Religionless Christianity?

"I seek a Jesus beyond scripture, beyond creeds, beyond doctrines and even beyond religion itself. Only there will our gaze turn toward the mystery of God, the mystery of life, the mystery of love and the mystery of being." - John Shelby Spong

Writing from his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian, sketched a vision of what he called "Religionless Christianity." In this book, John Shelby Spong puts flesh onto the bare bones of Bonhoeffer's radical thought. The result is a strikingly new and different portrait of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jesus for the non-religious. Spong challenges much of the traditional understanding, from the tale of Jesus' miraculous birth to the account of his cosmic ascension into the sky. He questions the historicity of the ideas that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he had twelve disciples, or that the miracle stories were ever meant to be descriptions of supernatural events. He also speaks directly to those critics of Christianity who call God a "delusion" and who describe how Christianity has become evil and destructive. Spong invites his readers to look at Jesus through the lens of both the Jewish scriptures and the liturgical life of the first century synagogue. He proposes a new way of understanding the divinity of Christ as the ultimate dimension of a fulfilled humanity. Jesus for the Non-Religious may be the book that finally brings the pious and the secular into a meaningful dialogue, opening the door to a living Christianity in the post-Christian world.

Publishers Weekly commented: Spong, the iconoclastic former Episcopal bishop of Newark, details in this impassioned work both his "deep commitment to Jesus of Nazareth" and his "deep alienation from the traditional symbols" that surround Jesus. For Spong, scholarship on the Bible and a modern scientific worldview demonstrate that traditional teachings like the Trinity and prayer for divine intervention must be debunked as the mythological trappings of a primitive worldview. These are so much "religion," which was devised by our evolutionary forebears to head off existential anxiety in the face of death. What's left? The power of the "Christ experience," in which Jesus transcends tribal notions of the deity and reaches out to all people. Spong says Jesus had such great "energy" and "integrity" about him that his followers inflated to the point of describing him as a deity masquerading in human form; however, we can still get at the historical origin of these myths by returning to Jesus' humanity, especially his Jewishness.

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000. As a leading spokesperson for an open, scholarly, and progressive Christianity, Bishop Spong has taught at Harvard and at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is the author of many books, including A New Christianity for a New World and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

Click to view a video of The Burke Lecture given by Bishop Spong on Terrible Texts in the Bible which was later published as the book The Sins of Scripture.

Can one be committed to Jesus without accepting the traditional symbols and forms through which the meaning of Jesus has been communicated through the ages ?

Posted May 06, 2007


PRD said...

As you may know I am a fan of Bishop Holloway here in the UK though I am not involved formally in any religious practice. I watched the Spong video – well worth the time - Bishop Spong is very much in the Holloway tradition.

I would love to see Spong or Holloway in a debate with the likes of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Holloway and Spong reject all the things about religion that Dawkins and the other secular humanists also reject. The difference is that Spong rejects these things with humour while Dawkins does so with spite. Another difference is that Spong moves his criticisms into the Christian message of love and justice while Dawkins takes it into the world of materialism. As an agnostic verging towards atheism Holloway and Spong have kept me connected to my Christian roots. I have read The Sins of Scripture but I haven’t read the first book in this thread. I picked it up today and will comment on it specifically later.

Meanwhile I recommend the video!


Brenda Moorhead said...

i haven't got through the book yet but i watched the video. i wondered where the guy was going and my initial reaction was disbelief that he is a bishop.

however as i got into it i found it was making more and more sense and i can see how he thinks that most of the old testament is simply the narrative history of a tribal people.

the discussion at the end on the iraq war was the part i found most sympathy with and of course given that one of his daughters is flying attack helicopters in iraq gives him every credibility in his views.

Michael N. Hull said...


In the preface to the book Spong does indeed acknowledge Richard Holloway as one of three "ordained soul mates". The others are Andrew Furlong in Ireland and Susan O'Hare in Wales neither of whom I had heard of before.

I think that if Marcus Borg's theology is 80% metaphorical and 20% literalist my impression is that Spong, Holloway, Furlong and O'Hare would be close to 100% metaphorical.


Peter said...

