John Shelby Sponge Essayscorer

John Shelby "Jack" Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey). He is a liberal Christiantheologian, religion commentator and author. He calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and educated in Charlotte public schools. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. He received his Master of Divinity degree in 1955 from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. He has had honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees conferred on him by Virginia Theological Seminary and Saint Paul's College, Virginia, as well as an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters conferred by Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

In 2005, 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."[2]

Spong 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 held visiting positions and given lectures at major American theological institutions, most prominently at Harvard Divinity School. He retired in 2000. As a retired bishop, he is a member of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops.[3]

Spong describes his own life as a journey from the literalism and conservative theology of his childhood to an expansive view of Christianity. In a 2013 interview, Spong credits the late Anglican bishop John Robinson as his mentor in this journey and says that reading Robinson's controversial writings in the 1960s led to a friendship and mentoring relationship with him over many years.[4] Spong also honors Robinson as a mentor in the opening pages of his 2002 book A New Christianity for a New World.

Recipient of many awards, including 1999 Humanist of the Year,[5] Spong is a contributor to the Living the Questions DVD program and has been a guest on numerous national television broadcasts (including The Today Show, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Dateline, 60 Minutes, and Larry King Live). Spong's calendar has him lecturing around the world.[6]

Spong is the cousin of former Virginia Democratic Senator William B. Spong, Jr., who defeated the incumbent Absalom Willis Robertson, the father of television evangelist Pat Robertson.

By his own account, he is closely associated with the Unity Church.[7]

According to The Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Bishop Spong suffered a stroke before a speaking engagement in Marquette, Michigan on Saturday, Sept 10, 2016.[8]


Spong's writings rely on Biblical and non-Biblical 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 medievaluniversalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich, whom he has called his favorite theologian.[9]

A prominent theme in Spong's writing is that the popular and literal interpretations of Christian scripture are not sustainable and do not speak honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities. He believes in a more nuanced approach to scripture, informed by scholarship and compassion, which can be consistent with both Christian tradition and contemporary understandings of the universe. He believes that theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of God's nature. He states 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). Elaborating on this last idea he affirms that Jesus was adopted by God as his son, (Born of a Woman 1992), and he says that this would be the way God was fully incarnated in Jesus Christ.[1] 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). In 2000, Spong was a critic of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church's declaration Dominus Iesus, because it reaffirmed the Catholic doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church and, perhaps even more importantly, that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior for humanity.[10]

Spong has also been a strong proponent of the church reflecting the changes in society at large.[11] Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated.[1]

His views on the future of Christianity are, "...that we have to start where we are. As I look at the history of religion, I observe that new religious insights always and only emerge out of the old traditions as they begin to die. It is not by pitching the old insights out but by journeying deeply through them into new visions that we are able to change religion’s direction. The creeds were 3rd and 4th century love songs that people composed to sing to their understanding of God. We do not have to literalize their words to perceive their meaning or their intention to join in the singing of their creedal song. I think religion in general and Christianity in particular must always be evolving. Forcing the evolution is the dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge. The sin of Christianity is that any of us ever claimed that we had somehow captured eternal truth in the forms we had created."[12]

Spong has debated Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus.

"Points for Reform" of Christianity[edit]

Spong's "Twelve Points for Reform" were originally published in The Voice, the newsletter of the Diocese of Newark, in 1998.[13] Spong elaborates on them in his book A New Christianity for a New World:

  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 written 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 acknowledges that his writings evoke great support and great condemnation simultaneously from differing segments of the Christian church.[14]

Spong's ideas have been criticized by some other theologians, notably in 1998 by Rowan Williams, the Bishop of Monmouth, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams described Spong's Twelve Points for Reform as embodying "confusion and misinterpretation".[15]

During a speaking tour in Australia in 2001, Spong was banned by Peter Hollingworth, the Archbishop of Brisbane, from speaking at churches in the diocese. The tour coincided with Hollingworth leaving the diocese to become the Governor-General of Australia. Hollingworth said that it was not an appropriate moment for Spong to "engage congregations in matters that could prove theologically controversial".[16][17] After Spong's book Jesus for the Non-Religious was published in 2007, Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney, banned Spong from preaching at any churches in his diocese. By contrast, Phillip Aspinall, the Primate of Australia, invited Spong in 2007 to deliver two sermons at St. John's Cathedral, Brisbane.[18]

