The Right Reverend
John Shelby Spong
|Bishop Emeritus of Newark|
Spong in 2006
|Successor||John P. Croneberger|
by Edwin A. Penick
|Consecration||June 12, 1976|
by John Allin
|Born||June 16, 1931|
Charlotte, North Carolina
|Parents||John Shelby Spong & Doolie Boyce Griffith|
|Spouse||Joan Lydia Ketner (m. 1952, d. 1988)|
Christine Mary Bridger (m. 1990)
|Previous post||Coadjutor Bishop of Newark (1976-1979)|
|Alma mater||University of North Carolina|
Virginia Theological Seminary
John Shelby "Jack" Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000, he was the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. A liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator and author, he calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines.
Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and educated in public schools there. 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 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."
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. During his tenure as Bishop of Newark, confirmed communicants in the diocese fell by nearly 50%, from 44,423 in 1978, to 23,073 in 1996.
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. 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, 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.
Spong is the cousin of former Virginia Democratic Senator William B. Spong, Jr.
According to The Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Bishop Spong suffered a stroke before a speaking engagement in Marquette, Michigan on Saturday, Sept 10, 2016.
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 medieval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich, whom he has called his favorite theologian.
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. 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 that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior for humanity.
Spong has also been a strong proponent of the church reflecting the changes in society at large. Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated.
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 dialog 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."
In 1991's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, Spong argues that St. Paul was homosexual, a theme that was satirized in Gore Vidal's novel Live from Golgotha.
Spong's "Twelve Points for Reform" were originally published in The Voice, the newsletter of the Diocese of Newark, in 1998. Spong elaborates on them in his book A New Christianity for a New World:
Spong claims that his writings simultaneously evoke great support and great condemnation from differing segments of the Christian church.
New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown was critical of Spong's scholarship, referring to his studies as "amateur night". Spong frequently praised Brown's scholarship, though the affection was not returned, with Brown commenting that "Spong is complimentary in what he writes of me as a NT scholar;...I hope I am not ungracious if in return I remark that I do not think that a single NT author would recognize Spong's Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about."
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".
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". 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.
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".
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."