John Shelby Spong

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John Shelby Spong
Retired Bishop of Newark
Bishop John Shelby Spong portrait 2006.png
Spong in 2006
Church The Episcopal Church
See Episcopal Diocese of Newark
In office 1979–2000
Predecessor George E. Rath
Successor John P. Croneberger
Ordination 1955
Consecration June 12, 1976
Personal details
Born (1931-06-16) June 16, 1931 (age 83)
Charlotte, North Carolina
Nationality American
Spouse Christine Mary Spong
Children 5
Alma mater University of North Carolina
Virginia Theological Seminary

John Shelby "Jack" Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey). He is a liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator and author. He calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines.[1]


Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and educated in Charlotte public schools. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1952, and received his Master of Divinity degree in 1955 from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. (That seminary and Saint Paul's College have both conferred on him honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees.) He wrote: "[I have] immerse[d] myself in contemporary Biblical scholarship at such places as Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School and the storied universities in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge."[2]

Spong served as rector of St. Joseph's Church in Durham, North Carolina, from 1955 to 1957; rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina, from 1957 to 1965; rector of St. John's Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, from 1965 to 1969; and rector of St. Paul's Church in Richmond, Virginia, from 1969 to 1976. He has held visiting positions and given lectures at major American theological institutions, most prominently at Harvard Divinity School. He retired in 2000.

Spong describes his own life as a journey from the literalism and conservative theology of his childhood to an expansive view of Christianity. In a 2013 interview, Spong credits the late Anglican bishop John Robinson as his mentor in this journey and says that reading Robinson's controversial writings in the 1960s led to a friendship and mentoring relationship with him over many years.[3] Spong also honors Robinson as a mentor in the opening pages of his 2002 book A New Christianity for a New World.

Spong during CrossWalk America, 2006

Recipient of many awards, including 1999 Humanist of the Year,[4] Spong is a contributor to the Living the Questions DVD program and has been a guest on numerous national television broadcasts (including The Today Show, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Dateline, 60 Minutes, and Larry King Live). Spong's calendar has him lecturing around the world.[5]

Spong is the cousin of former Virginia Democratic Senator William B. Spong, Jr. who defeated the incumbent Absalom Willis Robertson, the father of television evangelist Pat Robertson.

A play about the life of Spong, called A Pebble In My Shoe, has been written by Colin Cox and produced by Will & Company. Spong has seen the play at least a half dozen times at different places in the United States.[citation needed]


Spong's writings rely on Biblical and non-Biblical sources and are influenced by modern critical analysis of these sources (see especially Spong, 1991). He is representative of a stream of thought with roots in the medieval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich, whom he has called his favorite theologian.[6]

A prominent theme in Spong's writing is that the popular and literal interpretations of Christian scripture are not sustainable and do not speak honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities. He believes in a more nuanced approach to scripture, informed by scholarship and compassion, which can be consistent with both Christian tradition and contemporary understandings of the universe. He believes that theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of God's nature. He states that he is a Christian because he believes that Jesus Christ fully expressed the presence of a God of compassion and selfless love and that this is the meaning of the early Christian proclamation, "Jesus is Lord" (Spong, 1994 and Spong, 1991). Elaborating on this last idea he affirms that Jesus was adopted by God as his son, (Born of a Woman 1992), and he says that this would be the way God was fully incarnated in Jesus Christ.[1] He rejects the historical truth claims of some Christian doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth (Spong, 1992) and the bodily resurrection of Jesus (Spong, 1994). In 2000, Spong was a critic of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church's declaration Dominus Iesus, because it reaffirmed the Catholic doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church and, perhaps even more importantly, that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior for humanity.[7]

Spong has also been a strong proponent of the church reflecting the changes in society at large.[8] Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated.[1]

His views on the future of Christianity are, "...that we have to start where we are. As I look at the history of religion, I observe that new religious insights always and only emerge out of the old traditions as they begin to die. It is not by pitching the old insights out but by journeying deeply through them into new visions that we are able to change religion’s direction. The creeds were 3rd and 4th century love songs that people composed to sing to their understanding of God. We do not have to literalize their words to perceive their meaning or their intention to join in the singing of their creedal song. I think religion in general and Christianity in particular must always be evolving. Forcing the evolution is the dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge. The sin of Christianity is that any of us ever claimed that we had somehow captured eternal truth in the forms we had created."[9]

Spong has debated Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus.


Spong's ideas have been criticised by some other theologians, notably the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth), describing his twelve theses as embodying "confusion and misinterpretation".[10] His writings evoke great support and great condemnation simultaneously from differing segments of the Christian church.[11]

There has also been criticism from other Christian denominations.[12] Some Roman Catholics have criticized him, seeing him as an embodiment of liberal Christianity.[13][14]

Points for reform of Christianity[edit]

These "Twelve Points for Reform" come from Spong's book A New Christianity for a New World:

  1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
  2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
  3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
  6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
  7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
  8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
  9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
  12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.



  1. ^ a b c Interview. ABC Radio Australia, June 17, 2001
  2. ^ John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, HarperCollins 2005, page xi
  3. ^ "The retired Bishop John Shelby Spong interview", Read the Spirit website, 23 June 2013.
  4. ^ "The Humanist Foundation". Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  5. ^ Speaking calendar
  6. ^ "Challenging the 'Sins of Scripture'". Interview with Bill O'Reilly. April 14, 2005.
  7. ^ Shelby, John (2010-11-05). "Dominus Iesus: The Voice of Rigor Mortis". Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  8. ^ Liberal Bible-Thumping The New York Times, May 15, 2005
  9. ^ Q & A for 2-14-2013 - electronic newsletter, A New Christianity For a New World,
  10. ^ Williams, Rowan (1998-07-17). "No life, here - no joy, terror or tears". Church Times (Anglican Ecumenical Society). 
  11. ^ Spong, John Shelby (2000)" Here I Stand: My struggle for a Christianity of integrity, love and equality" (Harper Collins), pp.1-2
  12. ^ Jackson, Wayne. "John Shelby Spong: Anglican Nightmare". Retrieved 23 Aug 2014. 
  13. ^ Tooley, Mark (March 25, 2010). "My Evening with Bishop John Shelby Spong". Retrieved 23 Aug 2014. 
  14. ^ Gullotta, Daniel (2009). "A Critique of Bishop John Shelby Spong". Retrieved 23 Aug 2014. 

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