When the New Year comes upon us, many people like to leave behind the past in favor of a fresh start. Accordingly, I’d like to take this opportunity to discard some of the old & outdated beliefs & traditions that certain so-called Christians bitterly cling to in spite of all mankind has learned.
Of Episcopalian bishops past & present, John Shelby Spong has perhaps been the most open about not actually believing that Christianity is true. Every once in awhile, he gets wheeled out of storage and people pretend that the Old Protestant Liberalism he espouses is actually new and cutting edge scholarship that no one has ever heard before. You don’t have to read too many comments on that link before you find people living under rocks who think his views are new and refreshing–one of which might have been true about a century ago.
And so, in “honor” of Spong’s latest atrocity, which simultaneously offends both faith and reason, I’d like to offer my own take: The 3 Biggest Misconceptions Among Old Protestant Liberals.
Most Old Protestant Liberals (OPLs) assume the Bible isn’t historical.
In fact, they think it’s a combination of lies and embellishment. You’d think Spong would be able to recognize lies and embellishment when he sees them, considering how adept at them he is. For example, he claims that “every biblical scholar recognizes [the Bible doesn’t accurately reflect history].” On the other hand, I personally know quite a few who recognize no such thing. He also claims that Mark’s crucifixion account isn’t based on eyewitness testimony despite the fact that it specifically identifies eyewitnesses (“There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome” Mark 15:40). To say the least, I am less than impressed by his “scholarship.”
As for his argument, much is made of the complexity of Jesus’ tale growing in proportion to the chronological order of the Gospels. This, we are told, proves that these were an evolving story rather than an historical account. Of course, one needs to remember how OPLs determine the chronological order of the Gospels: They assume their accounts are factually erroneous and must have evolved over time, then put them in order of least to most complex. This is a textbook case of circular reasoning. In the same vein, they date them later than 70 A.D. because they assume Jesus’ prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction couldn’t possibly have been a prediction, so it must have been written down afterwards. In the end, higher critical scholars don’t “prove” this alleged evolution/embellishment so much as they assume it as the entire basis for their scholarship, then make a living by providing new speculative theories consistent with those assumptions.
Much can be said on the historicity of the Gospels, but then, I have already done that. For now, suffice to say that there is plenty of evidence that these books are accurate historical accounts. Unfortunately, OPLs tend to desperately hold onto to their traditional beliefs despite the evidence.
Most OPLs assume that the One True God must be in consistent agreement with OPLs
When most of us read the Bible, it doesn’t take us very long to find something we don’t like. It might condemn behavior we enjoy. It might make us uncomfortable. It might subvert our dearest values. In some cases, it might describe horrible events which some people pretend were intended to be moral lessons (nobody ever thought the Flood was an example for us to follow, but for some reason, OPLs always think the execution of the Amalekites was supposed to be.) But how do we handle such uncomfortable items? According to the OPL tradition, because such things violate their standards of morality–something a good God could never do–the Bible cannot possibly be the Word of said God. Their condemnation is quite sharp, although where exactly they find a standard by which they feel comfortable judging God is usually a bit fuzzier.
I suppose many OPLs try to make their standard “human values.” Of course, they’re not on board with the honor killings and religious intolerance of the Middle East. They’re not on board with the racism and social castes of the Far East. They’re not on board with the violent tribalism of Africa. And they’re certainly not on board with the treatment of women anywhere except what they imagine Europe will look like after just a few more decades of hard work by feminists. It would seem that “human values” are merely those values held by OPLs–yet another tired retread of the white man’s burden. Oh, they certainly love all the peoples of the world–but only because they assume they will all eventually progress to the august heights that they themselves have trod. In other words, these narrow-minded and judgmental moralists make their own tiny slice of Western thought the standard against which all other times and cultures must be judged. So why not place themselves over God Himself as well?
Most OPLs assume that Biblical truth isn’t complex enough to be static.
You can see this in his claims about the Bible’s message evolving over time–from a very simple obey-or-else to a very simple love-your-neighbor. It is, of course, a rather silly conclusion. A simple reading of Scripture will show that God doesn’t evolve nearly so much from the authoritarian OT brute to the squishy NT god of love as OPLs like to think. Already in the third chapter of Genesis, God is cursing the Earth and condemning mankind to death for eating the wrong fruit, but is simultaneously covering their nakedness, putting them on His own side against the one who deceived them, and promising them victory. And even in the more “progressive” New Testament, the same Jesus who shows his love by dying to atone for mankind’s sin is also found saying things like this:
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-48 — some verses are just better in KJV)
The OPL assumption of simplicity is just another conceit of modern scholars. For example: Do you know why higher critical scholars conclude that the first five books of the Bible have different authors? Because sometimes God is referred to as “Elohim,” a generic word that means “God,” and other times He’s referred to using the personal name, “Yahweh.” Ancient people, after all, could never be so complex as to use two whole words for the same thing, so the parts with “Yahweh” and the parts with “Elohim” must have at least two different authors who refer to two different gods. Seriously–that’s what they argue. They go on to add more authors because some parts are concerned with morality, some parts with ceremonial worship, some parts with civic law, etc. And no simplistic ancient person could possibly have more than one concern to write about. Seriously–they argue that. As for the New Testament, the second verse is the same as the first. For example, when one of Paul’s epistles has different vocabulary and sentence structure than another (you know, the exact same things that change according to audience & venue in everything I write) it must mean they had different authors. Such primitives could not possibly adapt the same message to different audiences using different language, after all. When Spong talks about Biblical scholarship and “our best research” as if it’s something lofty, that’s all he means.
At the end of the day, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God has always been more nuanced and less simplistic & squishy than OPLs would like Him to be. Their issue with the Bible is merely the same issue they have with the God who authored it: He is not them, and this they cannot stand. And so, in 2012, let’s move past this old albatross hanging around our collective neck and forsake these retirement-home bishops and ancient unbelieving academics desperately clinging to their tenure. Old Protestant Liberalism is a fad whose time has ended; it’s time for some progress.