What do I think of Bishop Spong’s book published by Harper Collins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
First off, there are multiple editions of this book. The one my library had was the 1992 position so that is what I had to use.
Spong is one of the most liberal bishops that you will encounter if not the most liberal. It’s a wonder as you read his book how exactly he defines himself as a Christian. Actually, it’s a wonder how he defines anything, particularly since he thinks that words are an unsteady ship to use. As I went through the book, I found that rather than answering a lot of questions that a reader could have, it raised a lot more.
Spong has the idea that since we know what midrash is, that all of a sudden we can see the problems with Christianity. We can tell that the Gospels are not biographies. Spong could be allowed this perhaps in 1992, but now with the publication of Burridge’s classic work on the topic, the idea that they are biographies is by far the majority position across the board, which presents a huge problem for the thesis of Spong.
Now with regard to Midrash, the term can be difficult to define. It can often be an extended commentary on one idea. One place I think this shows up well is in the book of Hebrews where certain ideas are gone over again and again and again. If someone wants to say something is a midrash, they need to make a case for it. Of course, there have been such cases made in the past at times, but they need to be thoroughly persuasive. Spong’s idea of just holding up a text and saying “midrash” doesn’t really cut it. Midrash is not a magic word that can be used to just deny anything that you want in the text.
Of course, I do wish to add in something to that. Saying that something is in the text does not mean that you think the text is true. You can think the text does teach that a “literal” event took place and just think that the text is wrong. You do not go and say “Since the text is wrong, the author must be using midrash at this point.” What needs to be shown is that there is something in the passage itself that could give you a reason to think that it is a midrash. This is in fact one reason why it is so important that we do in fact study authorial intent, despite what certain parties might think.
Speaking of literalism, Spong has a major hang-up on it. Spong is decidedly against the literalizers who think that they alone possess the truth. (Question. Does Spong think he possesses the truth in contrast to the literalizers?) Looking at Spong, you would think that everything in the book is either midrash or literal. To give an example of what Spong says, look to page 19.
Does Christianity depend on a grave that was empty, on a body that has been resuscitated, on angels that descend in earthquakes and roll massive stones away from the mouth of a tomb, or on a figure who can disappear into thin air after the breaking of bread? Does it not bother the literal believer that the details in the Gospels are as contradictory about what happened after Jesus’ death as they are about what happened at the time of his birth? Is this not the last frontier? Since the liberals have, by and large, vacated the arena by rejecting the miraculous elements and thus reducing Easter to a pale subjectivity, the only battle to be waged is between hysterical literalism confronting an unbelieving modern mentality that says miracles cannot and do not happen. In that battle literalism will vanish, but the winning reality will be an enormous emptiness, a vacuum at the heart of human life. Surely there must be a better alternative.
Of course, it could be that everything in here is correct, but why should anyone think it is? Okay. We have a modern mentality that says miracles cannot occur and do not occur. In our day and age, why think they are right? We can be ultimately thankful to Craig Keener for his great research in this area and I recommend reading his book Miracles on the topic. It’s not enough for us to hear that educated people do not believe in miracles and then turn and hear the people who are uneducated, we know that they are because they do believe in miracles. I happen to agree with G.K. Chesterton:
But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.
The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.
Spong of course goes with Paul teaching a spiritual resurrection. Must of this is based on the word used for see in the Greek referring to a spiritual experience or a vision, but as Justin Bass points out looking over his debate with Dan Barker:
In addition, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament it is used for physical appearances in Gen 46:29 LXX (Joseph appeared to Jacob), Exod 10:28 LXX (Moses appeared to Pharaoh), 1 Kings 3:16 LXX (two prostitutes appear before Solomon), 1 Kings 18:1 LXX (Elijah appeared before Ahab). So this Greek word alone cannot decide the issue either way.
