By Rubel Shelly
As John Shelby Spong details his rejection of orthodox Christian beliefs, he reflects a type of scholarship that is more appropriate to Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code than a serious student of the Bible. To be sure, he embraces the Jesus Seminar with its flawed methodology, a priori judgments against anything supernatural, and thoroughly skeptical conclusions. He calls its founder, Robert Funk, “an unusual and gifted scholar”1 and ag rees with him that Jesus needs a “demotion” from his traditional stature as Messiah and Son of God.2 As with Brown and Funk, however, pseudoscholarship is used to support overly cynical conclusions. Before making that case, however, I want to acknowledge an area where Spong is correct.
A Fair Indictment
The bishop is vexed that the institutional church has a bad record across centuries of clerical misbehavior, insensitivity to the poor, and opposition to such persons as Copernicus and Galileo. So am I! Thus I can quote such lines as this one with sympathetic endorsement: “Mainline churches are far more dedicated to preserving institutional power than they are to confronting these ‘life and death’ issues.”3 In the already cited list of things Spong prefaced with “I do not believe” are some others that most Christians would also reject: that Jesus created a church hierarchy with the right to accrue power for itself, that it is right to denigrate and devalue human life, that sexism is justifiable, that homophobia is acceptable, or that racism is permissible.
Not one of these tenets correctly reflects either the person or teaching of Jesus Christ. These deplorable and ungodly things have all been done in the name of Jesus, but not in faithful imitation of his righteous example. But it is from the canonical Gospels—which Spong holds suspect—that we get our clear picture of Jesus of Nazareth as he challenged the abuse of power in the name of religion, ate with sinful and outcast persons, came to the lifesaving defense of a woman caught in adultery, and affirmed the love of his Father for all people. The church is faithful only when it is following that example.
Who is not embarrassed by the fact that Christian teachers defended racism by a particularly warped interpretation of the so-called “Curse of Ham” in Genesis 9? Who is not offended by the tendency of both Catholic and Protestant churches to protect their clergy over those they have victimized? Who has not noticed that Jesus exhibits a gentle humility that would serve his followers well?
While I agree with Spong’s indictment of the failure of the institutional church, I do not agree that its manifest inadequacies are due to a high view of Scripture, orthodox affirmations about Jesus, or belief in miracles. It is due to the selfishness that drives so much human behavior. Just as a man can abuse his wife or child without our inveighing against the idea of marriage, love, and family, so can errors of biblical interpretation and abuses of ecclesiastical authority be admitted without jettisoning orthodoxy.
Conclusions from Assumptions
If one looks closely at the case Spong makes against Christian orthodoxy, it becomes clear he reads very selectively and skeptically. That is, he seems to carry his conclusions in his assumptions rather than in the data.
For example, take his use of the Pauline documents. He is correct in saying that Paul’s letters constitute the oldest part of our New Testament. He also makes a plausible claim in saying we should read Paul very carefully to see what he affirmed about Jesus in those earliest years of the Christian movement. His fear is that “we have distorted Paul’s meanings by unconsciously allowing the Gospels to color Paul’s words.”4 He claims that Paul did not and would not have claimed God-status for Jesus, as happens later in the canonical Gospels.
Is this a conclusion reasonably based on Paul’s own words? Hardly! No serious scholar doubts that Paul was the author of Philippians (ca. ad 60), and there can be no reasonable doubt as to the high view of Jesus in this text:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
And there is no reasonable doubt that our earliest Christian writer is claiming Christ’s deity and equality with God in this text:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-20).
So Paul’s very early material is really no different than John’s late material in his Gospel. The lofty claim about how “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) from his prologue are already present in the writings of Paul. His divine status is not a late development but an ongoing development in the biblical documents.
In both Romans 1:1-4 and Galatians 4:1-7, Jesus is the Son of God who reveals the Father’s glory in our midst and makes it possible for us to come into relationship with God. In a number of places, Jesus is hailed as “Lord” (kyrios in Greek) by Paul. Kyrios is a term with a wide variety of meanings in the New Testament, ranging from polite address (i.e., sir) to royal title to deity. Paul wrote: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Only four verses later, he makes clear what the confession “Jesus is Lord” entails when he cites this text from the Old Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). This direct quotation from Scripture is one in which “the Lord” is Yahweh himself.
Does Paul believe Jesus is to be identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Does he affirm his deity? Does he worship him as Lord? Without a doubt.
Defense and Discipleship
As Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Spong’s A New Christianity for a Modern World illustrate, telling a story well is more valuable for notoriety, book sales, and believability than telling the truth. Passing along the “results of careful research” and “things practically all reputable scholars know” is a cover for one who is, at best, functioning as a pseudoscholar in order to press an agenda. And the agenda of these two writers seems extraordinarily the same: to undermine Christian orthodoxy, to sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of Scripture, and to disclaim the gospel message that God is in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to embrace his narrative of history as the true and authentic account of what is happening in this world. This will mean not only proclamation but defense, not only preaching but apologetics. And our apologetic task will have to answer not only the issues of modernity relative to history, dates, and theology but also the postmodern concern for the credibility of authentic discipleship. Christians will not only have to argue the facts without being belligerent and repugnant, but also must display the concern for and involvement with the human condition that drew people to Jesus so long ago.
Without abandoning the scholarly defense of the biblical documents that point to Jesus as the exemplar of divine light, life, and love, we must worship him and not the documents. We must be so captured by him that we become his disciples. Love one another as he has loved us all. And experience the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection in our transformation into his likeness.
1John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 82.
2Spong, New Christianity, 83. Spong seeks to rescue a place for Jesus within Christianity that Funk does not preserve for him. Because Spong has redefined God as the Ground of Being and Source of Love, he can assign the possibility of a God-experience for him. He sees Funk overstating his case about demoting or perhaps even “destroying” Jesus on the basis of his ongoing use of an “outdated God-definition” as a personal being.
3Spong, New Christianity, 15.
4Spong, Rescuing the Bible, 81.
Rubel Shelly ministers with the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee.