The Right Reverend Dr. John Shelby Spong (born in Charlotte, North
Carolina) is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark
(based in Newark, New Jersey).
Spong was educated in Charlotte public schools. He was a Phi Beta
Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina in 1952, and
received his Master of Divinity degree in 1955 from the Protestant
Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. That seminary
and Saint Paul's College have both conferred on him honorary Doctor
of Divinity degrees.
served as rector of St. Joseph's Church in Durham, North Carolina
from 1955 to 1957; rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina
from 1957 to 1965; rector of St. John's Church in Lynchburg, Virginia
from 1965 to 1969; and rector of St. Paul's Church in Richmond,
Virginia from 1969 to 1976. He has moreover held visiting positions
and given prominent lectures at major American theological institutions,
most prominently at Harvard Divinity School. He retired in 2000.
Spong is the bestselling liberal theologian of recent times. Like
most liberal theologians Spong's writings rely on biblical sources,
but are also influenced by modern critical analysis of the biblical
sources (see especially Spong, 1991). As such he is representative
of a stream of Christian thought with roots in the medieval universalism
of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich. Many
readers find Spong's distinctive theological voice more accessible
than more specialized authors of liberal theology like John Hick,
John Cobb, and the aforementioned Tillich.
prominent theme in Spong's writing is the need to rethink the
basic ideas of Christianity to make them consistent with a postmodern
understanding of the universe. He believes, as did his theological
predecessor, Bishop John A.T. Robinson, that theism has lost credibility
as a valid conception of God's nature, preferring something more
akin to panentheism.
identifies himself as a Christian because he believes that Jesus
fully expressed God's presence and that Jesus was resurrected
by God to "God's right hand", and that this is the meaning
of the early Christian slogan of "Jesus is Lord" (Spong,
1994 and Spong, 1991). He rejects the historical truth of some
Christian doctrines, such as the virgin birth (Spong, 1992) and
the bodily resurrection of Jesus that he claims would define the
resurrection as the literal resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus
Spong has also been a strong proponent of feminism, gay rights
and racial equality within both the church and society at large,
while maintaining a strong and paradoxical antagonism to the aspirations
of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, vis-à-vis
the State of Israel: in his memoir Here I Stand (by which title
Spong implicitly characterises himself as the 20th century's Martin
Luther) Spong describes Palestinian Christians in Israel in terms
of acute distaste. Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation,
in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated.
These beliefs are most fully outlined in his book A New Christianity
for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New
Faith Is Being Born. He briefly outlines these beliefs on his
web site as follows:
Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing
to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses
that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity
in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies
with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders
of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those
of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically.
The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to
debate are these:
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
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.
The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which
human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian
The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's
divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
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.
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
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.
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.
There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture
or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for
Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in
human history in a particular way.
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
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.
work on the textual evolution of the role of Judas Iscariot as
the betraying Jew of Jesus in the Gospels has garnered particular
attention by social scientists concerned with roots of anti-Semitism
in the New Testament. He holds fundamentally that the expanding
detail given to Iscariot’s betrayal from the synoptic gospels
through to the Gospel according to John is a result of active
embellishment on behalf of the those authors postdating Mark and
the Q document, as a result of ideological tension resulting from
initially unforeseen and increasing hostility between Jews and
Christians in the early history of the church.
Many of Spong's critics charge him with hypocrisy, saying that
a bishop who argues against church doctrines that he swore in
his ordination vow to defend lacks integrity, especially when
being paid by the church. Some, such as Brent Hardaway, would
argue that Spong's beliefs are not even Christian. The God of
the Christian Bible is a theistic God, and if one does not believe
in a theistic God, then he cannot be called a Christian.
O'Collins, Professor of Fundamental Theology, Gregorian University,
Rome argued that Spong’s "work simply does not belong
to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholar
will be taken in by this book. ... What is said about a key verb
St. Paul uses in Gal. 1:15f. shows that the bishop [Spong] has
forgotten any Greek that he knew. [Spong argued his case based
on a Greek word that is not even in this passage] ... [my] advice
for his next book is to let some real experts check it before
publication." [Review of Resurrection: Myth or Reality, London
Tablet, 30 April 1994]
critical book is entitled Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars
Challenge John Shelby Spong, edited by Peter Moore.
Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury,
wrote a response to Spong's 12 points in 1998 while he was the
Bishop of Monmouth. "[...] I cannot in any way see Bishop
Spong's theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting
Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past
scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile
as this text suggests."
as a way of conceiving God, has become demonstrably inadequate,
and the God of theism not only is dying but is probably not revivable.
If the religion of the future depends on keeping alive the definitions
of theism, then the human phenomenon that we call religion will
have come to an end. If Christianity depends on a theistic definition
of God, then we must face the fact that we are watching this noble
religious system enter the rigor mortis of its own death throes."
major function of fundamentalist religion is to bolster deeply
insecure and fearful people. This is done by justifying a way
of life with all of its defining prejudices. It thereby provides
an appropriate and legitimate outlet for one's anger. The authority
of an inerrant Bible that can be readily quoted to buttress this
point of view becomes an essential ingredient to such a life.
When that Bible is challenged, or relativized, the resulting anger
proves the point categorically."
amuse themselves by playing an irrelevant ecclesiastical game
called "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend that we possess
the objective truth of God in our inerrant Scriptures or in our
infallible pronouncements or in our unbroken apostolic traditions."
could not believe that anyone who has read this book would be
so foolish as to proclaim that the Bible in every literal word
was the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God. Have these people
simply not read the text? Are they hopelessly misinformed? Is
there a different Bible? Are they blinded by a combination of
ego needs and naïveté?"
the mind cannot believe the heart can finally never adore."