline the authenticity of its witness rather than detract from it" seems to be grasping at straws.

Myths -- from "fallacy" to "divine story"

On page 134 "myth" is berated as "question-begging and reductionist. On page 119 a conflict between science and religion is said to be an error, but the word used is "myth". Oddly enough, in the same article (page 120) the word "myth" is appropriately used to name the kind of interpretive overlay used by Paul and other OT writers. On page 105 the accusation is made that the "Bible is viewed as merely a collection of myths and legends", that is as inferior ways of characterising episodes such as "the fall of man", which the author take to be "historical". On page 31 an alleged error in one's understanding of the "Galileo Affair" is called a "myth". On page 79 Spong is accused of dismissing Genesis as "myth", while on the same page, Greek and Maori myths are given a sympathetic hearing, more in accord with the notion that a myth is a story which, while not necessarily true in the sense that it could have been recorded in a video camera, embodies spiritual truths about the nature of humans and our interaction with God.

It is quite possible for someone thoroughly sympathetic to the Judeo-Christian faith system to characterise Genesis as "myth" while at the same time saluting it as a valuable explanation for the existence of sin and suffering. The comment about Genesis in the left column of page 102 suggests that. Even Spong (see p112 right column, re John 21) makes life difficult for himself by seeking a factual substrate to a story that can just as profitably be regarded as symbolic and mythological. It is unnecessary to look for an actual event in order for the story to say something valuable.

Since "myth" in theological terms is not the same as "fallacy" as in everyday vocabulary, it would have helped the coherence of this journal had the usage been regularised throughout - especially in the light of the concession in the left column of page 134 that "some conservative evangelicals show a weak understanding of myth when they dismiss it as 'mere myth'".

Spong is not guiltless either. His book title Resurrection: Myth or Reality sets up a contradiction between "myth" and "reality" that is not apparent inside the book. His use of myth is explained on pages xi and 10 and is consistent with theological usage.

Modernism and PostModernism

. Since Fr George Duggan has written a lot against "modernism" we are entitled to think that he might be reflecting some of the Roman Catholic abhorrence that culminated in Pope Pius X (in 1907) characterising modernism as "the synthesis of all heresies". But, more relevant to today's climate, modernism is seen as what "post-modernism" seeks to displace.

This is usually identified with what has been called "The Enlightenment Project" which sought to build up an ever-increasing corpus of knowledge. Postmodernism says that, for a number of reasons, the project is flawed. The leather-bound encylopaedia is a symbol of its increasing futility, while its annually updatable CR-ROM counterpart a symbol of postmodern pragmatism. Our penchant for accumulating knowledge is no guarantee that we are even heading in the "right" direction (whatever that may mean) let alone understanding what we are accumulating.

Thomas Kuhn in 1962 is credited with returning the scientific enterprise to its legitimate task of regarding all knowledge as provisional. This point is acknowledged on page 74 (left column), the author perhaps being unaware that the the unravelling of the metanarrative "science" places in jeopardy the earlier worldview "Christianity"- if only because of the historical continuity between them.

It would be fair to characterise the Apologists' Statement of Belief - with its sense of a closed book, nothing left to argue about, all authority is external to the human condition - as pre-modern. That is, it pre-dates the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment wherein truth was discovered by investigation, doubt and debate. Unhappily, even they thought that what they had arrived at was final but, as Stanley Grenz in A Primer on Postmodernism wrote "[Postmodernism] affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate . . There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate."

Postmodernism is obviously an irritant to conservatives. It would be a help to others to know why it "is one of the many symptoms of the bankruptcy of western liberalism" (p47) Is it because, in adopting poMo, western liberalism becomes bankrupt or, alternatively and in the opinion of this reviewer, because western liberalism fails to take seriously the claims of epistemological postmodernism, that the west has run its course and the gains of the Enlightenment have been sqaundered on such illusory certainties as traditional Christianity, "science", "capitalism", and "democracy"?

The More It Changes ...

... the less like traditional Christianity it appears. Frank Mobbs (p114) observes that Spong's reformulation of Christianity "means discarding all those beliefs which make someone a Christian .." As must be evident to anyone trying to get an adequate definition of Christianity, there appears to be not objective definition to which all Christian can agree. A major part of the problem arises because the terms employed by Christians are not themselves objective and agreed upon but are drawn from the highly contested doctrinal vocabulary of believers. Thus we are presented, in the Statement of Belief, with: "divine inspiration"; "the great I AM"; Saviour; Holy Trinity ... and much more. The Creeds add: "Son of God"; "Very God of very God"; "incarnate"; "Resurrection of the dead" ... and more. Out of such highly-charged buildling blocks the various definitions of "Christian" and "Christianity" emerge.

