from the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1991 page 36. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
A Summary Critique
Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)
John S. Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, gained national notoriety for his earlier book, Living in Sin? (Harper, 1988). In that work he argued that homosexual acts should not be regarded as sin. Now, in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Spong offers a survey of the Bible designed to demolish belief in its inerrancy while yet finding some religious value in it.
The day before he died, Dr. Walter Martin, the founder of the Christian Research Institute, debated Bishop John Shelby Spong on the "John Ankerberg Show." In part it was this debate, according to Spong, that spurred him to write Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (p. x).
Spong, however, does not mention Martin's name. Why not? Probably because he wishes to leave the impression that fundamentalism consists solely of televangelists and their presumably ignorant followers. Besides a passing reference to Ankerberg as a "lesser-known evangelist," the only fundamentalist leaders mentioned in the book are Jerry Falwell (ix, 2, 25, 58) and Jimmy Swaggart (3, 4). Falwell is the only evangelical to have a book appearing in his bibliography, which lists some sixty other authors' works. Televangelists serve generally as Spong's whipping boys (24, 78, 213).
In the world according to Spong, there are no fundamentalist scholars or theologians. Works supporting liberalism are "well written and even brilliant works of biblical scholarship," whereas works supporting biblical inerrancy are "tracts, pamphlets, and books from the pens of fundamentalist Christians" (x). "No biblical scholar" thinks Adam was a historical person (104); he knows of no biblical scholar who thinks John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel (193), nor any "reputable" scholar who accepts the Virgin Birth (215). Apparently, Spong lives a very sheltered life.
The bishop has little respect for fundamentalists. In his opinion anyone who holds that the Bible is without error "is simply unaware of vast areas of reality that are common knowledge to people of this century" (26). They are "afraid of knowledge" (27). Not only are they ignorant, they are culturally backward; thus Spong refers to "fundamentalists and their more sophisticated city cousins" (9). They are apparently not even capable of abstract thought (155). They are fearful, insecure people who are not serious Christians and who do not even bother to read the Bible they pretend to defend (e.g., 3-5, 79, 133, 217). "The periodic revivals of fundamentalism are momentary blips on the EKG charts of religious history" (107).
It must be admitted that there is a cultural fundamentalism that deserves criticism. Associated especially with the "Bible Belt" (although, of course, it is not limited to that region, and many believers there do not fit this stereotype), it is characterized by fear, hate, insecurity, prejudice, sexism, and anti-intellectualism. Spong was evidently raised in such a fundamentalism (13-14). He rightly criticizes its segregationist views (1-3). He mentions its taboo against women wearing makeup (14), to which might be added a long list of taboos against drinking, card-playing, watching television, and the like. If this were the fundamentalism from which Spong wished to rescue the Bible, I, for one, would be happy to join the rescue effort.
Unfortunately, Spong's attacks against this easily criticized fundamentalism are really only target practice for a much more formidable enemy. Though he never defines the term fundamentalists, it is clear that in most cases he means by it all those who take the Bible "literally" and regard it as "inerrant" (cf. x, 2-3). In fact, at one point he explicitly equates fundamentalism with evangelicalism (3).
Spong's target is not limited to card-carrying evangelicals who affirm without embarrassment the inerrancy of the Bible. Spong wants to rescue the Bible from all who take its historical, doctrinal, and ethical statements seriously. "There are concepts in the Bible that are repugnant to the modern consciousness" (16) -- and repugnant to him, as well (22). The Bible presents a nationalistic, sadistic God that Spong "cannot respect, much less worship" (24; cf. 17, 20). The Gospels present a Jesus who is sometimes "narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical" (21). The "list of objectionable passages could be expanded almost endlessly" (20), and unbelievable things "are discoverable and present in almost every part of the Bible" (150). Spong confesses, "A literal Bible presents me with far more problems than assets" (24).
The difficult statements in the Bible offensive to Spong are the same sort that bother atheists and skeptics: the destruction of pagan peoples by Israel, eternal punishment, alleged anti-Semitism in the New Testament, and many other biblical "horrors"; he also finds numerous contradictions and errors throughout the Bible (note especially 16-23). Most of these criticisms have been answered repeatedly by evangelical scholars in works such as Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982). But I am forgetting that such books do not exist in Spong's world.
One would think that if the Bible were really this bad, the only course of action would be to abandon it and reject Christianity altogether. But Spong says he is "a Christian who loves the church" (10) and even loves the Bible (e.g., 11, 14-15, 245, 247). The bishop must therefore find a way of making the Bible palatable, even useful, while at the same time holding such a low view of its actual teachings.
