In the past several years, there has been much division in the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion over the issues of ordination of gay clergy and marriage of gay couples.
I can honestly say that if were a member of such a church, I don’t honestly believe that either of these two issues would surface as a deal-breaker for me, for one simple reason:
I would have been gone long before that.
For me, the “gender issues” and “sexual orientation issues” are really secondary. They are symptoms, but there is a deeper cause, and that cause is the rejection of the ultimate authority of scripture. And that in turn stems from a stronger desire to nitpick over Biblical text and engage in the academic sophistication of “higher criticism” than a desire to respond to God’s offer of genuine relationship and thereby to understand the ways of the Lord.
So a church which reveres Bishop Shelby Spong — or his sometime partner in crime, Marcus Borg — is of much deeper concern to me than a church which is wrestling with the gay issue, which I believe that all churches are wrestling with to different degrees.
Here’s a sample of Spong’s latest proclamation on the CNNBelief page:
…Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.
Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.
For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.
In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.
Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all…
This is Spong’s opinion, and he is entitled to it, and should count himself blessed to live in a country where people can write this sort of drivel and not be burned at the stake as a heretic. Living elsewhere, or in other times, might not have proved as beneficial.
Mark’s gospel is not based on eyewitness testimony? That should come as a surprise to those who have looked closely at Mark 14:51-52 and concluded that this sentence is completely superfluous — and even unnecessarily comic — unless Mark’s clear intent is to position himself directly in the middle of the story.
Spong’s obsession with undermining the Biblical text — a rather odd preoccupation for a clergyman, don’t you think? — also makes a liar out of Luke where he attests in Luke 1: 3-4 to the veracity of the Christ story as it has been told to his correspondent Theophilis.
And the concept of the miracles of Jesus being “attached” to the story in the eighth century is simply baffling. There were many rabbis, many itinerant teachers, and we only have the names of a handful around the time of the gospels. True, Jesus taught in ways that no one had before; his following went from a dozen young men to crowds in the thousands; but absent the supernatural miracles, there might be no particular reason why he would be remembered. In fact, scholars tell us that the Pharisees — perhaps Spong denies they existed as well — were looking for very particular and unique miracles as signs of the Messiah:
- The casting out of a spirit from someone who was mute. The customary approach was that the spirits would first name themselves before being cast out.
- The healing of an individual who was born blind.
- The healing of leprosy.
- The raising from the dead someone who had been dead more than three days. (Other such resurrections were to be discounted because of a belief that the spirit ‘lingered’ around the body for three days afterward.)
The Pharisees had an interest in knowing if Jesus was indeed the Messiah that goes beyond the adversarial relationship we normally associate them with. These miracles proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus met all their criteria, though they remained blinded to the possibility of crossing the line of faith themselves.
Suddenly, in the late 20th Century, the Jesus Seminar experts decide that every phrase and sentence in the gospels is suddenly open to debate. Spong takes the ball and runs with it, and expresses his twelve main thesis as outlined below; I’ve highlighted certain words from the Wikipedia article:
- Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
- Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
- The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
- The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
- The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
- The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
- Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
- The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
- There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
- Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
- The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
- All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
Actually, as I said at the outset, the twelfth item is really the least of my concerns with Spong in particular or Anglicans in general. But the other eleven points represent a complete undermining of the Christian message as the early Church fathers understood it.
So what do we do with all this?
Marcus Borg and Sheldon Spong occupy an inexplicable amount of space in the “religion” section of general bookstores. Pastors, priests and rectors of liberal denominations encourage the reading their books. For many such parishioners, authors of this ilk represent the only “Christian” books they will purchase in a given year.
I don’t. Despite a sweetheart relationship with publisher HarperCollins, I have never ordered a book by either author for a customer, in fact, I have been rather outspoken that I do not wish to make it easy or convenient for someone to access their materials.
While I have strong feelings about the gay clergy and gay marriage issues that are found elsewhere on this blog, for me, the major issue is the authority of the Bible. Sola scriptura is not a hardline absolute for me, but as a guideline to understanding the major doctrines and ethics that form Christianity, it is reliable in 99% of all test cases and issues that arise.
The buck has to stop somewhere and for me it stops with the canon of scripture, not with a radical theologian from North Carolina who makes a living undermining the history and centuries-old practices of the faith that today, ironically, pays his salary.