Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The Bishop & the Bible

A while back a friend sent me an article by Bishop Spong on the Virgin Birth. Here is what I said about it.


Spong is an ephemeral writer. No one will be reading his books a generation from now. They will take their proud place beside marked down copies of Cox and Fosdick in used bookstores. Nothing has a shorter shelf-life than liberal theology. It flits from one academic fad to another.

At the same time, Spong is representative of a perennial, stereotypical strategy among liberal popularizers. Spong isn't saying anything that Fosdick wasn't saying back in the Twenties. There's the same smug "we-know-better-than-those-benighted-fundamentalists," combined with a complete absence of genuine scholarship and philosophical rigor to justify their intellectual pretensions.

So there's a certain value in reading and reviewing this type of literature simply because the average liberal is a one-trick pony. To rebut one liberal popularizer is to rebut them all.

Spong's attack on the Virgin Birth suffers from both generic and specific defects. Starting with the generic flaws:

1. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Spong's worldview is true to the facts—although what truth means on that view is pretty shaky It amounts to this. Life is a cosmic accident. Humanity has achieved its global dominance thanks to its evolutionary inheritance as a ruthless and murderous predator. There is no transcendent value or purpose to life. When you die, it's as if you never existed.

Now, given this worldview, what does it matter what anyone believes? Why does Spong care? What ultimate difference does it make who's right or wrong? If Spong is right, then we live like dogs and die like dogs. Why does Spong don this superior air? Who is he trying to impress? What's the value in being right if, in the end, the liberal and the fundamentalist, the genial humanitarian and the genocidal tyrant, are all reduced to a lump of clay? In a Godless cosms, there is no way things are supposed to be. That presupposes an overarching design. Spong is like a flimflam man hawking tickets for a vacation cruise on the Titanic.

And if I were on the Titanic, I don't think I'd care to jump into the lifeboat with Bishop Spong aboard, for I rather doubt that his worldview would put a premium on altruism.

2. There is a systematic confusion between literality and factuality. Literality has to do with meaning and interpretation, factuality with its historical referent. Spong deliberately confounds these distinct domains for tactical reasons by recasting issues of Biblical authority in terms of interpretation. For example, he justifies a figurative interpretation on the grounds that the birth narratives reflect a mythological worldview. But this is a non-sequitur. Even if the Virgin Birth were a myth, that would in no way imply that Matthew or Luke meant it as such.

To classify it as a myth is to render a comparative judgment: Spong is tacitly taking secular science as his standard of reference. But that has no bearing on original intent. The fact that Spong regards it as unhistorical doesn't mean that Matthew or Luke so regarded it. If, to play along with Spong's argument, Matthew and Luke operated with a mythological worldview, then they thought they were describing a real event—for such an event is possible within their worldview. It is only impossible given Spong's naturalistic outlook. Mythology is a retrospective and value-laden classification.

3. Of course, Spong makes no effort to defend his charge or justify the superiority of his own worldview. There is no philosophical argumentation advanced either against the outlook of Scripture or in favor of his secular alternative.

4. He sets up a false antithesis between historicity and typology. Typology presupposes the historicity of both type and antitype. Spong may deny their historical identity, but—once again—he's substituting his own worldview for the original.

5. In another non-sequitur, Spong assumes that if Jesus is depicted as fulfilling OT paradigms, then this is incompatible with the historicity of the account. But this is blatantly fallacious. If Jesus of Nazareth fills a Messianic job description penned in the OT, how does that subtract from his claims? Spong's reasoning is exactly backwards.

6. Spong also acts as if fundamentalists reared on "biblical literalism" are ignorant of typology. But this is hardly a "new way of reading the birth story of Matthew." In fact, a typical understanding of sacred history antedates the NT. In the Psalms and Prophets we already see certain people, places, and events acquiring the status of archetypal motifs (e.g., Eden, David, the Exodus). Matthew is not baptizing the OT.

Continuing with the specific defects:

7. He dates Matthew and Luke to c. 90-100. No argument is offered. Indeed, there is good internal evidence for dating both before AD 70. But it is necessary for Spong to late-date them in order to remove them from the reach of living memory.

8. It is yet another non-sequitur to claim that these documents "introduced" belief in the Virgin Birth. This doesn't even follow on liberal assumptions. The liberal assumption would be that the canonical gospels codified the prexisting oral tradition of the Church. And it obviously doesn't follow on conservative assumptions.

9. Predictably, he brings up the census under Quirinius. But, at most, this would only prove that there's a discrepancy between Luke and Josephus. So what? Even if we put inspiration to one side, Luke is also a 1C witness to life in the 1C—as is Matthew. And he's writing closer to the events than Josephus. Why assume that Luke rather than Josephus got his dates wrong?

He casts this as a contradiction between Matthew and Luke. But it would only be a contradiction between Luke and Josephus.

Moreover, the attempt to develop an absolute or relative chronology of the ancient world is enormously complicated and conjectural. It rests on fragmentary, equivocal evidence and adjustable variables. Cf. P. James (ed.), Centuries of Darkness: A Challenge to the Conventional Chronology of Old World Archeology (Random House 1993).

Spong acts as though these postulated dates were as firm as modern dates—where we have a common calendar and continuous body of evidence.

10. He also tries to trump up a discrepancy between Matthew and Luke on the setting of the nativity. But even on his own skewed representation, Matthew and Luke both mention Bethlehem and Nazareth in connection with the birth of Christ and/or residence of the Holy Family. Moreover, there is nothing implausible about the idea that they divided their time between these two towns. That could be for economic reasons or because they had family in both places. This is a commonplace.

11. He also resorts to the argument from silence. It's nice to have external corroboration of Biblical events. It helps in doing apologetics and illuminating an otherwise obscure reference in Scripture. But only trace evidence survives from the period. Moreover, Spong plays with a double standard. He doesn't cite his sources. And he doesn't say that we should only believe "other historical records" if they enjoy multiple attestation.

12. He thinks it implausible and impractical that Mary accompanied Joseph. I, for one, find it entirely plausible. People would have assumed the worst regarding the circumstances of her pregnancy. She would hardly have wanted to be left on her own as her pregnancy came to term. No doubt the trip to Bethlehem was a hardship. Well, so what!

Life was tough back then. It's not as if she had a lot of options. Moreover, the account doesn't say that she did it on foot—maybe so, maybe not. She could have ridden a donkey. Because Spong is determined not to believe the Gospels, he ignores perfectly natural explanations.

The ultimate arrogance of men like Spong is in acting as though they had a front row seat on the proceedings and can tell us what "really" happened. He has more faith in his imaginary reconstruction than in the original. This is more fideistic than any fundamentalist. The time is past due to rescue the Bible from Bishop Spong.

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