No question! Spong and his soul mates are unquestionably 100% metaphoricists! Five loaves can not be expanded to feed thousands if so why are people starving today? Blind can’t be made to see, lame to walk, deaf to hear or mute to speak or we wouldn’t require a medical industry today. Dead people do not return to the earth and according to Spong that includes Jesus. No virgin birth and no resurrection in the physical understanding of those terms.

Spong also goes so far as to state that this is all quite well believed and understood by modern biblical research and that most progressive ministers in the Protestant reformed tradition hold these views. They just don’t openly introduce these topics directly to their congregations out of some sense of fear of what the reaction might be. Thus there is a theological divide by what is understood in the pulpit and believed in the pews. Spong things that this will eventully cause Christianity to wither and die.

There is a big argument as to whether Spong should be called ‘Christian’. The Archbishop of Canterbury is certainly not inviting him to dinner. Holloway would classify himself as a Christian Humanist and I think Spong could be fitted into this descriptor too. Spong concentrates on seeing Jesus as a human being living in a Jewish culture and his belief is that with all the mythology placed around Jesus we have lost what it was about Jesus’s humanity that caused people to build such stories around him as their oral traditions developed.


Helen Wright said...

I'm enjoying this book. Some interesting trivia.

Who knew that the Star of Bethlemen was not a unique event? A star announced the birth of Abraham, another star announced the birth of Isaac, a star announced the birth of Moses.

Helen Wright

Brenda Moorhead said...

i didn't realize that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke were so discordant. i went back and read the two of them to see if he is right. needless to say he is!

spong's point about Jesus being born in Herod's time (with him dead by 4 BCE) and Luke placing the birth in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria (after 6 CE) is strange - a 10 year gap?? the two birth stories are totally different. that was news to me!

Light Walker said...

There are many who honestly do their best to follow Christ without doing so within the context of an established religion. They are "kept from the truth only because they know not where to find it."


There is one critical component which these persons lack: the Priesthood of God. This Priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God. It is the power by which Moses parted the Red Sea and by which John baptized the faithful. Without this Priesthood many of the choicest blessings and greatest truths from God cannot be obtained. Yet there is a solution.

I agree that the Bible, as commonly published has errors. However, I do not believe that these make the Bible untrue. Rather, God has revealed additional scriptures to counter the mistakes caused by faulty, mortal translators. He has also restored his Priesthood to the Earth in this, the last dispensation, the final seal before the Second Coming of Our Lord. Prophets and Apostles once again lead His Church, and the full powers of all God's ordinances have been restored. He invites all men to come unto him and be healed, be blessed, and have happiness. He can answer every question that you cannot answer on your own. His Church and Kingdom on this earth is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

You can find out more about the answers to every question about life's nature you have ever had at

Joan Ferguson said...


Regarding Herod, I just read today on The Irish Times website a report which said:

"Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer said today he had found the sarcophagus of the Roman-anointed "King of the Jews," who ruled Judea from about 37 BC until his death in 4 BC, via an ancient staircase used in a royal funeral procession. The sarcophagus had been smashed, most likely by Jews who rebelled against Rome from 66 to 72 AD. Mr Netzer had searched for Herod's tomb at Herodium for about 30 years. Herod, born in around 74 BC, had chosen to be buried at the desert fortress he built around 23 BC and which he used as a summer palace. The burial site, in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was found more than a month ago at the end of an ancient staircase leading up to the hilltop, Mr Netzer said. "The monumental stairs were built specifically for the funeral," Netzer added. Speaking a day after the university announced the discovery, Mr Netzer said the monarch's remains most likely disappeared when the rebels raided the tomb at Herodium, where Herod's fortress palace once stood, near Jerusalem. Mr Netzer and his team concluded the tomb they unearthed, estimated to have been about 2.5 metres (eight feet) long, was Herod's because of its lavish design. No bones were found.


PRD said...

I'm up to Chapter 5!

I didn't think Spong's case on the historicity of the 12 disciples was particularly strong.

