Twenty years ago, before I had the privilege of entering the Catholic Church through the Pastoral Provision for Former Anglican Clergy, I was an Episcopal priest during the “ecclesiacide” engineered by Bishop John Shelby Spong. The instrument of execution was his “Twelve Theses,” an heretical collection of denials of the basic articles of Christian faith that he promulgated in 1998, as a kind of Wittenberg Door caricature. I reproduce it here for the benefit of Catholic readers who have probably never seen it and realized how much of what it contains is still abroad in our churches.
Thesis #1 “Theism as a way of defining God is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as a being, supernatural in power, living above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So most theological God-talk today is meaningless. We must find a new way to conceptualize and to speak about God.”
Thesis #2 “Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as ‘the incarnation of the theistic deity.’ The traditional concepts of Christology of the ages are, therefore, bankrupt.”
Thesis #3 “The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into original sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense!”
Thesis #4 “The virgin birth understood as literal biology makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.”
Thesis #5 “The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in our post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.”
Thesis #6 “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbaric idea, based on primitive concepts of God that must be dismissed.”
Thesis #7 “Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. Resurrection, therefore, cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.”
Thesis #8 “The story of the ascension of Jesus assumes a three-tiered universe and is, therefore, not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.”
Thesis #9 “There is no eternal, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.”
Thesis #10 “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”
Thesis #11 “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior-control morality of reward and punishment. The church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.”
Thesis #12 “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for the person that each of us is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, and no creed based on human words developed in the religion in which one is raised can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”
The internal logical contradictions (compare theses 1 and 12, for example – what God, what image?) are numerous. The moral relativism and subjectivism are patent.
But as theologically preposterous as they are to an orthodox Catholic mind, Spong’s work could not have had the radical success that it did in the Episcopal Church, which today is on the verge of extinction, without the complicity of the Episcopal Church’s bishops by virtue of their refusal to sanction him and reject his theses. The deficiency of the absence of authority in the Anglican Communion was extremely poignant in this case.
It has been remarked more than once that when the consecrating bishops gathered around a new bishop to lay hands upon him at his consecration, what was really happening was that they were performing a “spinectomy” (i.e., removal of moral courage) and requiring an oath that the newly consecrated bishop would never challenge the theological meanderings of the other bishops. This brings to mind Edmund Burke’s famous phrase that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
We have some courageous and faithful bishops in the Catholic Church who have influenced my life and ministry, and those of many others as well. This is the time for renewed ardor in the face of theological challenges of, at best, playing fast and loose with Church doctrine and, at worst, of heresy in the Americas and abroad.
The words of Jude’s epistle are as urgent today as ever:
I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
No wonder this epistle has never made it into the lectionary. I certainly hope that the current episcopal (small “e”) theological meanderings, especially in the United States and Europe, do not play out in the Catholic Church as they did in the Episcopal Church. I’ve seen that happen before, and it does not end well.
*Image: Jude the Apostle by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1620 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]