The Gospel Distortion: A reply to John Shelby Spong [1]

By Spencer D Gear

Spong during CrossWalk America 2006 (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Does the Bible need to be rescued from fundamentalism? Does “old time religion” disenfranchise the homosexuals, women and others in the church? Or is Bishop Spong promoting another agenda?

In building his case to support Bishop Spong’s opposition to fundamentalism, (“The Gospel Truth?” The Canberra Times, August 4, 1991), Robert Macklin used a number of unfair methods to distort the views of Bible-believing Christians.

It is erroneous to argue from the basis of such a logical fallacy as name-calling. Labelling certain church groups, with which one disagrees, as “fundamentalists” and associating them with the names of people like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell & Jimmy Swaggart is an unhelpful way of dealing with these Christians because it fails to confront the facts of their beliefs.

Flower7 However, one of the main themes that pervades this article is the writer’s and Bishop Spong’s opposition to the literal interpretation of the Bible, which they associate with fundamentalism. No definition of “literalism” is given. I am left to assume that this is the standard approach of theological liberalism, which does not want to take the Bible at face value. They find supernaturalism difficult to accommodate in a rationalistic, naturalistic, materialistic world-view.

The literal interpretation of any piece of literature means that narrative, poetry, prophecy, and figures of speech are read as such. If I were to read The Canberra Times the way Bishop Spong wants me to read the Bible, it would lose all comprehension because I would always be looking for the deeper meaning behind the actual words.

Just imagine the imaginative dreams (deeper meaning!) one could create by looking for the hidden, secret meaning behind a Canberra Times statement such as, “Meninga smashes record” (CT, August 1, 1991). There is no warrant for reading this newspaper in such a manner. Neither is there any justification for such an approach to New Testament interpretation. Literalism is nothing more than the natural way of reading books, magazines and newspapers. It is not the “beast” to be expunged from fundamentalism. Rather than “destroying Christianity by their literalistic claims,” fundamentalists are using the common sense way of reading any piece of literature.

The difficulty Bishop Spong seems to have, is accepting the supernaturalism he reads when he comes to the Scripture. That, however, is not a struggle with literalism, but presuppositional bias.

There is inaccurate stereotyping of these Christians throughout the article. Macklin claims fundamentalist churches are the fastest growing in Australian Christianity because they often appeal “to men, especially those in social crisis, either from divorce, alcohol, gambling, or spiritual despair.” My 30 years of experience in Bible-believing churches has not revealed this emphasis. Yes, there have been males and females whose lives have been radically changed through an encounter with the living Christ. But to say that conservative Christianity focuses on socially displaced males is distortion.

Abominable claims are made about fundamentalists: the earth is the centre of the universe and the world is flat. Such allegations should be treated with jocular disdain. Surely, the readers are not so naive as to believe that “evolution is a fact of life.” Molecular biologist, Michael Denton of the Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, in his seminal book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [2], helped put an end to that myth. Evolution is a theory, not fact, and a very shaky theory at that.

Several invalid assumptions need to be addressed. “The rejection of reason for faith” is not part of biblical Christianity. The apostle Paul is a staunch example. He reasoned, persuaded, and powerfully refuted both the religious and irreligious. For him it was faith founded on fact, not a mindless leap of faith into the dark.

To conclude that after the scientific method was developed in the 18th century, “faith and science were largely regarded as incompatible,” is refuted by the evidence. The scientific method requires repeated observations in the present time and recording of data to support or falsify an hypothesis. Such an approach is impossible for any historical document, whether it be Captain Arthur Phillip’s writings or the Bible.

Scholar, theologian and apologist, Dr. John Montgomery says that for any historical writing, one must “go directly to the documents themselves and subject them to the tests of reliability employed in general historiography and literary criticism.” [3] These tests are bibliographical (an analysis of the textual tradition), the internal evidence, and external evidence.

