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spong's rescue attempt

while the western world slept last night, i finished skimming spong's rescuing the bible from fundamentalism: a bishop rethinks the meaning of scripture (and i just bought a used copy for my library). it's really a rather well-written book, and bishop spong does a good job of presenting his argument that tenaciously clinging to a "literal interpretation of scripture" will kill off christianity surer than nomar garciaparra can't throw to first. the promise of matt. 16.18 notwithstanding, i fundamentally disagree w/ his premise. he is correct in claiming that an un-critical, literal interpretation is unsustainable, but orthodoxy does not demand such an interpretation. as i've written at other times, the bible isn't a science book, and its authors did have theological agendas; nevertheless, spong refuses to allow that scripture was divinely inspired, therefore it is not as culturally or linguistically bound as he contends. for instance, of paul he writes:
paul was a limited man captured by the worldview and circumstances of a vastly different itme. it is the height of foolishness to try to claim eternal truth for his culturally conditioned and time-limited words. paul's words are not the words of god. they are the words of paul -- a vast difference. those who try to elevate paul's words into being what they cannot be will finally discard paul's words in the dustbins of antiquity. paul was not a universal scholar. he was not even a good biblical scholar (104).
these arguments are, must be, those of a man who pays lipservice to paul's unique theolical insights, but lacks an appreciation of canonicity. without going back through the history of development of the canon, suffice it to say that the church had to delineate the books it accepted as holy writ, an authority vested with the church according to 1 tim. 3.15 (another book spong probably wants to jettison, btw). therefore, paul's writings were recognized as being inspired, by virtue of which they are indeed eternally true. while i can understand arguments for some issues paul treats having been situational or culturally bound (e.g., ordination of women), the contention that enlightened 21st century reason dictates that paul's corpus be relegated to one man's ranting is unacceptable. and spong's argument that paul was homosexual (117), while ultimately beside the point, is so much historical supposition. the arguments that paul was not trinitarian (123) and cared little for whether jesus was bodily raised from the dead (124) are also unconvincing. it is fallacious to assume that paul didn't understand jesus to be divine simply b/c there is little evidence of trinitarian language in his letters; and the resurrection was and remains a glorious mystery, one that i am sure paul would not have disputed given his authorship of romans and 1 cor. 5.14.

bishop spong treats the gospel accounts @ length, discussing issues such as authorship, theme and interpretation. his insistence that the "discrepancies" in the accounts means that certain events aren't historical fails to take into account the way in which they were written. critics often propose that small variations in the gospels suggest that they were the result of a combination of borrowing and differing theological assumptions, and spong makes the same arguments. for example, he makes much of the fact that matthew heightens the miraculous in his gospel, and he finds it "strange that no one else ever mentioned such weird and awesome phenomena" (153). his explanation: "these events did not happen but were a figment of matthew's fertile imagination" (153). however, it is quite logical to assume that different authors would include different events (and, indeed, place different emphasis on the events) upon reflection when writing a biographical account of jesus. orthodoxy does not, repeat not, have to concede that the events described in the gospels are ahistorical, and it does scripture a disservice to throw in the towel w/o a fight. given the anti-supernatural bias of spong and many critical scholars, our explanation of the events recounted in the bible is just as probable as theirs; we simply believe that god can act w/in history in ways that appear miraculous to us. this applies equally to the "myths" of the virgin birth (215), the incarnation, the trinity (232), and the "ludicrous" doctrine of the atonement (234). it's something about which we just have to agree to disagree, since it appears we are starting with such divergent assumptions. it is arrogant to dismiss matthew simply b/c he arguably lacked "the levels of scholarship available to us today" (165).

as an example of the supposed triumph of modern reason, take spong's description of the sin and the necessity of the atonement:
we today do not think in natural/supernatural categories. god is not for us a human parent figure. we do not see human life as created good and then as fallen into sin. human life is evolving, not always in a straight line, but evolving nonetheless into higher and higher levels of consciousness. we do not need the divine rescuer who battles the demonic forces of a fallen world in the name of the creator god. we are not likely to turn the christ story into the mythological tale that begins with a virgin birth and ends in the cosmic victory over death. none of these elements of our faith story is wrong, but all of them are sorely limited by the worldview of the first century. that worldview has passed away. it no longer lives. unless the experience of our faith story can be separated from the words and concepts of a dead worldview, it will be a dead faith story (236).
this is easy for him to say, since his worldview is such that he denies the fact of sin, the unsurpassable holiness of god and the necessity of sacrificial atonement, all because, as he writes:
i, for example, do not beleive in a god who willed jesus to suffer for my sins. i do not believe in a god whose inner need for justice is satisfied when his son is nailed to a cross. i regard the substitutionary version of the atonment as a barbaric attack on both the truth of god and the meaning of human life (69).
spong takes pains to discuss @ length what christ is to us today (a bonhoeffer idea, btw), but it bears little resemblance to the jesus of history or the christ of orthodoxy.
i can only bear witness to what i believe the christ event is. jesus is the point in the human enterprise where, for me, the divine and the human flow together perfectly, revealing god as the source of love, the source of life, and the ground of being. jesus is human being where the essence of the divine life breaks forth with a peculiar intensity.
this may be true, in that it is accurate so far as it goes. but the jesus the church has worshipped as god for millenia is so much more than spong seems willing to allow, as evidenced by his assertion that "we have come to the dawning realization that god might not be separate from us but rather deep within us. the sense of god as the sum of all that is, plus something more, grows in acceptability" (33).

ultimately, i suppose it may come down to questions of the sufficiency of language and inspiration of scripture. spong insists that
there may well be eternal objective truth beyond all of our words, but the minute that truth is spoken by a human being who is a subject, it ceases to be either eternal or objective. it becomes then truth compromised by time, concept, vocabulary, history, and prejudice. both the sacred scriptures and the creeds of the christian church can point to but they can never finally capture eternal truth (169).
i disagree. we have no other way to apprehend god other than his revelation to us, and he chose to reveal himself through inspiring a body of written words. if there is such a thing as "divine inspiration" (and spong cannot prove conclusively that there is not, just as i cannot conclusively prove that there is), then spong's arguments lose their persuasiveness. spong even seems to concede this when writing about john the baptist's recognition of jesus as the "lamb of god": "only by postulating direct revelation from god could one explain the baptist's insight" (188). postulating direct revelation, indeed. while the learned bishop has written an eminently readable and engaging book, i'll take the "divine rescuer" he so blithely rejects over his failed attempt to rescue the bible from fundamentalism anyday.


  • At 11:19 AM, Blogger seth said…

    Well written Sammy. More of this.

    Btw - the commenting system is quite different now. Odd.


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