By Ron Halbrook
The Bible warns of “deceitful workers” who transform themselves “as the ministers of righteousness.” “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). The Bible warns against “false teachers” who will deny “the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). Paul named Hymenaeus and Philetus as examples of men who erred from the truth, taught destructive heresies, and thus overthrew the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:17-18). A modern minister of Satan who transforms himself as an angel of light is John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal “bishop” of Newark, New Jersey. Spong wrote a book entitled Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. It first appeared in 1991, was published in a paperback edition in 1992, and has been acclaimed as a national best seller.
Spong decries the biblical illiteracy characteristic of mainstream denominations with their modernistic teaching, but he regards as the greater danger biblical literalism, i.e. taking the Bible to be literally true. Modern man simply cannot believe the Bible as it is written, according to Spong. Therefore, he professes to map out middle ground between modernistic biblical illiteracy and traditional biblical literalism in order to rescue the Bible. The abuses and extremes of some Bible believers are used as a pretext for Spong’s rescue effort. He proposes to look beneath the literal teaching of Scripture in an effort to find some sort of truth relevant to the present moment of time, and yet he freely confesses that his efforts will be cast aside by the next generation. Some rescue! He only reasserts modern-ism.
The Gospel of Unbelief and Uncertainty
In the name of rescuing the gospel message, Spong simply creates “another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul continued a warning against such teachers in the following words,
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).
Spong’s gospel is an utter and arrogant denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the name of rescuing the Bible, Spong does not hesitate to repeatedly bash the gospel account of Jesus Christ. For instance, to make the recorded teaching of Jesus appear hypocritical, Spong charges that Jesus contradicted his own prohibition against calling men fools when he addressed certain men in his preaching as hypocrites, blind guides, and fools (Rescuing, p. 21). This fails to distinguish between the careless words of anger and hatred forbidden in Matthew 5:22, on the one hand, and the accurate and documented description of ungodly attitudes given in the preaching of chapter 23, on the other hand. The carnal-minded Spong puts the value of pigs and trees above the value of human souls when he condemns Jesus for performing miracles which destroyed pigs and trees in an effort to teach the truth and save the souls of men (p. 21).
Since Spong cannot bring himself to accept the teaching of Jesus on the doctrine of hell, we are left with the possibility that either Jesus was “mistaken” or that “the interpretation of Jesus given in these passages” is “untrustworthy” (p. 21). The fact is that the contemporaries and eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ repeatedly affirmed that he taught the doctrine of hell, and “Bishop” Spong simply does not believe what Jesus taught! Spong charges Jesus with “anti-semitism” for condemning “those who do not accept Jesus’ Messiah ship” (p. 22). Thus, Spong does not believe that faith in Christ is essential for salvation, if he even believes in any such thing as eternal salvation. Of course, Jesus addressed the case of unbelievers such as Spong, when he said, “For if you believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). Spong is not rescuing the Bible, but is attempting to rescue himself from the condemnation which Jesus pronounced upon unbelief.
Spong asks, “Is there a truth beyond biblical literalism to which my life can be dedicated?” (p. 24) The answer is “not yet clear” but we must pursue the question “until either there is nothing left or a wondrous new meaning begins to dawn.” In other words, the errant “bishop” destroys faith in Christ and the Bible but has no positive, certain, or enduring truth to affirm as the basis of a new faith. Satan also questioned God’s Word in the beginning and promised “a wondrous new beginning” to life (Gen. 3:5). Such promises have always led people further and further away from God, with disastrous rather than wondrous results.
Spong debunks the Bible accounts of creation and the flood, and says the Bible must be reinterpreted. By what rule or standard? “We must think about God in the light of our perceptions of divinity.” We will “find meaning and divinity” not “in an external God” but “in the very depths of our humanity. . . . We discover transcending spirit within ourselves” (p. 33). We must realize “that God might not be separate from us but rather deep within us. The sense of God as the sum of all that is, plus something more, grows in acceptability. When theologians are pressed, however, to define that something more, the inadequacy of language becomes gallingly apparent” (p. 33). We must separate “the truth” from “the myths” of Scripture, but, “it is not easy” (p.34).
This makes man his own god while admitting that such a god has no certain or enduring message to offer to himself or to others. Rather than rescuing the Bible, Spong is reverting to idolatry like all before him “who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). He is repeating the failed experiment of the ancients, in which “the world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor. 1:21).
