In the Modernity Ward
Living in Sin* with Bishop Spong
by James L. Sauer
*from the title of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong’s recent book: Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)
The worst thing about the modern world is the prostitution of the eternal to the wanton desires of modernity. It is one thing for a materialist to advocate hedonism; it is all the more condemnatory for a clergyman to hold the cloak, and underpants, of the fashionable sinner.
Bishop Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey and a thoroughly modern false teacher, has taken up the difficult task of writing an apology for licentiousness. The difficulty is to give selfishness, usually sexual selfishness, the proper clothing. Since, after all, the whole point of the defense is to take the clothing off. But “brother” Spong has gone happily to the task of stripping truth.
Spong is not afraid to throw down the challenge to the orthodox. We are a narrow prejudiced folk, bound by the worship of a barbaric writ, and locked into lifestyles arrived at by sexually repressed clerics. He tells us point blank that he is a man without authority, and denies the two accepted epistemological sources of Christianity: the Bible and Church tradition. He stands outside the Evangelical and Catholic authority structure and makes the evolving reason of the age his touchstone. Says Spong: “The Bible itself is not free of contradictions, of expressions of prejudice, and of attitudes that have long been abandoned . . . Church history also reveals sin, prejudice, and misleading appeals to long-abandoned practices.” (p. 25) There is no doubt that the Bible is a human book—but it is one with a divine author. And there is no doubt that Church history contains a great deal of sin—but it also contains a gold mine of godliness.
Not since Bishop Pike practiced damnable divination, nor since Joseph Fletcher championed situational ethics, have we had a comparable opportunity of watching someone publicly hammer out a heresy. And in all honesty, he has done a pretty good job at being the Devil’s actual advocate. Spong has made unrighteousness seem reasonable; moral turpitude, moderate. Safe sex, safe sin! If you’re going to fornicate, at least be civilized about it.
The Foundations of Faithlessness
Some orthodox fellow will have his job cut out for him in writing a full-fledged refutation of Spong. Of course, the awaited Contra Sponga will not be that difficult to write—truth almost writes itself. It is only the length of the refutation which will make the task tedious. I am not exaggerating in observing that almost every paragraph, and sometimes every sentence, contains a false notion, an error of inference, a sentiment born of a current fallacy, a logical flaw, a presuppositional atrocity, and a bent and perverse manipulation of reason. He has indeed won for himself a name as the Naughty Vicar of Newark. This is an important book, if for no other reason than its gathering of the lies of theological liberalism. It is a “Rhetoric of Wrongheadedness,” a curious catalog of just how bad a bishop can be.
Spong is a very mixed up man; he errs in many ways his heresies to expound.
First, Spong attacks the heart of authority: he neglects the knowledge of a living God who has revealed himself in time, and who has given us His authoritative Word. The notion of fixed, incarnate, and propositional truth—of authority against which we measure our fragile lives—is alien to his way of thinking. Instead, the Bible is used as a springboard for creative dives into the liberal Jacuzzi. In a fundamentally perverse way, Spong chooses which sections of the canon he will use against the canon. The shelf-worn mechanisms of critical redaction pry the Word apart. Text is bent against text. He is engaged in theological deconstruction: “I will focus on the Bible, freeing that sacred source from its literalistic imprisonment.” (p. 93) That is, he will free it from the imprisonment of propositional meaning.
Secondly, Spong misuses the doctrine of Progressive Revelation. Progressive Revelation is the orthodox recognition of the thematic movement of the biblical narrative from its patriarchal origins to its end and goal in Christ and the exposition of the same by his specially chosen apostles. Spong’s liberal doctrine takes it one step further and proclaims that revelation has not ceased. It leaps beyond the Bible to the realm of reason enthroned. Theological liberalism extrapolates the spiritual history of Scripture—from Ur of the Chaldees to Golgotha and on into the New Age. Of this liberal hermeneutics, Spong says: “The Word is not to be identified with the words of Scripture but is found in, with, through, and beyond these words.” (p. 156) There is no more ominous phrase than “beyond these words.” For “beyond these words” anything is possible.
Thirdly, since Spong has a false notion of the nature of truth, he must seek a dynamic mechanism for enlightenment. The chronicling of mores, with their shifts and aberrations, is somehow thought in his mind to effect morals—to alter truth. Spong is a relativist. The collapse of patriarchal, hierarchic, and biblical social models is somehow an argument in his mind for embracing modernity, egalitarianism, and progressivism. Because people have stopped believing and practicing the truth, he somehow believes it has stopped being true—as if to say, when people are cannibals somewhere, then people should be allowed to be cannibals everywhere. People sin; Bishop Spong thinks that we should institutionalize their errors. It’s been done before, he points out; why not now. The basis of Spong’s mindset is the relativity of morals. His posture is not one of a hand on the Bible and a hand lifted before heaven, but a wet finger raised to sense the wind’s direction.
