Christianity’s Next Reformation — John Shelby Spong’s Ideas, part 4

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This is the next article in what will be a long series (list so far), originally inspired by an article by Keith Michael. The general theme is what needs to be done to achieve a further Reformation of Christianity. I’m currently discussing the ideas of the late Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was a fervent advocate for such a Reformation, as elaborated most obviously in , and .

In an earlier article I discussed his desire to replace the conventional Christian conception of a theistic, personal Creator by a new understanding of God as the ultimate Ground of Being. Spong then goes on to discuss what implications he thinks this has for our understanding of Jesus. In the previous article I discussed his chapter 5 in the first of those books, ‘Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament’. Now I’ll turn to his chapter 6, ‘Jesus as Rescuer: An Image That Has to Go’. I’ll begin by outlining his ideas here, then offer my commentary in a further article. (I’ll say in advance that, if any Christians reading this find it hard to take, then there is much to criticise in what he says.)

Spong says that “not every image used to explain Jesus is worthy of survival”, and he thinks that “the most obvious candidate… (is the) image of Jesus as ‘the divine rescuer’ ”. This is an image which comes in two forms:

  • a simple one which “falls so easily from the preacher’s lips: Jesus died for my sins. He shed his blood on the cross of Calvary for my salvation. I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, I have been saved. The stain of sin on my soul has been cleansed”.
  • “the far more sophisticated rhetoric of Christian theology through the ages… ‘the theology of the cross’ as the essential ingredient in the Jesus story… the doctrine of the atonement. This doctrine assumes such things as a particular view of the meaning of creation, the fall of human life into something called original sin, and the saving work of Jesus, which resulted in a restoration. This work of Jesus was said to have produced the ‘at-one-ment’ between God and human life that the doctrine of the atonement celebrates”.

Spong says that this language “has achieved the status of a sacred mantra”. He believes, however, that “these sacred concepts involve us in a view of human life that is , a theistic understanding of God articulated in a form that is , a magical view of Jesus that violates our minds, and the practical necessity for the Church to elicit guilt as a prerequisite to conversion”. He does not believe that such a view can survive, calls it a “badly dated perspective”, and blames it for “the near collapse of this religious system”.

He then outlines the various elements in the story which led to this point of view, beginning with the account of creation as found in Genesis 1–3. I assume that readers are familiar with this, so that I don’t need to repeat it in its totality here. The key elements are that “God made the man and the woman”, who were “the first human family”, and “God even walked with these human creatures in the cool of the evening in perfect communion”. They then committed the original sin of eating the forbidden fruit, so that “they would know good from evil”. (The translation which I favour, the NRSV, has “good evil”, which I think is a better rendering.) Spong says that “this was a fascinating myth, and for most of Christian history it has been treated quite literally”.

As we know, the consequence of this was that “the immortality that had been theirs as creatures made in God’s image was no more. Mortality was to be the universal fate of those who would be tainted by the primal sin of Adam and Eve… Because of this sin on the part of the first human beings, all human life thereafter, it was asserted, would be born in sin and would suffer death, the ultimate consequence of human sin”. Therefore, “the need to overcome this fall, to restore the world to the perfection intended by God in creation, was the underlying plan of salvation”.

In the Bible there follows the story of a chosen people, “a particular people through whom God would work out the entire process of salvation”, beginning with Abraham, followed by Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph, and Moses. The Torah given to Moses was supposed “to lead these fallen people back into a state of grace”, was “designed to be Israel’s way out of the fallen sinful status of human life”.

The day called Yom Kippur features prominently, which was “dedicated to that sense of human sinfulness and designed to be an occasion to pray for atonement or restoration”. This was part of “a sacrificial system (which) was developed in the ancient world to help overcome this supposed chasm between the fallen creatures and the Holy God”. Thus Yom Kippur included “the sacrificial offering of the lamb of the atonement”. (This is obviously significant because John’s Gospel 1.29 calls Jesus “the lamb of God”, which suggests continuity with this tradition: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. This appellation does not occur in the synoptic gospels.)

In Spong’s eyes, Paul is especially significant, for he says:

  • “A and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23)
  • “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15.3)
  • “Aall die, so also in Christ shall ” (1 Cor. 15:22).

Spong therefore concludes that “to be human was by definition to be evil, fallen, and in need of rescue”. He then discusses the views of Augustine, who brings all the above to a conclusion, and takes an extreme position:

  • “For Augustine, Adam and Eve were quite literally the first human beings”
  • “Death was not natural, Augustine argued, . The sin of Adam had been passed on through the sex act to every other human being. The connection between sin and sex was clearly established”.

