John Shelby Spong, the outspoken Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, a towering voice of progressive Christianity, died on September 12, 2021, at age 90.
By the time Bishop Spong had published his bestselling 1991 Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, the then Bishop of Newark New Jersey was well-known for his controversial, liberal theological views. In some cases, John Shelby Spong, a cousin of a former U.S Senator from Virginia, William B. Spong Jr., had sought rightly to correct some abusive misinterpretations of the Bible, as when many Southern church leaders used Noah’s curse of Ham as a justification for enslaving African Americans, along with more recent misguided attempts by others to read the Bible as a scientific textbook, or marginally ostracize the contributions of women to theology and ministry. Spong had grown up as a child in an unhealthy wing of conservative evangelicalism. Much of his adult life was spent working through a lot of that dysfunctionality.
But Spong’s critique of “fundamentalism” went much further than that, going onto undermine some basic tenets of historically orthodox Christian theology. In his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, along with his other work, Spong repeatedly echoed a series of common themes of progressive Christianity, popular still thirty years later:
- Jesus’ work on the Cross, articulated through a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, is to be rejected, as “barbaric.” To say that “Jesus died for my sins” is not only dangerous, it is absurd.
- The Bible is full of contradictions.
- The concept of theism, of a supernatural power, is meaningless in today’s world.
- The Virgin Birth never happened.
- Neo-Darwinian evolution dispels any concept of “original sin” as being nonsense.
- There was no bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor any ascension of Jesus, after the resurrection.
- A lot of the practices of traditional Christianity simply need to give way to a changing new world.
- Saint Paul was a repressed homosexual, and Christians should drop any sexual ethics concept of marriage between one man and one woman, for one lifetime, as being relics of the pre-modern era.
In the mid-1900s, I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Spong preach at his former parish in Richmond, Virginia, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. It was a surreal experience, in that his sermon essentially repudiated almost every main point articulated in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, that the congregation had previously recited, just moments before he took to the pulpit lectern.
While Spong’s message appealed to certain persons struggling with how to relate their lived experience with their faith, and though I found in meeting him that he was a congenial and polite fellow, I walked away from my encounter with him wondering why anyone would think that his version of Christian faith would in any way be considered attractive (much less “true”). During his tenure as bishop, church membership in his area of New Jersey Episcopalianism declined by 43 percent.
Bishop John Shelby Spong was like a late 20th century to early 21st century version of the 1963 author of Honest to God, John A. T. Robinson, the English Anglican Bishop of Woolrich, as Robinson argued that a humanist form of religion would likely replace orthodox Christianity. Spong actually developed a correspondence and friendship with Bishop Robinson, before Robinson died of cancer in the 1980s.
It is quite probable that if John Shelby Spong had not been a bishop in the Episcopal Church, few would even know of him today. Robinson, on the other hand, surprised many of his liberal colleagues, when he challenged the broad scope of critical, academic scholarship with his 1976 Redating the New Testament, that argued that much of the New Testament had been written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, in 70 A.D., a stark contrast with the typical liberal, critical view, that places the dating of all four of the Gospels to having been written after 70 A.D., if not later towards the end of the first century, or even the beginning of the second century.
However, we should be wary of knee-jerk reactions: It is very tempting for an evangelical Christian to overreact to Spong’s in-your-face liberal theology, and embrace a siege mentality, where one tries to circle the wagons, shutting off the rest of the world around them. Instead of hiding the light under a bushel, Christians are called to let the light of Christ shine for all the world to see, even to those who embrace “progressive Christianity.” The “ghost” of John Shelby Spong continues to live on, in the ideas that he popularized, ironically even in some conservative evangelical churches.
There are surely certain critiques that Spong made that needed to be said. At the same time, the precipitous decline of historically orthodox faith, under the tutelage of misguided, at best, teachings propagated by spokespersons like John Shelby Spong serve as a cautionary tale in how not to allow erroneous teachings to gain a foothold among the people of God.
2 Timothy 4:3 is worth quoting here: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Beware of the ghost of John Shelby Spong.
William Lane Craig debated John Shelby Spong, on the topic, “The Great Resurrection Debate”: