Monday, 15 July 2013


So, it's been a while, hasn't it? In fact, almost a month. Sorry about that; I fear a number of factors, including poor health, but also including things like my own poor organisation have kept me from blogging for quite a while. I was spurred to get back to this by my discovery that John Shelby Spong has a new book out.

For those unaware, Spong is the retired Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, in the Episcopal Church, American branch of the Anglican Communion. For decades now, Spong has been one of the most prolific voices in advocating a form of “Christianity” which systematically denies just about every belief historically considered definitional of the Christian faith. Spong denies not only the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible and the historical nature of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, but even goes so far as to define God in such a way that would be incomprehensible to any kind of traditional theism. At one point in my theological/intellectual development, Spong was a hero of mine. What can I say; we all have periods in our lives we'd probably rather forget.

Spong's latest book is entitled The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I hasten to add, I haven't read the book, so this is not a review. It is, however, a response to this article, which Spong recently published in the Huffington Post.

Spong writes that his book is the result of five years of “intense” study of St. John's Gospel. He then lists six findings of his period of study which, he says, will upset traditionalists, ie. Anyone with remotely orthodox beliefs. These six findings are: 1) The Fourth Gospel was not written by the Apostle John or any other disciple of Jesus, 2) Jesus probably never said any of the things which the Fourth Gospel attributes to Him, 3) None of the miracles recorded in the Gospel actually happened. 4) Many of the characters in the Gospel never actually existed. 5) John's Gospel contains literary hints that it is not meant to be taken literally. 6) The Gospel frequently engages in exaggeration.

My first thought, Spong says these conclusions are the results of a recent study of the fourth Gospel, but they are, so far as I can see, things he has been saying for decades. I first read Spong close on twenty years ago and I'm pretty sure he was saying all of these things back then.

My second thought, the article talks about how traditionalist Christians who love the fourth Gospel would be surprised and angry with modern scholarship regarding said book. Well, here's one traditionalist lover of St. John who feels no such anger. I do, however, feel a certain annoyance that Spong seems to equate scholarship of the Gospels with scholarship that agrees with him. This is a common feature in Spong's writings and wonderfully illustrates Protestant apologist James White's point that conservatives read and interact with liberal scholars while liberals generally pretend that conservative scholarship doesn't exist.

Spong also seems remarkably blind to the fact that his scholarship is based upon a number of debatable philosophical positions. To give just one example, Spong's third “finding” that none of the miracles reported in the Gospel actually happened. I've read Spong, and others like him, on this subject before. The standard procedure is to begin your study of the biblical text with the philosophical assumption that miracles can't happen and then claim that your finding that none of the biblical miracles are historical events was based on your textual study. No it wasn't, it was the only possible conclusion because of the presuppositions you started with.

When Spong attempts to defend his philosophical claim that the miraculous is impossible, things get embarrassing really quickly. His standard claim is that, before Newton, people could believe in miracles because they didn't know that nature worked in accordance with fixed laws but, now that now we know better. This is rubbish. The post Newtonian world certainly knows more about the details of the laws by which nature works than our pre Newtonian ancestors, but the fact that nature works according to fixed laws was as well known to Plato and Aristotle as is it today. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the very notion of a miracle implies the idea of such laws, if we didn't know the laws of nature exist we couldn't recognise a violation of such laws, which would really make miracles impossible.

If any apologetically minded Christian has more time and money to spare than I have, he or she would probably do us all a favour by purchasing the book and writing a critique of it. Even if I had the time and money, I don't think I'd have the patience.


  1. Spong and the Huffington Post are made for each other.

  2. In what sense does he even consider himself "Christian"??

    1. Monica, he believes that the life and Jesus of Nazareth offers a unique window into the love of God.

  3. The simplest way to dispose of his position is to use it to prove that he doesn't exist -

    If we replace 'Miracles' with 'Spong' in David Hume's argument, we get:

    1) There is no reliable evidence that Spong exists, therefore:
    2) Any claim that Spong exists can be dismissed as a lie;
    3) Since we've dismissed all witnesses as liars, we have used circular logic to prove (1).

    Cheers, Fish.