Why Progressive Christians should distance themselves from John Shelby Spong’s 12 Theses

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UPDATE (12/31/15): I would like to take a moment and thank those who provided me with “constructive” criticism related to the title of this article. I have changed the title to reflect the content of the article more accurately. 

 

Although I dislike religious labels, if people ask, I refer to myself as a progressive Christian. When I use the word “progressive”, I don’t mean I am a “social-liberal”, though in many cases I am. That is merely something I have in common with those who are “liberal”. In other words, I don’t think a progressive Christian is simply a rehash of classical theological-social liberalism. If it is, then its content is ultimately devoid of meaning.

We all know how easily certain Christian worldviews get stereotyped. We have also seen the damage that this sort of stereotyping can do to the progress of the Church. I know I try everything in my power to provide a clear articulation of my beliefs so that we can avoid such stereotypes. I believe the more “accurate” the information that’s put out there, the more likely we are to avoid those stereotypes.

Recently John Shelby Spong published “The Twelve Theses” under the banner of progressive Christianity For anyone who is mildly versed in classic liberal theology you will certainly recognize many (if not all) of the statements as liberal axioms. In fact, I can find nothing distinct in Spong’s theses that would differentiate progressive Christianity from classic liberalism.

 

What is “progressive” about progressive Christianity?

I take pride in the term “progressive” and its association with Christianity. And although progressive Christians encompass a wide theological spectrum I think many of us have similar theological and philosophical concerns. When I refer to myself as “progressive” I am specifically identifying myself as one who believes that God actively works in and through the world today. I am proclaiming that Christ’s gospel is more than just his atonement. I am proclaiming that the Bible is necessary for the Christian faith and is ecclesiastically authoritative – but it is not God. I am not progressive because I am a greater human or of a higher intelligence than those who are not. I am progressive because I believe God is progressive. God is not silent and his love is neither theoretical nor is it only for “Christians”.

I believe Spong’s theses sends the wrong message and does not represent the important aspects of progressive Christianity. Also, it’s not written in a way that promotes a positive argument for anything. It seems angry, frustrated and leaves the reader thinking there is no positive content to Christianity whatsoever. Moreover, I see nothing encouraging for progressive Christians only destruction.

The twelve theses do not provide any version of Christianity; in fact, there doesn’t seem to be any Christianity present at all. Instead, it sounds suspiciously like nihilism.

For those interested, I have included my responses to Spong’s theses.

On the whole: Spong uses a reasoning device whereby all of his points (for the most part) are based upon one particular premise. Therefore, if that premise is weak or incorrect, then it follows that all other theses will crumble under the collapse of the foundational premise. It’s a dangerous tactic to use since it makes the entirety of his argument contingent upon a single idea.

1. On God
“Understanding God in theistic categories as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of invading the world with miraculous power” is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless.”

The language of the Church is only meaningless if those responsible for its development make it so. The way the Church speaks about God is of the utmost importance. I see no reason to throw everything out regarding belief in God and his essence simply because those who are currently the power brokers of knowledge continue to provide irrelevant and at times irrational theological content. Your statement regarding meaninglessness is based upon the fact that those who construct theological language are irrational. That may be true, but then it becomes our job to make it rational or at least to provide clarity. Only after clarity has achieved its purpose can one conclude that a particular belief has become meaningless; otherwise, your whole argument is based on a caricature based upon the worst possible information.

Ex. Since my pastor can’t properly explain infant baptism so it makes sense to me, I refuse to believe in baptism in its entirety.

2. On Jesus
“If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as “the incarnation of the theistic deity” has also become a bankrupt concept.”

Nonsense. In fact, there is no possible way Jesus can claim any divinity because if God has no being; then Jesus as a human being would not exist in any relation to God. Therefore, Jesus would have no authority whatsoever. If that is the case; then since Christianity is built upon the foundation of Jesus (at the very least) having some special relationship to God; then there is no point to scripture or Christianity. That is classical nihilism.

3. Original Sin and the fall
“The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “Original Sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.”

I agree that the classical presentation of the fall is flawed. However, your statements on their own don’t make what you say true. You have provided nothing whatsoever to back up your statement – they are completely autonomous to the underlying premise (or at least you have made no connection for us). At the very least your reasoning can have no theological warrant since your premise is built upon the absoluteness of Darwinism, which is not only in and of itself problematic, but completely irrelevant to the “fall”. Ultimately, you make the same mistake in your reasoning that you critique in others.

