THE SUNDAY Telegraph has described John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopalian Bishop of New Jersey, as "a man of enormous charm who holds no discernibly traditional Christian views at all. On the back cover of his latest book is a line, which he chose, that describes him as 'an atheist who does the job of a bishop very well'".
Bishop Spong was recently in Jamaica as the guest of the Universal Centre of Truth to enlighten us "to the possibility of deeper wisdom from the Bible". He left with a couple of ringing endorsements in the press of his 'controversial' views.
Bishop Spong's views are in no doubt. In the manner of Luther, he has posted 12 theses, among which are the following:
1. Theism [belief in one God who is creator and ruler of the universe and known by revelation my note] as a way of defining God is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless.
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.
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.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible."
The theses continue:
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.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sin of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
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.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tables of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.
This amazing mish mash of denying God while clinging to the mere idea of Him is not in any particular way unique to Bishop Spong. As the Right Rev Mark Haverland, who holds a doctorate in Religious Studies from Duke University and to whose article I am indebted for much of the material here, remarks, "In truth Spong states frankly and honestly what many of his colleagues believe quietly. His essential atheism in fact characterises large swathes of the mainline Protestant bodies and not a few liberal Roman Catholics.
When Rudolf Bultman in the 1940s called the bodily resurrection of our Lord an incredible mythical event, he spoke for a generation that taught the leaders of many churches today. That the intellectual depth of these leaders is shallow, that their ideas are philosophically bankrupt, and that they have destroyed countless parishes and religious institutions, is undeniable--. People vote with their feet, and the Spongs of the world go on their merry way, leaving spiritual wastelands in their wake".
But 50 fellow bishops, in a statement of June 15, 1998, have braved intellectual ridicule and have repudiated Spong's views as "outside the realm of Christian discourse" and a denial of the Faith. They quite rightly "[deplored] his use of the office of Bishop to propound them. A Bishop of the Episcopal Church vows to guard and defend exactly the truths John Spong now denies. As a bishop he requires those he confirms and those he ordained to confess beliefs he himself now repudiates. Such self-contradiction is morally fraudulent and spiritually bankrupt."
At the heart of the controversy, going well beyond the maverick John Spong, is his Thesis number 6, whether or not there is "an objective, revealed standard writ in scripture". Liberal theology and tradition-based theology, which come so highly recommended by the Jamaican endorsers of Bishop Spong, face an epistemological dilemma of insurmountable proportions. How do we, how can we know about God?
If the "theistic" God, whom Spong repudiates in his theses at all exists, "canst thou by searching find out God?" as Zophar asked Job. Such a God must be a self-revealing God to be at all known by pitifully finite human beings. If God speaks in ways that cannot be readily understood by those addressed, more often than not the uneducated and poor, then He performs linguistic violence and injustice against those He expects to obey Him. This is a fundamental issue in how to read and interpret Scripture. If one rejects the possibility of a plain, everyday meaning to Scripture, taking into account the obvious symbolisms of poetry, prophecy and parable, how can one know with any certainty what God intended?
The mystification of scriptural interpretation leaves each reader free to allegorise the story to his own fancy as he goes along, or else to surrender all interpretation to a Grand Interpreter who alone can know the true meaning. But "no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation," the Apostle Peter insists. We are faced, then, with an epistemological and linguistic dilemma of enormous proportions in theology if the text cannot be relied upon to mean what it says generally in the ordinary ways of human communication.
Faith is not irrational. There is an empirical logic to accepting the claims of the Scripture. It is not in miracles, so derided by the sceptics. It is not in measuring Scripture by tentative, reductionist science. It is an internal empiricism principally in prophecy and the unfolding history as fulfillment. When the resurrected Christ wanted to assure his disciples of his messiahship, "beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself". And on the eve of His passion He told His disciples, "I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe."
The Apostle Peter tells us, in this sensate age, that above the evidence of our feeble, deceptive senses, "we have the prophetic word made more sure, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place--." King Jehoshaphat, in the extremities of war, admonished his subjects, "-- believe His prophets, and you shall prosper."
Those prophecies warn us of the perilous times of the scoffers and sceptics, puffed up in their own wisdom, and of ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing. Listen to their great swelling and condescending words as they attack the "childishness" of humble believers who are stupid enough to follow Jesus and His Apostles in taking God's word for what it plainly says. They do not speak for Him who declared, "unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
The end result of the approaches of liberal theology is not the enhancement of rational faith but its destruction as John Spong's life and ministry so amply demonstrate, as one among many. The solemn warning from James, the president of the first Council of the Christian Church still stands with great force: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will receive a stricter judgement."
Martin Henry is a communications consultant.