Blog

John Shelby Spong on the Gospel of John

John Shelby Spong’s newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, was released this week. For those unfamiliar with Spong, he is a retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and the author of a string of notorious books such as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1992), Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), A New Christianity for a New World (2002), and Jesus for the Non-Religious (2008). The recurring theme in these books, reflected in some of the titles, is that Christianity must stop being Christianity and become a mildly spiritual humanism. (Spong actually won the 1999 Humanist of the Year award.) Spong is a devotee of the liberal humanistic theology of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a German-American theologian who argued that God was not a personal Creator but the ground of being, or being itself. This is a philosophically sophisticated way of saying that God does not exist, of having one’s God and eating It too. Spong has also written several books attacking specific traditional Christian beliefs and values, such as Living in Sin? (1990, against traditional Christian sexual values), Born of a Woman (1994, no virgin birth), Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1995, no resurrection of Jesus), and Eternal Life: A New Vision (2010, no heaven or hell).

Spong claims, both in the book and in an article on Huffington Post promoting the book, that The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic is the result of an “intensive five-year-long study” of the Gospel of John and of Johannine scholarship. “I have now read almost every recognized major commentary on John’s gospel that is available in English from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries” (Fourth Gospel, 8). Unfortunately, it doesn’t show. Spong has left himself some wiggle room by using the qualifier “recognized,” which is probably code for “non-evangelical.” Spong’s nine-page bibliography at the end of his book does not include a single conservative or evangelical commentary on John and only one monograph on John by an evangelical (Craig Evans’s Word and Glory, an academic study on John’s Prologue). The only other work by a conservative author listed in the bibliography is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, attributed to Richard “Bruckman,” which is a reflection of just how little attention Bauckham’s excellent study received. Neither Evans nor Bauckham is actually cited in the book, and Spong’s arguments show his usual studied ignorance of conservative biblical scholarship. If Spong did read the commentaries on the Gospel of John by George R. Beasley-Murray, Gary M. Burge, D. A. Carson, Craig S. Keener, Andreas Köstenberger, J. Ramsey Michaels, Leon Morris, Grant R. Osborne, Merrill Tenney, Ben Witherington III, or any other evangelical scholar, he apparently learned nothing from them. Keener’s massive two-volume commentary is especially important because its 300-plus page introduction alone thoroughly refutes the assertions that Spong makes concerning the Fourth Gospel.

The main points that Spong seeks to make in his book are as follows:

  • The Fourth Gospel was not written by the apostle John or any of the disciples.
  • It was produced by at least three different authors over a period of perhaps thirty years.
  • Jesus probably said not even one word attributed to him in the Gospel.
  • Jesus did none of the miracles narrated in the Gospel.
  • Many of the figures appearing in the Gospel never existed.
  • The Gospel contains many indications that it was not meant to be taken literally.
  • The message of the Gospel is not that God became incarnate for our salvation but that human beings can experience personal transformation and a sense of mystical oneness with God (i.e., with being itself).
  • The orthodox creedal doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity depend in large measure on misreading John by taking the Gospel’s statements literally.


Spong would have his readers believe that he came to these conclusions only after his recent intensive five years of research: “Among the conclusions that I have reached in my intensive five-year-long study of John’s Gospel are these…. These are the conclusions to which my study of John’s Gospel has led me.” Yet anyone the least bit familiar with Spong’s nearly forty years of published writings knows that he has been beating these same drums repeatedly throughout his iconoclastic career. Notably, in his 1996 book Liberating the Gospels, Spong presented the same view of the Gospel of John as he does in his newest book. For example, he says in that earlier book, “I do not think that there is one word in the Johannine text that Jesus actually came close to saying” (Liberating the Gospels, 178). He strenuously objected to “literalized” readings of the Gospel of John and blamed such misreading for the “rigid” doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (ibid.). Spong even claimed in Liberating the Gospels that he had already read “almost every major English-language commentary on this gospel published this century and many in the nineteenth” (180)!

