John Shelby “Jack” Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021) was an American bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000, he was the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. A liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator, and author, he called for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines.
Spong was a strong proponent of the church reflecting the changes in society at large. Towards these ends, he called for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity’s basic doctrines should be reformulated. Spong was one of the first American bishops to ordain a woman into the clergy, in 1977, and he was the first to ordain an openly gay man, Robert Williams, in 1989. Later the church followed his lead. An Episcopal court ruled that homosexuality was not counter to its principles in 1996, and the church recognized same-sex marriages in 2015.
Although welcomed by many Christians as a long-overdue reform of accepted theology, Spong’s writings evoked condemnation from conservatives. For example, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, condemned Spong as a heretic, claiming that he “denied virtually every major Christian doctrine”.
Spong’s “Twelve Points for Reform” were originally published in The Voice, the newsletter of the Diocese of Newark, in 1998. Spong elaborated on them in his book A New Christianity for a New World:
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.
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.
The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
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.
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.
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.
There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
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.
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.