Not beyond theism but beyond Spong

In recent months, I have been absolutely fascinated in studying the attributes and person of God as He is revealed in Scripture. I have come to the conclusion that the study of who God is biblically, how He interacts with humans, and how He expects us to interact with Him is vitally important to consider, even for the one who might not consider themselves a believer in God. The truth of the matter is that there are numerous opinions of who the God of Christianity is that do not seem to match up with orthodox Christian thought as it relates to Holy Scripture.

One person in particular comes to mind who is a man of many opinions and his name is John Shelby Spong. Mr. Spong is a retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark and has written several books and articles on Christianity, and is also a leading spokesperson for the liberal Christian worldview. Spong’s work has also made an impact at the personal level for many Christians who may be seeking to find a place in our postmodern society, and that is why I am personally interested in what he has to say.

In his book, A Christianity for a new World, Spong has an intriguing chapter on what he calls, “Beyond Theism but not beyond God” where he argues that the traditional concept of biblical theism needs to be burnt down and replaced if Christianity wants to survive in this postmodern world. In fact, what Spong has to say is not particularly ground-breaking in the world of new theological discovery, but rather his definition of who or what God should be represents what many other in my own community, and probably yours, believes about the God of the Bible.

Spong starts with his “definition” of what the traditional view of God in the Bible looks like. He states the following,

“If our understanding of God has been couched in the language of a being supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will…then perhaps God is, as Freud suggested, nothing more than a human creation, designed to assist us in banking the fires of hysteria, controlling the trauma of rampant anxiety created by self-consciousness” (Pg. 58).

Shelby Spong would have us believe that our traditional understanding of God is nothing more than a “survival plan” to get us through the hard times. Spong later speaks of the need to rid ourselves of the “theistic parent-God” belief and move on to more mature thinking, but has Spong made the quest for knowing God any easier? Consider his own new definition of how we should view God,

“I refer here not to a deity who is a being, not even if we claim for God the status of the highest being. I speak rather of the God I experience as the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary, inside which I vainly seek dependent security, into the fullness of life with all of its exhilarating insecurities” (Pg.59-60).

My initial response to this is…what??? To be honest, I am not totally sure what he is even trying to say, and really, I do not think he really knows what he is even talking about. Do not be worried though, there is something very vital that we can take from this new “definition” of God that Spong provides. On the outset, Spong does not even define the traditional view of God accurately. By his own definition, God is some kind of crazy hybrid mixture of a deistic form god who occasionally intervenes in the affairs of humans because of his own selfish pleasure. Clearly this is not the God of the Bible as we have much evidence of God’s covenantal love for His people, ultimately though the death of Jesus on the cross.

Though Spong fails miserably at the definition of God in a traditional sense, his main point is that we need to abandon the old view of God for the better and improved version that he has concocted. The problem with Spong’s view, other than it is not biblical, is that it is entirely focused around what he wants God to be. Spong constantly refers to “I” or “me” and tries to persuade others based on what he thinks God should look like. Spong’s definition of God is a very selfish one and in fact, Spong has fashioned an idol after his own image rather than worshipping the true God of the Bible in whose image we are made.

Overall, who cares about the god of Shelby Spong? If no one can even figure what he means by his own definition of God, why should anyone want believe what he says about God. Spong’s definition of God will become obsolete, if it has not already, and a new idol will take its place soon after. Spong’s definition is just not that appealing.

It seems to me that the god of the postmodern/liberal theological movement is really just a god that they know they will not have to answer to in the end. If you compare what Spong has defined as God with how the Bible portrays God, there is much deeper meaning for the human soul. Just as Isaiah witnessed God on His throne in Isaiah 6 and knew that he was not worthy to be in the presence of God, we should humbly submit ourselves to the Creator God of Scripture. In the end, it is not humans who determine how God should be viewed, but rather it is God who determines how we humans should worship Him.

Spong, Shelby. A New Christianity for a New World. Morristown, NJ: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.

Dylan R.

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