BISHOP SPONG AND THE INCARNATION
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
The third of Bishop Spong’s theses that we are taking up in this series includes number 2 and number 4 in his manifesto. His second thesis is: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. Thesis number 4 is: The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditional understood, impossible.
There are times when the whole purpose of John Spong’s reworking of traditional Christian belief seems to be to deny God any existence apart from the world and to keep such an “external God” from intervening in the world. This strikes me as such an obsession in his thought as to point to some kind of unhealthy fixation. What did the unexpected father do when he finally came home to the young Spong that was so awful that the adult has to create a universe in which there is no God who might ever visit his people? John Spong plucks at the anthropomorphic mote in the eye of first century Christianity while ignoring the self-narrating beam in his own eye. The essence of Spong’s critique of the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man, is that this doctrine is a first century interpretation of the “Jesus experience.” St. Paul and the gospel writers did the best they could to interpret the unique Jesus experience but they were hindered by their inadequate first century categories and especially by the need to think of God theistically. Contemporary thinkers are better situated to understand the real significance of Jesus and to interpret that experience in the more adequate and expansive categories of late 20th century thought. But put simply and without the plausible sounding patter of intellectualized jargon this is the same claim made by Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy and countless challengers to Apostolic faith through the ages. This claim says in so many words,” The original New Testament Witnesses did not really understand and rightly interpret the significance of Jesus, I (Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, John Spong or fill in the blank) have a new insight which brings to light the heretofore real but unknown significance of Jesus.” So Mrs Eddy calls her book Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures.
That people who are nearer to the events and had personal contact with Jesus and with those of his circle, that shared in the world view and thought forms that were most familiar to our Lord should have gotten it all wrong and that we should be in the first generation to get it right, beggars credulity far more than Jonah’s stay in the belly of the whale. In his presentation of the significance of Jesus we are moving in a realm where we are presented with a choice between the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the Gospel according to Spong.
Spong’s rejection of the Virgin Birth is by now familiar. It could not have happened because it would involve an external God and a miracle. There is neither an external God nor miracles. Therefore it could not be as reported. Mary must have been the victim of rape and Jesus an illegitimate child. No evidence is offered for this imaginative reconstruction of the biblical story. This imagined reconstruction is to be preferred to the account of the original witnesses since it must be true because it is non-miraculous. This is not scholarship. This is argument by assertion and circular reasoning. For Spong the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is first century people trying to express their Jesus experience.
Indeed it is an expression of the Jesus experience but Spong misses the central ingredient in this experience. Spong is also operating uncritically with a modern theory of religion. Religion in this model has to do with a private world of feelings, values and experiences and not with a public world of fact. This is the sense in which Spong uses the word experience and he therefore takes for granted that whatever else the Apostles are talking about they are not talking about something that could have occurred in the public world of facts. The experience of the Apostles was not some private interior reaction to Jesus but the conviction that in Jesus God had visited and redeemed his people. Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. In Jesus the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and Mt Sinai, the God who delivered the people from slavery and led them into the promised land, the God who had promised a Messiah after the like of David, had finally come and lived a human life, died for his people and rose from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead is the original preaching of the Apostles. The Apostles are not witnesses to an interiorized experience but a miraculous life, a redeeming death and an astounding resurrection. They are witnesses to the continuing presence of the risen Lord in their midst and to the miraculous power of his spirit poured out on his people. They are not trying to find adequate words for an elusive inner personal experience. They are giving witness to events of history, not of a spiritualized psychology. “We have seen it with out own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible; we have see it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us.” (1 John:1-3.) Spong’s retelling of the biblical story bids us exchange events which he imagines may have occurred for events which are well attested to by otherwise trustworthy witnesses who often choose death rather than relinquish their witness.
Spong also makes much of the captivity of the New Testament and early church authors to the thought forms of their day. This misses the whole drama of the development of the doctrine of the Incarnation. What God has done in Jesus forces the Apostles and the early church fathers to completely rethink their ideas of God and humanity. Jesus was after all put to death for implying that he was the heaven sent “Son of Man.” He was killed for blasphemy, for outraging the conventional wisdom. This is why Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early church and sought to put Christians to death. Saul became Paul when a confrontation with the Son of God turned his life upside down. That “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” as St. Paul says is an astonishing thing for a good Jew to say. The Apostles and the early church struggle to come to this understanding but they are forced to it by the utterly miraculous quality of his life, by the power of his death and by the evidence of the resurrection. It takes over three hundred years to come to the definitions of the Council of Nicea just because the mighty act of God outstrips human thought and compels truly brilliant minds to run to catch up and develop categories which express and guard the unique event of God visiting his people by becoming a human being.