Fourthly, Spong has a false view of the Church. He is a universalist. Where the Bible teaches that two peoples shall inhabit time and eternity—the elect and the reprobate—Spong believes we are one happy pluralistic family. Heaven is a world religions conference. The doctrine of hell is a particularly tasteless act of inhospitality on the part of our Maker. Spong holds that all humanity will enter the Kingdom of Self Awareness, and that the Church is the harbinger of the glorious good news that God accepts everybody—regardless of current occupational status, sexual orientation or even value system. Spong believes in the ultimate spiritual democracy of the Church—cosmic pluralism—and makes his own gloss on the Pauline principle of Galatians: depicting the Church as a kind of collection of Democratic Convention interest groups. For some reason, perhaps a lack of sensitivity, or an improperly elevated consciousness, he has left out “bestialists” and demon worshippers in the new inclusive ecclesia—a definite sign that there is some residual Christocentrism in the poor bishop.
The consequence of Spong’s anti-biblical, relativistic, and Universalist notions is a system of antinomian liberalism. His is a sympathy for the lawless love of self-centered indulgence and rationalization. He places no burdensome prerogatives of Authorial legislation upon the modern ego.
Confronting a modern world sick in sexual sin, Spong spoons out just what the doctor ordered—in this case, Dr. Ruth. Spong’s proposals, or should I say, indecent propositions, conform to the dictates of modernity:
Monomogamous marriage in retreat? Give marriage lip service as an ideal, but like all ideals, not something one would commonly find in a real world.
Are couples cohabitating? Institutionalize their libidinous lives with a redefined “betrothal,” an official sanction to every John and Mary, or John and Charles, who wish to shack up for an indefinite period.
Are you divorcing? Don’t see it as a tragedy, but celebrate your brokenness with a liturgical blessing from the Church—what man has ripped asunder. . . .
Do homosexuals want acceptance? Well then, why not marry them in the Church, covenanting before God and man to embrace the ways of Sodom. The gospel of Spong makes strange bedfellows.
The Outworking of Error
Perhaps the best way of refuting Spong is to let him speak for himself. Nothing I could say could equal the bishop’s own words. Spong is a living parody of theology afloat in a sea of relevance, the spirit of the age moving across the face of the deep:
Of sexual ethics: “There is nothing unnatural about any shared love, even between two of the same gender, if that experience calls both partners into a fuller state of being.” (p. 71) The ethical proscriptions of Scripture must bend before a new god: “fuller state of being.” In the end, this god is nothing more than how a person feels about himself.
Of homosexuality: “Contemporary research is today uncovering new facts that are producing a rising conviction that homosexuality, far from being a sickness, sin, perversion, or unnatural act, is a healthy, natural, and affirming form of human sexuality for some people.” (p. 71) “. . . I regard the blessing of gay and lesbian couples by the church to be inevitable, right, and a positive good.” (p. 198) What new fact can change the revealed fact that God holds this action “abominable”? Yes, homosexuality is found in nature, as is cruelty.
Of wives obeying their husbands: “There is no doubt about the fact that the Bible is biased against women.” (p. 117) “. . . only a society that believes women to be inferior to men would require of the woman an oath of obedience to her husband.” (p. 56) The Apostle Paul, a much less progressive sort of bird, says it a different way: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. . . .” (Eph. 5:22) And the poor Apostle Peter suffered from the same chauvinist delusions. (1 Peter 3:1)
Of divorce: “Sometimes divorce is the way to an abundant new life for one or both of the formally linked partners.” (p. 64) “Does the group of people for whom marriage is an asset have a right to impose the standard that enhances their lives upon those people who have chosen a different path? Is there only one moral lifestyle? What makes it so?” (p. 65) Is there only one moral lifestyle? What makes it so? And remember, this is coming from a bishop.
Of civilized fornication: Believe it or not, an unrestrained libido is not the reverend’s answer to our sexual disorders; Spong tells us that “promiscuity and casual sex are . . . not the answers.” (p. 215) Though on what basis he arrives at this pronouncement, I really don’t know. Certainly, the argument that some people are made that way should suffice in his mind to justify whatever sexual hijinks people are involved with. That’s the argument Spong uses for gays; then why not use it for nymphomaniacs. Doesn’t the fulfillment of anyone’s desires bring them to a “fuller state of being”?
Spong’s liberalism leads him to err on matters beyond the sexual.
