On the Passing of John Shelby Spong

Travis Rogers, Jr.

On the Passing of John Shelby Spong

5 mins
October 20, 2021

I was sad to learn of the death of John Shelby Spong on September 12, 2021, at the age of 90.  You may have no idea who he was or why I consider him important enough to be remembered here in my editorial.

Spong was one of the most important spokespersons of our generation for a critical understanding of the Bible for the general public, in particular for Christians. He himself was a Christian. In fact, for many years, he was a bishop in the Episcopal church as bishop of Newark, NJ, from 1979-2000.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

Professor Bart Ehrman wrote of him: “Even though Spong never left the Christian faith, he certainly had a rigorously historical understanding of the faith and he spent many years writing influential books and lecturing around the world to proclaim it. He was not well-loved among traditional Christians and was openly declared a heretic by other church leaders. That was because his historical studies led him to realize that the Bible cannot be interpreted as the literal, historical truth.”

Being declared a heretic by people like Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute is enough to make Spong a hero in my book. Hanegraaff is arrogant enough to call himself the Bible Answer Man. When intelligent Christians started criticizing him, Hanegraaff left the evangelical church. Poor baby.

Back to Spong, there were certainly other Christian bishops who found Song’s views dangerous and many people today, both Christian and non-Christian, do not understand how a real Christian can have a seriously critical view of the Bible. Spong was influenced by the de-mythologizing work of theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann and encouraged other Christians to think critically, even scientifically, in order to live and think as modern, educated, rational people, and yet still be followers of Jesus. He explained why in his many books and lectures.

It really does seem weird to some people that you can be a Christian without believing every single word of the Bible as literally and historically true and without accepting the traditional doctrines of the faith.  But that is because the fundamentalists of the world have succeeded spectacularly in their mission of defining what Christianity is. Spong responded by writing the book that grabbed me the most, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism from 1991.

Again, Professor Ehrman writes, “Christian fundamentalists have convinced everyone – not just fellow fundamentalists, but nearly everyone, including atheists, even highly outspoken atheists who write books about religion – that Christianity IS fundamentalism, and that there is no way to be a Christian if you realize there are contradictions in the Bible, historical errors, and radically different views from one New Testament author to another. Or if you recognize that the Bible came into a single canon of Scripture through historical circumstances, not divine intervention, or that the doctrines of the church were long much debated and uncertain, and that different beliefs could just as easily have emerged as orthodox.”

Spong would ask why we tend to lock away our brains when it comes to what we believe. Isn’t that where we need critical thinking the most, he asked. I actually had one minister tell me that I need to “be more open-minded” and “simply accept” the teachings of fundamentalist ministers and teachers. My answer was a simple, “Man, you don’t know me, at all.” There is nothing wrong with asking questions and demanding reasonable answers, even from our church leaders.

Spong wasn’t writing for church leaders. He wrote for the laity, not for the biblical scholars. He makes that clear in the Preface to his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. In particular, he addresses himself to those whom he calls “the church alumni” and “believers in exile” – those whom he believes to have become dissatisfied with the way Christianity is presented in the modern church practice. Through his various books, he gives a clear impression that he prefers to aim his speaking and writing at a group who may be termed informed laity, those who refused to check their brains at the door of the church.

Yet, he remained a deeply committed Christian, he insisted that he must also speak as an informed citizen of the 21st century. He studied at major centers of Christian scholarship including Union Theological Seminary in New York, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, and the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh.

He began his publications career with the book Honest Prayer in 1973, followed by This Hebrew Lord in 1974, and Christpower in 1975. He wrote books on Jewish and Christian dialogue, medical ethics, contemporary Christian moralism, human sexuality, and the struggle for integrity.

Spawn was one of Desmond Tutu's consecrators in 1976. He was one of the first American bishops to ordain a woman into the clergy in 1977, before the Church of England was willing to ordain women. In 1989, he ordained to the priesthood the first openly gay man living in a committed relationship. 

If you’re interested in seeing how Spong thinks about the Bible, traditional doctrines, and what it actually does mean to be a follower of Jesus in our day and age, have a look at some of his important books on the topic from the past thirty years

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, 1991.

Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, 1992.

Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, 1994.

Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, 1999

Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality, 2001

God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism (with Anthony Freeman), 2002

The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love 2005

Jesus for the Non-Religious, 2007

Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, 2009

Re-claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, 2011.

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, 2016

Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, 2018.

Spong was not a professionally trained biblical scholar and biblical scholars never read his material to learn anything.  

Again, Ehrman writes, “the scholars who are sniffy about that (most of them, I guess) have completely lost the plot.  His work was not about advancing scholarship for scholars; it was about reaching people who were not scholars – especially people in the churches – to urge them to find a better way, a way to retain the best of the Christian faith without sacrificing their brains, without having to believe what most other people think is fairly ridiculous.”

Like Spong, I was raised in a rather literalist background. My father, a pastor, began to wrestle his way out of that way of thinking, and I followed. Like Spong, I received ministerial training but I went into Biblical scholarship. I began to see the holes in fundamentalism and began to see how we had misunderstood and misinterpreted the Bible. Yes, I taught in seminaries and colleges and institutes but I found myself more interested, like Spong, in speaking to those who will never get the chance to attend great universities like we did. 

Like Spong, I wanted to declare this good news of understanding the Scriptures through historical, linguistic, and literary contexts, and to shake off the shackles of limited understanding of the Bible. Like Spong, I stayed in the church, but unlike Professor Ehrman who became too disenchanted and disillusioned.

Even so, Ehrman wrote: “We need more people like him.  People with the courage to recognize the truth about the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine, and the courage to remain within the Christian community as a prophet declaring the truth — even while being pilloried by traditionalists who refuse to move beyond the early centuries of the church into the modern world. Staying within the community as a prophetic voice takes far more courage than leaving it to start a new life.”

Thank God for Bishop John Shelby Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021). Indeed, we need more people like him.

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.