The Rise of Fundamentalism, Part III: The Five Fundamentals

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 21 March 2007 0 Comments
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I can find countless numbers of biblical commentaries that hold a very
conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, literal and archaic world view.
I cannot find one biblical commentary with a post-modern (or is it post-post
now?), pluralistic, scholastically valid, metaphorically interpretive
contemporary world view.

I have read most of your books, many of your essays; listened to your
tapes (can I get more? Where?) And I have read most of Marcus Borg's
books, some of John Hick's books and essays. All of you relate alternative
(to literalist) and astute interpretations of biblical stories but where can
I get a complete volume? I know they exist somewhere. An excellent example
of this is your interpretation of the Book of Job.

Can you help me with this? I want to help create a new Christianity for
a new world but I need a way to teach not only educated adults but also
lesser educated adults and children. If we could start out teaching
children in a loving and compassionate, rational way, we would not have to
re-program them to a new cosmology, etc. when they grow up and start
realizing that certain things they were taught in Sunday School and church
do not make sense.


I get the sense that you are looking for a one-volume commentary on the
Bible. If I have understood you correctly, they are mostly written by
literalists because those who are not literalists would know how impossible
that task is. The Bible is made up of 66 books, written over a period of
about 1000 years, two to three thousand years ago. It is written by Middle
Eastern people who have a Middle Eastern world view during the period of
history from 1000 B.C.E. to 135 C.E. The books are written in Greek and
Hebrew. There are many fine commentaries on individual books of the Bible.
There are even entire Bible commentary volumes that literally line the
shelves of many pastors, like the Interpreter's Bible, popular a generation
ago or the Anchor Bible series put out by Doubleday a bit more recently.
These volumes are, however, not uniform in content, with some authors better
than others. Many of these volumes are in fact never opened. Few clergy
want to spend much time on I and II Chronicles or the prophet Haggai, for
example. It is far more fruitful to seek out a major writer who has
dedicated his or her study life to a single book or group of books in the
biblical text. I still regard Gerhard Von Rad's "Genesis" as the best
commentary on that biblical book and on Old Testament theological issues.
St. John's gospel has many great commentaries with the most recent one being
Raymond Brown's two-volume work in the Anchor Bible series, which is still
probably at the top of the list for understanding John. The work of C.H.
Dodd and even William Temple on this Fourth Gospel, although two or three
generations old, are still treasured by me. I rank Michael Donald Goulders'
two-volume work on Luke as my favorite. It is entitled, "Luke: A New

Among the great names in biblical scholarship are David Friedrich
Strauss, whose 1834 book, "The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed," first
brought biblical scholarship out of the academy and into the public. Rudolf
Bultmann is probably the most quoted and defining New Testament scholar of
the 20th century. Ernst Haencken's work on the Book of Acts has not, in my
mind, been topped since its publication almost forty years ago. Outstanding
Pauline scholars range from Martin Luther to John Dominic Crossan.

One way of separating the literalists from the scholars is to look at
the publishing company. The big publishers, McGraw-Hill, Harper-Collins or
Doubleday will not as a rule publish unlearned Protestant or Catholic
propaganda masquerading as biblical commentaries, but small evangelical or
Roman Catholic publishing houses do. Eerdman's, for example, is one
publisher I generally dismiss without much further study.

Finally, if you want to read a book about the Bible as a whole, I
recommend Marcus Borg's, "Reading the Bible again for the First Time" or my
book, "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism." Both are introductory
studies from a modern non-literal perspective.

I'm sorry I cannot give you a simple answer to your profound inquiry.
It just really isn't that easy.

John Shelby Spong

P.S. Audio and video tapes of lectures I have given around the country
are available through Harper-Collins.




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