Mark Tooley, a Methodist who is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a think tank noted for its critique of liberal religious groups, criticized Spong in 2010 as "brandishing the stale theologies and ideologies of a half-century ago".[19]

Michael Bott, former vice-president of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society in New Zealand, and Jonathan Sarfati, editorial consultant for Creation Ministries International, criticized Spong's scholarship in an article published by the Apologetics Society's journal in 1995 and updated in 2007, saying he "views the world through the eyes of 19th century rationalism."[20]

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has condemned Spong as a heretic, claiming that he has "denied virtually every major Christian doctrine".[21]


  • 1973 – Honest Prayer, ISBN 1-878282-18-2
  • 1974 – This Hebrew Lord, ISBN 0-06-067520-9
  • 1975 – Christpower, ISBN 1-878282-11-5
  • 1975 – Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding (co-authored with Rabbi Jack Daniel Spiro), ISBN 1-878282-16-6
  • 1976 – Life Approaches Death: A Dialogue on Ethics in Medicine
  • 1977 – The Living Commandments, ISBN 1-878282-17-4
  • 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 – God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism (with Anthony Freeman), ISBN 978-0907845171
  • 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
  • 2009 – Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, ISBN 0-06-076206-3
  • 2011 – Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, ISBN 978-0-06-201128-2
  • 2013 – The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, ISBN 978-0-06-201130-5
  • 2016 – Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, ISBN 978-0-06-236230-8


  1. ^ abcInterview. ABC Radio Australia, June 17, 2001
  2. ^John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, HarperCollins 2005, page xi
  3. ^The General Convention of the Episcopal Church: House of BishopsArchived 2014-10-10 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^"The retired Bishop John Shelby Spong interview", Read the Spirit website, 23 June 2013.
  5. ^"The Humanist Foundation". Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  6. ^Speaking calendar
  7. ^Question & Answer (paragraph 3), 23 July 2015.
  8. ^"Former Newark Episcopal bishop Spong suffers stroke". 
  9. ^"Challenging the 'Sins of Scripture'". Interview with Bill O'Reilly. April 14, 2005.
  10. ^Shelby, John (2010-11-05). "Dominus Iesus: The Voice of Rigor Mortis". Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  11. ^Liberal Bible-Thumping The New York Times, May 15, 2005
  12. ^Q & A for 2-14-2013 – electronic newsletter, A New Christianity For a New World,
  13. ^A Call for a New Reformation
  14. ^Spong, John Shelby (2000) Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (Harper Collins), pp. 1–2.
  15. ^Williams, Rowan (1998-07-17). "No life, here – no joy, terror or tears". Church Times. Anglican Ecumenical Society. 
  16. ^"Anglican Church snubs Bishop". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 25 Jun 2001. Retrieved 5 Jan 2016. 
  17. ^"Fear of ideas: The decline and fall of Anglicanism". The Guardian. 7 Jul 2001. Retrieved 5 Jan 2016. 
  18. ^"Sydney Archbishop Jensen bans John Shelby Spong". The Australian. 14 Aug 2007. Retrieved 5 Jan 2016. 
  19. ^Tooley, Mark (March 25, 2010). "My Evening with Bishop John Shelby Spong". Retrieved 23 Aug 2014. 
  20. ^What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong? Laymen Rethink the Scholarship of John Shelby Spong
  21. ^Heresy in the Cathedral

External links[edit]

John Shelby Spong: Anglican Nightmare

by Wayne Jackson

John Shelby Spong has long been known as the “nightmare” of the more conservative element of the Anglican Church in America. He is as radically liberal as it is possible to be — and still maintain a nominal identification with the name “Christian.”

Spong was born in North Carolina in 1931. His father, an alcoholic, died when the lad was twelve, and he was taken under the tutelage of a local priest who became a father figure to him. Pursuing his theological education, Spong was ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1955, at the age of twenty-four.

