BISHOP SPONG: RESURRECTION AND MIRACLES
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
In this last of our series on John Spong’s critique of credal Christianity we are taking up thesis number 5 and thesis number 7 in the Spong manifesto. Thesis 5 is: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. Thesis 7 is: 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.
Spong’s rejection of miracles is implicit in his rejection of Theism. Miracles are signs which are the revelation of a personal, loving God. Miracles reveal God’s nature and purpose to humankind. I have argued earlier in this series that Spong so completely identifies God with the world and natural processes that it is impossible to speak of revelation in any meaningful way. He wants Jesus to reveal “the God presence” and the nature of “the Ground of Being.” But this is a far cry from the loving self-disclosure of the God who our Lord calls Abba, Father. Revelation and miracle both imply a personal will and intention. A miracle is a special instance of God’s self-revelation. It is of necessity an act of the divine will. Spong does not want the Ground of Being to have personal characteristics such as will. A definitive self-revelation, especially a miraculous revelation is excluded from the beginning. In Spong’s system miracles cannot exist.
Spong thinks that reports of miracles are simply benighted first century people trying to express their Jesus experience in categories that are familiar to them. The reports of the Resurrection are a special example of this general process. For Spong, Jesus was an extremely intense locus of the “God presence.” Jesus was a “spirit person” who intensely manifested the spirit present at the heart of life. When his life was ended people realized that the spirit, “the God presence” could not be killed and this presence could now be found in them. They used language of resurrection for this because it was near to hand. It was the best way they had to express the unquenchable vitality of the “Jesus experience.” According to Spong the reports of the empty tomb and appearances of the Risen Lord are later elaborations of the experience of the discovery by the disciples that after the Resurrection the spirit that was in Jesus was in them.
To this writer, Spong engages in numerous self-contradictions. It is the overriding principle of his system that we are not allowed to think of a God who”intervenes.” But now we are told that Resurrection is an action of God. I do not see how Spong has made out a case that the “Ground of Being” is capable of action in any meaningful sense. It appears that denying the existence of a personal, active God has been the point of his manifesto up until now. As for the Resurrection of the Lord being a physical resuscitation, this appears a very gross instance of misinterpretation of the biblical record. It is clear in the Bible that the Resurrection of the Lord is of an entirely different sort than the resuscitation of Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. Spong seems to me to be often knocking down straw men that have never been serious Christian teaching. It has never been serious Christian teaching that the Resurrection was a resuscitation. It is presented clearly as a complete transformation, a totally unprecedented and unique event. The Resurrection is not a return to the old life but the appearance of a new life that includes the transformation of the body. The phrase “inside human history” is likewise cryptic. I take it to mean this distinction that Spong has made much of to this point, i.e. that God does not really intervene and act in history and that claims that God has done so are imperfect attempts to express the “God experience.” Perhaps Spong means the Resurrection is something which is manifested in a non-historical realm of meaning and significance. We are given to understand that God acts but not in history. One wonders about this place inside human experience but outside human history. That he cannot maintain the consistency of his approach in the writing of his own theses is a very telling argument against his proposal.
The Anglican tradition is blessed with a history of profound teaching on the Resurrection. One of the great teachers of the end of the last century and the beginning of this one was Bishop B.F. Westcott. Bishop Westcott was sometime Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and was responsible for the definitive Greek Text of the New Testament in use at that time. In order to respond to Bishop Spong I have consulted a book that Bishop Westcott wrote in 1866. I believe that all the fast balls that Spong has been pitching as the latest thing were hit solidly out of the park by Bishop Westcott more than a hundred years ago.
To the conviction of Spong that Newtonian “laws” of nature make belief in miracles impossible, Westcott replies that the so called laws of nature are summary and retrospective. The so called “laws” tell us that based on our observation to date there are forces in the universe that work in the same manner under the same conditions. They do not tell us beforehand(Westcott uses the term antecedently) what may happen when either the force applied or the circumstances change. Wescott says
“There is then nothing absolute in laws of nature. They are relative to man, and do not explain either the origin or the preservation of things. It is quite possible for us to conceive that the unknown power through which phenomena are produced according to an observed way might have caused them to have been produced in another way wholly different. The belief in the immutability of the observed law springs wholly from ourselves and is simply a special expression of the axiom that the same power will produce the same results under the same circumstances. But we have no right to assume that the circumstances will always be the same.” (The Gospel Of The Resurrection p.23-24)
Spong does not have an adequate understanding of the nature of scientific law. If you read the entirety of Bishop Wescott’s treatment of the relation between science and religion you will find a thinker with a more profound insight into both topics. It is not the laws of nature which cause Spong to reject miracles but the rejection of a personal God. As we have noted before. No God who is separate from the creation=no intervention by God =no revelation, including no miracles a priori. This is just an axiom of Spong’s system not any kind of necessary conclusion from science. Spong’s denial of special revelation and miracles finally makes his whole system incoherent as Westcott recognized of similar criticisms of miracle being made in the heyday of 19th century scientism. A God who cannot intervene in history and nature cannot be shown to affect humanity in any way.
