By Kyle Larson
The writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong have been very influential in the life and thought of the modern church. He has made it his mission to reform the modern church and make it more relevant to a post modern American society. For all his noble intentions, something along the way went very, very wrong.
Bishop John Shelby Spong was born on June 16, 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a child, young John was exposed to two different forms of Christianity, one from each parent – both dysfunctional. His father did not have much interest in the Christian faith. His mother was a harsh, legalistic Calvinist. Neither set a good example.
Spong’s father would attend church only on Christmas, Easter, and on occasions where it was absolutely necessary. Spong recalls seeing his father kneel by his bed at night to pray. Beyond this, Spong later wrote wrote, there was no serious commitment to Christ. (Here I Stand. 13)
His mother came from a legalistic Calvinistic background. This also did very little to encourage Spong to see God as loving or tolerant. As a result, Spong grew up believing Christianity was some very legalistic form of Calvinism. He notes that John Calvin was mentioned so often in his home by his mother that he thought that Calvin was the fourth member of the God head. (Ibid. 13-14) Tragically, he saw a very hard and stern God in his mother’s Christian faith.
“God, as I was introduced to this Deity through my mother , was very much like a punishing parent, male to be sure. This God had heaven as a place of reward and hell as a place of punishment, and I was taught to fear him.” (Ibid. 13)
There was not much of the joy of the Lord in his house, but only a mindless list of religious duties that Spong had to perform to keep God happy and prevent him from being punished by this stern deity introduced by his mother.
In addition to these distortions of the Christian faith that he saw growing up, he saw the hypocrisy of racism. Racism was a given in the segregated south. Spong gives several examples of the racism that he saw growing up. He notes how all public parks, restrooms, motels were all segregated.
The one incident that stands out in Spong’s mind was when his father hired men to help him around the house. His father had always told him to address older men as “sir”; It was a common Southern hospitality at the time. However, to his shock, Spong discovered that this hospitality code did not apply to black men. One of the hired workers was an African American man. The worker asked young Spong a question. Spong, in his answer to this black worker, addressed him as “sir”. As related later by Spong, this was apparently an almost unpardonable sin to his father. He became very angry with his son for giving a respectable title to a black man such as “sir”. (Ibid. 16-18) Though Spong was young at the time this incident occurred, it made a lasting impact on him as he saw the hypocrisy going on within his own family.
The racism didn’t end there. Playing with black children was constantly forbidden. Even the school he attended was segregated. All these factors would influence how he would later view White Evangelical Christianity, not only in the South, but also throughout the country. Because he was cut off from strong biblical African American churches growing up, he may not have realized that both black and white evangelicals have common roots in a historic Christianity. Both have a history that goes back to the first century with the Apostles themselves. This includes the major creeds of the church that both black and white evangelicals adhere to.
In addition to the superficial commitment to the Christian faith that he saw in his father, his father had an additional problem: he was an alcoholic. Spong wrote vividly about the struggle his father had with alcoholism. Spong describes his father’s alcoholism as “episodic”. He could go for months without drinking, but once he started drinking, “there was no stopping him.” This episodic drinking binge had a devastating effect on Spong’s family, especially on its financial situation. Spong suffered the constant emotional “put downs” by his father when he was drunk when his father would say “You can’t do anything right”. Though his father never physically attacked his mother, he came close to doing just that. (Ibid. 24-25)
Spong’s father suffered a major heart attack shortly after the United States entered World War 2 in December 1941. Though this, along with other complications, should have made Spong’s Father realize that it would wise to stop drinking, this did not occur. His health steadily deteriorated from that point on.
In the midst of all the chaos with his father, Spong decided to get confirmed at his local Episcopal church in April, 1943. His confirmation preparation did not include much serious study of the faith beyond being able to give a simple definition of the word “confirm”.
