In my reading of Spong today, I came across this quote. It started as a two-sentence response to it that I was going to post on Facebook. But as so often happens, it turned into a full-fledged blog.
The Core of Spong’s Belief
“God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created.”_
— John Shelby Spong, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”
Spong’s Position in the Theological Spectrum
When discussing theological liberalism and religious pluralism, few figures are as divisive as John Shelby Spong. A retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, Spong is notorious for his challenges to traditional Christian doctrine. Evangelicals voice concerns over his rejection of foundational Christian tenets, such as Christian exclusivity, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture.
Religious Pluralism and its Implications
At the heart of Spong’s teachings is religious pluralism. Religious pluralism is the rejection of Christian exclusivity, believing that all (or most) religions lead to the same God. While he has maintained his identity as a Christian and operates within the Christian tradition, his views on other religions and his criticisms of foundational Christian doctrines (like the bodily resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth) place him squarely in a liberal/progressive “christian” camp.
A Paradox of Inclusivism
The quote above is his creed. But what Spong continually fails to realize is the exact same criticism could be levied at his statement. How is this not circular reasoning. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it is like the Church of Christ’s creed, “No creed but the Bible,” which itself is a creed not in the Bible. The statement above presents the framework for his religious system that he believes is correct to the exclusion of the other’s claims of exclusivity.
Spong’s central statement, which suggests that all religious systems are human-made constructs, inadvertently runs into a logical issue: it itself is an exclusive claim, presenting its own ‘system’ of belief. This is circular reasoning, where an assertion is both the starting point and the conclusion. For instance, when the Church of Christ claims, “No creed but the Bible,” it presents a paradox, as this very statement becomes a creed that isn’t found in the Bible. Similarly, while Spong seeks to break away from religious exclusivity, his statement inadvertently establishes its form of exclusivity, implying that his perspective is superior or more accurate. By diving deeper into this, we can see that while his intention might be to foster inclusivity, the very nature of his claim contradicts that goal.
Warrant: The Key to Validity
While this statement of Spong may seem sublimely inclusive, it is a claim. And like every other claim, it has to stand up to the scrutiny of critical evaluation to be warranted. Warrant is the key. It is the obligation we have to accept something due to the soundness of the evidence. Warrant is established by its own methodology and sources of input.
Emotional Foundations and Their Divergences
Does Spong believe what he says is true? I’m sure he does. But he seeks to convince you and me that his theological foundation is worthy of acceptance. Why should we accept it? The only reason he accepts it is because he does not like that traditional Christian theology leaves people out. I almost have the same emotional response. But it is different. While he doesn’t like that traditional Christian theology leaves people out, I don’t like that people are left out. See the difference? We both start with the same emotions. We don’t want people to be left out. But he changes the structure without warrant. I believe in traditional Christian theology and seek to change people based on warrant.
Anthropocentric or Theocentric?
Historically, liberal theology has been critiqued for its anthropocentric starting point. It starts with man and works its way upwards to God. In contrast, the traditional Christian approach is a theocentric method: beginning with God and cascading down to human understanding.
Either way, liberal theology’s inclusivism is self-defeating. Inclusivistic pluralism is always going to be an exclusive theology.