“To affirm that miracles are unnatural is to constitute general laws of observation into a fate superior to God, or to deny His personal action. And it must be observed that the denial of His personal action in the physical world involves the denial of His action on the hearts of men; for there is not the least reason to suppose that what is seen is less immediately dependent upon Him than what is unseen, or that it can be affirmed beforehand that He is more likely to act on one part of that which He has created than on another. In other words, if miracles are unnatural, (Spong’s arbitrary interventions) then we are hopelessly enclosed within the barriers of material laws and absolutely shut off from all intercourse with the Infinite. But this is against the fundamental axiom of religion..[by fundamental axiom Westcott means that the purpose of religion is to religere, to bind together the finite and the infinite]”(The Gospel Of The Resurrection p.32-33)
Westcott moves on from a general consideration of the nature of revelation and the place of miracles in the continuous revelation of a loving God. Westcott points out that miracles are not arbitrary manifestations of the divine power but are divinely fitted to the conditions of humankind at each stage of its development. The Resurrection as the ultimate miraculous revelation of God is not dropped into human history arbitrarily but comes in the fullness of time after long preparation. This preparation includes the expectation of Israel for a Christ who will usher in a new age with the possibility of a new life between God and humanity and the quest in the Gentile world for a transcendent source of meaning and peace. Greek philosophy could ask the fundamental questions of meaning but could not answer them. The most profound thought of humanity could bring to an intense consciousness the problem of life after death but could not provide a equally profound answer. The Roman Empire could raise the possibility of a new unity between peoples and the possibility of a universal justice but could not sustain it. The Resurrection according Westcott is prepared by all the preceding history of both Israel and the pagan world and from the Resurrection all history proceeds in a different direction. Westcott insists on the Resurrection as an historical fact, as the fact of history. He seriously considers alternatives being presented in the 19th century that are similar to theory of Spong that the Resurrection is not about something that happened in history but something that happened in the consciousness of the Apostles. These he rejects as inadequate to the textual evidence and to the vitality of the Apostolic witness. They are also inadequate to the depth of the human hope and instinct that personality has eternal significance. Martyrs do not die to give witness to the transcendent “Ground of Being.” We cannot really be sustained by the hope that “somehow” the spirit is stronger than death. This kind of talk is a pale parody of the Apostolic faith which sprung from the fact of the Resurrection from a new, mighty and miraculous deed of God in history. Wescott sums up his argument,
“It has been shown that the Resurrection is not an isolated event in history, but at once the end and beginning of vast developments of life and thought; that it is the climax of a long series of Divine dispensations which find in it their complement and explanation; that it has formed the starting-point of all progressive modern societies, ever presenting itself in new lights according to the immediate wants of the age. It has been shown that in the character of the fact there is nothing which can appear incredible or in such a connection, even improbable to any one who believes in a Personal God. It has been shown that the direct evidence for the event is exactly of the same kind which we have for the other events in the Life of Christ; that St. Paul appeals to his own experience and to the experience of the Apostles for the certainty of its literal accomplishment; that it is incontestable that the Apostles acted from the first as if they believed it and that their sincerity cannot be doubted; that the nature of the outward proof alleged seems to render it impossible that they could have been victims of a delusion; that the substance of their belief was something wholly novel, removed equally from the belief in a fantastic vision, and from the belief in a restoration to a corruptible life; that the effects of it upon themselves were such that the conviction must (so to speak) have been forced upon them by overwhelming power, capable of changing their personal character, of transforming their hereditary faith, of inspiring them with new thoughts and hopes; that the Christian Church was founded upon the belief, and embodied it in rites coeval with its foundation.” (The Gospel Of The Resurrection p.113-114)
“Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the Resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it. And it has been shown that when it is considered in its relation to the whole revelation of which it is a part, and to the conditions of the Divine action, which we have assumed, this miraculous event requires a proof in no way differing essence from that on which the other facts with which it is associated are received as true. In a word, the circumstances under which God is said to have given a revelation to men in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus were such as to make the special manifestation of power likely or even natural; and the evidence by which the special Revelation is supported is such as would in any ordinary matter of life be amply sufficient to determine our action and belief.” (The Gospel Of The Resurrection p. 115-116)
I have focused on Westcott’s defense of the plausibility, even the naturalness of miracle and on his insistence of the Resurrection as a fact, even the fact, of history. There is not time here to go into his deeply moving and enlightening teaching on the significance of the Resurrection for the individual, for the church, for humanity as a whole and for the whole creation. His great teaching is that the Resurrection is the ultimate revelation of a loving God. It reveals the nature of the relationship between humanity and God now in this life and the destiny of humanity and the whole creation in the life of the world to come. Let us give Bishop Westcott the last word and allow his prophetic voice to challenge all contemporary commentators who unwittingly rob the Resurrection of its profound significance by denying it as miraculous fact.
“The Resurrection explains, as nothing else can explain, the acts and words of Christ before it, and of His Apostles after it; it gives a sufficient reason for the spiritual power and insight of the first Christians, which is different in kind from all that went before; it explains the life of Christendom, for it is not a past event only, but a fact attested by its present efficacy, by the signs of an actual union of believers with Son of Man operative in life. If, now, we give fair weight to all these considerations, upon the assumptions which have been laid down, — to the personal attestation of the fact by the Apostles, to the circumstances under which St. Paul was led to proclaim it, to its relation to Christ’s whole work, to the transformation which it effected in the opinions and conduct of the first disciples, to it continuous efficiency in life, to its consilience with instinct, to its harmony with what we can see of the divine discipline of the world,—I find no reason to modify what I have said elsewhere, that, “taking all the evidence together, there is no single historical incident better or more variously supported than the Resurrection of Christ.
Let any one who thinks otherwise endeavour to frame for himself evidence for the whole fact—for the fact, that is as belonging to two orders, the seen and the unseen, and uniting them—which he thinks would have been more satisfactory than that which we possess, and then candidly determine how far the modifications which he has introduced would have removed his difficulties, and how far they would have detracted from the significance of the fact as a “sign,” a Divine Revelation.”(The Gospel Of The Resurrection p.254-255)