What’s wrong with Bishop Spong?
Laymen rethink the scholarship of John Shelby Spong
Apologia 4(1):3–27, 1995.
NB: Reprinted, slightly modified and updated for the Internet, April 98; last update 7 February 2007
Apologia is the journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society
John Shelby Spong (16 June 1931 – 12 September 2021)
John Shelby Spong is an influential public speaker, writer and media figure. He is also Bishop of Newark in New Jersey [Ed. note: he retired years after this article was first written]. He claims he is a Christian yet he champions causes that historic Christianity has often fought tooth and nail against. Bishop Spong is well known for ordaining practising homosexuals, denying the bodily resurrection and virginal conception1 of Christ, and for deriving his moral code from modern human experience rather than the Bible.
Bishop Spong is often described as a great scholar and intellectual giant who ‘has the guts to tell it like it is’ (see back cover of Living in Sin [LS — see the bibliography for abbreviations of Spong’s books]), whereas all Christians who oppose him are ignorant ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘literalizers’. Indeed, one Australian reviewer said, ‘Thank God for Spong!’ In Spong’s world, works which support his view are described as ‘well written and even brilliant works of biblical scholarship’; whereas works supporting biblical inerrancy are ‘tracts, pamphlets, and books from the pens of fundamentalist Christians’ (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism [RBF] p. x).
It was after reading comments such as these that we decided to investigate the work and theology of John Spong. We aimed to see whether his case against Christian orthodoxy is as persuasive as he claims. We also aimed to see whether orthodoxy has any solutions to the doubts he raises.
We intend to do this by focusing chiefly on the following overview:
1) Spong’s World View
2) The Bishop and the Bible
3) Spong, Science, and Scripture
4) Spong’s View Of God
5) Spong and the Resurrection
6) The Birth and the Bishop
7) Spong and Morality
8) Alleged Antisemitism in the New Testament
9) Spong the Scholar
Selected Bibliography of Spong’s Works
Selected Bibliography of Works Defending Christian Orthodoxy
About the Authors
Spong rejoices in uncertainty and the supposed relativity of all truth in Into the Whirlwind (ITW pp. 12 ff.). Also, in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? RMR (pp. 34–35) he claims:
No word is objective; hence no word ever passes from the lips of one person into the hearing of another without being changed in meaning. … Words are never the truth. They are only the medium of truth … Words become the vehicles by which experiences are shared.
Yet Spong wants us to believe that his words are true and that fundamentalists are most certainly wrong. Such absolute and certain statements sound strange from a bishop who condemns a church for prescribing certainty and absolutes. However, we must now look at why Spong thinks that the church has got it wrong and why liberal scholarship and morality is on the right track. To answer these questions, we must look at Spong’s world view.
1.1) The religion of evolutionary scientism2
Spong jettisons belief in God as the supernatural lawgiver. He sees this belief arising when ‘men and women, groping for the power to express what they found in him [God], discovered the inadequacy of language, so they lapsed into myth and poetry’ (THL p. 184). He argues that this belief should be rejected in favour of the light of truth which he thinks is the monopoly of objective science.
Spong labels the view that ethics, especially sexual ethics, can be derived from the Bible as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘pre-modern’, whereas he claims his new framework is ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’. He says:
I am amazed that given the knowledge revolution of the last 600 years, anyone could still regard the Bible as the dictated3 word of God, inerrant and eternal (BW p. 3).
In Spong’s world, the findings of objective science continually chip away at our ‘pre-modern’ moral reference, the Bible. For instance, science supposedly has proven that we must change our beliefs about homosexuality:
Contemporary research has today uncovered new facts that are producing a rising conviction that homosexuality — is a healthy, natural and affirming form of human sexuality. (LS p. 71)
Science, Spong believes, is a neutral sifter and accumulator of facts which produces conclusions based on observation and is untarnished by prejudice. Belief in a literal Bible is primitive and produces such ‘mistakes’ as beliefs in Christ’s bodily resurrection and virginal conception, and the idea that homosexual acts are sinful. But now, thanks to science, we have the facts. We know that Jesus neither rose from the grave nor was He born of a virgin, and that homosexual acts are just as valid as heterosexual acts.
But just how objective and neutral is Spong’s new god Science? The view of science as a neutral accumulator of facts has been debated in several books, such as Thomas Kuhn’s famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.4 Kuhn maintains that scientific revolutions occur through a shift in the framework or paradigm in which facts are interpreted, and that the shift in framework depends as much upon human and non-scientific factors as on the data themselves. The Marxist evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould also admitted that any theory colours perception of fact.5Simply put, scientists are not always neutral.
1.1.1) The Bias of some scientists
Agnostic science writer Richard Milton used to be respected by scientists until he wrote a book which vigorously challenged the dogma of Darwinism.6‘Objective’ scientist Richard Dawkins (and ardent atheist), reviewing the book in New Statesman, wrote that the book is ‘loony’, ‘stupid’, ‘drivel’, and its author a ‘harmless fruitcake’ who ‘needs psychiatric help’.7 Dawkins is now ‘Chair of the Public Understanding of Science’ at the prestigious Oxford University and is responsible for shaping the minds of young scientists. Yet this is not the objective language supposedly typical of science, but rather that of a religious zealot responding to someone who has blasphemed his faith.
Most secular science magazines censor challenges to evolution. Scientific American even refused to hire Forrest Mims IIIas their Amateur Scientist columnist, when they found out that he was a creationist, although they admitted that his work was ‘fabulous’, ‘great’ and ‘first rate’.8 Ironically, the founding editor of the magazine was a creationist, as were the founders of most branches of modern science.9
Professor DMS Watson, one of the leading biologists and science writers of his day, wrote:
evolution [is] a theory universally accepted not because it can be proven by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.10
This quote shows how Spong puts the cart before the horse: he uses ‘objective’ evolutionary science to ‘disprove’ traditional theism; the truth, as Watson admitted, is that (molecules-to-man) evolution is a deduction from the denial of theism.
Carl Sagan’s first line of his best-selling book Cosmos is: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.’11 Such a dogmatic religious statement is typical of one who was a leading priest12 of the religion of scientism. This confirms the observation by the philosopher Marjory Grene:
It is as a religion of science that Darwinism chiefly held, and holds men’s minds. … The modified, but still characteristically Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy, preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers, imperfect in scientific faith.13
These examples show that many scientists are hardly the neutral observers of facts and data they are made out to be. Yet such scientists have often shaped both modern science curricula and influenced modern opinion.
1.2) Miracles and science
Spong gives no explanation for his denial of the supernatural other than conceptual decree and an appeal to common prejudice. In other words, God doesn’t intervene in history because Spong hasn’t seen it happen, Spong says it doesn’t happen, and we all know it can’t happen. A good example of this ‘logic’ is Spong’s discussion of two of his colleagues’ views on miracles:
When one Episcopal bishop told me that he accepted the virgin birth story literally because ‘if God wanted to be born of a virgin, He could have arranged that’, or when another said, ‘If God created ex nihilo, the virgin birth would be a snap’, I thought to myself, ‘How will the church survive in this world with that lack of scholarship among its leaders?’ In those statements the bishops were asserting their belief in a God who was in fact a manipulative male person, who would set aside the processes of the world to produce a miracle in order to bring His (sic) divine presence into a human enterprise called life, from which this God was clearly separated. They also revealed no knowledge whatsoever of the biblical studies that have, for at least a century, thrown new light on the interpretation of these birth narratives. (BW, p. 11)
Spong never tells us why belief in the Virgin Birth or belief in Creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing, i.e. no pre-existing matter) entails a lack of scholarship. The statements of the two bishops quoted disparagingly by Spong are perfectly logical—if God is almighty and can create ex nihilo, then arranging for a virgin to bear a child would be easy (i.e. ‘a snap’). To declare carte blanche that these things certainly did not happen, just because one believes they cannot, is hardly consistent with a scientific approach.
However, the disparaging reference to the intervening God of history suggests a further dimension to Spong’s world-view and beliefs. In his books, reasoned argumentation has been replaced by special pleading and sweeping assertions characteristic of the caricatures of fundamentalists Spong himself attacks. Spong approaches the Bible with his own politically correct spectacles. This leads him to impose his political and social stereotypes upon the Bible with a crude dogmatism devoid of scholarly insight. To add weight to this cause, Spong desperately tries to dress up his claims as scientific and scholarly.
However, Spong fails to understand that science, when commenting on the universe, can only describe things which are observable and repeatable; it cannot prescribe what cannot happen. Scientific laws do not cause or forbid anything any more than the outline of a map causes the shape of the coastline. The Christian philosopher Norman Geisler stated:
Natural law is a description of the way God acts regularly in and through creation (Ps. 104:10–14), whereas a miracle is the way God acts on special occasions. So both miracles and natural law involve the activity of God. The difference is that natural law is the regular, repeatable way God acts, whereas a miracle is not.
Natural law is the way God acts indirectly in and through the world he has made. By contrast, a miracle is the way God acts directly in his creation from time to time.
Natural law describes the gradual activity of God in the world, whereas miracles manifest his immediate actions.14
It is also impossible to derive moral codes from science. Morality tells us what people ought to do, while science can at best only tell people actually do. Science may indicate that if a 20 kg weight is dropped from a height of 100 metres on someone’s head, it would probably kill him; morality decides that this is murder and therefore wrong.
According to Spong:
- There are no absolutes. This is self-refuting, as that statement is itself absolute.
- Miracles don’t happen. Spong hasn’t proved this — he just can’t stomach the idea of a ‘manipulative’ being intervening in history, or the Biblical God’s social agenda.
- Science is superior to the Bible because it is objective and neutral, and is therefore the more qualified to make pronouncements on morality. However, as we have seen, scientists are often anything but neutral and objective.
- It is a logical fallacy (called the Naturalistic Fallacy)15 to argue for moral (ought) conclusions from scientific (is) premises.
For years in my writing career, I have examined such parts of the sacred text as the person of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, the resurrection narratives, and the biblical teaching on human sexuality. In each instance, I narrowed my focus to the subject at hand and studied it with great intensity. But increasingly I felt a need to look at the Bible itself as a whole. How can this book be used with integrity by men and women of faith? How can it be lifted out of the prejudices and cultural biases of bygone eras? How can it be a source of life to a twentieth-and-soon-to-be-twenty-first-century generation? If it continues to be viewed literally, the Bible, in my opinion, is doomed to be cast aside as both dated and irrelevant.
Can modern men and women continue to pretend that timeless, eternal, and unchanging truth has been captured in the words of a book that achieved its final written form midway into the second century of the common era? Would not such a claim be dismissed as ludicrous in any other branch of human knowledge? (RBF, p. 15)
Spong claims that he is ‘a Christian who loves the church’ (RBF p. 10) and even loves the Bible (RBF pp. 11, 14–15, 245, 247). But he claims that the Bible is full of contradictions, errors, objectionable passages and repugnant concepts (RBF pp. 16–23). He even claims that ‘There are passages in the Gospels that portray Jesus of Nazareth as narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical.’ (RBF p. 21) Statements such as these appear strangely at odds with the claim that he loves the Bible. Also, his last sentence in the above quote presupposes that the Bible can be viewed as just another branch of human knowledge.
