Saturday, May 14, 2011

Resurrection Controversy in the Burg

In the last couple of weeks, the letters to the editor pages of the Lynchburg News and Advance have featured a controversy over the bodily resurrection of Jesus. On May 1, a retired United Methodist minister, William F. Quillian, Jr. tells us there is no evidence for the resurrection of Christ.

Of course the letter brought various rebuttals: from the United Methodist district superintendent and another UMC pastor, among others, and support: from a retired mainline Presbyterian minister. The most intelligent and carefully reasoned response came from a Liberty University philosophy professor.
Dr. Foreman pointed out that no claim of a historical nature is subject to the evidence afforded by “scientific” investigation, so by the proofs of science, there is no proof of the resurrection. But of course this is the case with any matter of ancient history. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon in 49BC? Well the historical evidence seems pretty conclusive, and historians accept this as a fact of history. But is there scientific evidence for this? Can it be proven, Mr. Quillian may ask? Well, no.

On May 10 Mr. Quillian responded
in what is titled (by the paper?) “The last word on the resurrection.” Quillian writes, “No letter writer has pointed to any “evidence” of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.” I am wondering, did Quillian not read Dr. Foreman’s letter, or is the distinction between scientific and historical evidence too subtle for him to understand? Or perhaps this is just a case of “what my net don’t catch ain’t fish.” If someone offers evidence that points to a conclusion he doesn’t like, Quillian just says, “that’s not evidence.”

Quillian then admonishes his readers to hear Jesus’ "final" message to his disciples and he quotes the passage from Matthew 25 concerning ministry to the poor and needy. But I wonder why Quillian thinks this is really the word of Jesus, since the same Gospel of Matthew that records this also records a detailed account of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Could the gospel writer accurately report the lengthy discourses of Jesus, but totally botch the matter of the resurrection? If the "resurrection" was only a dream, or a delusion, or a matter of Jesus being "alive in the disciples consciousness," or something like that, then maybe the idea of mission in Matthew 25 is likewise just as unreal.

I also wonder why Quillian says this is Jesus’ “final message.” Matthew records these as the Lord’s final words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” And Luke records this: “Thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations. And you are witnesses of these things.” Among the final words of Jesus in the gospel of John are these: “”reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing. …Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Now what is a fair evaluation of the testimony of these three writers of the first century? Is it reasonable to conclude that they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Apparently they did. The same gospel writers who tell of the wonderful words of Jesus, also tell of his wonderful works. Is it reasonable to accept one and not the other?

So, Mr. Quillan, if you give no credence to what the gospel writers affirm was seen, why should you believe what they claim was spoken?

Unfortunately such “experts” as Bishop Jack Spong, and those enamored by his writings, such as William Quillian, apparently demand scientific proof. But the bodily resurrection, if it happened, is a matter of history, not science, and it is therefore not subject to scientific proof. It is a matter of faith. But while it is a matter of faith, it is not unsupported by reasonable conclusions from the historical data. But nevertheless, it is a matter of reasonable faith that all Christian churches have demanded of those who are ordained to teach the faith.

(I am amazed at how often writers reference Bishop Spong as competent scholar or guide in matters of religion. In my opinion he is anything but a competent scholar of a reliable guide in matters of faith. See my next two postings for my impressions of the bishop from 10 years ago.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Jack Spong in Lynchburg

I had the opportunity to hear Bishop John Spong when he spoke in Lynchburg about 10 years ago. Since Spong is frequently referenced by writers to the Lynchburg newspaper, I thought some might appreciate my take on the man.

Jack Spong is a very funny man. He is a master of the clever quip, the amusing anecdote, the humorous aside--an entertaining speaker. He is the kind of person who would probably be an enjoyable companion for drinks or dinner. But as a bishop, as a shepherd of the people of Christ's church, I find him anything but a reliable guide.

The crowd nearly filled the large sanctuary at St. John's church in Lynchburg this evening, and welcomed back its most famous rector. Jack Spong served this, one of Lynchburg's influential and wealthy congregations, during some troubling years of the late 1960's. Now Spong declares that every book he has written (his 18th will soon be released) had its beginning in the adult Sunday School class he taught during those four years in Lynchburg.

The bishop is introduced as, and he seems to style himself as, a man who has fought courageously all his life against prejudice and ignorance. As the reverend relates his life's story, we learn that he had the good fortune of being, from the age of 3 1/2 years, morally superior to his parents. He recalls an incident when, at that age, his father severely reprimanded him for addressing the black workmen at his home as "sir." He admits he didn't understand fully, but he says he knew then that his father was wrong.

His life's story is a fascinating one. It seems he once held every prejudice known to man, but had the great good fortune of overcoming them all. The racial thing was overcome at an early age, but it took a few more years to overcome the anti-Semitism, chauvinism, homophobia, and biblical fundamentalism he absorbed from his Episcopalian home and Sunday School.

One of the many anecdotes that fail to ring true was his saying that growing up in his church he never knew that Jesus and the disciples were Jewish. Jews were always bad people, he was taught. Jesus was light skinned and blue-eyed. Spong thought he was a Swede!