Things started going seriously downhill for the health of Spong’s father as a result of his enlarged heart. Family members began gathering together to await the end of his life. During this time, as a result of his father’s constant put downs, Spong started making bargains with God that amounted to prayers to God stating “I’ll do this for you, God, you will do this for me.” A part of this bargaining with God had to do with Spong’s sense that he had inadequately prepared for his confirmation, and he wanted to make up for it. But more than that, he saw God as harsh and belittling as his earthly father had been, so he tried to strike bargains with God to gain the acceptance that he never got from his father. (Ibid. 27 )
On the night his father died, the first thing that entered Spong’s young mind was that he had forgotten to say his prayers, and that God was taking revenge by striking down his father in death. Again, Spong saw God as unmerciful and unyielding as his earthly father.
After his father’s death, his mother found a job to help with the family finances. Spong got a job at a local farm milking cows. That first Christmas after his father’s death was especially meaningful to Spong. He received two Christmas presents that year. One was a large picture of Jesus. The other gift was a large King James Bible. Spong states that from that Christmas Day, until now, he has missed very few days reading and studying the Bible. Even though he has developed a totally different understanding of the Bible from that of conservative evangelical Christians, he claims that he cherishes the words of scripture. (Ibid. 24-27)
Around the time of his father’s death, Spong also became more involved in his Episcopal Church. A new Priest came to Spong’s church, Robert Littlefield Crandall. He was a naval chaplain during World War 2. Crandall became like a second father to Spong and became a very stabilizing force in his young life. Crandall took Spong under his wings as he guided him in his spiritual journey.
Spong was very impressed by Mr. Crandall’s high church Episcopal rituals. These rituals included the donning of priestly garments with all the attending prayers, the proper movements and hand gestures for a proper high church Episcopal service as well as knowing the proper way to conduct an Episcopal service for the Eucharist. Mr. Crandall gave the young Spong all the outward forms of godliness and ultimately have him the desire to become an Episcopal Priest. Spong seems to have adopted many of Mr. Crandall’s way in his own life as an Episcopal Priest. One of the main ways that Spong sees himself in the mold of Mr. Crandall is in having the same general outlook on life, which Spong describes as “not pious, but rather secular in his outlook.” Bishop Spong has definitely succeeded in achieving Mr. Crandall’s secular outlook as is evident throughout his writings. (Ibid. 34,35)
Spong graduated from high school, and with the assistance of a college scholarship, was admitted into the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It might be of some interest to readers to know that this is where Dr. Bart Ehrman currently teaches New Testament studies. (Ibid. 45) It was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that Spong got his first dose of Protestant liberal theology. Spong had several University Professors at UNC that would help set the tone for his theological development for years to come.
One of these professors was, whom Spong describes as being “the first Darwinian Christian I had ever met” It was Dr. Jones who first convinced Spong of the theory of evolution. (Ibid. 49) It was another professor, Bill Protreat, who first introduced Spong to some of the pillars of Protestant liberal theology. These pillars included Immanuel Kant, Friederich Scchlermacher, Rene Descarte and Friedrich Nietzche. Besides Rene Descarte, who was an orthodox Christian, the other three people had various levels of belief concerning Christianity. Nietzche was an atheist who was very hostile to the claims of Christianity. So it is evident that throughout his undergraduate studies, Spong studied under university professors who were openly hostile to Christianity.
In 1952, Spong graduated from UNC Chapel with a degree in Philosophy, and beginning the following fall, went to Virginia Theological Seminary. Spong’s seminary training carried him farther and farther away from biblical Christianity. There were four professors at Virginia Theological Seminary who did much to form Bishop Spong’s theological thinking. These “big 4” were Clifford Stanley, Albert Mollogen, Ruel Howe, and Robert O. Kevin. (Ibid. 63) Clifford Stanley taught the history of Christian thought and had an especially strong influence on Spong’s theological development.
Clifford Stanley introduced Spong to the theology of Paul Tillich, whom Stanley had had as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Tillich taught that God was not a personal being, but was the “Ground of Being”. This God was “unknowable, mysterious, without form.” Tillich’s God was more of an impersonal force than a personal being with whom someone could have a personal intimate relationship with. Spong latched on to Tillich’s view of God as a non personal entity. Spong was eager to shed his childhood image of God as a type of “Mr. Fix-it” (Ibid. 67,68) Spong writes concerning the liberal theologians who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“These theologians never had to deal with the reaction of ordinary folks who felt that their spiritual leader was destroying their faith. That would be the job of graduates like myself.” (Ibid. 68)
Spong then goes on to chide his fellow seminary graduates.