Spong’s pet hate is fundamentalism. He never defines the term, but Paul Enns states:
Historically, fundamentalism has been used to identify one holding to the five fundamentals of the faith adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the USA in 1910. The five fundamentals were the miracles of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the inspiration of Scripture.16
Spong exploits the negative modern connotations of the term to attack those who hold to the original meaning. According to Spong, fundamentalists are ‘afraid of knowledge’ (RBF p. 27), incapable of abstract thought (RBF p. 155), and are fearful and insecure Christians who do not even bother to read the Bible they pretend to defend (RBF pp. 3-5, 79, 133, 217). He also criticises them for taking the Bible literally. By this he does not mean that they literally interpret passages which are clearly expressed in poetic or figurative language. Rather, he criticises them for accepting the Bible’s doctrinal, moral, and historical propositions as actually true. In particular, his attacks centre around the ‘five fundamentals’. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism attacked the inspiration of Scripture; Born of a Woman attacked the Virgin Birth of Christ; and Resurrection: Myth or Reality? attacked His bodily resurrection.
Spong implies that there are no fundamentalist scholars. Works supporting liberalism are ‘well written and even brilliant works of biblical scholarship’ whereas works supporting biblical inerrancy are ‘tracts, pamphlets, and books from the pens of fundamentalist Christians’ (RBF p. x). But how broad is Spong’s reading on these issues? Examining the bibliography of RBF one finds that the only fundamentalist author cited in it is Jerry Falwell. However, our bibliography contains works of many fine scholars ignored by Spong.
2.2) Biblical inerrancy
Biblical inerrancy may be defined as follows:
Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they teach, whether that teaching has to do with doctrine, history, science, geography, or other disciplines of knowledge.17
Inerrancy does not mean that the human writers of the Bible wrote in the same style and suppressed their individual personalities. It also does not require verbatim quotations from the OT in the NT, but only requires that the quotations are accurate. As Dr Charles Ryrie comments:
The inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the Bible tells the truth. Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as long as they do not contradict.18
See also Should Genesis Be Taken Literally?
The inerrancy of Scripture was the view of Christ (John 10:35) and His chosen Apostles (2 Tim. 3:15–17, 2 Pet. 1:21).19 To a professing Christian, the testimony of Christ outweighs the speculative theories of all the 19th century German higher critics and their 20th century followers combined. Spong cites (RBF p. 78) a debate opponent (correctly) saying to Spong, ‘I would rather trust Christ than you’, to much applause. Spong dismisses this argument by denying that we know the words of Christ. First, it is absurd for Spong to claim to be a Christian if he cannot be sure that he is really following Christ. Second, even many liberal scholars believe that there is overwhelming evidence that Christ affirmed biblical inerrancy, although they disagree with Him. The evangelical scholar Harold Lindsell20 cites the liberal scholars H.J. Cadbury, Adolph Harnack, Rudolf Bultmann and F.C. Grant to prove this point. Such independent support of Christ’s statements prove that evangelicals do not necessarily commit the fallacy of arguing in a circle, of using the Bible to prove the Bible.21
The inerrancy of Scripture had also been the dominant view of the Church in the first 1800 years of its history. Those who deny it have departed from orthodox Christianity. Even the liberal NT scholar Kirsopp Lake confirmed this:
It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind; it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the eighteenth century who doubted the infallible inspiration of all Scripture? A few, perhaps, but very few. No, the fundamentalist may be wrong; I think he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the Corpus theologicum of the Church is (sic) on the fundamentalist side.22
All Christian doctrines originate in the divinely inspired Bible. Therefore, once a church denies biblical inerrancy, it has started down the slippery slide to total apostasy, like Spong himself. This has happened repeatedly in the last few century. Francis Schaeffer warned:
… the generation of those who first give up biblical inerrancy may have a warm evangelical background and real personal relationships with Christ so they can ‘live theologically’ on the basis of their limited-inerrancy viewpoint. But what happens when the next generation tries to build on that foundation?23
Paul Enns points out an important similarity between Christ and Scripture:
There is, in fact a correlation between the two aspects of special revelation: the Scripture may be termed the living, written Word (Heb. 4:12), while Jesus Christ may be designated the living, incarnate Word (John 1:1,14). In the case of Christ there was human [only maternal] parentage but the Holy Spirit overshadowed the event (Luke 1:35), ensuring a sinless Christ; in the case of the Scriptures there was human authorship but the Holy Spirit superintended the writers (2 Pet. 1:21), ensuring an inerrant word [see Ref. ]. The Bible accurately presents the special revelation of Jesus Christ.24
Jesus Christ Himself told Nicodemus (Jn. 3:12):
If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?
Similarly, if the Scriptures can be wrong on testable matters such as geography, history and science, why should it be trusted on matters like the nature of God and life after death, which are not open to empirical testing?
2.3) The reliability of the Gospels
Spong and liberal scholars usually argue that the Gospels were written long after the events they claim to record. Therefore they cannot be trusted to be reliable, because no eye-witnesses were around to correct false reports. Spong dates Mark between AD 65–75, Matthew at mid 80s, Luke and Acts between 83–90 and John about the turn of the first century (RBF p. 82). So with a time gap of 35–75 years, there is allegedly no chance that the Gospels are reliable records.
However, Spong appears to be unaware of the cogent arguments of J.A.T. Robinson, who was fellow liberal and Bishop of Woolwich, for redating the Gospels between AD 40 and 65.25 It is ironic that Spong sees himself as a spiritual heir to Robinson (RMR p. 13), yet ignores his conservative early datings of the NT.
If Robinson is right, the Gospels were written in the lifetimes of people who knew Jesus personally (~6 BC – AD ~30 for His earthly lifetime). Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s demise (Mt. 24:2, Lk. 21:20-24) but do not record its fulfilment in AD 70. Matthew, especially, would not have failed to record yet another fulfilled prophecy if he had written after the event. Acts, written after Luke, mentions neither the fall of Jerusalem, the horrific Neronian persecutions (mid 60s) although other persecutions are mentioned, nor the martyrdoms of James (61), Paul (64) and Peter (65), so was probably written before then.
Also, if the Gospels were written by church communities instead of the four evangelists, it is likely that they would have tried to solve their problems by putting solutions into the mouth of Christ. But the Gospels do not mention some of the controversies of the early church (e.g. circumcision), but record things quite irrelevant to a mainly Gentile Church, such as Christ’s being sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5–6). Thus the internal evidence points to the Gospels’ being written before many of the Church’s problems arose.26
Paul wrote even earlier: the summary of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 was written in AD c. 55, but Paul says he is reminding them of something he preached to them about 15 years earlier. Therefore Paul records a tradition which was well established within a decade of Christ’s death.
Julius Müller challenged 19th century sceptics to show anywhere in history where within 30 years, legends had accumulated around a historical person and become firmly fixed.27 But even if one accepts Spong’s late dates, one must note that the classical historian Prof. Sherwin-White has pointed out that legends require a time gap of more than two generations. Therefore, if the Gospels are legendary, the rate of legendary accumulation would need to be ‘unbelievable’.28
Also, John claims to be an eye-witness (Jn. 21:24). Luke claims to have relied on eye-witnesses (Lk. 1:1–4), and was a companion of the Apostle Paul (Col. 4:14), and may have been Cleopas’ un-named companion on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13 ff.). Mark relied heavily on Peter, who claimed that he ‘did not follow cleverly devised tales’ (2 Pet. 1:16). Matthew, according to early church tradition, was written by the disciple and ex-tax-collector of that name. The Gospels have also been supported by archaeology. The archaeologist Sir William Ramsay stated:
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.29
2.3.1) Midrash or mere trash?
Spong claims that the Gospels are examples of the literary genre of midrash (BW pp. 18, 20, 184). He understands midrash as follows:
‘Midrash represented efforts on the part of the rabbis to probe, tease, and dissect the sacred story [Old Testament] looking for hidden meanings, filling in blanks, and seeking clues to yet-to-be-revealed truth….
The Gospels, far more than we have thought before, are examples of Christian midrash. In the Gospels, the ancient Jewish story would be shaped, retold, interpreted, and even changed so as to throw proper light on the person of Jesus. There was nothing objective about the Gospel tradition. These were not biographies. They were books to inspire faith. To force these narratives into the straitjacket of literal historicity is to violate their intention, their method, and their truth…. … once you enter the midrash tradition, the imagination is free to roam and speculate.’
However, N.T. (Tom) Wright30 points out that Spong does not know what midrash is. Wright shows that Spong ignores the leading current experts on midrash, such as Geza Vermes31 and Jacob Neusner32 , since they leave no room for Spong’ distorted view. Spong also ignores Philip Alexander’s33 rebuttal of Michael Goulder’s use of the word ‘midrash’ which Spong relies on. Real midrash consisted of a commentary precisely on an actual Biblical text, was tightly controlled and argued, and never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent.
2.4) Alleged errors in the Bible
Spong’s specific charges against Scripture can be easily rebutted, but even if there was some difficulty, one should remember the advice of Coleridge:
When we meet an apparent error in a good author, we are to presume ourselves ignorant of his understanding, until we are certain that we understand his ignorance.34
Aristotle also advised:
the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.34
However, Spong refuses this good advice, e.g.:
Yet in the Torah there are two creation stories that vary in detail and contradict each other in order (Gen. 1:1–2:4 and Gen 2:5 ff). These stories cannot be harmonised. (RBF p. 23)
Is it correct to claim that the stories ‘cannot be harmonised’? Has he even tried? Kenneth Kitchen, a scholar of the ancient Near East, has successfully tried:
The strictly complementary nature of the ‘two accounts’ is plain enough: Genesis 1 mentions the creation of man as the last of a series, and without any details, whereas in Genesis 2 man is the centre of interest and more specific details are given about him and his setting.
There is not incompatible duplication here at all. Failure to recognize the complementary nature of the subject-distinction between a skeleton outline of all creation on the one hand, and the concentration in detail of man and his immediate environment on the other, borders on obscurantism.35
See also Genesis contradictions?
Spong also alleges that Moses:
… seemed not to know the nationality of the people to whom Joseph’ brothers sold Joseph, who took him down to Egypt. In one version it was the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:25), and in another version it was the Midianites (Gen. 37:28). They are not the same. Moses, as a single author, seems to have been quite confused. (RBF p. 23)
However, it is Spong who is quite confused. Over a century ago, Haley cited Keil’s suggestion that the caravan consisted of two tribes allied because of their common descent from Abraham (Gen 16:16, 25:2) and similar lifestyle. Haley also cited Lange’s suggestion that the Ishmaelites may have been the proprietors of the caravan, which comprised mostly Midianites.36 Both explanations are perfectly adequate. They are analogous to a hypothetical situation in World War 2 where an Allied soldier is captured by an Axis patrol comprising mainly Germans, but with some Italians. It would be correct to report that the soldier was captured by a patrol of Germans, but equally correct to report that he was captured by Italians, especially if the minority Italians distinguished themselves.