Of not offending unbelieving Jews: Heaven knows in this ecumenical age that we don’t want to offend anyone with the gospel and actually dare to suggest that outside of faith in the Incarnation of the One Eternal God in the Person of Jesus Christ that there is no salvation. That would indeed be narrow. As Spong says: “Throughout this book I use B.C.E. (before the common era) instead of the more familiar B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini). I do it as a way of being inclusive of those religious traditions, and most especially of my Jewish brothers and sisters, who feel violated by the Christian assumption that they alone can define the meaning of time. (p. 39) Foolish Christians, who has bewitched you with this notion that there is only one way? Even Paul, a Jew himself, was an anti-Semite in Spong’s eyes: “Who today would share Paul’s anti-Semitic attitude when he wrote, ‘God gave to [the Jews] a spirit of stupor,/eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear/down to this very day.’ (Rom. 11:18) These words now embarrass the ecumenical and interfaith community.” (p. 152) Who indeed. Yes, apostolic parochialism can be so embarrassing.
Of “Brave New” Episcopalianism: Like Caiaphas’s unconscious prediction of Christ’s atonement, Spong shows some prescience concerning the sad fate of the Episcopal Church in our country. “It will not be long before the all-male Episcopal House of Bishops will come to an end, and women will be in decision-making positions in that church, taking part in defining God, producing liturgies, reinterpreting creeds, developing new sexual images, and determining the boundaries of moral and immoral behavior, most especially in the area of sexual ethics. It will be a new day welcomed with joy by the growing majority, and deplored, castigated, and resisted to the dying breath by the defenders of the receding patriarchy.” (p. 223–24) It does not dawn on the imagination of the bishop that Christians do not define God; He defines Himself; that there is more to pastoral work than writing out religious ceremonies; that the great creeds of historic Christian faith do not need to be reinterpreted but interpreted correctly; and that we do not need to move the boundary markers of our sexual natures placed in our permanent biology by our Maker.
Of choosing this day whom you will serve: Here Spong summarizes his understanding of the Bible, sexuality and ethics. “If the Bible has nothing more than the letter of literalism to offer to our understanding of human sexuality today, then I must say that I stand ready to reject the Bible in favor of something that is more human, more humane, more life-giving, and, dare I say, more godlike.” (p. 133) Spong’s “letter of literalism” is, of course, a straw man. Who advocates the letter alone apart from the Spirit? But, in fact, Spong seems to be advocating a spirit which, I will say, is quite apart from the meaning, the text. Certainly more human (as in fallen humanity), but by whose standard more humane and godlike?
Self-assured doctrinal lawlessness is not new. Antinomianism comes from the Greek anti (against) and nomos (law). Like other great heresies, antinomianism has flourished throughout Church history. The Bible begins with Satan bending God’s law in the garden, continues through the Baalism of the Old Testament into the “sin that grace may abound” heresies of the New, and even predicts the emergence of a “man of lawlessness” in the last times. Similar battles have occurred in Church history: The Church Fathers fought the libertine Gnostics; Luther confronted the antinomian Johannes Agricola.
Far from being a dead system, antinomianism has a continuous pull on the human heart—for it puts our feelings above God’s precepts. Herbert Schlossberg correctly summarizes the antinomian framework in his book Idols for Destruction: “Any conception that has love without law as its ethical principle will be relativistic and self-serving and without any means of arranging a priority between rival goods. There is no action so evil that it cannot and will not be said to be motivated by love. Antinomian love goes perfectly with autonomous man; neither can stand the shackles of law.” (p. 47)
Spong’s brand of theological liberalism, in its role as apologist for man-made religion, pits the Church against the Church, uses reason to attack reason, and quotes the Bible to destroy the Bible. It unites the historic enemies of the faith—the rebels from authority, the cultural relativists, the idolaters of the imagination, and the sexually impure.
As the Apostle Jude says: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. . . . These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. . . . Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them.”
The marks of apostasy listed by the Apostle are remarkably present in Spong’s work: licentiousness, a rejection of proper authority, a negation of the holy, a belief in reason divorced from revelation.
Having turned from the presence of Absolute Righteousness, Spong moves on to construct a revised spiritual order of his own liking. But let this oracle of New Light speak for himself once more: “I, for one, am no longer willing to acknowledge the claim that morality has been frozen in an era that primarily served the dominant male. Nor do I share a sense of regret that this moral understanding is passing away. I dare, rather, to claim that a new morality is emerging that does manifest the fruits of the Spirit and that is built on the foundation of the mutuality of the sexes. In the name of all those who will benefit from this emerging consciousness, I welcome the new day and believe that the God who continues to call new possibilities into being will look out upon this new creation and pronounce it good.” (p. 66) Heaven help us. Morality not fixed; a new morality emerging; a consciousness evolving into a new moral lifeform—this Spong calls progress.
This the God of judgment calls sin.
James L. Sauer, Contributing Editor, is Director of Library at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
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“In the Modernity Ward” first appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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