4. The Virgin Birth
“The virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity.”

I’m not sure I understand why this is important. This topic should go under “mystery” and left at that.

5. Jesus as the Worker of Miracles
“In a post-Newtonian world supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an “incarnate Jesus,” are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened.”

Absolutely untrue. If Jesus was who he said he was; then it is absolutely the case that Jesus could perform feats of supernaturalism.

The premise underlying this reasoning is that a deity is bound by the laws of physics; that is completely absurd.

6. On the atonement
“Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd.”

Again, this is a rush to judgment. It’s throwing everything out because of one “version” of the atonement. For example, it seems to me that the problem of the atonement is not the atonement itself, but the emphasis of the atonement above and beyond all of the other works Christ did while on earth. The fault is not with God, but with those to whom have extrapolated nonsense about him.

Here we see a great example of how Progressive Christianity can provide some clarity.

7. The Resurrection
“The Easter event transformed the Christian movement, but that does not mean that it was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask. The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.”

This is yet another good example of Spong’s Modernist worldview shining through. The problem he has with the historical aspect of the resurrection (and the validity of the details) is a response to conservative historical scholars. Another classic liberal axiom that misses the point. If historical conservative scholars are wrong, to begin with, then why begin with their premise to argue a positive conclusion. You are using a faulty premise. Instead, be the corrective and provide a positive solution which fully embraces the narrative account and not the propositionalist who cherry picks throughout the various accounts.

8. The Ascension of Jesus
“The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, which was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our 21st-century minds to accept it or to believe it.”

I think you are giving way too much credit to the biblical authors. Regardless of the veracity of the ascension, It seems justifiable to argue that the writers are simply writing what they believed to be true and in so doing trying to use the limitations of language to describe (or perhaps even understand) this event. Although I agree that it might be beyond our capacity to understand this, I don’t think that exclusively eliminates the possibility of accepting or believing in the event. There are plenty of things I can’t understand about God and yet I still have no problem believing in him.

9. Ethics
“The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes like the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations.”

Another good example where you want to throw everything out because of an apparent incongruity. I see no necessary entailment that suggests if the bible does not provide a universal ethic then all of its worthwhile content is devoid of meaning and application for Christians of the 21st century.

10. Prayer
“Prayer, understood as a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history is little more than a hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the servant of the human. Most of our prayer definitions of the past are thus dependent on an understanding of God that has died.”

I absolutely agree with your understanding of the modern prayer situation. However, I think the use of the term “died” is misleading. It just seems unnecessary to state because it undermines the important point you are making in the previous statement.

11. Life after death
“The hope for life after death must be separated forever from behavior control. Traditional views of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment are no longer conceivable. Christianity must, therefore, abandon its dependence on guilt as a motivator of behavior.”

Absolutely agree.

12. Judgment and Discrimination
“Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a “given” is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of giving “abundant life” to all. Any structure either in the secular world or in the institutional church, which diminishes the humanity of any child of God on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. “Sacred Tradition” must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil.”

I mostly agree although I think some of the words you chose to use are unclear, such as “given”, which I think you mean axiomatic or self-evident. However, the second part of your statement is wrought with politics and I don’t think there is a place for that in a statement like this. It should be up to the individual to decide what diminishes humanity. The fact that you choose for them is a violation of your belief about Christians and judgment.

  • Barb Dyess

    I read Rev Spong’s theses. By the end, there is nothing left to be called “Christianity.” I agree with you. I don’t know what kind of Christian I am anymore…I do love God and Jesus…some of the Bible is edifying; some is outdated and is not anything relatable to our times…and I have no idea where I fit into this Faith anymore, or in what we call the church today. Thank you for the clear way you’ve communicated a ‘different kind of Christianity.’ Not sure what it is, but when I read your blog for the first time–it was ME.

    • https://ericsenglish.com/ Eric English

      Barb…very high praise! Thank you. The great thing about being (or trying to be) authentically Christian is that we are free of the labels that we have become accustomed to. The faith you fit into is that of Christianity! Everything else is pageantry. 🙂

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Why Progressive Christians should distance themselves from John Shelby Spong’s 12 Theses