Spong shows lack of imagination and poor scholarship, as he is unfamiliar with Bible-believing scholars who long ago answered all his ‘points’. One of the most thorough is Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by the biblical scholar, linguist and lawyer trained in legal evidence, Gleason Archer.
Spong asserts that the Bible is wrong about the age and shape of the earth, the origin of mankind, the cause of diseases, and many other points. He uncritically accepts the dogmatic pronouncements of atheistic geologists and evolutionary biologists and judges the Bible accordingly.
3.1) The flat earth, geocentric myth
Spong asserts that the Bible teaches that the earth is flat (RBF pp. 26–31). However, the Bible refers to the circle of the earth (Isaiah 40:22). The spherical earth appears like a circle when viewed from any direction in space. In fact, Hebrew word khûg (‘circle’) used to describe the earth means sphericity or roundness. The Bible also states that the earth ‘hangs upon nothing’ (Job 26:7), which is as good a description as any. Further, the historian J.B. Russell has documented that nearly all Christian scholars who have ever discussed the earth’s shape have assented to its roundness.37 See Who invented the flat earth?
Spong declares that the Bible sometimes appears to refer to a moving sun and stationary earth (RBF p. 26). However, Spong, who has no scientific qualifications that we are aware of, is unaware that all motion must be described with respect to a reference frame. For earthbound people, the earth is a convenient reference frame. After all, when drivers see a speed limit sign of 100 km/hr, they know perfectly well that it means 100 km/hr relative to the ground, not the sun! So it is absurd to attack the Biblical writers for doing the same.
So although Spong mocks Joshua for asking the sun to stand still (Jos. 10:12–13), Joshua was asking God to perform a miracle lengthening the day to give him time to conquer his foes. The Bible does not state how this enormous miracle took place: God may have miraculously extended the temporal condition, modified the trajectory of the rays light, or caused the relative motion of the sun across the sky to cease by stopping the earth’s rotation. A Christian should find this miracle of the sun quite plausible, especially as the Amorites were sun-worshippers, and the miracle demonstrates the sovereignty of the true God over the false ‘god’ of the Amorites.
Would we fly off into space if the earth suddenly stopped turning?
(For the technically minded)Escape Velocity v = √(2GM⁄r), where:
- G is the gravitational constant = 6.67 × 10⁻¹¹ N m²/kg²
- M is the mass of the planet, star etc. = 5.98 × 10²⁴ kg for Earth
- r is the distance from its center = 6,378 km at the equator
- Substituting these values into the formula, the escape velocity is 11.2 km/s.
The linear velocity on the equator of the rotating earth can be calculated by realising that a fixed point on the equator travels the earth’s circumference every 24 hours. Since the earth’s circumference = 2πr = 40,000 km, and there are 24 × 60 × 60 (86,400) seconds per day, the velocity is only 0.4638 km/s (1600 km/h or 1000 mph).
This is only 1⁄24 of the escape velocity!
Spong makes the undocumented and faulty claim that if ‘Joshua really caused the earth to cease turning, the gravitational effects would have destroyed this planet forever’ (RBF p. 30). Spong ignores the fact that the deity could by a further chain of miraculous interventions deal with the alleged physical consequences—God could probably have slowed the atmosphere, oceans and magma at the same rate as the solid parts of the earth. Also, we would be travelling no where near fast enough to escape Earth’ gravity (see calculations in the box (right)).
Also, the earth may not have stopped too suddenly, as v. 13 states that the sun ‘did not hasten to go for about a day’. As shown in the calculations in the box, objects on the earth’s surface are travelling at 1,600 km/h. A car travelling at 100 km/h can be stopped comfortably for the occupants in a few seconds, therefore something travelling at 1,600 km/h could stop comfortably for passengers in a few minutes.
Also, independent evidence for the historicity of Joshua 10 is that many ancient cultures have myths that seem to be based on this event. For example, there is the Greek myth of Apollo’s son Phaethon, who disrupted the sun’s course for a day. As would be expected if Joshua 10 were historical, cultures in the opposite hemisphere would have legends of a long night, e.g. the New Zealand Maori myth of Maui slowing the sun before it rose.
Spong is also unaware that engineering and nautical astronomers, even now, for some applications, use earth as a reference frame, at the centre of a great celestial sphere. The Biblical writers were merely using convenient phenomenological language (language of appearances), just like modern people who refer to ‘sunset’ and ‘sunrise’ (to Spong’s disgust” RBF p. 26). See also this discussion on Galileo and reference frames.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself knew about the earth’s rotation on its axis, as shown by His prophecy about His second coming (Luke 17:34–36) which would be instantaneous (‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’ (1 Cor. 15:52, cf. 1 Thess. 4:13 ff.)) and seen by all. It would come at night, while people sleep, but also in the morning when women are grinding corn, and yet in midday when men are out in the field. This is possible because the spheroidal earth is rotating on its axis, which allows the sun to shine on different areas at different times. But it would be an inconceivable prophecy if Christ believed in a flat earth.
Psalm 19:6 speaks of the sun’s circuit unto the ends of the heaven, which amuses many humanists. Actually, we now know that the sun is moving through space, towing the solar system at a speed of 29.78 km/s (107,200 km/h, 66,615 mph) in an orbit around our galaxy which takes 200 million years to complete. Our galaxy is also moving with respect to other galaxies. So the sun’s circuit is in fact from one end of the heavens to the other.
3.2) Vastness of space
Spong also uses the earth’s tininess relative to the known universe to attack the Bible (RBF p. 31 ff.). C.S. Lewis, the famous 20th century literary scholar and Christian apologist, summed up this ‘red herring’ argument nearly 50 years ago:
Many people say, ‘They could believe in miracles in olden times because they had a false conception of the universe. They thought the Earth is the largest thing in it and Man was the most important creature. It therefore seemed reasonable to suppose that the Creator was specially interested in Man and might even interrupt the course of Nature for his benefit. But now we know the real immensity of the universe—now that we perceive our own planet and even the whole solar system to be only a speck—it becomes ludicrous to believe in them any longer. We have discovered our insignificance and can no longer suppose that God is so drastically concerned in our petty affairs.’ 38
Lewis refutes this argument:
The immensity of the universe is not a recent discovery. More than 1700 years ago Ptolemy taught that in relation to the fixed stars the whole Earth must be regarded as a point with no magnitude. His astronomical system was universally accepted in the Dark and Middle Ages….
The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.38
In fact, the Bible was well aware of the vastness of space, e.g. Ps. 8:4, Is. 40:22. Also, before the telescope was invented in the 17th century, the number of stars was thought to be more or less known. Ptolemy counted 1056, Tycho Brahe 777 and Johannes Kepler 1005. But now astronomers know that there are billions of stars, far too many for humans to count. So the Bible was once again proven right, as it states, ‘… the host of heaven cannot be numbered.’ (Jer. 33:22, cf. Gen. 15:5, 22:17).
Lewis also points out a missing premise needed to make the argument valid: the absurd notion that importance is always proportional to size. If great differences in size mean great differences in importance (e.g. the Earth and the Andromeda Galaxy), do small differences in size mean small differences in importance? Surely only a lunatic would think that a horse is more important than a man, a man’ leg more important than his brain, a six-foot man more important than a five-foot man, or dare we add, the average man more important than the average woman.
3.3) Creation vs. Evolution
Spong says he regards the creation vs. evolution debate as an ‘irrelevant issue’. But the issue is relevant enough for him to use evolutionary theories to dismiss Genesis as ‘myth’. He does not acknowledge the criticisms of evolutionary theory even by secular scientists like Dr Michael Denton, Sir Fred Hoyle, Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe, H.S. Lipson, D. Heribert-Nilsson;39 secular science writers like Richard Milton, or the thousand-plus members of the Creation Research Society, all with advanced degrees in science.
Spong rejects the Christian view of God as the Creator of the universe, which is distinct from Him and utterly dependent on Him for its existence. Instead, he plays a game of word magic:
We have come to the dawning realisation that God might not be separate from us but rather deep within us. (RBF p. 33)
This redefinition of God is a form of panentheism: the view that God is in the world as a soul is in the body. But ‘the God within’ is no God at all. It is merely another name for one’s own desires and lusts. This is probably the reason that such views are appealing to the unregenerate man: such a ‘god’ makes no ethical demands, and sends no-one into final judgement. However, it is also impossible to derive Spong’s ethics from such a view. If God is within all people, then he is in fundamentalists and all the other people Spong despises. Spong provides no criterion to decide which ‘God within’ is the right one.Back to index
The bodily resurrection of Christ is one of the key doctrines of Christianity, as it demonstrates His claims to deity (Rom. 1:4), confirmed the truth of all He said (Mt. 28:6), and shows that He conquered death thus guaranteeing the resurrection of believers (2 Cor. 4:14). The apostle Paul wrote:
… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still dead in your sins…. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied…. If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (1 Cor. 15:17,19,32b)
5.1) Reinterpretation of resurrection
Spong, as we have shown, dogmatically rejects miracles. Therefore he must ‘demythologise’ then ‘remythologise’ the resurrection narratives (RBF p. 237). His substitute is a rhetorical question:
Is not the primary message of the Easter narratives that even the barrier of death must not deter us in our quest for life and love? (RBF p. 146)
This is hardly a message for which the apostles, and countless martyrs since, were prepared to be tortured and killed. Spong’s view presents a Christ who is a failure; the truly good man who was defeated by a cruel death. Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh rightly comments:
Spong leaves us with a God who cannot save because he has no control of nature or history. He offers us a dead Messiah who only ‘lives’ because of the wishful thinking of his first disciples.40
It is no wonder that liberal churches which deny the resurrection are shrinking, while conservative (including ‘fundamentalist’) churches which accept the resurrection are the only ones growing. Spong laments this fact (RBF p. 3, RMR p. 13), but he fails to see what most unbelievers can: that going to church is a waste of time if the resurrection is a hoax. They can find better sources of platitudes without the semantic gymnastics.
Spong denies a physical resurrection, and denies that Paul taught it. He fails to realise that the Jews regarded the body as an integral part of Man, so the resurrection must include the body:
The notion that Jesus was resurrected in a totally spiritual sense, while his old body lay in the grave, is a purely modern conception. First-century Jewish thinking would never had accepted such a view and that is not how Jesus’ resurrection was proclaimed in the earliest accounts. It would have been impossible for resurrection claims to survive in the face of a tomb containing the corpse of Jesus.41
5.2) Empty tomb or empty faith?
One major difficulty for non-Christian scholars has been to explain what happened to Christ’ body, as a plausible alternative to the resurrection. Christ’ enemies would not want to steal it, since that would promote the resurrection stories they wanted to quash—and they would have quashed them by simply producing the body. The disciples had no motive to confront a heavily armed Roman cohort and steal the body to promote resurrection stories. The disciples were tortured and killed, and no-one would die for what he knows is a lie. However, one of the earliest arguments against the resurrection was the story the cohort was told to say: ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep’ (Mt. 28:13). This is absurd: how could they know what happened if they were asleep? Also, any Roman soldier who slept on duty was executed.
