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Spong, Symbolism, and Literalism in the Bible

In the following e-mail exchange, the e-mailer's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

Exchange #1

>I wanted to know if you are familiar with Bishop John S. Spong? I have just finished two of his books; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991) and Why Christianity must Change or Die (1998). I actually found them to be quite interesting, providing yet another pathway to study the Bible. Thoughts?

Well, let's see "another pathway" might be right; but understating it. I am only vaguely familiar with Bishop Spong per se; but I am aware of his general approach. It is what I would call "liberal" Christianity as opposed to the conservative approach I believe in.

The differences are vast. If you check the Confession of Faith for my ministry on my site, I would guess that Spong would disagree with just about every point.

In other words, we are really talking about two completely different belief systems. At the root of the difference is a different attitude towards the Bible. I believe the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant (without error) Word of God. From this belief logically flows everything else I believe.

Spong most likely would say the Bible is the Word of God, but only in a limited sense. He would say maybe more likely that it CONTAINS the Word of God; but that it also contains the words of men. As such, it contains errors. Thus he, with his own little intellect would try to discern which are God's words and which are merely the words of men.

What this does is basically leave the Bible with no real authority. For instance, I believe without a doubt the Bible says homosexual behavior is a sin. OTOH, I know from news reports Spong believes in the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The only way you can condone homosexual behavior is by saying the Bible is wrong when it says homosexuality is a sin.

So for me, I regulate my beliefs and lifestyle by the Bible; whereas Spong would feel free to disagree with and disobey the Bible when he felt it was wrong based on his own preconceived notions.

Now, those are just some general observations. Again, I am only going by a vague knowledge of Spong. I have not actually read his books; so maybe I am being a little harsh in my comments; but from what I have read about him I think the above observations are valid.

Come to think of it, an official from the Episcopalian church was on a local, Christian radio talk show. The official made it clear that Spong's ideas are not compatible with traditional Episcopalian doctrine. The talk show host asked why Spong was not then defrocked.

The official said they had considered it; but were afraid that to have a defrocking hearing would just give Spong more exposure. It would also give Spong a chance to claim he was being "persecuted" and thus gain an even greater following. So be sure in reading Spong you are not reading what the Episcopalian church in general teaches.

What I would recommend is you compare Spong's writings with that of conservative scholars and decide for yourself which is more faithful to the Bible's claims about itself. On my site I list some good books and commentaries written from a conservative approach. See: Bible Study Aids and Biblical Reliability.

Also, the first two book companies listed on the following page of my site offer many such books at reduced prices: Christian Books and Software.

I hope the above is helpful.

Exchange #2

>Concerning Bishop Spong, maybe I should instead express my tack on how I've viewed life.

I see our belief mechanisms as being shaped by exposure, perception, experience, knowledge and acceptance. I view we choose active and passive postures concerning many things based upon these factors; automobiles, food, justice, leisure, medicine, money, politics, relationships, sexuality, work ...etc. Cannot the dogmatic structure of religion rise, develop, change, sustain and fall based upon these belief factors tempered by anxiety concerning the unknown? Should we strictly literalize our religious dogmas when they are symbolic of our beliefs?<

If God has not spoken to us and given us His interpretation of reality, then your comments would be true. Our belief systems would be solely based on our limited experiences and ability to interpret the world around us. As such, there would be no absolute truth; as new experiences would be attained, what we thought was truth in the past would be discarded. This is the nature of empiricism.

However, if God has spoken to us and told us what ultimate truth is, then His interpretation of reality would be the only true one. We could choose to accept or reject what He ways, but it would not change the truth of what He says.

>What I am trying to say is the conflict of symbolism versus literalism to me.<

There is, of course, much symbolism used in the Bible. But it is generally easily identifiable, such as use in poetry or prophecy. But the historical accounts are written in such a manner that they were intended to be taken as, well, historical.

> The Bible states it is inspired or "God breathed" but these words are from the pens of the human biblical writers themselves.<

True; but this does set up what is called a "trilemma." If someone claims to be speaking for God, or even more so that they have heard the voice of God or seen a vision, then there is only three possibilities: The person is telling the truth; the person is lying, or the person is hallucinating or is simply crazy.

For example, when Isaiah records his vision of God in the sixth chapter of his book, either that event happened, or he made it up, or he was a nut case. So a decision must be made: do the writings of Isaiah read like those of an honest person, a liar, or a lunatic?

The point is, either the Bible is what it claims to be, the very Word of God, or it is a complete fraud. There is no middle ground.

> It is my understanding that some of the writers were not eyewitnesses but wrote of events relayed to them.<

Some were eyewitnesses; some received their information from eye-witnesses or from written records, it would depend on the book in question. For instance, Matthew and John were apostles and thus eye-witnesses of the life of Christ. Mark, according to the Church Father Papias (early second century) received his info from Peter.

Luke was not an eye-witness. But he states in his own prologue that he researched out the matter carefully. This most likely would have included talking to eye-witnesses, along with possibly having the Gospels of Matthew and Mark before him, along with other written sources.

Other historical books would follow the same pattern: they were written by eye-witnesses, received their info from eye-witnesses, and/ or were working from previously written historical documents.

Now, in my comments I am assuming the conservative attitude towards the authorship of the books, i.e. that Matthew did in fact write the Gospel with his name attached. A defense of this attitude is well beyond what I could explain in an e-mail. But the books and book companies I referred you to previously would be able to provide detailed info. At seminary, the books we used in this regard were Gleason Archer's Old Testament Introduction and Donald Guthrie's New Testament Introduction."

>How do we assure ourselves that the "literal" historical accounts were not an interpretive comprehension of reality based on their belief mechanisms? Can we categorically state the texts represent fully objective truths or could some be introspective expressions of the way events were perceived?

I am not sure exactly how to answer this as it gets complicated. Let me say this, many books have been written on the historical reliability of the various books of the Bible. I also address this question in the articles listed on the following page on my site: The Bible.

My articles and the types of books I have in mind take the attitude that events presented as being historical should be and can be taken as historical. There can sometimes be debates as to whether specific passages are historical or symbolic (i.e. the early chapters of Genesis); but for the most part, there is general agreement as to which books are written in such a manner that the original author clearly intended his statements to be taken literally and which were intended to be taken in a symbolic manner (i.e. The Book of Acts vs. The Revelation respectively).

This discussion is continued at Troublesome Things in the Bible.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above e-mail exchange was posted on this Web site August 5, 1998.

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