The way he does this is to claim that those who take the Bible at face value and believe what it says are actually abusing the Bible. Fundamentalists, he tells us, are guilty of "literalizing" the Bible (3, 35, 64, 72, etc.). By this he does not mean that they take literally things in the Bible that are obviously expressed in poetic or figurative terms. He is not criticizing a woodenly literal reading of the text that ignores questions of genre or context. Rather, by "literalizing" Spong means that fundamentalists accept the historical accounts, ethical precepts, and theological doctrines of the Bible as actually and completely true.
In the course of his polemic against literalism, Spong betrays a literalism himself. For example, he claims that if Paul's injunction against women speaking in the church (1 Cor. 14:34-35) "is taken literally...then no woman can sing in a choir, participate in a liturgy, teach Sunday School, or be ordained as a pastor or priest" (6). Yet not even cultural fundamentalists think all this is what a literal interpretation implies.
This is no moderate liberal who adheres to many of the basics of orthodoxy while rejecting biblical inerrancy. For Spong, virtually everything associated with traditional Christianity must go.
The author has a very low view of the Gospels. He regards the miraculous works of Jesus as myth (e.g., 129-33, 143-44). Much of the teaching attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is suspect due to the theological and political agendas of the Gospel writers. For example, Spong claims that Luke is written from a pro-Roman bias. He is so intent on proving this bias that he mistakenly asserts that "it was only in Luke's Gospel that we are told to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (176; cf. Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). Spong is especially doubtful about the Gospel of John, which he thinks does not contain "a single word...actually spoken by the historic Jesus" (191).
The bishop's rejection of biblical standards of sexual morality, more than anything else, has drawn attention to this book. As in Living in Sin?, he repeatedly defends homosexuality (1, 7-9, 20, 75, 104, 165, 238, 239, 248). In the most often discussed chapter of the book, Spong defends the theory that Paul was a "self-loathing," "rigidly controlled gay male" who found acceptance and God's grace in Christ (109-26).
As significant as these denials of biblical history and ethical standards are, what is most disturbing about this book is its thorough rejection of Christian doctrine. Spong is all too clear: "Again and again we discover painfully that our central Christian affirmations make assumptions based upon a literalized view of the biblical narrative that are no longer believable" (35, emphasis added).
What are the doctrines which Spong rejects? Limiting ourselves to this one book, we find the following explicitly set aside or "reinterpreted" for modern minds:
- God as creator distinct from creation (33, 69, 145, 204, 206-7, 236, 241-42).
- Adam as a special creation and historical figure (104).
- The Devil as an actual entity (3, 105).
- Man's fall from innocence into sin (34-35, 234).
- Israel as ever having been God's chosen people (17, 19-20).
- The Trinity (123, 232).
- The preexistence of Christ (35).
- The incarnation of Christ as the God-man (35, 123, 232, 233-34).
- The virgin birth of Christ (16, 211-12, 215-16, 233-34).
- The bodily resurrection of Christ (81-82, 124, 141, 146, 154, 180-83, 217-24, 235).
- The ascension of Christ (30-31, 180-82).
- The Atonement as a substitutionary death for sin or as a redemptive suffering to deliver man from sin (35, 69, 234).
- Salvation through faith in Christ alone (165-66, 171).
- Eternal punishment for the unbelieving wicked (21-22, 155).
It is safe to say that the bishop is advocating heresy. Indeed, theologically his views are absolutely apostate. Just how absolutely so may be illustrated from a consideration of his views on two subjects: the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of God.
In the view of Bishop Spong, the resurrection of Jesus as a "literal" restoration of the dead body of Jesus to life is a myth. As such, it must be "demythologized" -- that is, its mythic elements must be identified and stripped away. But he warns that we cannot stop there, but must go on to "remythologize." That is, we must reinterpret it according to our own world view, which is also destined to be discarded by future generations as mythological (237).
According to Spong, for Paul the Resurrection "occurred not on the literal third day but on the eschatological third day, for it was beyond time and history" (124). This sounds more like the German theologian Paul Tillich than Paul the apostle. For Paul the very significance of Christ's resurrection was that the resurrection of the dead had been inaugurated in time and history with Jesus as its "first fruits" (1 Cor. 15:12-28).