Spong explains away the empty tomb by claiming that there was no tomb, and that Jesus was buried in a common grave. He claims that Paul mentioned no tomb at all. However, Paul stated that Jesus was buried, which in Greek is ετάφη (etaphē), which literally means entombed (from en, ‘in’; taphos, ‘tomb’).42 Peter also contrasted Jesus, whose body did not ‘see decay’ (NIV), with David, whose body still lay in his tomb (Acts 2:22-35).
Paul’s statement of the Gospel in 1 Cor. 15ff. cites an ancient tradition dating back to only a few years after the event. Mark’s account of the empty tomb reflects the Aramaic, pointing to a very early source. Dr W.L. Craig gives much evidence for the reliability of the burial and empty tomb accounts, and lists 37 prominent scholars who agree.43 See also his scholarly online article, Contemporary Scholarship and the Resurrection of Jesus
5.3) ‘On the third day’
Spong has a few problems with the time between Christ’s burial and resurrection (RMR Ch. 17). Christ was buried at about 6pm Good Friday (Lk. 23:54) and rose on the ‘first day of the week’ (Mk. 16:9) or ‘on the third day’ (1 Cor. 15:4). Spong claims that this contradicts Mt. 12:40: ‘three days and three nights’. But he overlooks the fact that Jews distinguished the word ‘day’ in the sense of daylight hours from ‘day’ as 24 hour cycle, by referring to the latter as ‘night and a day’. Further, in Jewish counting, a part of a day was counted as a whole day (a figure of speech known as synecdoche), e.g. 1 Sam. 30:12, where ‘he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and nights’ is equated in v. 13 with hayyom shelosha (‘three days ago’) which could only mean ‘day before yesterday’. Another example is 1 Kings 20:29 (NIV):
For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined.
In English counting, if they started fighting on the 7th day, it means they were only camping for six whole days. But in Jewish reckoning, the partial days counted as wholes, so the text says they were camping for seven days. See also Gen. 42:17–18.
Another proof is Matthew 27:63–64:
63 ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.”’
64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’ (NIV)
Note that even His enemies understood that ‘after three days’ meant that they only had to secure the tomb ‘until the third day’. If three full 24 hour periods were meant, then they would want to secure the tomb until the fourth day to make sure.
Spong becomes more confused when he argues that for Paul, the resurrection ‘occurred not on the literal third day but on the eschatological third day, for it was beyond time and history.’ (RBF p. 124) But for Paul, the whole point was that the resurrection was in time and history, with Jesus as its ‘first fruits’ (1 Cor. 15:12–28). Also, Jesus distinguished Lazarus’ (and His own) resurrection from the general resurrection on the last day (John 11). Finally, Mt. 12:40 equates the length of Christ’s entombment with the time Jonah spent inside the sea creature. Jonah preached to the Ninevites in history and time, not at the end of time. This shows that Jesus’ resurrection was also regarded as historical.
5.4) Do the resurrection narratives contradict?
Spong claims that the resurrection narratives disagree on the number of women who went to the tomb, the number of angels, number and place of resurrection appearances (RMR pp. 101–5). Spong of course ignores the many scholars who have dealt with the problems he raised. One of the most thorough treatments is John Wenham’ Easter Enigma,44 which makes a plausible reconstruction of the order of events.
The fact that women were mentioned by the Gospel writers at all gives them the ring of truth. This is because women were usually disqualified from giving evidence in that culture, so their mention detracts from the persuasiveness of the Gospels to their culture. The only motive, therefore, was one of historical accuracy. Paul does not mention the women because he was listing the resurrection appearances which could be verified. Some of the Gospels omit the name of one or more of the women, but this does not mean that they were not present.
As for the angels, Mark mentioned a man in a white robe; but there is something supernatural about him. Angels often appeared like men in the Bible (Gen. 18–19). Matthew mentions an angel, but does not say only one. Therefore there is no contradiction with Luke’ two angels. The translation of ‘stood by’ in Luke does not contradict Mark’ ‘sitting’, as the word can mean ‘to appear to’, implying suddenness.45
All these explanations, although not mentioned by Spong, are well known and testify that the ‘contradictions’ mentioned are more imaginary than real.
The real reason that Spong rejects the Virginal Conception of Christ is his anti-supernaturalistic world view (see section 1). However, he also tries to discredit this doctrine by rehashing old arguments against the reliability of the biblical accounts. Most of these have been rebutted by Tom Wright;30 many had already been addressed by another New Testament scholar C. E. B. Cranfield,46 and an article in an earlier issue of Apologia,47 but we will answer some of Spong’ criticisms here.
6.1) Isaiah 7:14: Virgin?
Spong claims that Matthew’ belief in the virginal conception was derived from a mistranslation of Is. 7:14 ‘a virgin עלמה (‘almāh) shall conceive…’. He claims that ‘almāh really means ‘young woman’ and adds: ‘The Hebrew word for virgin is betulah. ‘Almāh never means “virgin” in Hebrew’ (RBF p. 16). Liberal ‘Christians’ like Spong and Orthodox Jews often make this claim, and this is reflected in Bible translations such as the NEB, RSV, NRSV and GNB. Such people fail to explain why a young woman’ bearing a son should be a sign”it happens all the time!
The Septuagint (ca. 250 BC) translates ‘almāh as παρθένος (parthenos), the normal word for virgin.48 Later Jews, such as Trypho,49 Justin Martyr’ (AD ca. 160) dialogue opponent, and Rashi50 (AD 1040-1105) have claimed that the Septuagint was wrong. Trypho claimed that ‘almāh should have been translated neanis (young girl) rather than parthenos.47
However, even Rashi admitted that the word ‘almāh could mean ‘virgin’ in Song of Sol. 1:3 and 6:8. In the KJV, the word is translated ‘virgin’ in Gen. 24:43 (Rebekah before her marriage), ‘maid’ in Ex. 2:8 (Miriam as a girl) and Prov. 30:19, and ‘damsels’ in Ps. 68:25. These verses contain all the occurrences of ‘almāh in the OT, and in none can it be shown that a non-virgin is meant. In English, ‘maid’ and ‘maiden’ are often treated as synonyms for virgin (e.g. maiden voyage).
Vine et al. note that the other word for virgin, בתולה betûlāh, ‘emphasizes virility more than virginity (although it is used with both emphases, too).’51 It is qualified by a statement ‘neither had any man known her’ in Gn. 24:16, and is used of a widow in Joel 1:8. Further evidence comes from clay tablets found in 1929 in Ugarit in Syria. Here, in Aramaic, a word similar to ‘almāh is used of an unmarried woman, while on certain Aramaic incantation bowls, the Aramaic counterpart of betûlàh is used of a married woman.52 The Encyclopedia Judaica, while criticizing the translation of ‘almāh in Is. 7:14 as ‘virgin’, also points out that a Semitic root related to betûlāh (btlt) was used of the goddess Anath who had frenzied sex with Baal.53
6.2) Do the genealogies contradict?
… the genealogies [of Christ] in Matthew (chap. 1) and Luke (chap. 3) are not capable of being reconciled. They disagree in many details, not the least of which is the number of generations (Luke said it was seventy-six; Matthew said forty-two), the son of David who carried the Messianic line (Solomon, said Matthew; Nathan, said Luke), or even the name of Jesus’ grandfather (Jacob, said Matthew; Heli or Eli, said Luke).
Despite Spong’ claim that the ‘genealogies are not capable of being reconciled’, many scholars have plausibly reconciled them. The different numbers of generations are due to the fact that Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry up to Abraham, which is all Matthew’ intended Jewish readers would need; while Luke traces it back to Adam, for the benefit of his Gentile reader Theophilus.
The other two points are explained by the fact that Matthew is giving the genealogy of Joseph, whereas Luke gives Mary’ line.54 The reason Luke omitted Mary’ name was that the rules for listing Jewish ancestry generally left out the mothers’ names, which explains why Mary’ name is omitted. But a clear pointer to the fact that the genealogy in Luke is Mary’ is that the Greek text has a definite article before all the names except Joseph’s. This indicated that to any Greek-speaker that the genealogy was not Joseph’s, therefore Heli must have been the father of Joseph’ wife. Indeed, the Jewish Talmud, no friend of Christianity, calls Mary the ‘daughter of Heli’.
6.3) The Census and Quirinius
One of the many objections to Luke’ account is an alleged mistake concerning the census in Quirinius’ day (Lk. 2:2). The alleged problem is that Quirinius did not become governor until c. AD 7 according to Josephus, while Christ was born before Herod the Great died in 4 BC. However, N.T. Wright55 points out that prōtos not only means ‘first’, but when followed by the genitive can mean ‘before&’ (cf. Jn. 1:15, 15:38). Therefore the census around the time of Christ’ birth was one which took place before Quirinius was governing Syria (Acts 5:37 proves that Luke was aware of the latter). Another possible solution is that Quirinius twice governed Syria, once around 7 BC and again around AD 7, which is supported by certain inscriptions.56 Under this scenario, Luke’ use of prōtos refers to the first census in 7 BC, rather than the well-known one in AD 7.
6.4) Alleged silence of Mark, John and Paul on the Virginal Conception
Spong makes much of Paul’ alleged silence to claim that he ‘stood as a witness to a normal human birth process for Jesus’ (BW). However, arguments from silence are nearly always inconclusive, and this is no exception. His alleged silence could mean that he saw no reason to correct the Virginal Conception stories circulating. Paul would certainly have been aware of such stories, as he was Luke’ companion (Acts 16:10–17, 20:5–21:18, 21:1–28:16), and cited Luke 10:7 in 1 Tim. 5:18. Paul does not directly discuss the birth process at all, so by Spong’ logic, Paul did not believe Jesus went through any birth process!
In fact, Paul does use language which implies acceptance of the Virginal Conception. He uses the general Greek verb γίνομαι (ginomai), not γεννάω (gennaō) since ginomai tends to associate the husband in Rom. 1:3, Phil. 2:7, and especially Gal. 4:4, ‘God sent forth His Son, coming (γενόμενον genomenon) from a woman.’ By contrast, in 4:23 Ishmael ‘was born’ (γεγέννηται gegennētai, from gennaō).46, 57
Mark has no birth narrative, but he alone of the synoptists quotes objectors saying, ‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ (Mk. 6:3, cf. Mt. 13:55 and Lk. 4:22).46,57 Addressing a Jew as his mother’s son was a great insult, implying fornication, so the objectors had probably heard the account of Christ’ conception, and were sceptical. It is also likely from this that Mark was also aware of the account.
