Protestant Modernism’s End

Sep 25, 2021 by

by Mark Tooley, Juicy Ecumenism:

The death of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who gained prominence by rejecting supernatural Christianity, perhaps marks the symbolic end of Protestant modernism. His New York Times obituary is fair and compressive, noting he won accolades for touting LGBTQ inclusion, and many critics for rejecting traditional Christian beliefs about the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection. His Newark Diocese plunged in membership under his reign even as he took to national television talk shows claiming he was saving Christianity from “fundamentalism.”

Spong did not engage with his targets; he sneered at them with contempt. As the Times noted, he offered a rare apology after denouncing African Christians as primitives for not heeding his strict rationalism. Spong was a proud son of the Enlightenment and insisted that science had made traditional Christianity irrelevant. He was the proud champion of 19th century German higher criticism, which saw the Bible as an unruly garden to be pruned of its supernatural weeds. What did the authors really, really, really, really mean? The discovered answer was always very different from what the church had historically understood. Spong’s views represented conventional opinion at elite liberal Mainline Protestant seminaries for most of the twentieth century, maybe until the 1970s.

Ironically, Spong launched his crusade after Protestant modernism had already begun its long retreat, about which he was evidently steadfastly unaware. His 1991 book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, was about 30 years too late. He later joined the Jesus Seminar to echo its scholars who voted at highly publicized meetings on which scriptures to reject as false. Founded by Robert Funk in 1985, the Jesus Seminar was itself a last gasp of Protestant modernism, widely covered by media not yet aware of the movement’s retreat. The Jesus Seminar, which still sort of exists online, mostly ended with its founder’s 2005 death. It really had nothing more to say, but Spong pushed on, typically addressing elderly audiences, largely comprised of retired Mainline clergy.

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