Bishop John Shelby Spong:
An Appreciation
1931–2021 Requiescat in pace

Bishop Spong was a mighty churchman.

Jack was a friend and a supporter. We were speakers together on several programs and were participants in numerous sessions of the Jesus Seminar.

Liberating the Bible

In his books on the New Testament, especially in Liberating the Gospels, Spong supported the theories of Michael Goulder, a British scholar and Anglican priest. Goulder elaborated a theory of the composition of Matthew’s gospel based on the synagogue’s cycle of readings. I think the liturgical character of this proposal attracted Spong. The liturgical attraction is strong. While teaching in a Benedictine school, I knew many monks who were attracted to Goulder’s theories. Goulder’s theories found little support among New Testament scholars for several reasons. The evidence for such a cycle of synagogue readings comes late in the tradition and Goulder’s theory rejected Q as a source for Matthew’s gospel.

Later in his career Goulder contributed to the The Myth of God Incarnate, a highly controversial book that challenged the traditional, that is, fourth-century, dogma of the incarnation. Following upon the controversy, Goulder resigned his priesthood. Since Goulder’s position was not all that different from Spong’s, I suspect that Spong took note.

Spong also thought he had solved the problem of the “thorn in [Paul’s] flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). He thought it was Paul’s shame and guilt resulting from his suppressed homosexuality. Spong’s view of Paul was in the Augustine-Luther tradition. Given that tradition of interpretation, his proposal was not unreasonable and was in fact attractive to many moderns.

We debated this position in a Westar forum. I agreed with the position taken by the editors of The Authentic Letters of Paul that “despite endless speculation Paul’s chronic condition cannot be determined” (p. 135). Furthermore, I rejected the Augustine-Lutheran interpretation of Paul as a projection of their sense of guilt onto Paul. I do not find any guilt in Paul. (see my The Real Paul.) It is anachronistic to project modern constructions of homosexuality into the ancient world. (MacDowell, “Homosexuality.”)

Jesus Seminar

Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar and Westar Institute, invited Bishop Spong along with several other notable churchmen to join the Seminar. Spong readily accepted and became an active participant in the Seminar’s deliberations. Funk took criticism for his invitation both within and outside the Seminar because Spong was perceived to lack a professional scholar’s training. Credentials matter but a certain snobbery can creep in among scholars about credentials.

Spong admitted that from the Seminar’s debates he learned to be a more critical scholar of the New Testament. But the problem with writing books is that when you change your mind, the books don’t change. Those old positions stick.

In a paper prepared for the Jesus Seminar on Judas, Spong argued that the story was a creation of the author of the gospel attributed to Mark. Spong pointed out that Paul does not mention a betrayer, much less name one. Also, the name “Judas” is the Greek rendition of the Hebrew “Judah.” It means “the Jew.” In Spong’s opinion this was too coincidental.

The Seminar accepted Spong’s argument that Mark had created the Judas story but, under the influence of John Dominic Crossan, maintained that Judas was an historical person. This was one of those occasions in which I was in the minority. I voted with Spong. If Mark created the passage, then logically he also created the name. Spong was right. The coincidence was too great. (See The Acts of Jesus, p 136, 138.)

According to Bishop Spong

I always dreaded the frequent preamble to questions posed after one of my public addresses: “According to Bishop Spong . . .” It put me in a difficult position. Ninety percent of time such questions concerned Goulder’s thesis about Matthew or Spong’s argument that Paul was a repressed homosexual. I knew I was going to have explain why I thought those positions were wrong, but I did not want to disagree with Spong.

This ambivalence goes to the heart of my respect for Spong. I did not have any trouble disagreeing with Spong. I knew where I stood, where the majority of scholars stood, and where Spong stood. But Bishop Spong had offered many of these folks a way out of a crippling fundamentalism into a more enlightened view of the Bible and Christianity. I had and have great respect for his enabling part in those journeys.

When a questioner said, “Bishop Spong,” “bishop” was the operative word. As a bishop, Spong wielded more credibility in church circles than I did as a scholar. That credibility did not come from simply being a bishop. No, it came because, having shared their journey, he had the courage to speak out. He had moved beyond the fundamentalism and a segregation in which he was raised. Spong paid attention to Christianity’s loss of place in the modern world and to those leaving the church in droves. His prescription was not to double down on what had created this situation, but in the words of the Star Trek introduction, “to go boldly where no man has gone before.” Well, that was not quite true. Spong would have blanched at “man,” and he was well aware that a host of scholars had gone before him and had gone further.

Spong was willing to speak out, to speak out in a way he knew made sense but would cause controversy. The point was not the controversy but the need to understand. Most bishops have nothing to say. After reaching a pinnacle of ecclesiastical power, they go silent out of fear. Spong knew that if the church did not change, it would disappear. Spong reached out to those former church members whom he referred to as the “church alumni association.” The title and subtitle of his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile: A New Reformation of the Church’s Faith & Practice gives it all away.

Spong was willing to lean into his episcopal status. He would often appear in public wearing a Roman collar and purple clerical shirt. His dress underlined that he was speaking as a bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was not walking away from his church. He was not going to be chased away. He stood there demanding change.

Spong was a pastor. His pastoral concern moved him to challenge the church to move forward, away from its so-called sacred traditions. He stood for and with the people of god, not the institution of the church.

In my judgment he was an inspired amateur scholar in the root sense of that word, “a lover.” Spong was an inspired lover of the scriptures of the Christian church. But he was not uncritical. He sought in his books to bring credible biblical scholarship to his audience. His Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism marked his own journey away from the fundamentalism of his childhood and offered to his audience a historical critical reading of the Bible as an experience of liberation.

Addendum

I read three obituaries of Bishop Spong, all of which were informative and revealing. The obit in The New York Times sided more with Spong’s critics, while The Washington Post clearly sided with Spong against his critics. The fine obit posted on the Episcopal News Service website was both balanced and nuanced. It noted his support for women’s ordination and the LGBT+ inclusion.

References

Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. 1st edition. HarperOne, 1996.

_____. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. Reprint edition. HarperOne, 1992.

_____. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile: A New Reformation of the Church’s Faith & Practice. 1st edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSan Francisco, 1998.

Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. Mcgaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2010.

Funk, Robert W., and The Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus: Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

Hick, John. The Myth of God Incarnate. Philadelphia: Westminster Press (British Edition SCM Press), 1977.

MacDowell, Douglas Maurice, “Homosexuality,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. 3rd edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Risen, Clay. “John Shelby Spong, 90, Dies; Sought to Open Up the Episcopal Church,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/19/us/john-shelby-spong-dead.html

Scott, Bernard Brandon. The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2015.

Smietana, Bob. “RIP: John Shelby Spong, former Newark bishop who pushed for LGBTQ+ inclusion, dies at 90,” Episcopal New Service, https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/09/13/rip-rt-rev-john-shelby-spong-newark-bishop-who-pushed-for-lgbtq-inclusion-dies-at-90/

Smith, Harrison. “John Shelby Spong, liberal Episcopal bishop and LGBTQ advocate, dies at 90,” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/john-shelby-spong-dead/2021/09/14/f6e145a0-1566-11ec-9589-31ac3173c2e5_story.html

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he was co-chaired of Westar’s Christianity Seminar, Phase I,