When Spong comes to his own recasting of the Incarnation he calls Jesus the “the spirit person” and a “God manifestation.” Spong takes us on a tour of biblical passages about the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament. What he makes of these is that the spirit has to do with life and vitality, with being fully alive, with”being all we can be.” An irony of this tour is that it is a way of using the bible that is very like the way fundamentalists use the bible for proof texting. For instance when Spong invokes the story of the valley of dry bones in the Book of Ezekiel as a story of the spirit giving life and vitality, he ignores the context of judgment and restoration. Israel has sinned and judgment has befallen Israel and disaster and destruction with the judgment. Yet God says to the prophet say that these bones shall live. The passage is not about mere vitality. The passage speaks about the spirit redeeming people from the consequence of sin. Spong completely ignores the close association between the spirit and the law in the Old Testament in developing his portrait of Jesus as “Spirit person.” We are left with a person who has a contagious life in him, an ill defined enthusiasm and vitality. Jesus then is a revelation of the nontheistic, nonpersonal Ground of Being. Jesus is not different from us in kind but only in degree. In him there was an unusual manifest ion of the God consciousness, the God presence. There is no reason in principle why you or I could not attain to the full human life revealed in Jesus. We need to get in touch with the ground of our being and cultivate the God presence in us. To be his disciple does not require assent to any creed. To be his disciple “requires me to be empowered by him to imitate the presence of God in him by living fully, by loving wastefully, and by having the courage to be all that God created me to be.”
Like most heresy Spong’s portrait of Jesus is not entirely wrong. It is true that there is a kind of life in him which reveals a new depth of human possibility. Surely the forgiveness that is in him is something really new. Surely he does reveal life and love. To be his disciple is to seek to be more like him. Spong’s Christ can not do what Spong wants him to do. He cannot for instance reveal love. Love is a personal category. Love is something offered from one person to another person. If it is a mistake to think of God as a person how can Christ reveal God as the source of love. In such a case the revealer with his costly sacrificial love must be greater than that which is revealed which is the non personal Ground of Being.
I have said before that Spong’s non-interventionist God is very like the God of nineteenth century Deism. Deism thought of God as the great watchmaker who wound up the mechanism of the universe but cannot now intervene in the running machine. Spong’s “nontheistic God” is similar except the watch is really self-winding since Spong is so insistent on foreclosing any independence between God and the world. A person who loves sacrificially with thoughtfulness and intention is surely a more admirable entity worthy of praise and adoration than a principle of life which cannot help its role as the engine of evolution. To talk of such a principle, such an abstraction as the source of love makes no sense. Love is personal and involves purpose and intention. Love speaks of giving. To give a gift is by its nature to intervene, to make a difference in another’s life by the gift of your own. If Jesus reveals the ground of love he must reveal a God who is personal. The personhood of God should be thought of as distinct from in both kind and quality of that of all other persons but God must be more not less than personal. That is exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity says; that the personhood of God is the only example of something which is three and one at the same time. It is a personhood which is utterly unique. The inner personal life of God is a life of giving and receiving love. Each person of the Trinity gives all he has to the other persons in such a way as to sustain the personal identity of the other. Everything that the Father has he gives to the Son and everything that the Son has he gives to the Father and the bond of Love that the Father and Son have with each other is the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity describes an eternal conversation of love and an eternal exchange of gifts, of self-donation. It is of the essence of this God to share life and love. The traditional doctrine of Creation is that this God created you and me in order to share with us this eternal life of love, to make us partners in the eternal divine conversation of love. That this desire to share the eternal Word of love with the creature would go so far as to totally identify with the creation by becoming incarnate and fully present in the creation in Jesus makes sense for a personal loving God. A God who is really a God of love would want to share love and life completely with humanity. Such a God would want to give himself to the fullest extent possible. Such a God would want to make a gift of God’s self. How may it be done? St. John says in the famous prologue of his Gospel that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The doctrine that Jesus was truly God and truly human is precisely what reveals God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him should not die but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
A God who does not intervene, is a God who is indifferent and unresponsive, who is nonpersonal, nontheistic in Spong’s terms. It makes no sense to speak of such a God as a God of love. To be the “spirit person” of such a God or the “God manifestation” of such a God could do little more than encourage us to worship the vitalism of nature. (I must say again that history shows that when religious thought goes in this direction it is flirting with fascism.) Such a “God manifestation” could do little more than remind us of potentialities that we already have. Such a Christ could not give us what we do not have. We do not have love and righteousness. But the Incarnate Son of God does, the one who is God’s greatest and mightiest intervention and he says to us,”As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.” (John 15:7-10) To be the God of Love is to be a God who intervenes. In Jesus Christ God intervenes in human affairs by making a gift of the eternal life of divine love to us. God makes us a gift of the very life of God. This intervention is courteous as Julian of Norwich says. It is of the nature of a gift and we can refuse the gift. To take the gift is to be changed by one who is wholly other and who descends to us that we might ascend to him.