Christianity’s Next Reformation — Part 5: John Shelby Spong’s Ideas, part 3
This is the next article in a series, originally inspired by an article by Keith Michael. The general theme is what needs to be done to achieve a further Reformation of Christianity. In the previous three articles (click here, here, and here) I began to discuss the ideas of the late Bishop John Shelby Spong; he was a fervent advocate for such a Reformation, as elaborated most obviously in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and A New Christianity for a New World. I’m now exploring these two books in more detail.
In the most recent article, I discussed one of Spong’s major preoccupations, the need to revise what we understand by the term ‘God’. He wants to replace the conventional Christian conception of a theistic, personal Creator by a new understanding of God as the ultimate Ground of Being. I believe that this is a positive move. The next step is therefore to explore what implications this has for our understanding of Jesus.
Spong goes into some detail on this question, devoting four successive chapters to it in Why Christianity Must Change or Die: ‘Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament’, ‘Jesus as Rescuer: An Image That Has to Go’, ‘The Christ as Spirit Person’, and “What Think Ye of Christ? Where the Human Enters the Divine”. In A New Christianity for a New World he has three significant chapters: “The Original Christ: Before the Theistic Distortion’, ‘Changing the Basic Christian Myth’, and ‘Jesus Beyond Incarnation: a Nontheistic Divinity’.
Here I’ll explore what he says in the first of those chapters, ‘ Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament’. He begins by wondering whether Jesus can be understood except in a theistic context, since the Incarnation and the Trinity are central to Christianity. For example, John’s gospel (10.30) has Jesus say: “I and the Father are one”.
In the gospel stories, Jesus is portrayed as possessing miraculous powers, and paranormal events accompany his life, for example, “angelic beings split open the night skies to sing at his birth”. Spong asks some provocative questions: “Is there some other way to understand these Jesus stories and the doctrines that are said to have been based on them? Can any postmodern person take these literal, premodern claims seriously? Can Christianity continue without them?”.
Spong is not one of those Christians who believe that the Bible is in any sense the Word of God. He talks about the “superstitious and mystical aura that believers have allowed to gather around the Gospels through the centuries”, and “the excessive claims made for these scriptures”. I agree, and note that such statements would also please Keith Michael, who in his articles and book argues exactly that case, giving many examples of why the Bible is a human creation, even if some of the writers were deeply spiritual people.
Spong justifies his statement by saying of the gospels that they are “not inerrant works, divinely authored. They were written by communities of faith, and they express even the biases of those communities”. Furthermore, they are “not without significant internal contradictions”, and “reveal changing, evolving theological perspectives”.
He is especially suspicious of the virgin birth accounts which “were not original to Christianity and did not appear in Christian history until the ninth decade”, by which he means not in Paul’s epistles and Mark’s gospel but in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. He says that the later gospel of John makes no mention of Jesus’ birth, and twice referred to Jesus as “the son of Joseph (1.45, 6.42): “It was as if the author of the fourth Gospel had little use for virgin birth tales, which he may well have regarded as pagan”. (The latter may be true, but Spong is being somewhat misleading on the first point. It is not actually the author of John’s gospel who says that Jesus is the son of Joseph; he is rather reporting the words of Philip, who has only just become a follower, and some critical and hostile Jews. These people would hardly be likely to know of anything supernatural happening at the time of Jesus’ conception or birth, and would obviously assume that Joseph was his father.)
Spong makes the same claim about the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus and his divine nature, both of which he says are late. He therefore claims that “the only way to preserve the Jesus experience is to dismantle and to reject many of the traditional theological interpretations that have held it captive”.
Spong then asks the big question: “If one asserts that ‘God was in this Christ’, as Paul does, then the question inevitably arises as to how the holy and distant God happened to be present in that finite and particular life”. Thus, it is all very well saying that Jesus is the Son of God, but what precisely are we supposed to understand by this statement in real terms?
He then goes into detail about one of the theological ideas that developed over time. He notes that Paul says that God designated Jesus to be son of God “in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1.4), and comments that “there was here no sense of divine equality or of what later came to be called incarnation”, also that “the Holy Spirit… was not yet a separate and distinct aspect of God in the mind of Paul”. Thus for Paul the resurrection was the decisive element, not the crucifixion, nor the miracles, nor the virgin birth. Therefore, “just some six years before Paul’s death it was still his understanding that God had adopted Jesus into the being of God”, and “the later developing creedal doctrines were far removed from this Pauline understanding”.
A few years later, Mark agrees that God adopted Jesus as his Son, but moves the significant moment backwards in time to the baptism. Matthew then retained Mark’s account but, according to Spong, it was for him “an intolerable idea that Jesus became something either at his baptism or at his resurrection that he was not already”. Therefore the declaration “was now placed into the mouth of the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream bearing God’s message”, obviously before Jesus’ birth.
Luke’s version is essentially the same as Matthew’s, but he makes the story “more concrete and historical”. His angel is named, and appeared in person, not in a dream, and to Mary rather than Joseph. Therefore, “simply put, the original Pauline declaration had been encased in a more and more dramatic narrative as the years rolled by… The time of the designation was moving to an earlier and earlier point, from resurrection to baptism to conception”.
As an aside, with material not from Spong, it’s worth noting that Luke’s gospel in modern editions places the designation at conception, and has God say at the baptism “Thou art my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. However, there is an earlier version of Luke which says at this point: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. The scholar Bart Ehrman believes that the latter is the earlier, and therefore more authentic, version in that it “was quoted a lot by early church fathers in the period before most of our manuscripts were produced. It is quoted in the second and third centuries everywhere from Rome, to Alexandria, to North Africa, to Palestine, to Gaul, to Spain”¹.
It would seem therefore that an early version of Luke, of the synoptic gospels the one most in line with Christianity as we have come to know it, has an apparently blatant adoptionist statement, which must have been changed by editors to conform to the later Christian message. (I’ve discussed the adoptionist question in more detail on my website, or here on Medium.)
Returning now to Spong, moving the designation of Jesus as the Son of God to his conception was not the end of the story, for by the time of the later gospel of John, “Jesus’ identity with God had become so complete… that he was said to have shared in that identity prior even to his conception and birth”; “for John, there was no time in all human history when Jesus was not God’s son”.
We can call all this, if you wish, a developing theology or, less generously, inconsistencies and contradictions. In either case, it is hard to see how these passages can be called the consistent Word of God.
Spong, starting again from Paul, applies a similar logic to the resurrection and ascension accounts. At this point, he does not reach any firm conclusions. Instead he says: “Once we can establish that biblical interpretations are different from people’s original experience of Jesus, then we can begin to explore the deeper question: What was the nature of that experience? What was there about Jesus of Nazareth that made his first-century disciples assert the astonishing claim that ‘God was in this Christ’? Can we separate the experience from the explanation? Can we reject the explanation without rejecting the experience? Does respecting their experience require us to be committed also to their explanation, which presumed a theistic God? We have taken a first step toward the Jesus reality, but our journey has just begun”.
More to follow.
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1. Misquoting Jesus, HarperOne, 2005, p159