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Less than a month after sponsoring an event for Virginia Episcopal clergy featuring a speaker who denies both the afterlife and unique divinity of Christ, Bishop Shannon Johnston of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has presided over a service featuring a similarly controversial figure.
In a Good Friday service at historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, retired Bishop John Shelby Spong decried the Nicene Creed as “a radical distortion of the Gospel of John,” asserted that several of the apostles were “mythological” and declared that Jesus Christ did not die to redeem humanity from its sins.
The three hour service featured a series of six meditations by the retired Newark bishop interspersed with prayers led by Johnston and a hymn promoted by the Center for Progressive Christianity entitled “Welcome doubt: Refine our thinking.” Johnston’s promotion of Spong, whose Newark diocese famously declined by 40 percent during his tenure, further undercuts the Virginia bishop’s claim to be creedal and orthodox.
Spong has a long history with St. Paul’s, serving as rector of the onetime “Cathedral of the Confederacy” from 1969 to 1976, before his election as bishop of Newark. The Greek revival church across from the Virginia State Capitol, which once counted Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis among its worshippers, continues to draw prominent Richmond-area figures including a former Virginia governor and first lady who offered scripture readings on Friday.
Arguing that the Gospels were not historic accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Spong sought to isolate the fourth gospel, insisting it was not authored by John the son of Zebedee. Instead, the retired Episcopal bishop proposed that the Gospel of John was not a story of incarnation.
“This Gospel sees Jesus as a life lived so deeply that he reached mystical oneness with God,” proposed the author of the upcoming book “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”.
Spong argued that Jesus could say “I and the father are one” only because he was inviting his disciples “to enter a mystical reality of divine human oneness.”
During his first meditation, Spong quickly targeted the church’s historic councils and creeds. Charging that the Council of Nicea turned on an unintended and very literal reading of John, the Episcopal bishop asserted that the Nicene Creed was a “radical distortion of the Gospel of John.”
Instead of portraying the crucifixion of Jesus being about his sacrifice, Spong claimed the author of the book of John intended a “call to all of us to be whole people – to find yourself and give yourself away.”
“God does not need human sacrifice to forgive,” Spong declared. “John’s Jesus is not about saving sinners and rescuing the lost. It is about moving beyond self-consciousness to universal consciousness.”
Much of Spong’s material centered on an assertion that the gospel of John could not be read both literally and accurately.
“John wages a gospel-long campaign against literalism, or as we would say, fundamentalism,” Spong claimed. Describing the gospel writer as an artist regularly issuing warnings against literalism, the bishop asserted the author’s agenda was to capture “the meaning of Jesus” not to portray the passion narrative as history. Pointing out incredulous character responses to the use of “living water” and “born again,” Spong maintained that these “literalist” figures were initially unable to understand meaning, and that the gospel was warning against such literalism. The bishop went further, declaring persons like the apostles Thomas and Nathaniel (Bartholomew) to be mythical characters who “may have no more reality than Jane Eyre or Harry Potter.”
Spong also declared that the gospel’s portrayal of “the beloved disciple” was never intended by the author to be viewed as a person of history, rather to illustrate symbolism of one whose eyes have been opened.
“The beloved disciple is simply the last in a series of literary characters created by the author to tell a story,” Spong announced, pairing it with Mary’s presence at the crucifixion, which he asserted was a late addition.
“She [Mary] is there as a symbol of transition from Judaism while the Beloved Disciple is a symbol of new consciousness,” Spong interpreted. “See God as universal and embrace all human differences. These are Jewish gifts to the world,” the Bishop added, naming race, gender, and sexual orientation as the differences to be embraced. “Christianity has not embraced this fact, but it will, and it must.”
In addition to dismissing the historicity of biblical characters, Spong also attacked atonement theology, dismissing blood washing away sins as an “evangelical mantra” and a “barbaric theology” that turns God into an ogre who cannot forgive. Spong argued that God punishing his divine son to satisfy the wrath of the father “turns God into the ultimate child abuser” and Jesus into “the eternal victim.”
“John’s Gospel would never say ‘Jesus died for my sins,’” Spong insisted, instead proposing that Jesus was a “servant called upon to absorb the world’s anger and return it as love and wholeness.”
“Jesus does not die for your sins in this gospel; he dies to make you whole,” Spong announced from the pulpit as Johnston sat silently. “As evolving creatures, the problem is not that we have fallen, but that we are not yet fully human.”
“We are not sinners, the church got that wrong, we are rather incomplete human beings,” Spong concluded with an “amen” that was echoed by the congregation and clergy present.
“John’s gospel is about living life to fullness – not moral perfection or overcoming sin,” Spong concluded. “He [Jesus] did not die to save you from your sins. He died to free you – to empower you – to be all that you can be.”