John Shelby "Jack" Spong (1931 – 2021) was an American bishop of the Episcopal Church. He served as the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey from 1979 to 2000. Spong was a liberal Christian theologian who called for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines. Spong was invited to speak in Scotland in 2013 by Rev Andrew Frater of Cairns Church Milngavie. Frater sought publicity for this event in ‘The Herald’ newspaper and for another in 2015. I replied on 4th June as follows: ‘The flaw in Rev Andrew Frater's reduction of New Testament record to metaphor is that it replaces Jesus Christ with human intelligence thereby reducing access to God only to clever well educated people. This forms the basis of a cult distinctive from living knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ which is available universally to the humble hearted.’

A former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Rev Andrew McLellan intimated his sympathy with Spong’s ideas, thereby transgressing his ordination vows as minister of the Church of Scotland.

Spong's ‘Twelve points for Reform’ are as follows.

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.

Reply : According to sociologists Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera's review of numerous global studies on atheism, there are 450 to 500 million positive atheists and agnostics worldwide (7% of the world's population) with China alone accounting for 200 million of that demographic. Spong’s consequential view that the God commonly worshipped by the majority of humanity does not actually exist is therefore contradicted. Spong represents a western based minority intellectual elitism completely at odds with the understanding of the most of the human race. He does not offer a new way to speak about God. He has not bettered the world nor has he improved humanity as Jesus did.

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.

Reply : Jesus had a one-to-one relationship with the One he called ‘Father’, whom we may identify as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christianity has 2.5 billion adherents today. How many followers does Spong have? Many people offer witness and testimony to their personal relationship with the Resurrected Jesus Christ. There are many persecuted Christians and significant numbers of Christian martyrs for this Jesus today. Spong did well out of his unbelief including wealth, recognition and notoriety. Do Christians sacrifice their lives for nothing? Incarnation is the crown of Christianity, its defining statement. Spong seeks to abolish Christianity.

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.

Reply : Genesis 1 : 31 says that creation was ‘very good’. It does not say that it was perfect. The Genesis 1 creation narrative is evolutionary in pattern and was written around 3000 years before 19th century Charles Darwin. Christian thinkers Augustine (4th/5th Century), Calvin (16th Century) and De Chardin (20th century) were evolutionists as well as being theists as were European 16th century scholars Copernicus and Galileo who discovered that the earth moves around the sun. The Garden of Eden is a profound reflection on the human condition consistent with our experience today.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

Reply : Why?

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.

Reply : This really is old hat. There have been many incidences of divine intervention in human lives post Newton. There are countless testimonies to psychological, spiritual, emotional and physical healing throughout the Christian Church over the past three centuries. There are libraries of testimony. The world of Newtonian physics is contradicted by Newton’s own theism. Spong denies the existence of William Booth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu whose lives harmonised Christianity and biology.

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.

Reply : It was human beings who crucified Jesus. He was not a human sacrifice. He was the recipient of violent hatred in the human community. He surrendered to this without violence as a divine-human self-sacrifice for the betterment of humanity. The crucifixion has proved to be a remedy for human conduct gone wrong, much needed in the 21st century. Spong offers nothing in comparison.

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.

Reply : The testimony of those closest to the action of Jesus’ resurrection testify to its physicality. This is the meaning of the text Luke 24 : 40 – 43 ‘When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.’ This was not however the same body as Jesus had before his death. It was transformed. Spong has no right to question the integrity of those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Such a reductionist skeptic sitting in an academic environment nearly 2000 years away from the action has no status as a credible witness or commentator.

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.

Reply : In the age of the multiverse the Ascension makes more sense than it might have done in the distant past. Scientists think in terms of multiple dimensions. These must exist because the Living God does communicate with and relate to human beings. It is not to intellectually arrogant people like Spong that God reveals Himself, it is to the humble seeking hearts, the ‘poor in spirit’. All Spong proves is that God has not spoken to him and if He has, he has not heard or listened.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.

Reply : This is palpable nonsense. Deuteronomy 6 : 5 reads ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ Leviticus 19 : 18 reads, ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ These words are echoed by Jesus in Mark 12 : 31 ‘There is no commandment greater than these.’ The values of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ are as lively and relevant today as they were when he taught them.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

Reply : Spong rubbishes the entire history of Christian experience and testimony. From the Psalms and the Book of Acts to the Pentecostal explosion of the 20th and 21st centuries, there is an abundant body of testimony and evidence to answered prayer. The physical existence of the Body of Christ in the world is the most identifiable.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behaviour control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behaviour.

Reply : Spong has never actually been a Christian. His language is that of the hostile new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who have constantly misunderstood and misinterpreted Christian categories. The Church is motivated by divine and human forgiveness and by the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christian lives. Otherwise it would never have existed.

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.

Reply : How can Spong use the term ‘God’s image’ when he has negated all testimony as to who God might be? Specifically, Spong uses the words of the revelation in the Old Testament ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1 : 27) to then contradict its content. This is simply 21st century human rights protest. It offers no distinction between right and wrong conduct nor offers any basis for making any such evaluation. This is moral anarchy such as we are witnessing in our society today.

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: replies@robertandersonchurch.org.uk