Given that the gospel stories were written years after the events from oral traditions it is not surprising that there are different accounts as to who the actual 12 were especially since there were apparently many people closely associated with Jesus including women (Mary Magdalene for example)

As to the description of Judas perhaps having been written to describe him in terms of earlier biblical narratives, I found that quite interesting. But then is that what biography was all about in those days? Authors didn't write factual accounts of a person's life they wrote 'accounts' to describe who or what he was. In Judas case, given he was a 'traitor' it would have been quite normal for authors to write about him in ways that associated him with other acts of betrayal. This was quite common in Greek and Roman biographies.


Duncan Clemens said...

What has surprised me is that Jesus is not the only one about whom miracle stories were written about raising the dead.

Peter raised a dead woman (Acts 9:36-43) and Paul raised a dead youth (Acts 20:7-12). Also there are stories about the dead being raised in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17: 17ff and 2 Kings 4: 18-37).

Being taken directly up into heaven happened to Jesus, Moses and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12).

One learns something new every day!!

This guy knows how to go through the bible with a fine tooth comb.


Peter said...

Light Walker

Re your comment on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I read an article recently by Sharon Huff at this link:

"It is entitled Mormons exist outside Christianity"

She made the point that belief in Jesus Christ does not make one a Christian; it all depends on what one believes about Jesus. She also say that 'Mormons' (sic) devalue the role of Christ. They have a polytheistic (many gods) form of religion, and Jesus is one of many spirit children. In Mormon theology, Jesus was the first of a series of gods, and we too can someday be where Jesus was. He'll always be ahead of us (picture an escalator), but we are gods and can ascend to where gods exist. Mormon deviates greatly from Christianity. The basic tenets of Christianity — such as Jesus Christ being the son of God, co-equal with God, eternal with God, and that salvation comes through Christ — are absent.

Doesn't Mormonism have some of the aspects of early Gnostic Christianity where a lot of these beliefs appear? Some of these branches of Christianity believed that everyone had the capability of becoming “Christ” by being “Christ-like” and they also saw the world in terms of many gods and of 'divine' beings trapped in earthly bodies from which they had to escape back to the divine source. There was no 'salvation' in their belief only 'escape' from this world.


Take care,

Helen Wright said...

Surprisingly I find myself quite comfortable with what Spong is saying. He seems to take a much deeper view of the bible that one hears preached from the pulpit. I find it particularly interesting how he shows that what the writers wrote in the New Testament is intimately link with what they had read in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The chapter on the crucifixion narrative where he made the case that Mark's telling of this story is basically a liturgy which describes not how Jesus actually died but how it was being interpreted liturgically. The point he makes about the 24 hours being conveniently broken up into the 3 hour segments was something I had never seen brought up before.

What I would like to know is whether this account of the crucifixion as liturgy would be accepted by other "progressive Christians" or is he completely out on a limb on his own about this?

Helen Wright

Duncan Clemens said...

Helen you asked ...

"What I would like to know is whether this account of the crucifixion as liturgy would be accepted by other "progressive Christians" or is he completely out on a limb on his own about this?"

I think Spong himself made this clear when he wrote and I quote:

"Church leaders have always known about this linkage with Hebrew scriptures, but, unable to face its implications, they devised another explanation. They applied a magical interpretation to the Hebrew scriptures and began to suggest that God had led the authors of those scriptures, the prophets in particular, to a vision of the messiah who was to come. This vision supplied them with the exact words that Jesus would say (or would cause to be said by others) and predicted the deeds that Jesus would some day perform. This in turn, they agreed, would be the sign that would demonstrate for all to see that Jesus was the expected one."

As I read this it means that Jesus did not fulfill the scriptures but rather the story about him was written to make it appear to fulfill the scriptures.


PRD said...


You said that "Being taken directly up into heaven happened to Jesus, Moses and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12)."

As I now understand this Spong says that the ascension had to be developed by Luke because Luke seems to be the one that has Jesus resurrected into a physical body so how was he to get him off this earth again if he was not to die twice. Hence, the reason why Luke took the story of Elijah's ascension in 2 Kings 2 and modelled the ascension of Jesus on this.

I found his description of the resurrection stories quite fascinating which just goes to show how little I really know about the bible!

Paul, the first writer of the Jesus story, says nothing about a resurrected body. Mark, the next writer, also has no physical appearance. The next writer, Matthew, has two narratives. One with the women appears to be a physical resurrection and the other with the disciples in Galilee is more visionary. Then when Luke and John come along and write their versions of this story in the ninth and tenth decades the stories become completely physical with a resurrected body walking around and having a meal etc.

