Lessons From the Obama Inauguration

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 22 January 2009 0 Comments
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I have been an avid reader of your works for a few years. I also read other prominent Christian leaders' works as well. As a Christian, settling issues such as the literary forms of the Bible, or the possibilities of different, broader interpretive methods poses a difficulty for me (your use of the Midrash tradition, for example — is this widely accepted in credible academic circles?). An example is in Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God. In his chapter on the reality of the resurrection, he has an approach to the Bible that I noted was different from yours. I noticed that his main scholarly source was a fellow named N. T. Wright. In particular, his interpretation of Paul's I Cor. 15:3-6 relies on this source for some key points that are at variance with the interpretation found in your book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? In that book you relied on some points from a scholar named Reginald Fuller. Since the two of you vary on the possibility of the literalness of this passage, I wonder if the different scholarship is the reason. Is it possible that Keller is right in saying that the most current scholarship is a good deal more friendly to a literal approach? He does do that and uses N. T. Wright on several points to shore this up. I find Keller to be open minded about quite a lot, and so would not group him in the same intellectual category as Pat Robertson. So about this whole scholarship and faith issues: what gives? What is the relationship between scholarship and belief? I ask this because I have found myself able to worship with those who hold to a naï,ve and wooden-headed literal interpretation of the Bible


Thanks for your letter. First, let me say there is no such thing as conservative or liberal scholarship. There is only competent scholarship. A scholar's task is to find truth; if that is not the goal of one's study then it is not scholarship, but propaganda in defense of preconceived ideas.

N. T. (Tom) Wright is currently the Anglican Bishop of Durham in the U.K. He is a popular writer among evangelicals. He has an encyclopedic mind for biblical material. He is, however, using scholarship to shore up evangelical positions, and I regard evangelicals as little more than sophisticated fundamentalists or fundamentalists with the perfume or smokescreen of credibility.

I know of no primary scholar who quotes N. T. Wright. That is not a crime or a sin. I know of no primary scholar who quotes me. I am primarily a communicator, but I do work with the material of primary critical scholars. N T. Wright seeks to defend both the literal virgin birth and the physical nature of the resurrection. I do not believe that Paul was in that camp. I think that is to read Paul through the eyes of Luke and John, both of whom wrote 40 years or so after Paul died.

A careful reading of Paul will show that his understanding of Jesus' resurrection is not resuscitation at all but God's raising him into the eternity of God. Paul's Hebrew antecedents are Enoch, Moses and Elijah, all of whom either escaped death or had mysterious departures or raisings into God. Enoch was thought to have written a book describing exactly what heaven was like and Moses and Elijah were able to appear out of heaven to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Long before the gospels were written, the Pauline Corpus says, "If you then be raised with the Christ, seek those things which are above where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father." I submit that this is a resurrection text not an ascension text, since no story of Jesus' ascension would be written for about 40 years.

N. T. Wright seems to me to struggle to keep modern Christians from the necessary hard work of rethinking the Jesus story in light of the knowledge of the world of the 21st century, which is of course quite different from the world of the first century in which the Jesus experience was first articulated. When you literalize the vocabulary of the first century as Wright tends to do, you reduce the Christian story to virtual nonsense. I do not want to base anything I do on the naïve interpretations of a sophisticated fundamentalist, which is what I experience Tom Wright to be.

–John Shelby Spong




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