The Sins of Scripture
It wasn’t long ago that I tossed aside my copy of Why Christianity Must Change or Die after reading only to chapter three, never to pick it up again. Author and former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong remains a person of interest to me, if only to answer the question, “Why does he still call himself Christian?” Spong denies all of the essential truths of the Christian faith, yet calls himself a passionate believer.
I’ve started to read another Spong book, The Sins of Scripture, figuring (incorrectly) that I would agree with Spong on a few points. I’m curious to see how he presents the Bible, because the inside flap promises a new way to read Scripture. It is this curiosity that will keep me reading to the end, even though I already have the desire to throw the book into the fire where it belongs.
In chapter two, a chapter that would make any atheist proud of Spong, the former bishop dissects a claim that cannot continue to stand: the claim that the Bible is the inspired word of God. He says:
My religious critics say to me that there can be no Christianity apart from the authority of the scriptures. They hear my attack on this way of viewing the Bible as an attack on Christianity itself. I want to say in response that the claim that the scriptures are either divinely inspired or are the ‘Word of God’ in any literal sense has been so destructive that I no longer want to be part of that kind of Christianity! I do not understand how anyone can saddle God with the assumptions that are made by the biblical authors, warped as they are both by their lack of knowledge and by the tribal and sexist prejudices of that ancient time. Do we honor God when we assume that the primitive consciousness found on the pages of scripture, even when it is attributed to God, is somehow righteous? (18)
He goes on to ask a few questions between pages 18 and 19 that I thought I’d address, as they are seriously misguided. I wonder how someone like Spong can study the Bible so much and yet learn so little about it, or the claims of the religion that he claims to hold dear.
The questions, along with my answers:
- Do we really want to worship a God who plays favorites, who chooses one people to be God’s people to the neglect of all others?
- When we portray the God of the Bible as hating everyone that the chosen people hate, is God well served?
It is true that God preserves for himself a people out of each generation, and he lovingly predestines those people to conform to Christ’s image (Eph 1:4-5, 11; Rom 8:29-30). It is further true that God chose the Israelites first, and that he hated others.
But this fundamentally misunderstands the Biblical definition of “hated.” In the sense the word was used, it described only people that God did not have a covenental relationship with. It revealed nothing of his disposition toward such people.
The rest of the Bible is pretty clear that God loves all people; cf. Jn 3:16; Acts 10; Gal 3:28, 5:6.
- Will our modern consciousness allow us to view with favor a God who could manipulate the weather in order to send the great flood that drowned all human lives save for Noah’s family because human life had become so evil God needed to destroy it? Can we imagine human parents relating to their wayward offspring in this manner?
This question betrays Spong’s concept of sin. Spong obviously doesn’t view sin with the same seriousness that God views sin. Sin isn’t just a sickness. Sin means death for the human race. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).
The verses preceding the Flood story paint mankind as corrupt and vile. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). In light of this, I don’t see how any serious student of Scripture can see the Flood as anything short of a deserved punishment that man brought upon himself.
- Can we really worship the God found in the Bible who sent the angel of death across the land of Egypt to murder the firstborn males in every Egyptian household in order to facilitate the release of the chosen people?
- Can the Bible still be of God when it portrays Joshua as stopping the sun in the sky for the sole purpose of allowing him the time to slaughter more of his enemies, the Amorites (Josh 10:12-15)?
- Can the Bible be the “Word of God” when it has Samuel order King Saul in the name of God to “Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam 15:3)?
The God that Spong is describing has no absolute right to judge his people as guilty of sin, and therefore no absolute right to pass judgment on his people.
- Is it the “Word of God” when the Psalmist writes about the Babylonians who have conquered Judah: “Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9)?
All I have to say to this question is: Just because it is in the Bible, doesn’t automatically mean that it is condoned by God. The Psalms express the full range of human emotions, from happiness to despair, from joy to sadness. But that’s just what they describe-human emotion. This isn’t divine righteousness like the passages described above; this is a very human emotion. Anyone should be able to see the distinction.
In all, I think Spong paints God as a lightweight. One who doesn’t sit in judgment over sin, but instead tolerates and accepts it as human behavior. This isn’t the God that I worship.