“Most graduates, I would learn, however, would not rise to challenge. They would graduate, pack up their seminary notes, and revert to the piety of their youth, undergirding their preaching with traditional religious understandings. They would claim the power to explain the ways of God to their congregations, thus encouraging the unbelievable concepts of a manipulative, invasive, this world-oriented Deity who governed the intimate details of people’s lives just beyond the sky. I vowed that I would be different when I finally became a Priest.” (Ibid. 68)
This one paragraph shows the danger of superimposing one’s parental upbringing on to the God of scripture. Yet it can be very difficult to have an accurate biblical portrait of the attributes of God when one does not see the basic attribute of love, which scripture defines as the essence of God, in one’s own parents. If one does not understand that “God is love” as the Apostle John writes, then none of the other attributes of God will make any sense.
Spong would continue on with a traditional liberal Protestant seminary education. The standard liberal Protestant seminary education consists of many of the same issues that the average man on the street gives for denying the truth of the Gospel, only in a much more academic setting. These shared objections of the liberal seminarian and the man on the street concern the historical reliability of the Gospels, especially trying to late date them as much as possible to put them out of the reach of eyewitnesses who could confirm or deny the accuracy of the reports concerning the ministry of Jesus. Along with this comes the denial of both the liberal seminarian and the man on the street that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Spong studied all this, and much more. He was a model liberal seminary student, which is why all his later books would sell so well with the masses.
After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary, his first church assignment was at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina in 1955. (Ibid. 81) His church was a mixed congregation made up mostly of students from Duke University. Spong explains that many of the Duke graduate students came from “fundamentalists” homes but, as a result of pursuing their graduate degrees, found a traditional understanding of Jesus too confining for their expanding minds. These Duke students did not want to totally abandon their faith. They instead wanted a more intellectual faith. Spong started to research his sermon topics more deeply in order to reach these graduates. (Ibid.85.86)
It was also at St. Joseph’s that Bishop Spong had his first major “prayer crisis” which caused him to question the Biblical attributes of God. This questioning of God’s attributes came as a result of a counseling session with a young couple who had lost their child to “crib death”. This young couple had been raised on the solid biblical teaching of the attributes of God.
One of these attributes is omniscience, that God knows all things. He sees the past, the present and the future in his “eternal now.’ While we as humans may not know what God is doing, we can find rest in God, knowing that God knows all things and can bring good out of tragedy. These parents believed that the death of their child was somehow a part of God’s overall plan, even though they may never understand his plan in this life. Bishop Spong discouraged these parents from relying on the traditional biblical attributes of God, especially his omniscience. This was like throwing out a life preserver to a drowning man with no rope attached to it to pull him to a place of safety. (Ibid. 88,89)
This dismissing of the biblical attributes of God may have been due to Spong’s dysfunctional home life as a child. He had no family context in which for him to believe in the consistency of God’s love and dependability in the midst of life’s trials. There was no real emotional stability in his home growing up. He had also accepted Paul Tillich’s definition of God as a non personal being. A non personal entity, like water or electricity, has no will or purpose for people, thus, there is no reason to believe in God’s constancy and love in the midst of life’s tribulations.
In 1957, Bishop Spong was transferred to Calvary Parish in Tarboro, North Carolina. (Stand 97) Spong came into direct contact with the ugly reality of Southern racism and the Ku Klux Khan. The Klan had decided to hold a rally in a field near Tarboro, where Spong was the rector at Calvary Church. The Klan denounced Spong for his strong and biblical stance against segregation. The Klan accused Spong of having a light skin black woman as a lover on the side.
Spong relates in an earlier section of his autobiography how during the period of slavery and segregation, multitudes of black woman were raped throughout the South, thus producing children of various shades of black and white. The Klan tried to use this historical fact against Spong, but it did not stick. (Ibid. 103,104)
The schools in the Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem area became racially desegregated. This caused an emotional explosion in the area, as white parents could not conceive of their children going to school with black children. The threat of violence was a very real possibility.