Thus the physical resurrection appears to have been developed gradually over the half century after the crucifixion.


Michael N. Hull said...

Helen: Re your comment

I would like to know is whether this account of the crucifixion as liturgy would be accepted by other "progressive Christians" or is he completely out on a limb on his own about this?

The same question might also be asked on how he places an understanding of the atonement stories surrounding Jesus within the framework of Yom Kippur.

I found that section of the book to be very credible. I hadn't quite understood before the origins of the terms "Lamb of God" and "Scapegoat".

Also the strange case of Barabbas and Spong's analysis that "Bar" is one of two Hebrew words that mean "son" and "Abba" is the word used for "God" or "father". So accoring to him, Bar-Abbas means nothing less that "son of God".

What makes this intriguing is that just as in Yom Kippur there are two animals - one that is sacrificed, the lamb of God; and one that is set free, the scapegoat - so in the story of the cross there are two sons of God - one who is sacrificed, Jesus; the other who is set fee, Barabbas.

The lamb and the scapegoat!


Helen Wright said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for this thread! I don't know if you would agree but the best chapter is the one "Jesus: A Man for All Jewish Seasons"?

The probability that Mark wrote his gospel to fit it into the Jewish liturgical year is something I had never come across before. It is quite surprising to see how he fits this gospel into each of the Sabbath days from Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth and Hanukkah.

Also the way that Matthew and Luke had to add to Mark to extend the Jesus story into the full Jewish year by adding in the birth and genealogy stories is very strong. Mark only wrote enough for six and a half months so Matthew and Luke filled in the other five and a half months.

It is now clear why the synoptic gospels only have the ministry of Jesus lasting for one year. That was the length of the Jewish liturgical year into which the story of Jesus was fitted and threaded.


Helen Wright

PRD said...

My reaction on finishing this book was like a recent visit to the movies. I came out after having enjoyed the first two thirds of the movie wondering what the ending was all about.

Spong places Jesus into a wholly human context. He then totally dismisses the 'theistic God' as only have been needed to help humans with their feelings of insecurity about death. All of this is replaced with seeing God in Jesus through his character.

What is the difference here in the God of Spong and the Hero in Ayn Rand's novel 'Atlas Shrugged'? Both seem to be saying that the 'good life' is to be found in the dignity and characteristics of human beings. Ayn Rand calls this 'reason and rationality' while Spong seems to call it his version of 'God'.


Joan Ferguson said...

PRD I see you point and I agree with it. Ayn Rand also popped into my mind when I read the introduction to Chapter 24 which said

"Being a Christian is not to be a religious human being; it is to be a whole human being. Jesus is a protrait of that wholeness; and that is why he is for me, in his complete humanity, the ultimate expression of God."

On the other hand, I agreed with what he said about how one can only experience God through his analogy with insects and horses. I am quoting here

"I cannot tell anyone who God is or what God is. Neither can anyone else .... The reality of God can never be defined. It can only be experienced ...Theism is an inadequate human definition of God that needs to be surrendered. When I seek to speak of my experience of God, I can do so only with human analogies. Insects cannot tell anyone what it is like to be a bird. Horses cannot tell anyone what it is like to be human. Human beings cannot tell anyone what it is like to be God"

Therein lies the whole mystery of who we are, why we are here, where are we going etc etc.


Derek Bell said...

On I read a review of this book by Peggy H. Smith which said:

“Of all the books I have read, John Shelby Spong has the most realistic view of Jesus - one that makes sense in this day. It takes Jesus out of the realm of supranatural beings and into a world of people. Jesus might have been the most perfect man ever born, but he was still just a man - a fully human person - born to a real woman. Exploring the politics, cultures and religions of Jesus' day, Spong uses Jesus' parables, miracles, analogies and teachings to show us the way to understand and accept this man, Jesus, as one of us. Now I can finally invite Jesus into my life...not as a personal savior which I don't need, but as a man who can lead me in a better way of life.”

This summarized exactly what I thought of the book. My question now is what is the difference between Spong’s Christianity and Buddhism?

D. Bell