John also has no birth narrative, but he is aware of rumours of Christ’ illegitimacy when he reports in 8:41 that the Jews declared: ‘We (emphatic pronoun and emphatic position) were not born of fornication.’57 This passage as well as Jn. 1:13 and 6:41 f. probably indicate that the evangelist believed in the Virginal Conception.46, 58
6.5) Alleged Pagan Derivation of the Virginal Conception
Spong raises a common objection to the Virginal Conception: that there are supposed parallels in pagan mythology, e.g. the Medusa-slayer Perseus, born of the woman Danaë and sired by Zeus, the chief god of the Greek pantheon. Zeus also fathered Herakles from Alkmene and Dionysus from Semele.46 Opponents of Christianity from Trypho and Celsus,59 who was refuted by Origen’s Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), till the present, have used this objection, but it has many flaws:
- First, this objection commits the genetic fallacy, the error of trying to disprove a belief by tracing it to its source. For example, Kekulé thought up the (correct) ring structure of the benzene molecule after a dream of a snake grasping its tail; chemists don’t need to worry about correct ophiology to analyse benzene! Similarly, the truth or falsity of Christianity is independent of the truth or falsity of its alleged parallels.
- Second, the so-called parallels are not. Perseus was not really virginally conceived at all, but was the result of sexual intercourse between the lecherous god Zeus and Danaë Zeus had previously turned himself into a shower of gold to reach the imprisoned damsel. Other alleged parallels are just as worthless, so it is pointless for sceptics to multiply examples—zero times hundreds is still zero.
- Third, Christ was a historical figure written about by people who knew him—quite different from the mythological ‘parallels’.
- Fourth, the earliest Christians were Jews who abhorred paganism (see Acts 14:8–18), so would be the last people to derive Christianity from paganism.
6.6) Other alleged contradictions in the Birth Narratives
Spong correctly states that there are a number of differences between Matthew and Luke, but wrongly infers incompatibility. One example of his claim is:
These [virgin birth] narratives involve, I believe, simple facts that are contradictory and irreconcilable. Joseph and Mary either lived in Nazareth, as Luke asserted, or lived in Bethlehem, as Matthew believed. They either returned to their home in Nazareth, as Luke informs us, or they by chance happened upon Nazareth in fulfilment of divine prophecy, as Matthew related. Both evangelists may be wrong on these facts, but both Evangelists cannot be right. (RBF pp. 212–213)
He fails once again to realise that incomplete reports are not necessarily incorrect reports. Dr A.T. Robertson long ago harmonised the birth narratives. Some of his section headings follow:
- §5. Lk. 1:26–38: Annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the birth of Jesus (Nazareth)
- §9. Mt. 1:18–25: Annunciation to Joseph of birth of Jesus (no place mentioned, so does not contradict §5)
- §10 Lk. 2:1–7: The birth of Jesus (and journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born agreeing with Mt. 2:1)
- §11 Lk. 2:8–20: The praise of the angels and the homage of the shepherds (Matthew does not mention this, but he never contradicted it either)
- §13 Lk. 2:2–38: The presentation in the temple (Jerusalem, 40 days after His birth)
- §14 Mt. 2:1–12: Magi visit the new-born King of the Jews (Bethlehem)
- §15 Mt. 2:13–18: The child carried to Egypt, and the children at Bethlehem slain
- §16 Mt. 2:19–23: The child brought from Egypt to Nazareth (Lk. 2:39 does not contradict this, as it does not say that the family travelled directly and immediately from Jerusalem to Nazareth)
Much information can be gained by studying the Gospels together, if one refrains from jumping to the conclusion that they are hopelessly contradictory.
7.1) Biblical vs secular morality
Spong frequently criticises biblical morality. However, as we have shown earlier, he really has no real foundation for his own morality, because it is impossible to derive what ought to be from is. Without a transcendent source of morality, he is reduced to following the changing fashions of the times. Spong may deny the infallibility of Scripture, but the concept of infallibility as such is inescapable. If we refuse to ascribe infallibility to Scripture, it is because we have ascribed it to something else. Infallibility will be applied implicitly to ideologies, e.g. Nazism; things, e.g. nature; men, e.g. Hitler; institutions, e.g. ‘the party knows best’.
This is the danger of Spong’s position. By jettisoning belief in the infallible Scriptures, he has not rejected infallibility; he just transfers it to modern opinion.
Donald Bloesch points out the danger of Spong’ approach, using the example of the Confessing (theologically orthodox) Church in Germany that rose up in resistance to Hitler while:
… the church most infiltrated by the liberal ideology, the Enlightenment, was quickest to succumb to the beguilement of national societies.60
Spong claims that a literal interpretation of the Bible supports slavery. This accusation is not supported by history. Often the most effective campaigners against slavery have been those who believed the Bible regardless of how unpalatable it was to society. For example, William Wilberforce, fought persistently and almost single-handedly against the slave trade with all its economic and political might.61 He also had to battle prevailing attitudes like, ‘Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon’ (Earl of Abingdon) and ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life’ (Lord Melbourne). See also this collection of Christian anti-slavery articles from history.62
Conversely, when one tries to ground morality on science, supported by the ‘fact’ of evolution, one will have a very hard taskmaster. In the ‘struggle for the survival of the fittest’, there is no place for compassion for the weak” see Darwin vs. Compassion. The actions of a State are always reflective of its undergirding world view. The death camps of Nazi Germany were the outworkings of Hitler’s belief that the Aryan race would win the battle for ‘the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life.’63 Dr. A.J. Pennings wrote that Nazism grew out of:
… a deeply held mystical paganism … strengthened by the teachings of Darwinism and the pseudo-science of eugenics.64
The atheistic evolutionist Sir Arthur Keith wrote:
The German Führer … has consistently sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution.65
In other words, by rejecting Scripture men do not gain their freedom; they usually place themselves under a far greater tyranny.
7.2) Spong objects to God’s sovereignty
Spong also criticises the Divine command sometimes given to Israel to exterminate some pagan nations (RBF p. 19) as contradicting the command ‘Do not murder’. Spong fails to realise that not all killing is murder, nor does he accept the sovereignty of the Creator of life to take life, just as a potter may do as he pleases with the clay (Rom. 9). God did have his reasons: the exterminated nations were so corrupt and idolatrous that they were a threat to the spiritual survival of the race through which the Messiah was prophesied to come. The rare examples of total extermination were analogous to an amputation of a diseased limb to save the body. Christians, whose bodies are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) today fight with spiritual weapons (Rom. 6:13, 2 Cor. 10:4–5) unavailable to the Israelites. Therefore physical weapons have no place in fighting for our faith today.
Spong claims that Lot’ offering his virgin daughters (Gen. 19:8) was an example of Biblical morality (RBF p. 7). He should realise that not everything recorded in the Bible is approved by the Bible. Although Lot is called a righteous man in the NT (2 Pet. 2:7–8), the word for ‘righteous’ is dikaios meaning ‘justified’, i.e. declared legally acquitted and therefore righteous in God’s sight. This is the righteousness of Christ imputed to believers, not personal righteousness, which is ‘like filthy rags’ (Is. 64:6) when presented as a basis for justification (Rom. 3:20–4:15). Almost nothing good is said about Lot in the OT. He is the classic OT counterpart of the carnal Christian (1 Cor. 3, esp. 1–3) who will nevertheless be saved (1 Cor. 3:13–15).
7.3) Spong and sexual morality
Spong, the liberal bishop who ‘loves the Bible’, in his defence of fornication, homosexuality and abortion, typically ignores the Bible on the subject.66 Instead, he derives his norms from contemporary Western society. This section concentrates on Spong’s much-publicised support of homosexuality.
7.3.1) Spong, science and homosexuality
In Living in Sin (LS), Spong appeals to some hotly contended common ‘knowledge’ that sexual orientation is a part of life over which we have no control:
We now know that homosexuality is part of the essential nature of approximately 10% of the population. (LS p. 67)
Spong draws this figure from the controversial study by Alfred Kinsey, whose speciality was actually gall wasps. In 1948, Kinsey published the results of a large-scale survey of American males.67 Supposedly Kinsey found that 37% of males had at least one orgasmic experience with at least one other male. Further, 10% of males between 11 and 55 years old were reported to have remained ‘largely’ homosexual for at least three years. Only 4% of males were found to be exclusively homosexual.
The homosexual movement (and Spong) often cites the Kinsey report to maintain that 10% of the population is exclusively homosexual. But even if this report were accurate, the gay lobby’ conclusion clearly misrepresents it, as shown in the previous paragraph. Once again we see ideology masquerading as science.
However, Kinsey’ reliability has recently been questioned. According to a recent critique,68 Kinsey’ statistics were derived by interviewing a sample of the male populace, some 25% of which were ex-prisoners, prison inmates and sex offenders. Kinsey stacked his results by distorting his sample, thereby affecting the findings he wanted. Further, his researchers were also chosen for their bias. One applicant was personally blackballed by Kinsey after confessing that he believed homosexuality to be abnormal, bestiality ludicrous and adultery harmful to marriage. Kinsey also claimed that children from infancy are sexual and benefit from sexual encounters with adults. In the name of Kinsey’ ‘science’, children from as young as two months were subjected to masturbation by Kinsey’ ‘technically trained’ sex offenders.69
Even if we accept that some people are born homosexual, does this make homosexual acts morally right? Not automatically. Some violent male criminals are born with an XYY chromosome configuration, rather than the normal XY. Their predisposition towards violence does not excuse their violent behaviour. Some people are born with a genetic predisposition toward cancer. Do we embrace and rejoice in their condition, and encourage them to enjoy the experience of living in a cancer-ridden lifestyle? No! We see it as a disease for which we strive to find a cure. It does not automatically follow that just because someone is born with a condition that this makes it normal.
Furthermore, not all homosexuals are happy with Spong’ (pseudo-)scientific defence of their lifestyle. Judith Dale, a self-confessed lesbian, in moving a vote of thanks for Spong after an address in Wellington last year,70 stated that she felt uncomfortable about Spong’ scientific argument for homosexuality because it ‘implies a naturalness to heterosexuality and an aberrance to homosexuality.’ Dale said this was dangerous ‘… because the underlying assertion is that if we weren’t born that way, we wouldn’t want to be like this.’ She said that the scientific argument was a kind of oppression as it points to homosexuality as a mutation. Spong, in responding to the vote of thanks, apologised for any imagined offence, and said that he endorsed Dale’s comments, and claimed that he only used these arguments to win over heterosexuals to the gay rights cause.
In the same lecture, Spong defended homosexuality in humans by saying that homosexual behaviour had been observed in white mice in laboratories. Two things can be said about this reasoning:
- It is dangerous to derive morality from animal behaviour. Stronger animals will take food from weaker animals; does this justify theft? Tom cats will often mount unwilling female cats; does this justify rape?
- Spong endorsed Judith Dale’s comments that the scientific arguments for homosexuality amounted to a form of oppression and were therefore unwanted by a large section of the homosexual community. Surely this retraction must negate a large part of his argumentation, so will Spong withdraw his books which contain arguments he has publicly admitted are faulty?
7.3.2) Pseudo-history and homosexuality
Because Spong derives his morality from human experience and practice rather than Scripture, he attempts to legitimise homosexuality in church life by an appeal to historical practice. He acknowledges that his case leans heavily on the research of Professor John Boswell (ITW p. 107).