Spong took a firm solid biblical position on the issue of desegregation of the schools. He reminded his congregation of what Paul taught in Romans about how Christians are called to submit to the governing authorities. Spong also quoted what Jesus taught about “Rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This was a solid biblical stance. He was even willing to personally escort black children into their new school on the first day of desegregation. (Ibid. 109,110) As a result of this strong biblical stance, many parishioners within his own church wanted nothing to do with Spong.
As Spong continued to take a biblical stance against segregation, he started receiving serious phone threats from people threatening that they would find “the biggest black niggers” to rape Spong’s three little daughters. Though very frightened by these threats, he continued his biblical stance, as he continued to walk black children to a desegregated school.
In addition to his ongoing fight against racial segregation, Spong continued with his teaching ministry. He started being a “circuit evangelist” for liberal theology as he began speaking at Episcopal churches throughout the South. He started seeing more and more how “fundamentalism” was so deeply entrenched throughout the South and was determined to do something about that. He believed that his academic training in liberal theological institutions was vastly superior to Southern Fundamentalism. (Ibid. 122)
In the summer of 1969, in the midst of his ministerial duties at Calvary church and his lecture tours throughout the South, a search committee group from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg paid a visit to Spong. The committee wanted to know if Spong would be interested in being the new rector. (Ibid. 122) Spong accepted the offer, but would not be installed as the rector til the fall. He still had a long summer vacation ahead of him.
He and his family vacationed at Nag’s Head in North Caolina. During this summer vacation, he started reading Honest to God by John A.T. Robinson. Robinson had been an Episcopal Bishop in England who was totally absorbed in liberal theology. The main theme of the book is that Christians need to start talking about God in non-theistic terms. Robinson insisted that the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of God as a personal being was under assault. If the traditional understanding of God as a personal being was under assault, so was the traditional understanding of Jesus as being the incarnation of God no longer possible.
As Spong continued reading Robinson’s book, he started coming to believe that the traditional version of Christianity and the Gospel was no longer viable in a modern scientific world. Robinson quotes liberal theologian after liberal theologian to prove his point. Christianity had to change or face certain extinction. (Ibid. 122-123)
In the fall of 1969, Spong continued his Adult Bible study class at St. John’s church that he had begun at Calvary Church in Tarboro, North Carolina. The main difference now would be that at St. John’s church, he would take his attack on the Gospel to a whole new level. He would, proudly and boldly, introduce the destructive Higher Criticism that had developed in liberal Protestantism over the last 150-200 years. He would not call it an attack on the Gospel, but this is exactly what it was nonetheless.
He felt that many of the people at St. John’s Church had a “Sunday-school” level understanding of the Bible. He made a determination to teach his adult bible study as though it was a graduate level seminary class in a mainline seminary. He made the specific decision that during the regular Sunday service, he would not raise any critical questions about the Bible or the foundations of the faith. He would do this only in his Adult Sunday School class, where people could come and go as they pleased. (Ibid. 134,135)
Bishop Spong gives a clear description of how he envisioned this class to be:
“I would allow every part of my faith system, its creeds, its Bible, its sacred traditions, to be examined and questioned honestly … No protective barriers, no claim for inerrancy, infallibility or divine relation would be placed around any symbol of Christianity, including core doctrines like the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Resurrection.” (Ibid. 135)
Spong glories in uncertainty about every aspect of the faith because, as has been said before, this mirrors his home life growing up, where uncertainty about everything was the norm. Spong taught on the Documentary Hypothesis, which simply stated, says that the stories found in the first five books of the Bible were legends and myths of the early Jewish people. That they developed over a long period of oral transmission and had no real basis in history. Such events as the fall of man from the garden of Eden, the flood and Noah’s Ark and the Exodus never really happened. (Ibid. 136-137) This class grew to enormous proportions as the class was being discussed during the week in businesses throughout Lynchburg.