New Testament Truth a Straight Jacket
According to Spong, we face “the task of reformulating the Christ story for our day, if, indeed, it can be reformulated.” The first step is to dismiss “the corpse of traditional religion” with its “biblical narrative” (p36). As to the New Testament writers, “We do not make their understanding of truth a straight jacket into which our minds must be placed” (p. 231). Regarding the New Testament message as a straight jacket, Spong explicitly says that he is offended by such passages as Galatians 1:8-9. This so-called bishop is telling us to reject the biblical narrative while admitting he has nothing to put in its place and does not know whether the Bible story ever can be properly “reformulated.” His work is the destruction of faith in the Bible and the God of Scripture. Therefore, at best, he says the Bible is not right and he does not know what is right, but he merely offers a few possible tidbits of reformulation of something which it may be impossible to reformulate.
As the book continues to unfold, it continues its attack on the Bible, the Bible writers, the Bible narrative, and Bible teaching. Spong’ s earlier claim to give the Bible and life “a wondrous new meaning” is betrayed by repeated admissions that his reformulations are sketchy and uncertain:
There is at least the possibility (p. 87).
This is speculative, however, and we can get no closer than this (p. 87).
It remains for us to determine how this ancient book with its antiquated assumptions can feed and sustain us today (p. 90).
The sacred scriptures . . . can never finally capture eternal truth (p. 169).
We mortals live with our subjective truth in the constant anxiety of relativity (p. 169).
I live in the midst of religious uncertainty and insecurity (p. 170).
Christ has been and still is many things to many people. All of them are Christ and none of them is Christ (p. 230).
Spong earlier argued that when we leave biblical literal-ism, “either there is nothing left or a wondrous new meaning begins to dawn,” and it is obvious from Spong’s best efforts that the real result is “there is nothing left!” (p. 24)
Spong quotes the writings of Paul on a wide range of subjects, then concludes, “But these words make no claim to be the words of God” (pp. 91-92). As an example of Paul’s teaching which does not claim to be the Word of God, Spong cited 1 Corinthians 14:35 which forbids a woman to lead the public, mixed assembly of the church. In making this assertion, Spong conveniently forgot that Paul immediately reminded the Corinthians that his teaching was “the word of God” and “that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:36-37).
This deceitful worker also conveniently forgot to mention the following passages:
Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual (1 Cor. 2:13).
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
But Spong is sure that Paul is wrong and that “he did not write the word of God. He wrote the words of Paul, a particular, limited, frail human being” (p. 105). Spong could not make it any clearer that he simply does not believe the Bible even though he claims to be rescuing it.
Reformulate the Gospel to Escape Bible Morality
Spong wants to rescue (read: reject and reformulate) the Bible specifically because the Bible condemns sin, immorality, and unbelief of God’s Word, while Spong wants the gospel message and the church to embrace such things. He begins page 1 of his recent book by referring to his earlier book entitled Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (1988) in the following words,
In that book I was led to question traditional religious attitudes and traditional religious definitions on a wide variety of sexual issues, from homosexuality to premarital living arrangements. There was an immediate outcry from conservative religious circles in defense of some-thing they called biblical morality (Rescuing, p. 1).
This, he said, led to the writing of Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism.
To rescue himself from the condemnation of Scripture, Spong reformulates Paul as a homosexual. Spong charges that Paul seemed to be “consumed with a [sexual] passion he could not control” and Spong attempts to prove “the hypothesis,” the “theory,” and “the possibility that Paul was a homosexual person” (pp. 115-117). Whether Paul practiced homosexuality or not, he found acceptance with Jesus and this is the real meaning of the gospel Paul preached which must be discovered beneath the literal preaching of Paul, says Spong.
Spong denies that Paul affirmed historical facts and events as the foundation of all gospel preaching. Paul never preached the literal resurrection or deity of Christ but preached that God in some sense took Jesus to heaven “as a way of saying God is like what Jesus did” in accepting all men. Paul never preached that Jesus literally appeared as the resurrected Lord, but Jesus “appeared” in the sense that God accepted Paul. Jesus has been appearing ever since to a wider and wider audience, building an “inclusive community” in which all men are accepted regardless of their condition (pp. 123-125).