How weighty are the conclusions of the openly homosexual academic, the late AIDS victim Prof. Boswell? Boswell’ thesis in his two books71 is that from classical antiquity through to medieval church practice, homosexual marriages of some kind were recognised practice.
The lesbian scholar Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, despite having everything to gain by agreeing with Boswell, could not, unlike Boswell and Spong, sacrifice scholarship to ideology. Paglia concluded, after extensively reading Boswell’ work
Despite sporadic qualifications, Boswell repeatedly implies a genital subtext to intense spiritual alliances, even when his supporting manuscripts make clearly uncarnal invocations to martyred paired saints, who died in the service of Christ. …
Whatever medieval ceremonies of union may have been found, Boswell has not remotely established that they were originally homosexual in our romantic sense. Their real meaning has yet to be determined. Sacrilegious misuse of such ceremonies may indeed have occurred, leading to their banning, but historians are unjustified in extrapolating backwards and reducing fragmentary evidence to its lowest common denominator. The cause of gay rights, which I support, is not helped by this kind of slippery, self-interested scholarship, where propaganda and casuistry impede the objective search for truth. 72
In closing this section we note that we have not debunked all Spong’ arguments for homosexuality. This would require an entire book. However, the task would not be mentally exhausting. Spong repeatedly argues by assertion and pins his arguments on the bizarre theories of the black sheep of the academic world. It is a shame that this Bible sceptic does not treat the work of these modern scholars with the same degree of scepticism that he reserves for the Bible.
8.1) Supposedly antisemitic NT texts
Spong claims that Jesus (as depicted in John) and Paul are guilty of anti-Jewish prejudice, and blames them for ‘pogroms, ghettos, … Kristallnacht and Dachau’ (RBF p. 22). Spong should be more concerned that the Holocaust occurred in the country where his beloved theological liberalism first crippled the churches (see section 7.1).
Spong here, and in many other place, confuses legitimate use of biblical passages with their abuse (cf. RBF p. 20). It is not the Bible’ fault that antisemites, as well as slavers, wife-beaters, crusaders and inquisitors have read their own prejudices into the texts (i.e. eisegesis).
It is hardly a new charge that the NT contains remarks that antisemites have misused. However, a book which contains scathing remarks about some Jews is not necessarily antisemitic. For example, a certain book calls Israelites: ‘stiffnecked people … rebellious from the day I knew you’, another thunders: ‘Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity …’, yet another despairs: ‘Refuse silver shall men call them, because the LORD has rejected them.’ Yet these examples all come from the Old Testament (Deut. 9:6, 24; Is. 1:4; Jer. 6:30)! Not even Spong would accuse the OT of antisemitism, although it is often brutally honest about the faults of God’ chosen people.
Critics of the NT also fail to realise that the word Ioudaios, usually translated ‘Jew’, probably only means Jew in the widest sense (descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) when used by gentiles. When used by Jews, it is probably a sectional term meaning ‘Judean’.73 This reflected the mutual dislike between Judeans and Galileans. The latter included Christ and his disciples who were most strongly opposed by Judeans. To illustrate the difference, the Roman Pontius Pilate had Jesus labelled: ‘King of the Jews’ (Mt. 27:37) while the Jewish leaders said: ‘If He be the King of Israel …’ [including Galilee and the Diaspora] (Mt. 27:42).
The NT was written by Jews, and its prosemitism is evident. Jesus’ first priority was to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Mt. 10:6, 15:24), and says, ‘… for salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22, a book Spong singles out for his charge of antisemitism!). Paul always evangelised Jews first in every city he visited (Acts 13:4–5, 14, 14:1, 16:11–13, 17:1–2, 10, 16-17, 18:1–4, 19, 19:1,8). Paul wrote to the church at Rome:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16).
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1).
8.2) Antisemitism and the ‘myth’ of Judas Iscariot
In a public lecture in Wellington, New Zealand,74 Spong criticised the Gospel writers for allegedly inventing the character of Judas Iscariot the betrayer as an excuse to persecute the Jews. Spong pointed out that Judas is the Greek form of Judah or Yehudah, the son of Jacob/Israel from whom Jews derive their name. But the absurd conclusion was drawn that Judas was made up by the Gospel authors and early church to stand for the evil, treacherous Jew. Spong did not explain why the supposedly antisemitic church would then recognise as canonical the penultimate book of the NT, written by another Judas (who is called ‘Jude’ in English translations). Nor did Spong explain why the allegedly antisemitic Luke mentioned another disciple called Judas (Lk. 6:16).
Most of Spong’s talk tried to discredit the Gospel accounts of Judas by dredging up tired old examples of alleged contradictions, e.g. Mt. 27:5 says that Judas ‘hanged himself,’ while Acts 1:18 says: ‘… and falling headlong, [Judas] burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.’ Spong fails to see that neither of these statements exclude the other. A plausible scenario is that Judas hanged himself on a dead and dry branch (even today, there are many trees like that in the area) on the brink of the precipice overhanging the valley of Hinnom; a strong gust was strong enough to break the branch; the body hurtled down the chasm onto one of the many jagged rocks and burst open.
Spong is hailed as an intellectual and a ‘convincing scholar’75 in almost every liberal pulpit and in all branches of the secular media. But after reading Spong’s works and hearing him speak on several occasions, we can understand at least one of the real reasons for Spong’s popularity today. He is one of our few green theologians, for he constantly recycles his material but presents it in new wrapping (which is itself recycled — it nearly always says: ‘A Bishop rethinks …’). His writings are littered with the words: ‘I know of no biblical scholar [who disagrees with me]’, e.g. ‘No biblical scholar’ thinks that Adam was a historical figure’ (RBF p. 104), ‘I know of no one in the ranks of biblical scholarship’ who thinks that John wrote the Fourth Gospel (RBF p. 193), ‘I know of no reputable biblical scholar who takes these [Virgin] birth narratives literally’ (RBF p. 215).
Spong’s professed ignorance is not surprising if one chooses to remain ignorant and only ever reads one side of the case. One will only know works by liberals if all one ever reads are works by liberals. Such pronouncements, rather than being a sign of great learning are really a sign of self-willed great ignorance.
Spong has visited New Zealand three in the last five or so years. He has been fêted by the secular media. In fact, the religious radio programme Connexions,76 featuring Lloyd Geering, Don Cupitt and John Spong, won an award (critiques of Geering and Cupitt will appear in forthcoming issues of Apologia). The only dissenting voice in the Wellington secular media was an article by Anglican Archbishop Brian Davis published in The Dominion.77 He cited some effective criticisms of Spong, even from Spong’s fellow liberals, and pointed out that he was out of step with modern scholarship.
9.1) Spong and his critics
Spong has had his critics, which he typically ignores. RBF was the object of an excellent summary critique by Robert Bowman.78 The NT scholar Tom Wright30 has effectively rebutted Spong’s attacks on the Virginal Conception of Christ which are especially elaborated in Spong’s Born of a Woman (BW). Three Australian scholars have usefully responded to Spong’s Resurrection: Myth or Reality (RMR) with Resurrection: Truth and Reality.41 The Roman Catholic scholar Gerald O’Collins stated that Spong’s ‘work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholar will be taken in by this book.’79
We shall now examine the potency of a few typical examples of this ‘intellectual giant’s’ scholarship. O’Collins writes scathingly about RMR:
The bibliography contains at least seven mistakes. In the book itself, numerous false references abound.79
O’Collins also points out that Spong lists 17 NT scholars who allegedly agree with him, and strangely writes about them in the present tense: ‘We who reject’, ‘we who are convinced’, ‘These are scholars of great personal integrity’, ‘They do not literalize the Easter narratives’ etc. (RMR p. 238). Half of them are long dead, some of them are not really NT scholars (e.g. Rahner, Knng, Schillebeekx), while Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmeyer have repeatedly gone on record as accepting the historicity of the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances.79 Brown also accepts the bodily resurrection of Christ. The late W.F. Albright accepted an early (AD 50–75) dating of the Gospels.80
9.2) Spong the Greek scholar
Spong boasts that he spends hours studying the Bible and professes an acquaintance with Koinè Greek, the language the NT was first written in. Therefore it is not surprising that in RMR, where he denies Jesus’ bodily resurrection, that he turns to an analysis of the Greek text to see what the Bible really means.
In RMR p. 53–55, Spong draws our attention to Gal. 1:15–16a which says:
15But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, called me through His grace, was pleased 16to reveal His son in me …
From v. 16, ‘to reveal His son in me’, Spong claims:
This was not a physical body recalled from the grave. The word for ‘reveal’ in this text is ophthe, the same word used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the appearances of God (theophanies) or angels of God (angelophanies) … . What was the nature of a theophany? Was it really ‘physical’? What was the means of hearing God’s voice speak? Was it audible to any ear? Was it capable of being recorded or objectified?
At first, we were impressed by this depth. But on checking a computerised concordance,81 we found that ώφθη (ōphthē) is sometimes used of ordinary physical ‘seeing’ (Acts 7:26, 1 Tim. 3:16) — not surprising that we derive the word ‘ophthalmologist’ from a related word, and such a doctor definitely deals with physical sight. A logician would also note that Spong commits the fallacy of false alternatives, because he overlooks the possibility that seeing could be both physical and supra-physical, rather that either/or. We thought that it was strange that Spong should ignore this point. However, we decided to check a Greek NT82 to see if Spong had at least analysed the word correctly in this passage. But we could not find ōphthē in the passage. To give Spong a second shot, we checked a NT Greek Interlinear. The word was not there either. Instead, the Greek word for ‘reveal’ in Gal. 1:16 is actually αποκαλύψαι (apokalypsai), not ōphthē! Apokalupsai is often used in the NT in an objective sense.83
It is shocking to see that Spong was trying to attack traditional Christian belief by appealing to a mistranslation of a Greek word which is not even in the passage he is explaining. Prof. O’Collins is undoubtedly referring to this blunder when he wrote: ‘What is said about a key verb St. Paul uses in Gal. 1:15f. shows that the bishop [Spong] has forgotten any Greek that he knew.’79 Spong should heed O’Collins’ kindly ‘advice for his next book [which] is to let some real experts check it before publication.’79
9.3) Spong the Bible expert
We thought that Spong may not know his Greek but he must know the Bible. He is always telling us how it is his favourite book and that he spends hours studying it. He is a bishop and well read in liberal scholarship. So we expected that he would know the Bible like the back of his hand. Therefore we were very surprised when we found Spong claiming that ‘it was only in Luke’s Gospel that we are told to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (RBF p. 176). We don’t know which translation he derives from — maybe it is his own translation from the Greek. For the same passage is also found in Mt. 22:21 and Mk. 12:17.
The most probable reason for this blunder is that he is obsessed with proving that Luke had a pro-Roman bias.84 But what sort of scholar falsifies data to win a point? [Authors’ note: In a later edition of RBF, Spong tried to cover his tracks by removing this blunder]
9.4) Spong the Wedding Expert
One of the most telling example of Spong’s ‘scholarship’ is his ‘razor-sharp’ reasoning about the possibility that Jesus was married. Spong commences his musings with John’s recounting the wedding feast at Cana:
So Jesus, his four associates, and his mother are all at this wedding in Galilee near the village of Nazareth. When two generations are present at a wedding it is almost always a family affair. I have never attended a wedding with my mother except when it was the wedding of a relative. The only time my mother and my closest friends were at a wedding together was my own wedding!