Spong's argument that the Resurrection was not regarded as a physical miracle by either Paul or Mark (141) need not detain us further. What is of interest is his "remythologizing" of the Resurrection. He asks rhetorically, "Is not the primary message of the Easter narratives that even the barrier of death must not deter us in our quest for life and love?" (146). This is a "message" to which even atheistic humanists can assent; there is nothing distinctively Christian about it at all.
Of course, such a reductionistic interpretation of the Resurrection was far from the "primary message" of the Gospel writers and Paul. For them the primary message was that Jesus had in fact conquered the barrier of death for us so that we might receive eternal life and love as a free gift from God through Jesus Christ.
One might assume that, however far Spong might go in his apostasy, as a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal church he surely must believe in God. And he does, of course, talk about God, even as our creator or maker (e.g., 207, 248). However, he has something very different in mind than God as conceived in Christian theology.
We can begin to see this when Spong writes, "We have come to the dawning realization that God might not be separate from us but rather deep within us. The sense of God as the sum of all that is, plus something more, grows in acceptability" (33). This is either pantheism or, more likely, a form of panentheism: the view that God is in the world as a soul is in its body. It is absolutely at odds with the biblical, Christian view of God as the transcendent Creator who brought the world into existence out of nothing and is thus distinct from and independent of His creation.
Spong more fully develops his notion of God when discussing Christ's famous "I AM" statements. He understands the words of Exodus 3:14 to mean that "God was being, the ground of being, the fullness of being, being itself" (204). This is taken directly from Tillich, though Spong does not say so yet. Christ's "I AM" sayings (which -- he asserts -- were not actually spoken by Jesus Himself) bear witness to the truth, "so much deeper than literal truth," that Christ and God are inseparable (206). From here he goes on to this blasphemous, albeit consistent, conclusion: "How can one worship the source of being, the great 'I Am,' except by having the courage to be the self God created each of us to be? The Christian is the one called so deeply into life, into love, and into being that he or she can say with a Christlike integrity, 'I AM!'" (206-7).
By the time he gets around to mentioning Tillich (240, 241), it is clear that for Spong, as for Tillich, God is synonymous with the being in which all things participate. God is "the presence of life that animates the universe, that reaches self-consciousness in Homo sapiens, and that breaks open to the essence of transcendence in Jesus of Nazareth" (241). Jesus is therefore God only in the sense that he was aware of the divinity that is in all human beings. He was a man "who had the courage to be himself" (242). (The Courage to Be was the title of one of Tillich's most popular books.) In following Tillich, Spong has become an advocate of a God who is not there.
If the reader suspects at this point that Bishop Spong is nothing but a humanist in a clergyman's garb, Spong willingly confirms that suspicion. "Religion is but one more mask that insecure people put on to cover their sense of personal inadequacy. The call of Christ is an eternal call to the affirmation of that which is. In the words of a popular commercial, it is a call to be all that one can be....True Christianity ultimately issues in a deeper humanism....To be a humanist is to affirm the sacredness of life" (242). So, what began as a call to abandon fundamentalism ends in a call to abandon religion, at least in the traditional Christian sense. In its place we are asked to embrace a humanism which requires only that we be ourselves. This form of humanism, though technically neither atheistic nor materialistic, rejects the transcendent, personal Creator God of the Bible. In that sense it is just as Godless as atheistic, secular humanism.
Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism is not about Paul as a self-loathing homosexual. In focusing on this issue, the media have missed the real story. Nor is it about the foibles of fundamentalism. Spong would like his traditionalist and moderately liberal mainline lay audience to think so, lest they realize that their own faith is under attack. Rather, the book is nothing less than a call to the church to abandon Christianity for an essentially Godless humanism. Spong's attempt to "rescue the Bible from fundamentalism" is really an attempt to rescue the Bible from Christianity. Just whose Bible is it, anyway?
Assessing the New Books on Spiritual Warfare
Frank Perretti's best-selling novel, This Present Darkness, brought to evangelicals the realization that a very real spiritual battle is taking place. This heightened awareness has led to the publication of numerous new works on spiritual warfare. The books reviewed here were all published within the past year and are among the most popular in Christian bookstores. While many other books have been published besides those reviewed here, what follows is sufficient for an introduction to the literature.
