Sunday, September 14, 2008

John Shelby Spong's 12 Theses

John Shelby Spong, the former Anglican/Episcopalian bishop of Newark, New Jersey, created one of his signature whirlwinds ten years ago by proposing the following "12 Theses".

Modeled on the 99 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg door in 1517, Spong claims to have written these in the most provocative language possible in order to provoke internet debate. Here's just one link to some of the many responses he provoked. (I apologize ahead of time for the blaring background on that site....)
Spong has been accused of atheism and heresy, but his critics have difficulty attacking his arguments. They usually end up attacking the implications of his arguments.

Here are Bishop Spong's 12 articles for debate. All italics are mine.

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. In other words, it makes no sense to speak of God in terms of a personality with likes and dislikes.

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. Once you come to terms with the idea that God doesn't intervene, you're probably going to look into when the concept of the Trinity came into being. The answer is somewhere around 300 A.D., and it remained vague until 451 A.D.

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. Yeah, it's mythology, and it's nonsense, but most cultures have a creation story. These stories were useful devices for the patriarchy to blame women for the ills of the age - whether the story is of Eve and the apple, or Pandora opening a box and allowing sin and evil into the world.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible. If you accept the idea that God does intervene, I guess that it's possible. However, virgin birth stories were already in place long before the birth of Christ. Only two of the four gospels mention a virgin birth, and the apostle Paul acts like he never heard of it. Plus, the idea that it's the fulfillment of a prophecy is on very shaky linguistic ground. Most evidence points to the virgin birth as a late arrival in the Jesus story.

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. When you think about it, they do seem kind of random. Plus, after an astonishing number of his miracles, Jesus instructs bystanders to tell no one about the miracle. 40 years from now, people could write stories about Bill Clinton healing people in Rosebud, Arkansas. You don't remember Bill Clinton healing anyone in Arkansas? Of course you don't. He told us not to tell anyone about it.

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. Yeah, if I've offended you in some way, I can't make up for it by going into the back yard and slaughtering a few dachshunds. The substitutionary atonement idea doesn't hold up very well in the 21st century.

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. How can we know that Lazarus wasn't physically resurrected and that Jesus wasn't physically resurrected? The same way we know that a talking snake didn't trick Eve into eating an apple. It just doesn't happen. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying Bishop Spong's statement here....

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. We can look everywhere for heaven (and hell), but never find either of them.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time. By the time Jesus was born, parts of the Old Testament were already seen as barbaric, a pain in the rear to deal with, or a control mechanism. If Jesus (with Paul's help) hadn't found a way to circumvent them, someone else probably would have done so.
Many conservative theologians call these different time periods "dispensations", and argue that God has interacted with man at different times in different ways. They say that the Old Testament era was one dispensation under one set of God's rules, and the New Testament was another dispensation. Spong argues that we simply outgrow our theologies, and they need replacing just like we continually replace outdated scientific beliefs.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way. Well, it can be, but nothing comes of it. I can't conceive of an all-powerful God who would respond to a pre-game prayer for the health of football players, but who would not intervene to prevent the death of a child.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior. Plus, the eternal reward/eternal punishment concept was a fairly recent development in the Jewish worldview. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never heard of it. The idea that God will allow an eternal punishment puts him in a far worse league than Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or whoever was responsible for Abu Ghraib.

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. The Jews aren't God's chosen people, the Germans aren't the Master Race, China isn't halfway between earth and heaven, Men aren't necessarily superior to women, heterosexuality is no more normal than right-handedness, and God didn't curse the African race by turning one of Noah's sons black. End of story.

Some friends of mine lost a child to Leukemia this morning. I'm at a loss for something meaningful to say to them. Maybe that's why I'm seriously digging into John Spong again.
I wish I could tell my friends that their daughter's gone to be with God, or that there's a higher purpose involved here, or that this is all part of a plan.
The theology of my childhood seems like a random collection of superstitions and dogmas, and doesn't do me much good any longer.