Another thing he ascribes to conservative Christian faith is the idea that only men are made in the image of God. Again, it strains credulity to suggest that such an idea was at all common even in the most fundatmentalist churches within the bishop's lifetime.

Perhaps the most outrageous statement of the evening was his assertion that the Ten Commandments are immoral. He believes they are immoral because the commandments assume that women are the property of men (the 7th and 10th commandments imply this, he says.) Some of his most effective laugh lines were delivered in making this point about his overcoming his prejudice against women.

Throughout the lecture, the bishop derided a conservative view of scripture, appealing to the idea that since the Bible has been interpreted in ways that we find unacceptable today, the Bible cannot be a reliable guide to us today. In doing this it is the bishop's unfortunate tendency to misrepresent what the Bible actually says. For instance, he says that Deuteronomy teaches that a child that talks back to his parents must be stoned to death. "How many of you every talked back to your parents?" the bishop asks. "How many of you would be here today if this law were enforced?" Surely even he knows that this is not the intention of the passage (Deut. 21: 18f) that speaks of the execution of incorrigible sons. But this is the way Spong usually refers to Scripture with which he is uncomfortable. He presents it in its most unfavorable light, or actually distorts it, to the evident delight of his audience.

The bishop spoke of the challenge of overcoming homophobia in his own life, in his diocese of Newark, the house of bishops, and the church at large. He tells of the vast opposition among the church leadership to his ordination of an openly homosexual priest in 1989, but evidently feels vindicated in that today most bishops of the church are on his side of this issue. Bishop Spong seems to have indeed led a wave of change in the Episcopal Church USA, and we can expect if trends continue in this direction. the church membership will be so liberated from its past that they will no longer know who they are, and the ECUSA will quietly fade into oblivion.

The Rt. Rev. Spong ended his talk and the congregation responded with a lengthy standing ovation. My hands were still; I remained in my seat. I was entertained, this is true, but I somehow expect more from a bishop.

More on Bishop Spong

This was a letter to the editor of the Lynchburg News and Advance from March 2001.

As reported in your pages March 28, the Rt. Rev. John Spong spoke to a near-capacity crowd at St. John's Episcopal church Tuesday night, and the crowd seemed very pleased with his performance. Bishop Spong is presented by his publishers and promoters as a man of integrity, and a scholar of significant learning. However, based upon reading several of his books and from hearing his talk, I would say that he is neither. Let me explain by citing a couple of examples from his talk Tuesday evening.

When speaking of the Old Testament law, Spong told the audience that Deuteronomy teaches that children who talk back to their parents should be stoned to death. He asked the crowd "how many of you would be here tonight if that law were applied?" That book of Scripture does prescribe the death penalty for incorrigible sons. The passage in question speaks of a son who is stubborn, rebellious, gluttonous and a drunkard. The Biblical example is in no way equivalent to "talking back to" a parent, as Spong described it. I am not arguing for the application of this law, only that the Bishop did not honestly describe what the Bible actually says. Therefore, we can conclude either of two things. Either Bishop Spong doesn't know what the Bible says, and therefore he is not a good Biblical scholar, and should not be trusted concerning the Bible; or, Bishop Spong knows what the Bible actually says, but chose to distort it. In the later case, Bishop Spong is a dishonest man, and should not be trusted.

Another example has to do with his assertion that Jesus was not relgious, and that the New Testament barely even mentions the practice of religion. Spong declared that the term "religion" is only found in the New Testament in the Book of James, which, he pointed out, Martin Luther thought should not be included in the canon of Scripture. Apart from the fact that the Greek word used in James for "religion" is indeed found in two other places in the New Testament, Bishop Spong confuses his audience with the suggestion that the lack of a certain word ("religion") proves the lack of concern for religious practice. This would be like saying I rarely see the word "journalism" in the News & Advance, therefore this newspaper cares little for journalism.

That Jesus did observe many religious practices of his day is beyond question, if we accept the near contemporary accounts of Jesus life--the Gospels. There we read of Jesus at the age of twelve making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and studying Torah in the temple with the elders. In the gospels we learn that Jesus regularly attended synagogue. We see him journeying to Jerusalem with his disciples for Passover and for the feast of tabernacles. We see him practicing acts of charity. We see him receiving the baptism of John. We see him observing the passover meal with his disciples and instituting the continued observance of this meal--what we call the Lord's Supper. We see Jesus at prayer in public and in private. He said that his disciples do not fast now, while he is with them, but they will fast later when he is taken away. In the sermon on the mount he instructed his disciples in the practice of prayer, alms giving and fasting.

Once again I must conclude that either Spong doesn't really know what the Bible says, or he does know and distorts it. In the one case, he is not a person who should be trusted as a teacher of Scripture; in the other case he should not be trusted as a moral guide.

Jesus did of course strongly object to some of the religious observances of the Pharisees--especially their tendency to add on to the requirements of the law, making it nearly impossible to fulfill. But Jesus also objected to the religion of the Sadducees, that rationalistic, anti-supernatural party of first-century Judaism. In Spong's zeal to avoid the errors of the Pharisees, it appears that he has embraced the spirit of the Sadducees. Such a spirit will be not the life of Christianity in the 21st century, but its death--as the declining membership in Spong's diocese of Newark and the Episcopal Church as a whole would seem to show.