After 4 years at St. John’s in Lynchburg, Spong moved on to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Spong continued his Adult Bible class at St. Paul’s Church. Up to this point, his adult Bible class focused on Old Testament Higher Criticism that had developed in the 19th and 20th Centuries. However, beginning at St. Paul’s, Spong began teaching destructive higher criticism of the New Testament. Spong taught that the Jesus of history was totally different from the version of Jesus that the early Christian church had developed over the years.
It was at St. Paul’s Church that Spong had his second major prayer crisis. Spong received a phone call from Cormelia Newton, a parishioner at his church who now find herself in a local hospital with cancer. Spong went to the hospital and had a long comforting talk with her. Cormelia was on chemotherapy and knew that, eventually, the cancer would take her life. After a long conversation with Cormelia, Spong prayed with her and then left the hospital.
On his way home, Spong reflected on the conversation and prayer with Cormelia, and came to the conclusion that prayer was not much benefit to anybody. Spong came to the conclusion that prayer was just “a fantasy”. He saw no personal being to talk to. In his system of belief God is nothing more than an impersonal force, so why bother praying?
As a result of this second prayer crisis, Spong began a sermon series on what he had concluded about prayer. This sermon series would ultimately form the basis of his first book, Honest Prayer, which was published in 1971. Spong wanted his book to be a sequel to John A.T. Robinson’s book Honest to God. (Ibid. 190-195)
From early on in his writing career, Spong wanted to explore the Jewish background of Christianity. He believed that the more Christians understood first century Judaism, the more they would understand their own faith. In 1974, Spong came out with his book This Hebrew Lord. As a result of this first exploration of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, Spong received a phone call from a local Rabbi Jack Daniel Spiro to invite him to a dialogue on the contents of this book. Spong saw this as a way of building a bridge between the Jewish and Christian communities in the local area.
In one of these dialogues between Spong and Spiro, the heart of Christianity, the incarnation, became the topic of discussion. Spong had the golden opportunity to give this Rabbi a clear biblical understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth really is. Unfortunately, this opportunity was rejected as Spong gave the liberal academia’s assessment of the identity of Jesus. In his explanation of the identity of Jesus to Rabbi Spiro, Spong recounts:
“I wanted people to know that incarnational thought and Trinitarian thought was not fully developed until the fourth and fifth centuries of the common era. Such claims were not in the original proclamation of the Gospel … The Jews, while not admitting to incarnational language were in fact able to point to people whom they believed spoke God’s Word and acted out God’s will. So I approached Christology from this point of view. I hoped that they might be able to see the original Christian claim, that in Jesus, the word of God was spoken and the will of God was being lived out, which then grew into incarnational language.” (Ibid. 239)
Spong then goes on to misrepresent what the doctrine of the incarnation is by using standard Jehovah’s Witnesses arguments.
- Since Jesus prayed to God, he obviously wasn’t praying to himself, therefore Jesus was not God.
- Jesus died, God cannot die, therefore Jesus was not God.
Spong failed to distinguish between the Persons of the Godhead. He believed that God is one person with three roles: the Father, Son and Holy Spirt. This is an ancient heresy known as modalism; It was roundly and rightly condemned at the Council of Antioch in 264 AD. Spong should have known this from his seminary days. He should have learned that modalism has its roots in another heresy called Arianism – which is basically a form of Unitarianism: God is singular in both person and in nature. Like modalism, it was rightly condemned by the early church.
One does not stand against heresy by introducing another heresy to cover up it up. Modalism was labeled heresy in 264 at Antioch and Arianism was labeled a heresy in 325 at Nicea. Yet Spong went even further than just the use of Jehovah’s Witness arguments against the Deity of Christ. At least the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was a pre-existent angel who was the first and greatest creation of Jehovah. Spong demotes Jesus even more than Jehovah’s Witnesses do. In his quest to be a good religious pluralist, Spong sees Jesus as a good man who was conscious of the presence of God in his life.
In his book A New Christianity for a New World, he states several times that Jesus is no different than the founders of other world religions. All the great religious leaders teach that we should all love one another, thus, Jesus is on the same level as all the other founders of the world religions. They’re all basically the same with mere superficial differences keeping them apart.