After subjecting the Bible to this type of scrutiny, Professor Clark Pinnock concluded:

There exists no document from the ancient world witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical testimonies, and offering so superb an array of historical data on which an intelligent decision may be made. An honest [person] cannot dismiss a source of this kind. Scepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational bias. [4]To call Bishop Spong’s book “revolutionary scholarship” fails to come to terms with some of the comments Spong made in the article. He says, “I know of no reputable biblical scholar in the world today who takes these birth narratives [in the Gospels] literally. Telephone calls to three Australian scholars, Dr. Clifford Wilson (Pacific College of Graduate Studies, Melbourne), Dr. David Williams (Ridley College, University of Melbourne), and world-renowned New Testament scholar, Dr. Leon Morris (formerly, Principal, Ridley College, University of Melbourne) revealed that all three accept the birth narratives in the Gospel as literally true. As do Dr. F.F. Bruce (England), Dr. Donald Carson (USA) and a host of other New Testament scholars Dr. Spong chooses to ignore.

Dr. Leon Morris’s commentary on the Gospel of John is one of the most substantial and scholarly in the English language. He says “the basic reason for holding that the author was John the Apostle is that this appears to be what the Gospel itself teaches… It is also the case that there are some claims to eyewitness testimony” (by John, Christ’s personal disciple). [5] Yet Bishop Spong claims that “the words of Jesus (in John’s Gospel) … cannot possibl[y] have been the literal words of the historic Jesus.” Other scholars disagree, yet Spong’s writing is called “revolutionary scholarship.” Hardly! It is warmed up theological liberalism with its anti-supernatural bias.

Bishop Spong attributes “the tone, the feat, the passion, and the behaviour” of the apostle Paul to “the realisation that he was a homosexual male.” When I mentioned this to Melbourne scholar, Dr. David Williams, he asked, “What’s the ground for this? Paul condemns homosexuality.”

It seems that Spong’s rejection of the literal interpretation of the Bible forces him to insert the wanderings of his own imagination. If he accepted the Scripture at face value, he would find the simple answer to Paul’s motivation: “The love of Christ controls us” — not a gay relationship. Paul’s conversion to Christ on the Damascus Road was the sole reason for his zeal to promote Christ’s gospel. To attribute it to epilepsy, as Spong does, is fanciful speculation without a basis in fact. With his weak view of Scripture and anti-supernatural bias, it is not surprising that he also rejects the virgin birth of Christ.

While Bishop Spong has aimed his theological canons at fundamentalism in 1991, his hypotheses are old-time theological liberalism in a new garb. These hypotheses have been successfully refuted in books such as George Eldon Ladd’s The New Testament and Criticism. Ladd concludes that

An evangelical (fundamentalist) understanding of the Bible as the Word of God is not per se hostile to a sober criticism; rather, an evangelical faith demands a critical methodology in the reconstruction of the historical side of the process of revelation. [5]

Rather than rescuing the Bible from fundamentalism, Spong would be better advised to rescue himself from the view of Scripture that distorts the natural meaning of the text. Clergy with his view are helping to empty the mainline churches. Fundamentalism is growing because it takes God at his literal word, proclaims the Gospel of freedom from bondage and oppression through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Anything less is a distortion of the Gospel truth.

Notes:

1. This manuscript was submitted to The Canberra Times, Canberra, ACT, Australia, for consideration for publication as a response to Robert Macklin’s article, “The Gospel Truth?”, The Canberra Times (Sunday, August 4, 1991, p. 17). It was published as “Distorting the Gospel Truth,” The Canberra Times, August 11, 1991, p. 10. At that time I was Senior Minister of Woden Valley (Waramanga) and Tuggeranong Alliance Churches, ACT (Canberra), Australia.

2. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. London: Burnett Books, 1985. (The USA edition was published by Adler & Adler).

3. John Warwick Montgomery, History & Christianity: A Vigorous, convincing Presentation of the Evidence for a Historical Jesus. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1965, p. 26. Military historian, C. Sanders, said that these tests were bibliographical, internal, and external (see C. Sanders, Introduction to Research in English Literary History. NewYork: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 143 ff. In Montgomery, pp. 26ff)

4. Clark Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case. New Jersey: The Craig Press, 1968, p. 58, in Josh McDowell, More Than A Carpenter. Eastbourne, E. Sussex (England): Kingsway Publications, 1977, p. 56. [The USA edition was published by Tyndale House Publishers, 1977.]

5. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament (F. F. Bruce, Gen. Ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pp. 9, 15.

6. George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967, p. 215.


Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 11 October 2015.

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