Posted by November 4, 2011on
“Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from [aphistēmi] the living God,” writes the author of Hebrews (Heb. 3:12 NRSV). For this scenario to occur, an individual must have once believed in the living God, in order for him or her to turn away from the same. The Greek word aphistēmi, translated here as “turns away from,” refers to a removal, an (active) instigate to revolt, to desist, desert, depart and withdraw self.1
Developing an “evil, unbelieving heart” cannot be thought of in fictional or hypothetical terms. Warnings in Scripture are beyond the scope of the nonsensical. If developing an “evil, unbelieving heart” is not possible for the believer, then warning the believer against such a state is nonsensical. Developing an evil, unbelieving heart is, according to noted Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, “rather the active disbelief, refusal to believe.”2 Hence, the believer actually devolves progressively into an evil, unbelieving state — not all at once, necessarily, but a gradual de-evolution into apostasy — a “drifting away from” truth once held (cf. Heb. 2:1), and he does so intentionally, not accidentally.
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong is a portrait of such an apostate. This is not ground-breaking news. I am not communicating any truth here with which any orthodox Christian would disagree. He is a damnable heretic who preaches damnable heresies. He does not believe in the God of the Bible, nor the Christ of Scripture, nor in Scripture itself. We are as likely to see Spong in heaven, kneeling before the throne of Christ in worship, as we are to see Hitler doing the same.
I make such strong comments in order to shake up the complacent “believers” who would support Spong, including publishing houses which publish his books and people who attend his conferences. Such persons are promoting a man who opposes God’s kingdom. Spong’s repentance would be glorious, and I pray for his salvation. Only God knows how deep is his apostasy. From all appearances, and according to Hebrews 6:4-6, repentance may be too late, which is frightening, to say the least.
My real perplexity, however, is not how this man became an idolatrous apostate, but, much more importantly, why the Episcopal Church of the United States did not excommunicate him. This speaks volumes about the current state of the Episcopal Church in America than it does of Spong himself. This, as some of my closest friends know, disturbs me on a personal level, because I have so much respect for the historic Episcopal Church in America — the former State Church of Virginia, my birthplace.
On Spong’s website, you can listen to a brief snippet of his message “Beyond Theism,” by clicking on his “About Bishop Spong” tab. In the opening of this brief lecture he states:
Suppose we change our “God” definition? Suppose we take God out of the sky and strip God of the supernatural power which we have created in Him and placed upon this divine Being? And suppose we begin to think of “God” as a presence at the very heart of life?
What Spong really wants is to de-personalize God — transform Him into an impersonal force or presence. If we were to “change our ‘God’ definition,” we would be acknowledging a problem with Christianity’s “definition” of God for nearly two thousand years. But what is wrong with our definition of God? If we have missed God completely, how did we do so? What is our guiding principle for getting us back on track with accurately defining God? Well, for Spong, the answer will not be found in Scripture, because he does not believe in Scripture’s authority or divine origin. The Bible is no more than antiquated opinions of misguided farmers and uneducated, homophobic, misogynist fishermen.
Spong holds to what he calls Twelve Points for Reform.3 In this list he denies the basic tenets of Christianity. Spong is not calling for Reformation; he wants to redefine the principles of the Christian faith; he is seeking to lay another foundation for Christianity. He denies deity to God Himself; he denies the virgin birth, incarnation, atonement, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ; he finds no reason to accept miracles; he rejects the creation account — the world being created by God, as well as the creation roles given by design to humanity; he denies the viability of prayer; and he denies reward and punishment in eternity based on “behavior.” In other words, he has denied every facet of orthodox Christianity held since the time Jesus walked the earth, and has imagined for himself a god made in his own, idolatrous image.
The so-called “warning passages” to believers throughout Scripture are not there to no purpose. This is why most Classical Arminians and all Wesleyan-Arminians hold to Conditional Perseverance. “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1 NRSV). To whom is the author referring? Who are the we, who must “pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it”? If we, meaning “believers,” cannot drift away from the truth of the gospel, then why must we be warned about drifting away?
I have struggled with the warning passages since 2008, and I admit that I have floundered a bit between an Eternal Security and a Conditional Perseverance position. While I think there is greater weight for the latter, I empathize with those who hold the former. Every time I return to studying this subject, as I just did recently, I end up siding with the Conditional Perseverance position.
Nevertheless, as we find example after example4 of believers who have turned away from the living God (cf. Heb. 3:12), who once held fast to Him, and given that the Holy Spirit has forewarned us that “in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1 NRSV), we must, then, as inspired Scripture informs us, “pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1 NRSV). Men like Spong began their drift toward apostasy when they rejected the inerrancy, infallibility and authority of Scripture. We would be wise in Christ our Savior to cling to Scripture in the same absolute manner as did He: “It is written” (cf. Matt. 4:4).
1 James Strong, Strong’s Complete Word Study: Expanded Edition, ed. Warren Baker (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2004), 2039.
2 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Concise Edition (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2000), 563.
3 Spong’s list includes the following:
- Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
- 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. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
- The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
- The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
- The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
- The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
- Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
- The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
- There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
- Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
- The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
- All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
4 For a very brief list, we have in our own day not only John Shelby Spong, but also well known figures such as Marcus Borg (and so many other Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists, etc.), John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, Richard Dawkins, Hector Avalos and a host of others who could be named.