A Holy Rebellion
The purpose of A Holy Rebellion by Thomas Ice and Robert Dean, Jr., (Harvest House, 1990) is plainly stated: "We hope that you will understand the difference between the worldly, almost superstitious views of Satan that have invaded many of our churches and a truly biblical perspective of evil and our calling to spiritual warfare" (p. 17). This goal has certainly been accomplished. The emphasis is not on how much power Satan has, nor on the extent of his control (although they deal with this in great detail), but on the victory each Christian has through Christ. It is an emphasis on how steady Christian growth grounded in Scripture is the solution to spiritual deception and the key to winning the battle. Christians are "holy rebels" against the god of this age. As such, we need both to know who we are in Christ and to resist the Devil.
Of the books reviewed, A Holy Rebellion is the only one that took a firm stand against the seemingly popular view that a Christian can be demonized. Ice and Dean indicate that the Bible does not leave room for gradations of demonization: "'Demonized' and 'to have a demon' are used in Scripture of only one extreme: to be inwardly controlled by an indwelling demon. They are never used to describe a case involving anything less" (p. 118). They do not deny that severe forms of oppression by demonic forces can be experienced by the believer. However, they are careful to base their conclusions on the clear teaching of Scripture and not on ministry experience: "To say anything more definite on this goes beyond the information that Scripture has given and is pure speculation on our part" (p. 128).
The strength of this book is in its biblical analysis of various teachings that Christians commonly and often uncritically practice. These include binding and rebuking Satan and a preoccupation with territorial spirits, angels, generational spirits, curses put on Christians by occultists, and much more. Although one may not agree with all their conclusions, they bring up points that need to be seriously considered.
Other Books on the Subject
There are other authors whose perspective differs from that of Ice and Dean in their understanding of spiritual warfare, but are similar among themselves. These include Overcoming the Dominion of Darkness by Gary D. Kinnaman (Chosen Books, 1991), Spiritual Warfare by Timothy M. Warner (Crossway Books, 1991), The Believer's Guide to Spiritual Warfare by Thomas B. White (Servant Publications, 1990), and two books by Neil T. Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness (Regal Books, 1990) and The Bondage Breaker (Harvest House, 1990).
Even though I would strongly take issue with the above authors' view on the demonization of Christians, there are good things to say about these books. First, there is a strong teaching on the believer's position in Christ (especially in Victory Over the Darkness). Second, each presents practical steps the Christian can take in establishing a healthy spiritual walk. Third, they present a balanced look at spiritual warfare emphasizing Christian growth over "power encounters" (direct encounters with the demonic realm), although Warner seems the most inclined toward such encounters. And fourth, they do not attribute all unexplained or irrational behavior to Satan but realize the effects of sin and the world on individuals.
The reader must be aware that some of these books go beyond the Bible in evaluating spiritual phenomena. For example, Warner relates a story where a missionary noticed that on one side of a street (which happened to be in Uruguay) people were discarding tracts that Christians were handing out. Later on, the same people on the other side of the street (which happened to be in Brazil) were readily accepting the same material! The author suggests that particular geographical areas are controlled by specific spirits -- some being more powerful than others. Even though Scripture alludes to demonic forces behind nations (Dan. 10:12-13), this extreme conclusion is highly speculative and not supported by the Bible at all.
A final book that needs comment is Battling the Prince of Darkness by Evelyn Christenson (Victor Books, 1990). While, on the one hand, Christenson properly represents Christ as having authority over Satan, there is an unbalanced preoccupation with Satan. Implicitly within this book is the idea that unless one is directly involved with rebuking Satan and/or demons one will be hindered in his or her ministry effectiveness.
Some nonbiblical practices are suggested in this book. Included among these is triplet praying. Christenson indicates that this is one of the most "effective, yet simplest, methods of preevangelism prayer.... All it takes is three Christians willing to discipline themselves to pray every week for the salvation of people still captive in Satan's kingdom" (p. 110). Apparently the use of three persons is more effective than two or four! She also says the hedge of protection from God can be prayed for when there is a need for protection for friends and family. There is no doubt in reading Job 1:10 that God does provide a hedge around His people. However, nowhere does Scripture indicate that we should pray specifically for this. Rather, He provides this without our request (Job did not pray for it). Later, when speaking specifically of prayer, she states that "God comes in proportion to your prayer" (p. 136).
It is all too easy to base one's theology of spiritual warfare on experiences rather than on the clear teaching of Scripture. The result has often been a short-circuiting of a Christian's spiritual life or an obsession with the demonic. Much can be gleaned from the various books mentioned. However, A Holy Rebellion provides one of the most balanced and biblical approaches to the broad spectrum of issues on spiritual warfare.
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