In 1975, Spong visited a retired Episcopal Priest familiar with Spong and his ministry. In a hospital room with the Priest, Spong submitted his name as a candidate for the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Spong made it very clear at each point of candidacy that he wanted to be a teaching bishop where he could teach the laity what he had learned in seminary.
In 1976, Spong was elected Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Newark. After being installed as the Eighth Bishop of Newark, Bishop Spong set out on a huge educational program for the Newark diocese. His goal was to educate both clergy and laity in basic mainline Liberal Protestant scholarship and theology. He would do this through a forum called “The New Dimensions Lecture Series”. (Ibid. 274-276) In this lecture series, Spong brought together all the major liberal theologians of the day.
In his first lecture, Spong went so far as to teach that the resurrection of Jesus was a non-physical event. Overtime, Spong developed this non-physical understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and related it in a book called The Easter Moment.
By the early 1980’s, the Episcopal Church had issued a study in human sexuality. An Episcopal Church Commission was created to study the specific issue of homosexuality. Spong was a part of that commission. Bishop Spong affirmed homosexual relationships.
In the early days of his advocacy, Spong wrote a series of articles in the Episcopal Church’ national newspaper, The Episcopalian One. In the articles, he laid out the major reasons that he affirmed homosexuality. In short, it was due to his association with Dr. Robert Lahita of Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Lahita believed that homosexual behavior is rooted in brain activity. Since, according to Dr. Lahita, homosexuality is rooted in brain activity, the Bible is wrong in stating that homosexuality is a sin. Bishop Spong ran with this and became ardent advocate for gay ordination and gay marriage. Out of this controversy within the Episcopal Church, came his book Living in Sin?
Controversy erupted again in 1989, when Bishop Spong ordained an openly gay Bishop, Robert Williams. Spong had one condition for Williams to be ordained in the diocese of Newark: Williams must remain in a faithful and monogamous relationship with his same sex partner. This one stipulation by Bishop Spong on Williams is in and of itself unbiblical, but this was the agreement between them and Episcopal ecclesiastical authorities.
If you understand what the gay community in San Francisco was like at the time, it should come as no surprise that Williams specifically violated this one condition by having multiple same sex partners. The infamous bath houses of San Francisco offer ample testimony to this basic fact. Williams responded by complaining that Spong had no right to impose heterosexual standards of monogamous relationships on homosexuals. Having multiple same sex partners, he claimed, is the norm for homosexuals. After much wrangling between Spong and Williams over a sustained period of time, Williams finally resigned.
As the 1990’s rolled in, Bishop Spong changed the direction of his research and writing. He came upon the writings of Michael Goulder, a professor who had been a priest but later became an atheist. The writings of Professor Goulder’s offered evidence that, when the Gospel writers wrote their Gospels, they never meant for their readers to take the texts literally; Instead, the stories were meant to be non historical parables and metaphors. Bishop Spong saw Goulder’s work as a continuation of what David Strauss had done in the 19th century by labeling the Gospel miracles as myths.
Bishop Spong delved deeply into Goulder’s scholarship and, as a result,Bishop Spong wrote several new books on the subject. These books included: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth, 1992, Resurrection, Myth or Reality, 1994, Liberating the Gospels, Reading the Gospels through Jewish Eyes, 1996. By the late 1990’s, Bishop Spong had finally left the Christian tradition completely behind and became, like those authors he so respected back in the 1950’s, an apostate.
In conclusion, the life and literary work of Bishop John Shelby Spong show a man’s slow descent into apostasy. His cadre of literary works has created a serious challenge for orthodox Christianity. Because he is so successful at using “Christian lingo” with his own non biblical definitions, he has deceived many well meaning people into thinking he is a true Christian.
Even worse, Bishop Spong openly repeats the objections to Christianity that many people on the street have. Most people can’t articulate these objections the way Spong has, so Spong gives steet level objections an articulate voice. This makes Bishop Spong doubly dangerous to the cause of Christ.
For the two specific observations mentioned above, it is very important for Christians to know what they believe and why. He is the perfect Bishop for a Post Modern and Post Christian American society.
John Shelby Spong, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality, Harper, San Francisco 2001