John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong

infobox bishopbiog
name = John Shelby Spong

religion=Episcopal Church in the United States of America
See = Newark, NJ
Title = Bishop of Newark
Period = 1979 — 2000
consecration = June 12, 1976
Predecessor = George E. Rath
Successor = John P. Croneberger
post = Bishop Coadjutor of Newark| bishops= none
ordination = 1955
date of birth = Birth date and age|1931|6|16|df=y
place of birth = Charlotte, North Carolina|

John Shelby Spong (born 16 June 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.) is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey). He is a liberal Christian theologian, biblical scholar, religion commentator and author. He promotes traditionally liberal causes, such as racial equality. He also calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief, away from theism and from the afterlife as reward or punishment for human behavior.

Spong's ideas have received strong criticism from many theologians, notably the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth). cite journal|title=No life, here - no joy, terror or tears |journal=Church Times |date=1998-07-17 |first=Rowan |last=Williams |coauthors= |volume= |issue= |pages= |publisher=The Tasmanian Anglican |id= |url= |format= |accessdate=2007-11-15 ]


Spong was educated in Charlotte public schools. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1952, and received his Master of Divinity degree in 1955 from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. That seminary and Saint Paul's College have both conferred on him honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees.

He wrote: " [I have] immerse [d] myself in contemporary biblical scholarship at such places as Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School and the storied universities in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge." [John Shelby Spong, "The Sins of Scripture", HarperCollins 2005, page xi]

He served as rector of St. Joseph's Church in Durham, North Carolina from 1955 to 1957; rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina from 1957 to 1965; rector of St. John's Church in Lynchburg, Virginia from 1965 to 1969; and rector of St. Paul's Church in Richmond, Virginia from 1969 to 1976. He has moreover held visiting positions and given prominent lectures at major American theological institutions, most prominently at Harvard Divinity School. He retired in 2000.


Spong's writings rely on biblical and nonbiblical sources, and are influenced by modern critical analysis of these sources (see especially Spong, 1991). He is representative of a stream of thought with roots in the medieval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich, who he has called his favorite theologian. [" [,2933,153507,00.html Challenging the 'Sins of Scipture'] ". Interview with Bill O'Reilly. April 14, 2005.]

A prominent theme in Spong's writing is that the popular, supposedly "literal" interpretation of Christian scripture does not speak honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities, and that a more nuanced approach to scripture, informed by scholarship and compassion, can be consistent with both Christian Tradition and a contemporary understanding of the universe. He believes, as did his theological predecessor, Bishop John A.T. Robinson, that theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of God's nature. He explains that he is a Christian because he believes that Jesus Christ fully expressed the presence of a God of compassion and selfless love, and that this is the meaning of the early Christian proclamation, "Jesus is Lord" (Spong, 1994 and Spong, 1991). He rejects the historical truth claims of some Christian doctrines, such as the virgin birth (Spong, 1992) and the bodily resurrection of Jesus (Spong, 1994).

New Reformation

Spong has also been a strong proponent of feminism, gay rights, and racial equality within both the church and society at large. Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated. These beliefs are most fully outlined in his book "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born". He briefly outlines these beliefs on his [ web site] as follows:

Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

Spong's work on the textual evolution of the role of Judas Iscariot as the betraying Jew of Jesus in the Gospels has garnered particular attention by social scientists concerned with roots of anti-Semitism in the New Testament. He holds fundamentally that the expanding detail given to Judas' betrayal from the synoptic gospels through to the Gospel according to John is a result of active embellishment on behalf of the those authors postdating Mark and the Q document, as a result of ideological tension resulting from initially unforeseen and increasing hostility between Jews and Christians in the early history of the church.


Gerald O'Collins, Professor of Fundamental Theology, Gregorian University, Rome, argued that Spong’s "work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholar will be taken in by this book. ... What is said about a key verb St. Paul uses in Galatians 1:15f. shows that the bishop [Spong] has forgotten any Greek that he knew. [Spong argued his case based on a Greek word that is not in the passage [ cite web|url= |title=What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong? |accessdate=2007-10-24 |last=Bott |first=Michael |coauthors=Jonathan Sarfati |date=1998-04-07 |work=Apologia |publisher=Creation Ministries International ] ] ... [my] advice for his next book is to let some real experts check it before publication." [ cite journal|title=What of the Spong Song? |journal=Apologia |date=1994-09-10 |first=Gerald |last=O'Collins |coauthors= |volume=7 |issue=2/3 |pages=112–113 |publisher=The Wellington Christian Apologetics Society |id= |url= |format=PDF |accessdate=2007-10-24 ]

One critical book is entitled "Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong", edited by Peter Moore.

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a response to Spong's 12 points in 1998, when he was the Bishop of Monmouth. Williams wrote that "... I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong's theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests."

Published books

* 1973 - "Honest Prayer"
* 1974 - "This Hebrew Lord", ISBN 0-06-067520-9
* 1975 - "Christpower"
* 1975 - "Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding", ISBN 1-878282-16-6
* 1976 - "Life Approaches Death: A Dialogue on Ethics in Medicine"
* 1980 - "The Easter Moment", ISBN 1-878282-15-8
* 1983 - "Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church", ISBN 1-878282-13-1
* 1986 - "Beyond Moralism: A Contemporary View of the Ten Commandments" (co-authored with Denise G. Haines, Archdeacon), ISBN 1-878282-14-X
* 1987 - "Consciousness and Survival: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry into the possibility of Life Beyond Biological Death" (edited by John S. Spong, introduction by Claiborne Pell), ISBN 0-943951-00-3
* 1988 - "Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality", ISBN 0-06-067507-1
* 1991 - "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture", ISBN 0-06-067518-7
* 1992 - "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", ISBN 0-06-067523-3
* 1994 - "Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity", ISBN 0-06-067546-2
* 1996 - "Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes", ISBN 0-06-067557-8
* 1999 - "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile", ISBN 0-06-067536-5
* 2001 - "Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality", ISBN 0-06-067539-X
* 2002 - "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born", ISBN 0-06-067063-0
* 2005 - "The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love", ISBN 0-06-076205-5
* 2007 - "Jesus for the Non-Religious", ISBN 0-06-076207-1

Other notable facts

Spong is the cousin of former Virginia Democratic Senator William B. Spong, Jr..

There is currently a play in production about the life of Bishop Spong called "A Pebble In My Shoe", written by Colin Cox & produced by Will & Company. He has seen the play himself at least a half dozen times at different stops around the country.


* Career dates retrieved from [ The Bishop of Newark official website] and [ Bishop Spong's official biography] on August 30, 2006.

External links

* [ Bishop Spong's official website]
* [ Antonella Gambotto-Burke on John Shelby Spong]
* [ ABC Radio audio interview with Spong]
* [ "A Call for a New Reformation" by John S. Spong]
* [ Compass interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong]
* [ Minnesota Public Radio interview with Bishop Spong]
* [ Scott Stephens' interview with John Shelby Spong: "I am very orthodox after all!"]

Criticisms of Spong

* [ Critical review of "Jesus for the Non-Religious"]
* [ Jesus for the Non-Religious (review) - Sydney Anglicans website]
* [ Spong book guts Christian faith say Sydney Anglican Faction]
* [ What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong? Laymen Rethink the Scholarship of John Shelby Spong]

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