For that reason “the virgin birth accounts became very important to him… literally true”:

  • “Human life was born in the sin of Adam”
  • “a savior… could not himself be the victim of Adam’s sin”.

This line of thinking culminated “in the nineteenth century with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. She, too, was miraculously delivered from the corruption of Adam’s sin… By the intervening power of the Holy God, the virgin was prevented by her immaculate conception from passing on to the saviour the effects of Adam’s sin. Salvation was thus assured. Jesus, the sinless one, was qualified by his origins to make the perfect offering. In doing so he had taken away the sin of the world”.

Spong comments: “Seldom did Christians pause to recognize the ogre into which they had turned God. A human father who would nail his son to a cross for any purpose would be arrested for child abuse. Yet that continued to be said of God ”. He continues: “This view of Christianity is increasingly difficult for many of us to accept or believe… this entire theological system, with these strange presuppositions, has completely unraveled in our postmodern world. It now needs to be removed quite consciously from Christianity”.

He then goes into some of the history:

  • “The unraveling began with the realization that Adam and Eve were not the primeval human parents and that all life did not stem from these two. The theory of evolution made Adam and Eve legendary at best”
  • “There were no first parents, and so the primeval act of disobedience on the part of the first parents could not possibly have affected the whole human race. The myth was thus built a death blow, and the monolithic story of salvation built by Christian apologists over the ages began to totter”.

Following this realisation, Spong says that there was a “move from a literal Adam and Eve to a symbolic Adam and Eve” and an accompanying symbolic story. This was “the first line of defense”. “Human beings, it was said, by their very nature were alienated from God. That became the new definition of sin. It was not an act primeval or otherwise. It was rather a description of our being. It was ontological. This made sin the universal human condition”.

Because the alienation from God had become the original sin, “the fall narrative thus became a story about the dawn of self-consciousness. It was an interesting transition from literalism to symbol, and it saved the myth for, perhaps, another century”.

It could not save it forever, however, because “Darwin had raised an even greater difficulty… (He) had challenged successfully the concept of the goodness of creation. To ascribe goodness to creation implies that the work of creation is complete. Darwin, however, made us aware that the creation is even now not finished”. Spong therefore concludes that sin “is not and never can be alienation from the perfection for which God in the act of creation intended us, for there is no such thing as a perfect creation. Thus, there was no fall into sin”.

Spong goes on to mention some environmental considerations, and concludes that “we human beings , both to the past life and to the future life of this planet. Life seems quite capable of going on with or without human participation”. He then asks, “what could the concept of a primal fall of human life into sin possibly mean to those creatures who only recently evolved onto the stage of the world and who give no evidence that their stay will be permanent? How can there be a fall into sin if there has never been a perfection from which to fall?”

He continues: “The traditional understanding of salvation history and the various theories of the atonement all come tumbling down at this point, and this includes the interpretation we have traditionally imposed upon the cross of Calvary… They involve us in a definition of human life as sinful and fallen… Those definitions of human life that force us to dream of atoning acts, sacrifices, and stories of divine intervention are nonsensical. So the vast majority of the traditional Christ language has become inoperable. Jesus, as the agent of God’s divine rescue operation, is not a Jesus who will appeal to or communicate with the citizens of this century… We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin. We do not need to have the stain of our original sin washed away in baptism… We have rather emerged out of our evolutionary past, and we are still being formed”.

Spong therefore concludes: “A savior who restores us to our prefallen status is therefore and ”. This is a “theistic myth”, and therefore “we must free Jesus from the rescuer role”. The alternative, however, seems to be “to reduce him to a good teacher or a good example”. If that were the case, he doubts whether this version would have survived. He therefore concludes, “if the Christ experience is real, then we must find a new way to talk about it”. He will obviously reveal this in later chapters.

These are somewhat extraordinary ideas for someone who, despite his misgivings, says that he wants to remain a Christian, for he seemingly wants to demolish the central pillar of the Christian message. In the next article, I’ll offer my thoughts on this chapter. (Now published, click here.) There is much to reflect on and, as I said above, much to criticise. In particular, I’ll be asking two questions. Firstly, has Spong actually understood the Bible story? Secondly, should one unhesitatingly and uncritically accept Darwinism as truth when considering such matters? In past articles I’ve suggested that Spong has been too easily seduced by what passes for ‘science’ in modern times. This may be another example.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity in general, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile, including my lists.

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com