Of the many points that could be addressed here, I will focus on Spong’s claim that the Gospel of John contains indications that it was never meant to be taken “literally.” In his Huffington Post article, Spong claims, “John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history.” For example, Nicodemus looks silly taking Jesus literally about being “born again,” and the Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ offer of “living water” by commenting that Jesus didn’t even have a bucket. But in both of these passages Jesus is using metaphorical language to describe spiritual realities, and in both cases the text records Jesus correcting the misunderstanding. Thus Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is referring to being “born” of the Spirit, not of being born a second time in the womb (John 3:3-8), and he tells the Samaritan woman that the “water” he is offering her is not water one draws from a well but is rather the source of eternal life (John 4:10-14). When the woman still does not understand (v. 15), Jesus changes the subject in order to lead her gradually to a better understanding (vv. 16-26). Nothing in these passages suggests that the Gospel as a whole is to be taken metaphorically.

If we look at a similar passage involving a misunderstanding by Jesus’ hearers, we can see quite clearly why Spong’s inference is itself a misunderstanding. When Jesus drove out the sellers and moneychangers from the temple and the Jewish authorities challenged him to produce a sign validating his authority for doing so, Jesus replied: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). They misunderstood him to be referring to the man-made temple building in Jerusalem (2:20), but, John comments, “he was talking about the temple which was his body” (2:21). Here “the temple” is the metaphor and “his body” is the literal referent symbolized by the metaphor. One should not take the metaphorical reference literally, but one should also not take the literal reference metaphorically. That “his body” is meant literally is clear from two facts in the immediate context. First, John is expressly explaining what Jesus meant by his metaphor. Normally, one would not expect a metaphor to be explained using another metaphor. For example, if I asked someone for some “bread” and they didn’t understand that I meant money, it would be unlikely for me to respond, “When I said ‘bread,’ I meant clams”! Second, John tells us that Jesus’ disciples understood what he meant “when he was raised from the dead” (2:22). That is, what Jesus meant by “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” was that his body would rise from the dead three days after it was killed. (Spong glosses over this part of the passage in his book; see The Fourth Gospel, 85, 226-27, 257.) Thus, reading the saying of Jesus in the context of the narrative as a whole, one can clearly distinguish the metaphor of Jesus’ saying from the literal explanation that John gives. But this means that the narrative itself is meant to be understood “literally,” that is, as historical narrative, not as mythical “tales” with esoteric spiritual meanings.

Spong’s whole approach to the Gospel of John is askew because of his assumption—and that is really what it is, an assumption, not a conclusion—that the Gospel is not meant to be read as historical narrative. Some important recent scholarship on the Gospel of John, not all of it by evangelicals, has shown that the Gospel is meant to be read historically. For example, Richard A. Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1992; 2nd ed., Eerdmans, 2004), established that the Gospel of John (like the Synoptic Gospels) was written in the genre of ancient Graeco-Roman biography (bios). “The focus of the geographical and dramatic settings upon the person of the subject, the selection of biographical topics, the rather serious atmosphere and the range of purposes are all typical of bioi” (231). Burridge, who does not appear to be evangelical, would agree with Spong on some critical issues, including seeing the Gospel of John as the product of a “Johannine Community” rather than a single author and as having been produced over time (214). Burridge also finds John’s “stress on Jesus’ divinity and his unity with the Father” to result in a characterization of Jesus that is “not realistic” (227). Yet these “stereotypic” elements are mixed with realistic, human characterization, such as references to Jesus becoming tired and thirsty, crying at a friend’s funeral, and the like. Such a mixture, he argues, is comparable to what one finds in the Synoptic Gospels and in Graeco-Roman biographies (227). The author’s didactic purposes are consistent with and even carried out through his intention to “provide information about Jesus” in a “chronological narrative” designed to enable “the reader to realize the true identity of Jesus” (230). Thus, even a scholar who does not accept at face value the theology of the Gospel of John or assume that every element of the text is true can (and should) be able to recognize that conveying factual, historical information about Jesus is a basic intention and purpose of the Gospel. It is one thing to assert that although the Gospel claims to be biographical its claim is dubious; it is another thing altogether to assert that the Gospel makes no claim to be biographical. The latter assertion is plainly false.

Evangelical scholar Craig S. Keener acknowledges that because so much of the narrative in the Gospel of John has no independent attestation in the other Gospels, it is impossible to prove that John’s account is historically factual in all respects. “That John falls into the general category of biography, however, at least shifts the burden of proof on the matter of reported events (albeit not the particular ways of describing them) onto those who deny John’s use of tradition for the events he describes” (Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1:51). This is the sort of nuanced judgment that Spong never offers. Instead he makes extreme, unjustifiable assertions such as that Jesus never said one word attributed to him in the Gospel.