From his earliest days, working with students from Duke University, the young man dedicated himself to challenging college students who were out of “fundamentalist” backgrounds. Having himself ingested radicalism, Spong became increasingly obsessed with dismantling the “conservative” approach to faith. Purportedly, he wanted to show his youthful proteges that “religion is not incompatible with intellectual inquiry.” The “intellectual” aspect of his ambition was his own tainted view of the Scriptures.

In 1976, Spong was “consecrated” as “Bishop Coadjutor” of the Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, and, as sympathetic writer, Ellen Barrett, has observed, “the Episcopal Church has not been the same since.”

In 1982, the Church’s “General Convention” proposed a study to examine the “changing patterns of family life.” Taking note of the fact that thousands of couples were living in sexual intimacy outside of marriage, and that there was a growing defense toward “same-sex” unions, the Newark diocese under Spong’s leadership ventured to unravel the confusion. The committee’s findings were reported in 1987. With a “logic” that would jolt Aristotle in his grave, Spong and crew concluded that since “sex inside of marriage is not always holy, but can be abused,” it must reasonably follow that sometimes sex outside of traditional “marriage” just might be acceptable as well! Such convoluted reasoning is an embarrassment to any critically-thinking human being.

From this point on Spong was thrust into the flames of national controversy — and he loved every moment of it. His newfound fame appeared to drive him further and further into modernistic radicalism. It is much more difficult to find an issue that Spong is “right” about, than to find one he is “wrong” about. It is a travesty that he associates himself with Christianity to any degree. The following points are illustrative of his skeptical mentality.

Spong’s view of God

Spong’s “god” is not the God of the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures. According to a sympathetic reviewer, the ex-bishop believes that the traditional view of God is dead and that “most theological God-talk today is meaningless.”

Spong’s idea is that Jehovah is not even an independent entity; rather, the god-essence — whatever that is — is merely something “deep within us.” This is not biblical theism; it is a form of paganistic “pantheism” &>.

Spong and Darwin

Spong is saturated with Darwinism. He believes the Genesis record regarding the origin of man is “pre-Darwinian mythology” and “post-Darwinian nonsense.” In this, he casts reflection upon the Savior (Mt. 19:4). Such aspersions, however, trouble the gentleman not at all. He claims there are passages in the Gospels that portray Jesus as “narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical.”

The former Anglican bishop rejects the biblical proposition that Jesus was conceived in the body of a virgin. He does not believe Christ performed miracles, or that he possessed the very nature of deity. He repudiates the unshakable truth that the Lord was raised from the dead.

Though Spong claims to have studied the Bible with great “intensity,” his writings reveal an abysmal lack of knowledge of the sacred text. His ignorance is exceeded only by his arrogant disrespect for the time-tested volume. If the Bible continues to be viewed literally, he asserts, it is “doomed to be cast aside as both dated and irrelevant” — an exercise which he has mastered already. One can hardly suppress the conviction that the world’s best-selling Book will be revered still — long after Spong’s memory is but a faintly lingering stench.

It is a nauseating labor to review the spiritual foibles of this delusional theological celebrity. Spong happily defends a number of vile sexual evils, e.g., fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. He is much in favor of same-sex “marriages,” as if arbitrarily calling a sexual aberration “marriage” makes it so.

Not everything that parades under the name “Christian” is deserving of that appellation. And there is no better example of that maxim than that of John Shelby Spong, the rogue “priest” who has made a career of bashing the Son of God and disgracing that sacred name before an uninformed public.

For a more complete review of Spong’s ideology, see What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong.

  • A Revolutionary, Rational Anti-Religionist":
    fn3. Spong, John Shelby (1991), p. 212.
    fn4. Liberator, 2.
    fn5. Spong (1991), p. 33.
    fn6. See Spong’s books: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, and Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity.
    fn7. Spong, John Shelby (1991), p. 15.
    Spong, John Shelby (1991), Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
    Spong, John Shelby (1992), Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper.
    Spong, John Shelby (1994), Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, San Francisco: Harper.
Scripture References

Matthew 19:4

Cite this article

Jackson, Wayne. "John Shelby Spong: Anglican Nightmare." Access date: March 10, 2018.


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