Christians, including Spong, are strung out along a spectrum. Near one end is the ultra-conservative and would have nothing to do withe the Renaissance let alone the Enlightenment, Darwin, Freud or postmodernism. Near the other are the advocates of removing centuries of "interpretive overlay" from the record of the life and teachings of Jesus and re-instating the starkly simple Kingdom-oriented message of Jesus to centrality. This latter group might agree that we are faced with a problem similar to having a cat look at a particular object. If we point at the object, the cat looks at our finger. Jesus, say the liberals and radicals, pointed at God while we, cat-like, look at him instead of at God.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Those who write about Jesus are writing of one who we can, without controversy say, preached love, tolerance and acceptance. Both Apologia (or, rather, its editor and contributors) and John Spong may justly be charged with conducting themselves in ways that fail to exhibit love, tolerance and acceptances in contexts where these are imporant. Such intemperate outbursts, in the end, tell us more about the writer than what is being written about.

In this edition of Apologia we find: Spong, Geering and Veitch described as "hucksters of modernity" (p37); Spong described as Pickwickian, but soon transformed to Dom Quixote (p46); and Cupitt described as an atheist (p68) not, one suspects that Cupitt has so described himself but as a piece on name-calling. On page 80, "the God within" is dismissed as "merely another name for for one's own desires and lusts". This is childishly simplistic and a distasteful slur on the faith of centuries of mystics. The example that this reviewer found most repugnant appears on page 84 and came from the pen of either Michael Bott or Jonathan Sarfati. It states that the Creator is entitled to snuff out the life that he has made: "exterminated nations [that] were so corrupt and idolatrous". In the past it has lead to the view that the Creator has subcontracted the job to those willing to hold that opinion, as a sort of Christian jihad.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has accussed Spong of intemperance and hectoring. Reading Spong's autobiography one can see merit in the charge. As Lane writes on page 84 of Apologia "The frequency with which he [Spong] attributes motives of malice and hatred to those who disagreed with him is hard to reconcile with his stated goal to celebrate diversity and allow others the right to fully express their spirituality." Spong, of course, is not alone in this. But he is not a diplomat - what goes down well as a one-liner from a rostrum often looks threadbare in print. He is a charismatic speaker, and personally charming in one-on-one situations with people he likes. Not content to simply dismiss fundamentalism as a style of belief that he disagrees with he lashes out at it with what appears to be obsessive fervour. Might we see a sort of Pauline conversion (away from, rather than towards) or is it that he is so infuriated at the damage that he claims is being caused to Christianity by fundamentalism that he has lost his cool and cannot regain it?

The record on page 30 of Spong's interview by Mike Hosking on 2 October 1997 is (unfortunately for Spong) correct, although one suspects that Lane went on to make 7-page a meal of it. Spong did say that "the fundamentalist approach [this too is an anachronism] wanted to put Galileo to death". Lane scores (p36) a significant point against Spong by reminding us that it was the academics of the day, wedded as they were to Aristotelian cosmology, who harassed Galileo and that Jesuit astronomers were already cautiously moving in Galileo's direction. It was as much Galileo's lack of diplomacy that sunk him. There may be a parallel here for Spong to consider - being "right" is only half the story.

If we can discount for Spong's errors and sometime over-the-top forms of expression, we can give as an example of a theme that is central to Spong's challenge to conservative Christianity the quotation which appears on page 101 (right column) from page 147 of his Living In Sin: "The Levitical condemnation of homosexuality is a pre-modern illustration of ignorance." In that statement we see just one of many examples of the great gulf that has opened between liberal and conservative Christians. The former are prepared to set aside the scriptural record of earlier expressions of faith in the name of an understanding and compassion now thought to have been lacking then. On the other hand, conservatives see the Bible as the inerrant and unchanging record of the transactions between humankind and a sternly-loving and consistent God. But, since our opinions on the nature of just about everything else has changed throughout the 3000 year life of the Bible, why cannot also our views on the nature of God and the requirements placed on humankind. After all, all Christians agree that there was a significant change of perspective 2000 years ago.