In closing, let me recommend just three books on the Gospel of John. One of these I have already mentioned twice: Keener’s commentary, which is by far the most important exegetical commentary on the Gospel sensitive to historical issues currently available. Here are the three books:

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. 2 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003.

33 Responses to “John Shelby Spong on the Gospel of John”

  1. Myself, I still find old Bishop Westcott’s (somewhat of a mild Evangelical Anglican), commentary on John (1881) to be very useful!

  2. One of the most amazing things about Spong was that he was allowed to remain a bishop.

  3. Rob Armistead Jr. June 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    So it seems that Spong never dealt with the material from Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (12 January 1825 – 27 July 1901).
    His commentary is found here:
    http://www.westcotthort.com/bookshelf.html
    Helpfully,
    Rob.

  4. @R. David: This speaks volumes about the sad nature and so-called authority in the CoE! Indeed where is the Anglican Authority within the Communion? And what has happened to the general nature of the Thirty-nine Articles?

    Indeed no wonder many Anglo-Catholics have gone to Rome, and the Ordinariates! But in the end, this won’t last and help, as Catholicism too has many ecclesiastical problems itself, as we can see with this new pope “Francis” himself, and his lack of theological understanding in soteriology!

  5. Don’t give Spong oxygen. He’s just a wacko. There are much more interesting opponents to refute.

  6. John #5: He’s a richness of embarrassments, which is why he’s so fun to refute. {wry g}

    Three excellent, careful and nuanced choices Rob! — Blomberg and Keener are both volumes I’d recommend to any inquisitive sceptic with at least some interest in GosJohn. (Bauckham not so much, though I kind of like it, too.) Keener especially grinds finely, having previously built a career in Ancient Near Middle Eastern history while an atheist! I have his recent first volume commentary on Acts about five feet away, reminding me to keep on watch for Vol2. (I’m going to wait for both volumes before gorging on it.)

  7. Bishop Edmund June 13, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    John Spong is an academic amateur. Don’t forget that. He uses his ecclesastical status to impress. By reading commentaries, he wants to fool you into believing he’s actually a scholar. Not only is he a fraud and a pretender—he’s wrong on the face of it. And to ignore conservative commentators, as if ignorance were a virtue—he should be a commentator on MSNBC at that rate!

  8. It may not be the best response to Spong, but for some reason every time I’ve ever heard him speak (in debates or interviews) I end up laughing at many of his strange and outlandish assertions offered in that trademark accent that makes him sound like an antebellum Confederate politician.

    If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor in the future. My favorite phrase is the one he always uses to express his heretical disdain for substitutionary blood atonement: “divine infanticide” (or if you like, “deevaaane infanticaaade”).

  9. This one is right up my alley:

    http://theoldadam.com/2013/05/17/johns-gospel-for-dummies/

    There are a few other very good classes on the Gospel of John that were posted a bit before this one.

  10. Problem with Spong is that he finds Scripture to be an inconvenient truth, so he has spent a lifetime trying to escape its claims.

  11. It will remain important to continually refute the false teachers even when we grow tired of them, for in the present age, their words will live on in cyberspace, whereas in earlier times, their books would have either been banned or would have sat on a dusty shelf in the library basement, forgotten.

  12. Spong rhymes with wrong.

    Not that that means anything.

  13. “studied ignorance” – I love it!

  14. Michael,

    Thanks for the informative review. If Spong and his fellow Jesus Seminar folks like Marcus Borg are right, then they’ve constructed a faith that is essentially meaningless! Their God and “faith” is merely an option at best and requires nothing from us!

  15. Professor H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) laid bare the quintessence of liberalism succinctly when he wrote, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

  16. Thank you for writing post about Spong…now I will know to avoid reading him.

    I do believe humanism is a word that is grossly misunderstood within our Christianese culture…..important for us to understand difference between Enlightenment humanism (you are your own god so make your own rules) and Renaissance humanism (we each have individual rights and human dignity because we are created in the image of God).
    There’s a biography on John Calvin – Portrait of a Sixteenth Century Humanist by William Bowsma. Excellent reading :-)

    I have read Blomberg’s Historical Reliability.
    The intro and conclusion are interesting to read-other than that, his verse by verse commentary is not overly spectacular.
    I prefer the commentaries of William Barclay.