Contrary to Spong, Paul forcefully affirmed the literal resurrection of Christ as the basis for the future resurrection of all mankind in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul argued that faithful brethren of Christ must exclude rather than include those who reject such teaching:
Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor. 15:12)
Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame (1 Cor. 15:33, 34).
Paul warned against such teachers as Spong as evil companions who corrupt godly living, and he taught that those who follow such teachers sin in doing so. Spong’s defense of homosexuality and premarital living arrangements is a perfect illustration of why Paul warned us against men who deny the literal truth of gospel preaching.
Spong’s Eternal Truth: Man Is God!
Spong says the real underlying message of the New Testament writers (when separated from their errors, blunders, exaggerations, myths, etc.) is that “religious traditions must be made inclusive. A universal community in Christ must be built” (p. 165). This community is not limited to those who believe in Jesus as the only Savior, those who accept Bible teaching, or those who practice one lifestyle or another, but includes “Protestant and Catholic,” “gay and straight,” “Moslem, Buddhist, and Hindu” (p. 165; cf. p. 184). Spong argues that all truth is relative and that man cannot know final, eternal, exclusive truth (p. 169). Yet he then treats his postulate of an inclusive, universal community as the final truth of Scripture. Notice how absolute, eternal, and exclusive he makes that “truth.” Rather than trying to convert people to any one belief, Spong says, “The time has come, in my opinion, to look at the truth that lies beneath the words of every great world religion, to respect that truth, to learn from that truth” (p. 171). Is Spong trying to convert us all to that one belief?
It is emphatically not necessary to believe the literal claims that Jesus is God as recorded by John, “because the Jesus of history did not say them” (p. 206). As to the “I Am” sayings of Jesus, which literally are claims to deity, we today are to worship the “I Am” by “having the courage to be the self God created each of us to be.” “The Christian is the one called so deeply into life, into love, and into being that he or she can say with a Christ-like integrity, I AM!” (p. 207) In other words, the final message which Spong would use to replace the Bible message is this: The universal community is all mankind proclaiming, “I AM!” Spong’s final message is that men who disobey God and reject his written word “shall not surely die,” but rather “shall be as gods” experiencing a wondrous new meaning in life. Where have we heard that message before?
Spong Wrong But Not Alone
Spong is wrong but not alone. The ministers of Satan are becoming bolder in their attacks against Christ and the Bible. A recent Time Magazine article reports that the “Bah, Humbug! approach to the Scriptures” was once more limited to “seminaries and elite universities,” but that such studies are now “coming out of the closet” into public domain (“Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple,” Time Magazine, 10 January 1994, pp. 38-39). Three new books are cited as examples, all of them sharing with Spong the denial of the virgin birth of Christ, his miracles, his atoning death, and his resurrection. We shall briefly mention these three books which are full of bizarre and brazen blasphemy.
John D. Crossan wrote Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography claiming that the deity of Christ is a myth. The account of his birth is said to be imaginary, and he performed no miracles but may have used trance-like therapies on people. After his crucifixion Jesus was probably buried in a shallow grave and eaten by wild dogs. Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel asserts that there is no certain record of the life and teaching of Christ; the gospel narratives are not historical accounts but are “imaginative creations.” The Five Gospels is another recent book, produced by seventy-four biblical scholars who belong to the Jesus Seminar (a group which meets twice a year to debate and to vote on the authenticity of the recorded sayings of Jesus). Time Magazine calls The Five Gospels a “breezy new colloquial translation,” including the four traditional gospel accounts plus the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.” All the sayings of Jesus are color-coded to indicate the degree of certainty about how authentic they are, but “precisely 82% of Jesus’ words are judged inauthentic.”
Time to Rise Up
It is time for the people of God to rise up as a mighty army and to go everywhere preaching the Word of truth. “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived,” but we must continue to hold high the blood-stained banner of Christ (2 Tim. 3:13). The gospel of Christ is still “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Let us preach the literal truth of all the facts, all the commands, and all the promises of the gospel of Christ without fear or favor toward any man. True gospel preaching includes “all the counsel of God,” including Bible principles of morality, the terms of pardon, the pattern for the one true church, and anything else “concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:24-27; 8:12). The harder Satan fights against the truth, the harder the people of God must fight for it. The gospel does not need to be reformulated, it needs to be preached, obeyed, lived, proclaimed, and defended!
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 14, p. 8-11
July 21, 1994