“God made us in his image—and we returned the favor.” I was reminded of this old joke reading the latest tome from John Shelby Spong, for he employs what he thinks he knows of biblical studies and theology to sever Jesus both from history and his Jewish matrix to generate an ideal Jesus who affirms the progressive project entire, a Jesus who looks like Spong.
For those not familiar with Spong, he has long reigned as the maddest of clerical madmen, an energetic Episcopalian bishop of the sort with views and hubris only the American Episcopal Church could produce. Denying every article of creedal Christianity from Virgin Birth to Resurrection and promoting every progressive cause célèbre from abortion to transgenderism, Spong has written books such as Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (“a rousing call for a Christianity based on critical thought rather than blind faith, on love rather than judgment, and that focuses on life more than religion”) and his autobiography, modestly entitled Here I Stand: My Struggle for Integrity, Love, and Equality. “Modestly,” I write, because many will recognize Here I Stand as the title of Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther. Spong thus sees himself as a revolutionary just as he sees Luther, a man standing at a historical apex crushing the Church’s hidebound traditional beliefs and pushing her forward into a brave new age. Although it is probably not a fair description of Luther, it is certainly Spong’s agenda: insisting Christianity keep up with the science and mores of the times.
And so in Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy Spong constructs a picture of Jesus congenital to a progressive view of the times. The book’s argument runs as follows: We can know little, if anything, about the historical Jesus, and whatever we believe about him is constrained by the obvious facts of the physical and socio-cultural worlds. Miracles are impossible, yet love is all-inclusive and boundary-breaking. In fact, Christian faith isn’t about history at all but rather one’s own personal experience of the divine. In Matthew what we have is haggadic midrash, a Jewish interpretive technique that expatiates and expounds creatively on great figures making up stories with little regard for fact; the stories of Jesus in Matthew are reflections of the experience of an encounter with an ideal Christ. But when the Church became largely Gentile, the midrashic character of the Gospels was forgotten, and Gentile Christians began reading them literally. But John Shelby Spong is now here to restore the truth: Matthew’s Gospel presents a pattern whereby we too might create pictures of Jesus reflecting our own experiences and needs in the early twenty-first century.
The book is not worth reading. Don’t do it. Life’s too short, and many of you, dear readers, are young men and women with your whole lives ahead of you. Don’t throw precious time away.
Like many popular presentations of Jesus, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy popularizes the author’s conception of the supposed assured results of historical criticism in a haphazard, idiosyncratic way. Knowing biblical studies, when I read the book I was often struck by frequent misrepresentations of the state of some academic question, leaps of logic, sweeping generalizations, and brazen tours-de-force as Spong cherry-picks ideas and scholars congenital to the ideology producing his ideal Jesus.
That’s why the book isn’t worth reading; it’s not simply because it denies traditional Christian beliefs. As is the case with atheism, where one would do much better to read classical critics of Christianity like Voltaire or Bertrand Russell instead of the so-called “new atheists,” if one wants to engage writers and scholars who reject traditional understandings of the Gospels, one ought to read reputable authors such as Bart Ehrman or Marcus Borg.
And so I have suffered for you. I have offered it up. I have read this book so you don’t have to. But let’s make the most of it: the value of the book presents accessible presentation of mainstream progressive Christian thought, which runs yet rampant not only in the fringe wings of mainline denominations but through their very heart and indeed (of concern to most readers here) deep among many Catholic scholars and theologians who adopted a radical Protestant orientation to biblical scholarship and Christian theology. And so perhaps this review will help readers understand the roots of currents roiling contemporary Christianity.
Spong’s book represents well the idea that Christian faith must accommodate to contemporary culture. And that perspective results from the legacy of liberal Protestantism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, Protestant scholarship was largely German and certainly radical. In his Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), David Friedrich Strauss contended that the Gospels were mythical, their component stories the fruit of the disciples’ ineffable encounter with Christ told in terms of Jewish mythology from the Old Testament and rabbinic tradition. (The book made its way into English in 1846 thanks to George Eliot’s translation, evoking the Earl of Shaftesbury’s celebrated comment that it was “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”) Scholars at Tübingen used Hegelian philosophy to reconstruct the history of the earliest Church as one of incompatible schools competing with one another in a historical process achieving a later catholic synthesis. Walter Bauer argued that orthodoxy was a function of power, a later construct of Christian theology; those who by accident happened to be the conciliar winners got to write the theology books. And Bruno Bauer came to argue that Jesus never even existed.