  17. Lora,

    Thanks for your comments. You are correct about the historical usage of the word “humanism.” For better or worse, though, in current usage people who describe themselves as “humanists” usually mean it in an Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment sense. That is certainly what the “Humanist of the Year” award represented. But precisely for the reason you gave, I described Spong’s beliefs not merely as humanism but as “a mildly spiritual humanism.”

    Commentaries serve different purposes. Blomberg wasn’t setting out to produce a “practical” or devotional commentary. His purpose was more academic, to show that the Gospel of John gives a historically plausible and credible view of Jesus.

  18. Agreed with Rob #22. As much as I like Barclay (being a Baptist universalist myself ;) ), I’d hand a sceptic Blomberg and/or Keener first (depending on how much time and energy my friend had; Blomberg covers much the same material in much less time).

    I can always give her Barclay later. :D

  19. If I were in need of some self flagellation and picked up any of Spong’s writings, I would certainly only read it figuratively and with suspicion that there is actually a single author with the name John Shelby Spong.

  20. Yes, I hear your rage,commenter s, but you don’t actually give any examples of Spong’s “mis-statements” that others can examine.We loved John Spong here in New Zealand because of his sincerity and encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. Sneering at another view is mere childishness.

    Cheers Graeme

    • Graeme, too long to quote in depth, but in 2000, David H. Lane President of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Soc. wrote in “APOLOGIA” The Journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society vol. 7(2/3) 2000, an excellent piece entitled “Redefining God In Man’s Image (I), A Critique of Bishop John Spong’s Revised ‘Christianity’”. You can find it at:

      http://www.christian-apologetics.org/pdf/SpongRev20Web.pdf

    • Graeme,

      You mean, more evidence like in the original article at the top of the page? Rob Bowman is no slouch of an author himself, and there are hard limits to how many characters can be adduced in a forum comment — plus links off-site have to be manually screened and may be ignored by the admins on old posts like this.

      Still, Pewster’s link went through, so I’ll give it a shot. I wrote an extensive series of articles (some of them lengthy) back in summer 2009 at the Christian Cadre blog, unpacking JSS’s various arguments in The Sins of Scripture to convince readers that Judas Iscariot was a fictional character. A pretty limited topic in itself, but man… I could hardly get to the end of the termite holes in it!

      http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2009/07/jrp-vs-bishop-spong-vs-judas-iscariot.html

      I regularly bend over backwards to be as fair to his attempt as possible, but he sure makes it hard not to descend into sarcasm sometimes.

      • Here’s the summary recap from the end of Round One, as an example:

        **********
        So, to recap: the easily identifiable, documentable fact, is that there is clearly “an early Christian memory” (as Bishop Spong himself puts it) of at least one (maybe two) faithful Judases in the inner circle of the Christian movement (not even counting other faithful Christian Judases mentioned in the texts, one of which has the distinction of helping convert Saul of Tarsus); and an even earlier (if anything) “Christian memory” (on the same criteria grounds of data, although Bishop Spong implies otherwise) of a traitor also named Judas who wasn’t the same apostle who is (apparently) first called Thaddeus (a Greco-Hebrew nickname or surname) and then in (apparently) later texts is (apparently) called Judas, too. In direct distinction from the traitor Judas Iscariot.

        The suspicious innuendo, on the other hand, is that the memory of this non-traitor Judas in the inner circle is “suppressed” so that it can be supplanted with a newly created “Judas” so that the name “Jud-” (and its cognates) can be thus be promoted among Christians as something to be only derided with connotations of treachery. An innuendo that Bishop Spong presents as though it is just as easily identifiable and documentable as the other textual characteristics, but which when examined runs entirely against the thrust of his own beliefs about the progression of the data’s composition (at least in regard to the Gospels and Acts, and maybe also EpistJude as well).

        This suspicion has not been read from the data–not in any remotely competent way, anyway. It’s being read (rather blatantly, on examination) into the data.
        ******************

        • When you take a position that the Bible and everything written in it is guided by a supernatural being and when you are the only legitimate interpreters of its words then you and you alone must always be right.By definition no-one can have a contrary opinion that stands up.