… Whose wedding was it? The narrative does not say, but the narrative does say that the mother of Jesus was quite concerned that the wine supply was exhausted …. Do guests at a wedding become upset about such details? No, but the mother of the bridegroom, who would be the hostess at the wedding reception, certainly would be upset. Indeed, Mary’s behavior in this vignette would be totally inappropriate had she not been in that role. Is this an echo not fully suppressed of the tradition of Jesus’ marriage (BW p. 192).
Strange as it may seem, we find this reasoning unconvincing. Spong tries to make his case from his experience, so we are entitled to do the same. As the first author (MRB) recounts from his own experience:
To my own wedding, I invited my friend Andrew. I also invited Andrew’s parents as they were separate friends of mine. The fact that Andrew was at a wedding with his parents would lead Spong to suspect that it was Andrew who was getting married. I am relieved that Spong is wrong: there was no way I was marrying Andrew! Further, I was recently at a wedding where my mother panicked over the catering. According to Spong, this could be a not fully suppressed echo of the lost tradition of my marriage. Spong was wrong again: it was my sister’s wedding.
Further, it is bizarre that such a great scholar like Spong should be so ignorant of the culture in which the wedding took place. As Tom Wright says:
… Spong has not thought what it was like to live in peasant society in first century Galilee. There, in a small community, a wedding was a whole village affair, and quite probably a several-villages affair. Nazareth and Cana were close neighbours. It is highly likely that whole families in one village would go to a whole-family wedding in the next one. Not to see this is to betray a total lack of historical perspective. Upon such slender and anachronistic threads hang Spong’s entire argument.85
In the introduction, we quoted a review which said that Spong ‘has the guts to tell it like it is.’ It would be more accurate to say that he is the populist who ‘has the cheek to tell it like it isn’t.’
Spong does not believe in a God who intervenes in history; rather he believes that we become ‘[Gods] … by having the courage to be the self God created each of us to be. (RBF p. 206–7)’ Jesus wasn’t virgin-born; he was the product of rape. He was not divine, but a fallible human, a good social teacher, was married, suffered the criminal’ death of crucifixion. His body was not buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, but thrown in a common criminal’ grave. He was not resurrected bodily, but his body rotted along with the other corpses.
Spong presents himself as a man with a mission. He is concerned that the liberal churches are dying whereas the traditional or conservative churches are growing. He is concerned because he sees this trend as a temporary glitch. Spong backs this view because he believes that conservative Christians or ‘fundamentalists’ will find themselves more and more behind the times. They will thus find themselves unable to cope with facing and adapting to the new facts continually being discovered by science.
Spong portrays ‘fundamentalists’ as bigoted ignoramuses, whereas those who agree with him are highly learned and intellectual. However, how solid and credible are Spong’s arguments? Is the Bible really littered with the problems and contradictions that Spong claims it is? How reliable are the arguments Spong draws from history or science?
We have shown that Spong views the world through the eyes of 19th century rationalism. He does not believe in miracles because science, which is allegedly rational and objective, has never observed them to happen. Yet we have seen that some of the top scientists are often as prejudiced and bigoted as anyone else.
Also, we must not base morality on science because science only explains what happens, not what ought to happen. Spong tries to ground his support for homosexuality in the statistical data of Alfred Kinsey and the historical study of John Boswell. As we have seen, Kinsey stacked his data from the outset to manufacture the conclusions he desired. Furthermore, we should always be suspicious of the moral pronouncements of a man who in the name of science supported the sexual molestation of children. Boswell’ study has been aptly described as ‘self-interested scholarship, where propaganda and casuistry impede the objective search for truth.’72
As for the ‘contradictions’ Spong claims to find in the Bible, we have shown that these problems have been credibly answered by successive generations of evangelical scholars. It is a shame that Spong is not more widely read. The reason that Spong has not found answers to the problems with Scripture is that he simply has not bothered to look for answers. Perhaps like the late scientist D.M.S. Watson,10 he prefers his view not because it is logically coherent, but because the alternative is clearly unacceptable (to him).
Spong prides himself on being scholarly and on spending hours studying the Bible. Yet, as we have seen in his study of Gal. 1:15–16, he makes basic mistakes about the content and meaning of the Greek text. Also, he erroneously asserts that ‘render undo Caesar’ is found only in the Gospel according to Luke; whereas it is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Such basic mistakes do not enhance the credibility of a professed scholar.
Also, as Tom Wright has pointed out, Spong’ ‘insights’ into the wedding feast at Cana, far from pointing to new ‘truths’ about Jesus, rather point to Spong’s ‘total lack of historical perspective.’’30 Instead, Spong is ignorant of the cultural context of NT times.
Sadly, we must conclude that while Spong’s teachings are revolutionary, they are more bizarre than credible. In an age where people desperately need the Living Bread, all they will find in Spong are stones.
We are motivated to write this article not out of a sense of spite but one of concern. Spong, in This Hebrew Lord (THL), gives us a brief account of his childhood dominated largely by his fundamentalist mother. Spong accepted unquestioningly the truth of the Bible. In his last year of college, he was influenced by his Bible teacher, a ‘lovely … religious … woman’ who was rabidly fundamentalist. Entranced by her story-telling ability and sincerity, Spong sincerely believed that:
If God wanted Jonah to be in the belly of the whale for three days, that certainly was not any great problem for God. (THL p. 8)
This simple faith, however, lacked the necessary rigour and reason to answer the criticisms and questions of worldly scepticism.
When the power of a great modern secular university … challenged my life, I experienced my first faith crisis. My philosophy teacher was an atheist. Another professor … had once been a Congregationalist minister but had … repudiated his faith, and upon receiving his doctorate, entered the academic world dedicated to destroying ‘superstitious religion’…. It was under such experiences as these that a literal reading of the Bible disintegrated…. I met this crisis by abandoning the authority of the literal scriptures. (THL p. 8)
Spong was not prepared by the church of his youth to answer the questions thrown at him by modern society. When he went to university, he was challenged to defend a faith he was never taught to defend. Naturally, like the raw recruit ordered to defend a hill against a well-trained and heavily armed enemy with a weapon he was never taught how to use, Spong capitulated. Having done so, he feels cheated by his church and disappointed by his literal faith, and now seeks to challenge and destroy both.
In this sense, a study of Spong’ life and work should be mandatory reading for Christian pastors and parents. It is a testimony to the failure of our churches to instruct their children and young people in the defence of the faith and the Bible. If we fail in our duty to enable our young people always to be ready to give an adequate explanation for the faith that is in them (1 Peter 3:15) we may well be responsible for raising up a future generation of Spongs.
Selected Bibliography of Spong’s Works
- THL: This Hebrew Lord: A Bishop’ Search for the Authentic Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, New Ed., 1993).
- ITW: Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church (Minneapolis, MN: The Seabury Press, 1983)
- RBF: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
- LS: Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984).
- BW: Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
- RMR: Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’ Search for the Origins of Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
- Liberating the Gospels. Spong wrote this book after this article was written. But it has more of the same nonsense—see a scholarly refutation (on the Tekton Ministries site).
Selected Bibliography of Works Defending Christian Orthodoxy
Bible Inerrancy, Alleged Errors, Historical Reliability
- Archer, Gleason L.: Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982).
- Geisler, Norman L and Howe, T.: When Critics Ask (Victor Books 1992).
- Haley, John W.: Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Springdale, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, n.d. (c. 1870)).
- Lindsell, Harold: The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
- McDowell, Josh: Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972, 1979).
- McDowell, Josh and Stewart, Don: Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1980).
- Robertson, A.T.: A Harmony of the Gospels (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1922).
- Geisler, Norman L.: Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992).
- Lewis, C.S.: Miracles (London: Fontana, 1960; first published 1947).
Resurrection of Christ
- Craig, William Lane: The Son Rises (Chicago: Moody, 1981)
- Green, Michael: World on the Run (Downers Gr., Ill.: IVP, 1983)
- McDowell, Josh & Wilson, Bill: He Walked Among Us (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1988).
- Wenham, John: Easter Enigma (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984).
Virginal Conception of Christ
- Wright, N.T.: Who was Jesus (Great Britain: SPCK, 1992).
- Machen, J. Gresham: The Virgin Birth of Christ (NY: Harper & brothers, 2nd ed. 1932).
- Sarfati, Jonathan D.: ‘The Virginal Conception of Christ’, Apologia 3(2): 7–11, 1994.
About the Authors
- Michael Bott has a B.A. in Political Science and a LL.B. from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and was Vice President of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society for several years. Michael is a gifted public speaker and writer, who has written on topics like Christianity vs Marxism, ‘Is God “She”?’, euthanasia, and the problem of evil. He lives in Tawa, Wellington, with his wife Vivienne, a pharmacist, and their three young children.
- Jonathan Sarfati obtained his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), specialising in vibrational spectroscopy of chalcogenide ring and cage molecules. He is now a staff scientist of Creation Ministries International (Australia [now USA]), and is a former New Zealand Chess Champion. See his biography for more details.
- We prefer the term Virginal Conception to Virgin Birth. The former (or Virginitas ante partum) means that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate, had no human biological father. The latter, in some circles, means the unscriptural idea that Mary gave birth in such a way as to avoid labour pains and leave her hymen intact (Virginitas in partu). See Jonathan D. Sarfati, The Virginal Conception of Christ, Apologia3(2):7–11, 1994. Return to text.
- Stanley Jaki of Seton Hall University defines scientism as ‘the systematic definition of science’, and adds that ‘Scientism is a cultural blindfold which prevents its wearers from appraising its true weight. …’ ‘The Case for Galileo’s Rehabilitation’ Fidelity (March 1986) pp. 37, 40–41. Return to text.
- Spong typically sets up a straw man here in arguing that evangelicals believe that all Scripture was divinely dictated, with the human authors functioning as secretaries. Although some passages were indeed dictated, e.g. Ex. 20:1, most were not. Rather, as Ryrie states: ‘… inspiration is … God’s superintendence of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs.’ Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), p. 38. Return to text.
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2nd ed. enl. 1970). See also Del Ratsch, The Philosophy of Science: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (Downers Gr., Ill.: IVP, 1986). Return to text.
- Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, ‘Punctuated Equilibria: an Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism’ in J. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology (1972), pp. 82–83. Return to text.
- Richard Milton, The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (London: Fourth Estate, 1992). Return to text.
- Richard Dawkins, New Statesman (28 August 1992). Return to text.
- ‘Science’s Litmus Test’ (telephone transcript of conversation between F. Mims and Jonathan Piel, the Editor of Scientific American), Harper’s Magazine (March 1991). The transcript makes it clear that an outstanding writer was refused employment solely for disbelieving in the sacred cow of evolution. Return to text.