Protestant scholarship in the early and mid-twentieth century continued in a similar vein, though its greatest German lights remained within the state Lutheran Church and regarded themselves as believers. In The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) Albert Schweitzer famously argued that quests for the historical Jesus usually ended with the scholar peering down the well of history and finding his own reflection there, when in fact good history shows Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet: coming to believe that he himself was the Son of Man, he went to Jerusalem to force the wheel of history to turn, but it turns on him and crushes him: “The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of one immeasurably great man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is his victory and his reign.” But an ideal Christ abides, who “comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labours, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is . . .”
Similarly, Rudolph Bultmann, the greatest German scholar of the twentieth century, would say that modern science means the biblical worldview with its miracles was impossible and very little could be known about the Jesus of history, but that the Christ of faith encounters the believer in the Church’s kerygma (preaching) and thus (drawing here on Heidegger’s philosophy) he or she can overcome existential estrangement from God and neighbor.
Meanwhile, Paul Tillich thought that the contents of the Gospels were symbols, like most human language, standing in an arbitrary (and thus severable) relationship to that which they symbolize. Tillich also insisted upon a distinction between form and content, in which the content of the questions of modern man determined the form of Christian answers (a distinction owing ultimately to Luther, who wished to separate “kernel” of Christ from the “husk” of the letter of the Gospels); the result is that the answer to the question, “Who is Christ for us today?” is determined by the concerns of today.
No wonder that the Catholic Church of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was skeptical towards biblical scholarship. What is something of a wonder is that Catholic scholars would largely ape it, attempting to play catch-up after Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and then the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum.
There are thus two fundamental ways of doing biblical scholarship these days, a way of continuity (represented best by N.T. Wright) and a way of discontinuity. The way of scholarship sketched above is marked by discontinuity: discontinuity between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus and the Gospels, Jesus and the Church, the Gospels and the Church, ultimately between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. In this approach, the Gospels are regarded as unreliable witnesses to Jesus; rather, they consist of stories generated by existential encounters with the risen Christ, and are thus the fruits of experience. But early Christian experiences need not be ours, and so what counts is our own encounter with the risen Christ. The result is that (post)moderns make an ideal Christ in their own image, unmoored as he is from Jesus, the Gospels, the Church, the tradition.
To Spong’s book, then, as this sort of model is precisely what we find therein.
For Spong, modernity and the Bible seem opposed: “I must either reject the Bible to live in a modern world or I must reject the modern world in order to cling to the Bible. That is a choice I cannot and will not make. So I am driven to find a different way to read the bible that allows me simultaneously to be both a person of faith and a person thankful for and dedicated to the century in which I am privileged to live” (pp 10-11). But the opposition is only apparent: That “different way” requires overcoming literalism so that one can read the Bible existentially, in accord with this century’s beliefs. Spong chose to write about Matthew’s Gospel to illustrate this because “it lends itself to a non-literal reading better than any other” (p 13). That claim is dubitable; most (whether ancient and medieval Christians or modern scholars) would say John’s Gospel is the most allegorical, mystical, and spiritual of the four.
Spong then quietly channels Bultmann’s opposition of scientific modernity and the biblical worldview: “Stars do not announce a human birth. Wise men do not follow a star that moves so slowly through the sky that these magi can keep up with it. Angels do not break though the mignight sky to song to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive” (p 15). No matter, though, because “[t]he gospels…were not meant to be read literally, and they become nonsensical and unbelievable if one seeks to do so” (p 16).
“Jesus was a Jew!” (p 30) Spong informs us, to his credit, based largely on his acceptance of the literal reliability of Luke 2—here, in this one instance Spong is a literalist. But what we can know of Jesus ends there. Spong skips then from Jesus to Judaism without examining any possible significance of Jesus’ Jewishness. He discusses the synagogue liturgy, which he thinks gave rise to the Gospel of Matthew. “The ‘texts’ for these Jesus ‘sermons’ that make up much of the gospels would have been found in the Sabbath Torah lessons or in the readings from the prophets” (p 39). Throughout the Jewish liturgical year, the lectionary readings for Sabbaths provided material for making up stories about Jesus (paging Dr. Strauss!) and even gave shape to the very Gospel of Matthew.