          • Clearly, you not only didn’t read the article (where I specifically note I’m not comparing theological grounds between Bishop Spong and myself, nor even criticizing him on his theology such as it is; and where I specifically note that nothing in my 20Kword analysis requires anything more than atheism), you didn’t even read the summary of the first round. At no point did I appeal to, or even tacitly require:

            • the Bible being guided by a supernatural being
            • being the only legitimate interpreter of its words
            • me and me alone always being right.

            I only appealed to the textual details of the data for analysis, and to Bishop Spong’s attempts at argument concerning the data.

            Even an atheist could (and should) easily see that, in regard to his first rationale for example, JSS’s claim runs exactly opposite to the data characteristics in how he himself sorts the data.

            Or as I quipped, a theory of progressive suppression really ought to involve, you know, suppression, not increasing information about what is supposedly being suppressed.

            Maybe today (as I explicitly allowed) JSS might hold to a very different theory of the order of textual composition, which would fit his claim that an innocent Judas was slowly erased from the record. But back when he wrote that book, he simply didn’t bother to check to see if the data, in the way he was arranging it (in a fairly standard arrangement, as I also explicitly acknowledged), even fit his theory.

            Or he didn’t care that the data simply didn’t fit his theory, but he wanted to lead readers to think it did anyway.

            Rank incompetence or intentional cheating are the only options. Because it would only take any reader at all (completely irregardless of their philosophical or theological beliefs) five minutes to check whether the data, in his arrangement, even fit his theory of suspicious innuendo.

            The other parts of his argument don’t hold up any better, either. He neglects data points easily checked, outright invents other data points to make his theory look better, and then has the gall to recommend his readers SET ASIDE THEIR CRITICAL FACULTIES and just assume he’s right henceforth about Iscariot being fictional — basically he asks readers to just stop thinking about whether his argument adds up or not and accept his beliefs on the worst kind of fideistic ‘faith’. Insert irony as appropriate.

            Maybe a radically bad argument can still be sincere (though I’d be fuzzier about the “encyclopedic knowledge” thus displayed). But I am sure a radically bad argument counts as a bad argument.

            Anyway, you asked for “any examples of Spong’s ‘mis-statements’ that others can examine” (beyond Rob’s own article, available already for anyone to examine and compare), and you got it. What you do with it is your own business.

  21. I just finnish your book “Sin of Scripture”; 2005, Harper San Francisco.
    Certainly does follow much of what Bishop Spong has laid out for his readers: a need for an
    awakening in the Christian religion. Many people have voted for a change with their feet by leaving the Church for something else. I prefer to hang-on hoping that an awakening will occur. But time will decide. Not me or Bishop Spong. Or some of his critics (above) who seem threatened by Bishop Spong writings. I do see him as a prophet. And much like Jesus stated, “A prophet is not accepted in his own country.”
    Shalom

  22. Ronald Belnap,

    If Spong is a prophet, we must all remember that not all prophets are true prophets. The prophets of Baal come to mind.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Is the Gospel of John historical? | A disciple's study - June 13, 2013

    […] http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2013/06/john-shelby-spong-on-the-gospel-of-john […]

  2. Friday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath - June 14, 2013

    […] Continuing a long line of regrettable theology. […]

  3. Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e261v5 - June 14, 2013

    […] Continuing a long line of regrettable theology. […]

  4. Weekly Wrap Up | Pro Ecclesia - June 15, 2013

    […] another kinda review, Rob Bowman over at Parchment and Pen reviews the latest John Shelby Spong text The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I didn’t realize Spong was still publishing, but […]

  5. Wednesday Link List | Thinking Out Loud - June 19, 2013

    […] On a similar topic, Parchment and Pen looks at Shelby Spong’s latest target: The Gospel of John. Spong, whose greatest gift is that of getting attention for his offbeat views, insists that basically nothing in John was said, actually happened, or was even written by John. […]

  6. Liberal Theology Can’t Shake a Faith That Wasn’t There to Begin With | Thinking Out Loud - June 21, 2013

    […] the link we ran on Wednesday to Parchment and Pen, Rob Bowman notes the main points of Spong’s latest […]

Leave a Reply