A Spong primer

The Toledo Blade describes a visit by retired bishop John Shelby Spong, who, though his views are controversial, sees himself as an apologist for the Christian faith for whom Jesus is at the center of his being. The paper offers an interesting primer to his thinking, which may surprise people who have only heard about him from other people

The 76-year-old retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark is a theologian who believes the Bible is “time-bound and time-warped” by the first-century Jewish culture in which it was written. He is on a mission to change the way people look at the Bible and at Jesus, stating that he wants to “break Jesus out of the boundaries of antiquity and explain it in the 21st century.”

The paper offers Spong’s basic views on a variety of areas:

On religious intolerence:

Religion is a funny thing. Religion seems to give people permission to be rude and angry, as long as they can cover it with some sort of religious veneer. They can be rude and angry and think they can get away with it.

On Biblical interpretation:

The Bible was written between about 1,000 B.C. and about 135 A.D. You can debate the edges of that, but that’s about the scope, and that means the Bible was written during a period of history in which people believed the Earth was the center of the universe and that God lived above the sky and that he was keeping record books up to date and that God was sending lightning bolts down….

…You have to learn to read the Gospels, and in the world of New Testament scholarship, nobody – nobody – treats the biblical story as if it’s literal history. It’s all an interpretive process. And there’s nothing wrong with it being an interpretive process. But the idea that you’d even have to debate whether anything in the Bible is literally true is really a strange debate.

I love the Bible as much as anybody. I spend my life studying it. I’ve read it from cover to cover at least 25 times.

On the divinity of Jesus:

[Is Jesus divine?] Well, if that’s a ‘yes or no’ question, that’s not the way the question … the answer is yes. But I’d say it’s a nonsensical question because before I could answer it I’d need to define what it means to be divine. Do I think that God is a being that lives above the sky that can have a baby boy? No, that’s a very strange understanding of God. I don’t know why any human being thinks they understand God at all.

And how could I, with my human mind, tell you who God is?

On salvation:

When people quote John 14, “Nobody comes to the Father but by me,” which is a regular quotation, for me I’d say that’s true. That’s true to my experience. The only way I know to come to God is through Jesus of Nazareth. But if I then say, “therefore the only way God can draw people to God is through my way, I’ve put my boundaries on God. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think that’s idolatry.

God is not my servant. It’s up to me to conform to God’s understanding. It’s not up to God to conform to my understanding.

On homosexuality:

I don’t think it’s a genetic choice or a personal choice. I think it’s more profound than that. The reason we’re having this debate [in the Episcopal Church] is the old definition of homosexuality is dying. And it’s dying in the light of new scientific data.

Personally, I believe Spong does two things well: he articulate theological questions that are appropriate for our time very well and he offers an approach through those questions that has kept many Christians within the church. Many of his solutions are grounded in well-known theological traditions of the Church. Agree with his outcomes or not, he raises important questions that every thoughtful Christian should contemplate and discuss. Most of all, especially in hard theological times, it is well to listen to the person instead of relying solely on what people say about him.

Read: Toledoblade.com: Retired theologian rattles roots of religion

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