Gundry’s work on Soma in Biblical Theology had been out by the time of the 1992 version, yet you will not see Spong interacting with it. Actually, you won’t see him interacting with any of his critics. What you get is the sound of one hand clapping, which is something I have said to always be on the lookout for when reading a book. Any case can be persuasive when you only show the evidence that is in your favor. We have the talk on spiritual and physical bodies that we’d expect, when the wording really refers to the source of the life of the body and not the nature of the body itself. Gundry goes into greater detail on this. He also goes to Romans 6 with the life Christ lives He lives to God wondering how Paul could have been any clearer.
Indeed. How could he have been? Especially with a passage that Spong leaves out, such as Romans 8:11.
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”
And since Spong went to Colossians and accepts it, how about Colossians 2:9?
“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”.
Yes. Paul was clear. He just didn’t speak in a way modern Americans always understand.
As we go through the book, we see largely arguments from incredulity (Surely a pre-Easter Jesus would not say this!). These kinds of statements are seen as enough reason to say the text must be post-Easter. Maybe it is, but we need more of an argument than “I cannot imagine a pre-Easter Jesus saying this!
As for Spong’s Jesus and his explanation for what happened, it is thoroughly lacking. Towards the end, I started wondering about who it is that Spong thinks Jesus is. Does Jesus have any real connection to God? Was Jesus really sent by God or was He just this unusually good fellow who happened to get some things right? How was it that Jesus was such a revolutionary fellow? (I do not mean in the sense of political revolutionary, though in a sense He was, but in the sense of His ideas being so unique) Why on Earth would anyone care to crucify this Jesus? A Jesus who is just going around and teaching love and forgiveness is not a threat to anyone and not a serious contender in any way.
Never mind the whole resurrection idea where Spong has an ingenious story of Simon sitting and thinking about matters especially during the Feast of Tabernacles and then one day realizing that Jesus is alive in God and that His message can live on and from then on begins the proclamation of resurrection! I have often said that if you want to see some good evidence for the resurrection, one action you can take is to read the counter-theories of the resurrection. Spong’s hypothesis is filled with several ad hoc items that fit his worldview, and yet they do not really explain the data. What about all the group appearances early on, especially considering how early the creed in 1 Cor. 15 is? What about the conversion of Paul? What about that of James? What about that of the people in the culture who were outsiders and had the most to lose? What about the belief that Jesus was the Messiah? How did that come about? How did Jesus get incorporated into the identity of God at all?
These are all questions that are left. What would have been the message of Christianity anyway? Love and forgive one another? Most of Rome could have said “Okay. We can go with that.” This kind of belief system is no threat to the Roman Empire at all. Yet the Christians were in fact seen that way. Furthermore, how did the message get lost so quickly when the early church fathers will be teaching bodily resurrection? How did this come about, especially since when going to the Gentiles, bodily resurrection would be something that would be shunned. After all:
O monsters loathed of all, O scorn of gods,
He that hath bound may loose: a cure there is.
Yea, many a plan that can unbind the chain.
But when the thirsty dust sucks up man’s blood
Once shed in death, he shall arise no more.
No chant nor charm for this my Sire hath wrought.
All else there is, he moulds and shifts at will,
Not scant of strength nor breath, whate’er he do. – Apollo in Eumenides
Spong has an entire castle built up, but it is a castle built on sand. Spong might think he is saving Christianity, but even most atheists I encounter would interpret what he’s doing as a rationalization on his own part of trying to have his cake and eat it too by having the secular worldview of people around him but still wanting to somehow call himself a Christian because he believes in love and forgiveness. An ancient person would say that he could believe in those things too, but that does not mean he needs to believe that a crucified criminal is somehow living in God. Spong’s Christianity is as unacceptable today as it would be in the ancient world. The worst part is Spong has nothing to overturn the verdict of shame like orthodox Christianity does. Spong has been advocating for a long time that Christianity needs to change or die. The reality is Christianity has stood the test of time and rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It would be easier to predict that in time, Spong’s view will be dead and orthodox Christianity will live on.