- For a summary, see David H. Lane, ‘Opening address to staff and students at Creation/Evolution Conference at Melbourne University’ Apologia6(1):59–62, 1997. Return to text.
- D.M.S. Watson: ‘Adaptation’, Nature124:233, 1929. Return to text.
- Cf. Rev. 1:4,8, where the Lord God describes Himself as He ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come’. Return to text.
- Sagan lived up to his name, which The Oxford English Dictionary defines as the deputy of the Jewish High Priest; the second highest functionary of the Temple. Sagan’s thoroughly atheistic world view is critiqued by John W. Robbins, ‘The Sagan of Science’, The Trinity Review, 1988, reprinted in Apologia 4(3):19–29, 1995. Return to text.
- Marjory Grene, Encounter (Nov. 1959) p. 48. Return to text.
- Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992) p. 111. Return to text.
- G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948) Ch’ I, II passim. Return to text.
- Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989), p. 613. Return to text.
- James Montgomery Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter? (Oakland: International Council of Biblical Inerrancy, 1979) p. 13. Return to text.
- Charles C. Ryrie, What You Should Know About Inerrancy (Chicago: Moody, 1981) p. 30. See also the useful illustrations Ryrie employs, pp. 31-32. Return to text.
- See Jonathan D. Sarfati, ‘The Authority of Scripture ‘, Apologia 3(2):12-16, 1994, and the bibliography cited therein. Return to text.
- Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 43-45. Return to text.
- Further, it is not circular to use Matthew to prove Genesis (Mt. 19:3–6, cf. Gn. 1:27, 2:4), Paul to prove Luke (1 Tim 5:18, cf. Lk. 10:7) or Peter to prove Paul (2 Pet. 3:15–16). Finally, allegedly circular reasoning at least demonstrates the internal consistency of the Bible’ claims it makes about itself. If the Bible had actually disclaimed divine inspiration, it would indeed be illogical to defend it. This is one argument against the canonicity of the Apocrypha: 1 Macc. 9:27 recognises that prophecy had disappeared in Israel, while 2 Macc. 15:37-39 admits that it was a human composition with possible flaws. Return to text.
- Kirsopp Lake, The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow (Boston: Houghton, 1926) p. 61, cited in Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), p. 19. The latter book has much additional documentation in chapter 3. Return to text.
- Francis Schaeffer to L’Abri conferees, cited in Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), p. 142. Chapter 8 documents how right Schaeffer was. Return to text.
- Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989), p. 159. Ch. 18 has an excellent treatment of inspiration and inerrancy. Return to text.
- J.A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM, 1976). Return to text.
- NB: This is not an argument from silence, one of Spong’ favourite ploys. This form of argument is an example of the fallacy of denying the antecedent. Instead, we are using arguments from conspicuous absence, which is a form of valid argument known as the destructive hypothetical syllogism or denying the consequent. See Gordon H. Clark, Logic (The Trinity Foundation, POB 68, Unicoi, TN 37692, USA, 1985, 2nd ed. 1988). Return to text.
- Julius Müller, The Theory of Myths, in Its Application to the Gospel History Examined and Confuted (London: John Chapman, 1844), p. 26. Return to text.
- A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963) pp. 188-91. Return to text.
- W. Ramsay, Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker 1953), p. 222. Return to text.
- N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus? (Great Britain: SPCK, 1992). This book is an excellent critique by a New Testament scholar of the three recent anti-Christian books: J. S. Spong, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1992); Barbara Thiering, Jesus the Man: A New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls; A. N. Wilson, Jesus (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992); Return to text.
- G. Vermes, Post-Biblical Jewish Studies (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975). Return to text.
- J. Neusner, Midrash in Context: Essays in Formative Judaism (Atlanta: Scholars’ Press, 1988). Return to text.
- P. S. Alexander, ‘Midrash and the Gospels’ in C. M. Tuckett (ed.) Synoptic Studies (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), and ‘Midrash’ in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden (eds.) A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London: SCM, 1990). Alexander deals directly with alleged midrash in Lk. 1–2 on p. 10. Return to text.
- Cited in Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith (San Bernardino, CA: Here’ Life Publishers, 1980), p. 192. Return to text.
- K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Chicago: IVP, 1966), pp. 116-7. Return to text.
- John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Springdale, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, n.d. (c. 1870)), p. 339. Return to text.
- Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (Praeger, 1991). Prof. Russell can find only five obscure writers in the first 1500 years of the Christian era who denied that the earth was a globe. But he documents a large number of Christian writers, including Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the earth’ sphericity. Return to text.
- C.S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Fontana, 1960; first published 1947), p. 53, Ch. 7. Return to text.
- Wendell R. Bird, The Origin of the Species”Revisited (NY: Philosophical Library 1989) Vol. II, Section 13.1. Return to text.
- Richard Holloway, Church Times (18 March 1994). Return to text.
- Paul Barnett, Peter Jensen and David Peterson, Resurrection: Truth and Reality (Sydney South: Aquila, 1994), p. 14 (italics in original). Return to text.
- W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger and W. White Jr., Vine’ Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (NY: Thomas Nelson, 1985), p. 84. Vine’ Dictionary is also available online. Return to text.
- William Lane Craig, Apologetics: An Introduction (Chicago: Moody, 1984) Ch. 5.2. Return to text.
- John W. Wenham, Easter Enigma (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984). Return to text.
- See Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich: ephistēmi: ‘often with the connotation of suddenness’. Cited in Wenham, ref. 44, pp. 85–6, 155. Return to text.
- C.E.B. Cranfield, ‘Some Reflections on the Subject of the Virgin Birth’, Scot. J. Theol. 41: 177–89, 1988. Return to text.
- Jonathan D. Sarfati, ‘The Virginal Conception of Christ’, Apologia3(2): 7–11 1994. Return to text.
- H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1869); W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 1971) p. 627. Return to text.
- Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), article ‘Disputations and Polemics’, Vol. 6:79–103. Return to text.
- G. Fruchtenbaum, Jesus was a Jew (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1981), p. 32. Return to text.
- W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger and W. White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (NY: Thomas Nelson, 1985). Vine’s Dictionary is also available online. Return to text.
- H. Gordon, J. Bible & Religion 21:106, April, 1953; E. J. Young, ‘The Old Testament’, in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Contemporary Evangelical Thought (NY: Channel Press, 1957); both cited in W. Jackson, Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 1982). Return to text.
- Encyclopedia Judaica, article ‘Virgin, Virginity’, Vol. 16:159–160. Return to text.
- This explanation was suggested one and a half millennia ago by the great church historian Eusebius (AD ca. 260 – ca. 430), Hist. Eccl. 1, 7, but Spong, as usual, displays his ignorance. Return to text.
- N. T. Wright, Who was Jesus (Great Britain: SPCK, 1992) p. 89. Return to text.
- Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982); W. Ramsay, Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker 1953), p. 223 ff. Return to text.
- The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, articles on ‘Virgin’ and ‘Virgin Birth’, Part 3, pp. 1625–6 (IVP 1982). Return to text.
- C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John (London, 2nd ed. 1978), pp. 164 and 348. Return to text.
- J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (NY: Harper & brothers, 2nd ed. 1932) Ch. 14. This book by the great Princeton scholar is probably the most comprehensive on the subject. Return to text.
- Donald Bloesch, Crumbling Foundations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), p. 38. Return to text.
- Wilberforce realised that 1 Tim. 1:10 lists ‘menstealers’ (KJV. Gk. (ανδραποδιστής andrapodistēs) = slave-dealer. Ref. 42, p. 403) with murders, whoremongers, liars and other evil people. Paul also encouraged Philemon to free his escaped slave Onesimus (Phil. 16), and ordered masters to treat their slaves in the ‘same way’ as they were treated, and not to threaten them (Eph. 6:9). Spong, like most liberals, accuses the Bible of supporting slavery (RBF pp. 101–2). Return to text.
- Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, Kingdoms in Conflict (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), Ch. 8. Return to text.
- The subtitle of Charles Darwin’ Origin of the Species (1859). Return to text.
- A.J. Pennings, Evening Post (8 March 1994), feature article. Dr Pennings lectures in Communications at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Return to text.
- Sir Arthur Keith, Evolution and Ethics (NY: Putnam, 1947), p. 230. Return to text.
- More moderate liberals try to explain away the clear Scriptural prohibitions against homosexual acts. Such arguments are well answered by David F. Wright, Evangelical Quarterly61(4):291–300, 1989. Return to text.
- Alfred Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1948). Return to text.
- Judith Reisman and Edward W. Eichel, Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People (USA: Huntington House, 1990. Return to text.
- News Weekly Feb 16 1991, p. 20; June 8 1991, pp. 12–14. Return to text.
- J.S. Spong: Homosexuality and the Church, public address at St. Peter’ Anglican Church (Wellington, New Zealand), 21 July 1994. Return to text.
- John Boswell, Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe (Villard, 1994). Return to text.
- Camille Paglia, ‘Plighting Their Troth’, The Guardian Weekly (11 Sept. 1994) p. 18. See also Robert L. Wilken, ‘Procrustean Marriage Beds’ Commonweal (9 Sept. 1994) pp. 24–25 (emphasis added). Return to text.
- Malcolm Lowe, ‘Who Were the Judaioi?’ Novum Testamentum XVIII:101 ff. (April 1976), cited by the Jewish Christian Menachem Benhayim, Jews, Gentiles and the New Testament Ch. 5. Return to text.
- J.S. Spong, Judas Iscariot and the Roots of Antisemitism, public lecture at St. Andrew’ on the Terrace, Wellington, New Zealand (21 July 1994). Return to text.
- Liz Robinson, The Dominion July 19, 1994, p. 9. Return to text.
- National Radio: Connexions (18 Aug 1991), with Neville Glasgow chairing the discussion. Return to text.
- Brian Davis, The Dominion, July 19, 1994, p. 9. Return to text.
- Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and Robert Lyle, A Summary Critique: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Christian Research Journal (Fall 1991) pp. 36–38. Return to text.
- Gerald O’Collins, ‘Review of Resurrection: Myth or Reality’, London Tablet (30 April 1994), reprinted in Wel-Com (Sept. 1994) p. 6. O’Collins is Professor of Fundamental Theology, Gregorian University, Rome. Return to text.
- Interview in Christianity Today (18 Jan 1963). Return to text.
- Logos Bible Software Version 1.6d (©1991–93 Logos Bible Research Systems, Inc.). Return to text.
- K. Aland et al., ed., The Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 3rd ed. 1975). Return to text.
- W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger and W. White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (NY: Thomas Nelson, 1985). pp. 531–532. Vine’s Dictionary is also available online. Return to text.
- E.g. the supposedly gentile Luke is commonly accused of whitewashing the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate’s guilt for the crucifixion. But Luke quotes Pilate as saying, ‘I … have found no fault in this man … I will … scourge him’ (Luke 23:14,16). So, like all the Gospels, Luke clearly portray Pilate as not only agreeing to the crucifixion of an innocent man, but on his own initiative adding the cruelty of scourging. Return to text.
- Ref. 30, p. 91. Return to text.