But then in Spong’s narrative the Church became Gentile largely after A.D. 88 and knew not the synagogue or its liturgy and ended up misunderstanding stories of Jesus in the Gospels literally giving rise to Christian fundamentalism. Problems abound here; the separation of synagogue and Church is not so neat and clean; it’s possible the Church absorbed many diaspora Jews, especially after Constantine, and in any event Christians and Jews remained interested in and involved with each other—which explains the often brutal invective and polemic about the other religion on the part of Christian and Jewish preachers and teachers like Chrysostom or certain rabbis; Jews were tempted by Christianity and Christians by Judaism because of their obvious similarity, Judaism being Christianity’s parent.
A further problem here concerns the idea that Gentiles read literally. Any educated Greek or Roman knew that Homer and Hesiod had been allegorized for centuries, and would know the basic canons of literature and rhetoric. The real split here isn’t Jew and Gentile—that Jews created stories and read them non-literally in accord with midrashic conventions while Gentiles were incipient fundamentalists. Rather, educated pagans, Jews, and Christians spiritualized their sacred texts while the simple might be inclined to understand them more literally. And with that, Spong’s book falls apart (figuratively; my copy is well-bound).
Spong claims the synagogue liturgy and lectionary gave rise to the form of Matthew’s Gospel. Here he follows Michael Goulder’s hypothesis. Goulder (1927-2010) was a Anglican clergyman and a serious scholar still worth reading who became an agnostic, if not an outright atheist—not surprising, believing what he didn’t about Jesus and the Gospels. His Midrash and Lection in Matthew is decisive for Spong but has not found much favor among biblical scholars of any stripe. But Spong nevertheless follows Goulder in correlating the structure of Matthew to the synagogue lectionary as the year progressed from Shavuot to Rosh Hashanah, from Yom Kippur to Sukkoth, from Hannukah to Passover (see the overview in the conclusion on pp 359-363).
Now this might very well be true, and Gospel scholars would do well to recognize that the Gospels are liturgical, shaped by the concerns of Christian (and likely Jewish) worship. But here we find common a non-sequitur: just because stories are shaped in some way does not mean they are created out of whole cloth. Perhaps Matthew did order his Gospel according to a liturgical calendar; that would not mean that his stories are necessarily concocted. Perhaps Jesus did exist, and do and say the things attributed to him. That they’re interpreted along the way—well, that’s inescapable. Any simple retelling of anything—even recounting the quotidian events of our own lives to friends—involves selection, shaping, and rhetorical delivery.
The bulk of the book is Spong storming through Matthew, interpreting Matthew’s stories in light of his lectionary thesis. And here, because he’s paying some attention to the details of the text, Spong does fairly well interpreting the details of the texts as such. But although Spong may not concede it, the relevance of any details of Matthew’s many stories of Jesus are ultimately irrelevant, for (in Spong’s view) religion isn’t about rules, or even words. Rather, Matthew’s Gospel ultimately offers an example for us in our own day:
The gospel of Matthew is not about God, understood as an external being invading the world in order to rescue ‘fallen’ human beings, lost in their sin and unable to rescue themselves. It is not about Jesus suffering and dying for the sins of that world. It is, rather, about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside the boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world. (p 364)
St. Matthew, I would wager, would be surprised to find himself a postmodern Gnostic existentialist progressive. A good Jew like Jesus, he might even rend his garments and pronounce some serious woes.
How can Spong summarize Matthew’s Gospel this way, one hundred and eighty degrees opposite of any responsible reading of Matthew’s written narrative? The answer is his liberal Protestant approach. Tillich saw the questions of modern man as decisive, driving contemporary interpretations of Christian faith, and seeing the Gospels and Jesus as symbols severable from their original content, enabled modern liberal theology to fill the Gospels and Jesus with modern content. Bultmann found the significance of Christ (not the Jesus of history) in an existential encounter. And so Spong concludes:
Extending the presence of the holy in every life is finally what being the messiah means. That is what the Christ symbol is all about [emphasis added]. That is what the life of Jesus means. Matthew has painted a portrait of Jesus, who is so at one with God that he is beyond every sectarian boundary that religious people have ever tried to impose on him; he is also beyond finitude and mortality. He is the revealer of that eternity for which all finite and mortal people yearn. That is why the Christian story must become a universal story [emphasis added]. That was and is Matthew’s goal. (p 365).
Like the Christ bequeathed by liberal Protestantism, Spong’s ideal Christ is an empty cipher, abstracted from his Jewish context and his own Jewishness to that he might be filled with Spong’s content. And so Spong doesn’t just think he’s Luther; he seems to think he’s Jesus.
Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
by John Shelby Spong
Harper One, 2016
Hardcover, 416 pages
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!