The Origins of the Bible, Part V The Elohist Document

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 23 April 2008 0 Comments
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Enclosed is an article from a few weeks ago about evangelical Ben
Witherington's visit to Charlotte, North Carolina. He has "taken your
name in vain" — has this ever happened to you before? He was
quoted in the Charlotte Observer as saying the following:
"Bishop Spong is out of his depth. He is not a biblical scholar; he's
not even a scholar. He's what I call a pundit. When I do debates
with Bishop Spong, he really won't debate. He's kind of like a dog
who barks backing up. He's noisy, but when you challenge him, there's
no substance to his argument."


Thanks for your letter and the enclosure from the Charlotte
I'm delighted that my name comes up in my home town
from time to time.

I found the quote from one Ben Witherington to be quite amusing. In
the first place, I have never met this gentleman nor have I read
anything that he has written. My assumption is that his work is not
read outside of evangelical circles. In the second place, I have
never debated with this gentleman. So he appears to live in a
fantasyland of his own imagination. He is self-described on his
website as "a leading evangelical scholar." An "evangelical" is by
definition a propagandist not a scholar. A propagandist is one who
possesses conclusions that he or she seeks to defend. A scholar is
one who searches for truth without the boundaries of preconceptions.
He might well be learned about his evangelical authority claims, but
scholarship is something possessed only by those who are engaged in a
search for truth and who are willing to follow their discoveries no
matter where they lead.

When I looked Mr. Witherington up I discovered that he attended a
fundamentalist seminary, that he teaches in a fundamentalist seminary
and that his books are published by evangelical publishing houses.
His resume lists a PhD. from the University of Durham. That is an
impressive institution. I have been there on a number of occasions.
I am, however, suspicious of the meaning of that degree. It may be
quite substantial, but I am aware of the way English Universities
work. Frequently they have evangelical colleges attached to them and
though the degree says the University of Durham, it actually comes
from one more evangelical school, so I will withhold judgment until I
learn the facts. Evangelicals seem to have tremendous needs to claim
academic credibility so they tend to collect degrees that look good on
paper but have little substance. It is certainly not difficult to be
proficient in the defense of your evangelical subject matter, but as I
suggested effective propaganda does not add up to impressive
scholarship. Seeking truth is not possible if you begin with the
conviction that truth is already possessed in the "word of God" or in
the papacy.

The fact is, Bo, that no one can properly define himself or herself
as a scholar. That is for someone else to determine. I suspect that
very few of us are original scholars or thinkers. Most of us are
popularizers of other people's work. It is, thus, also quite
impossible to defend oneself against the kind of things this man has
said about me in the press, nor am I eager to do so. All one can do is
to provide the data for what, to some at least, might look like
adequate scholarly credentials and let others make whatever judgments
they wish. So for the benefit of anyone who cares, here are my
academic achievements:

I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina,
which has also presented to me an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
degree so that my university has affirmed my scholarly path. I have
published with a major commercial publisher (Harper Collins) 21 books,
which have been translated into 14 languages and have sold well over a
million copies. Six institutions of higher learning in the United
States have conferred honorary doctorates on me. Cambridge University
in the United Kingdom elected me to be the Quatercentenary Scholar of
that University and a Fellow at Emmanuel College, where I studied,
lectured and wrote in 1991. Harvard University in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, appointed me to the position of being the William
Belden Noble Lecturer in 2000 and those lectures were published, as
was required by that lectureship, by Harper Collins under the title
A New Christianity for a New World. I have also taught as an
adjunct faculty member at the Harvard Divinity School. On two
occasions I have been a visiting scholar at Oxford University
(Magdalen College and Christchurch College) and have also lectured
there. I have been the invited, week long religion lecturer in the
Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institute in New York at least
six times, with attendance topping 1000 people a day. I have been on
the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,
five times. I have taught at the University of the Pacific and at the
Theological School of Drew University. I have been invited to give
lectures in English at over 100 institutions of higher learning in the
English speaking countries of the United States, Canada, England,
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I have also lectured though
translators at the University of Ghent in Belgium, the University of
Helsinki in Finland, Upsala University in Sweden and at other
universities in Thailand, Norway and Indonesia. Does that make me a
scholar? No, I would never make that claim, but it also does not give
Mr. Witherington, who appears to think highly of his own abilities, a
basis for his amusing diatribe. Perhaps he knows about me, but in
fact he knows me no better than I know him.

I do not do debates with evangelicals because we live in two
different worlds and do not agree even on the shape of reality. I
have done that kind of thing in the past, but never with Mr.
Witherington. I stopped because I could no longer find any value in
that and I do not like to waste time. Evangelicals tend to want to
debate things that in my mind are settled. I do not debate with
members of the flat earth society, with "creation scientists" or with
homophobic people either, and for the same reason.

I have on several occasions found great dishonesty among evangelicals.
Mr. Witherington's claims about what happened when he was "debating
with me" appear to be of the same genre. Evangelicals frequently
appear to me to have a tenuous relationship with both truth and
honesty. I did a debate with the leading English evangelical, John
Stott, some years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia. We agreed that
the debate could be published by an evangelical school, Regency
College at the University of British Columbia. When the publication
came out I discovered that John Stott had edited his part of the
debate sometime after the debate, but prior to its publication to
cover his obvious weaknesses. When I confronted him with that fact he
justified this dishonest behavior by saying said that I had brought up
some new ideas in my closing statement to which he did not have a
chance to respond. That was a strange argument because we had both
been told to prepare a closing statement. John Stott had made no such
preparation and so he meandered all over the place in his closing
statement and looked rather foolish. It was all recorded for anyone
to hear, but he decided to rewrite his closing statement before
publication in violation of the agreed on rules for the debate.

On another occasion I had a debate with Central Florida's evangelical
Episcopal bishop, John Howe, at the Virginia Theological Seminary on
the subject of homosexuality. The same thing happened there. It was as
if there were an evangelical play book. John Howe had tried to make
jokes during the debate about some of my book titles. Not only did
most people not know what he was talking about, but his comments came
across as petty and revealed considerable ignorance on his part about
both homosexuality and the Bible. We had agreed that the debate could
be recorded and distributed, but when I received a copy of the
recording I discovered that his part of the debate had been edited so
that all of his less than edifying comments had been removed. The
recording had been done by his former church, which is today trying to
separate itself from the Episcopal Church. Once again I confronted
him with his dishonesty and the distribution of the recording was
halted, or at least that is what I was told. It has been my
experience that evangelicals are willing to do dishonest things if it
serves their agenda. I find that behavior more to be pitied than to
be condemned, but in any case it is not revelatory of character.

I'm delighted that Ben Witherington thinks he knows me well enough to
have such firm opinions. I think it is interesting to have someone
say in public print what he has said that he does when he has debates
with me, since I have no knowledge of ever debating with him anywhere,
nor would I be interested in doing so.

Thanks for keeping me up to date with the Charlotte press.

– John Shelby Spong

P.S. Bo, my readers need to know that I have known you since we were
in high school together and that you have been an outstanding
physician and are today a budding lay theologian. – JSS




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