I believe that someone named Jesus lived, taught, and died, and that he was probably killed for standing up to the religious system of his day.
I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that any God wanted, or even allowed, Jesus to die.

I don't believe that the being known as "God" wanted my friend's daughter to die. I can't go there.

It's time for a new way of looking at the world.
The old one doesn't work any more.


Francis Shivone said...

No comments but to say that I always read your posts. I enjoy the thoughtfulness and like the provocation.

The Whited Sepulchre said...


I've had a strange day dealing with this particular death. It's hit me harder than most.

More anger than sadness.

Anonymous said...

The good lord works in mysterious ways.


Couldn't resist that bit of vapidness.

Great article.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Spong Fan,

Thanks. If we're lucky, 50 years from now the Christian church will have remade itself along "Spongian" and (my favorite) "Marcus Borgian" lines.

Anonymous said...

Religions have to evolve and adapt to keep up in this world. Interestingly, I have never read these theses. I sometimes wonder why I go to college if I don't learn useful(and thought provoking) things like this.

Reading some works from Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus always re-set me. Death really is just the end of feeling. I'm sorry for your friends loss.

My dad sent this to me earlier today.
"We make of our life what we want--roll with where we are at and change what we can--accept with dignity what we cannot."

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.
Thank you.
Didn't realise you were a Spong fan.

You've probably seen this video...

Anonymous said...

Spong has greatly misunderstood the arguments of Isaac Newton.

Then again, Spong's not paid to be a scholar, he's paid to be a celebrity.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I believe that those who pay John Spong would've been happier if he'd continued to take the easy path, telling people what they want to hear, what they grew up hearing, and leaving people in their comfort zones.
I don't think they've ever paid him to be a celebrity, but if an academic manages to bring new ways of thinking to a mass audience, celebrity comes with the package.
What exactly was your point?

Anonymous said...

I was ordained as a roman catholic deacon but left the church seeking for a fuller experience of God. Today I realise that my theology is outdated, I have many questions that the bible can't answer. I am now sure it was not intended to give these answers. Thanks for a very uplifting and real exposure. OH

Anonymous said...

We should reverance Jesus, but not worship, that is what he said anyway. And He never said that he would die for our sins, that is the manufacture of man, so Yes, brother spong has stuck to his rteligion faithfully and long enough to learn and be taught of the spirit a few pointed truths.

Doesnt mean he has everything right, but then who has, the church needs him.

About the little one that was lost, am so sorry, it is very painful to loose one we love.

As for why? hmmm, I wonder if that is the question. For everyday many leave the mortal plane.

We are all spirits in bodies, I have experienced this for myself.

Our spirit has a past, and this is born out in the different chacracters and personalities we see in our children from a young age.

Where the childs spirit is gone is back to a spirit realm, probably the same one she left not so long ago.

She is in a place of love, have no doubt about that, it is you who are not yet, and you who long to be so.

And she may well have another shot at life, if she so chooses and the best oppotunity arises for her.

The universe and all creation are well organized, but we just do not remember from whence we come.

To love when we are not loved, that is a goal of life, to let go hate and take up the pursuit of truth, that we become judges.

Jesus never said not to judge, he said not to condemn. But to judge accurately, righteously, to observe and identify that which is good from that which is bad, to learn and become ennobled, pur and highly conscious, that is the purpose for those who find it, and it is of faith, though not of religion, though the path may start in religion.

If we find that little narrow gate, and step onto the path. we will be led to our divine potential, through an enduring walk, peeling the layers of the onion of our soul, purifying the dross, until we are as perfect as our fathers who have done so before us.

As for where the first God came from, I dont know, evolution I suppose, only I know there are creatures of great love and light, because I have dealt with them.

God bless

Bro B

Unknown said...

I am in a Sunday school class taught by a smart man who is captured by philosophy and Bishop Spong. I honestly do NOT understand how this gentleman can teach the Sunday school class, then go into the church service and repeat the Apostles' Creed.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

"Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).