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Responses from Borg and Spong
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: September 11, 2002
I have always been one who wished he could ask follow-up questions of the author when reading a book. "What do you mean by that?" "How does that fit in with this other thing you said on page 49?" "Have you considered this?" Fortunately, I was able to do just that with Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong. I corresponded with Borg by email, and with Spong by regular mail. Each kindly replied, and tried to give me a response even though he was obviously pressed for time. I am indeed grateful to them for this. You can read this correspondence if you like.
My primary goal was to simply to make sure I understood their views. Do they indeed affirm the Metaphorical Gospel theory as I've laid it out? Yes they do.
My secondary goal was to run this evidence by them to see what their responses would be. I expected that they would be too busy to give much of a reply. I did not expect that they would not have a reply to give.
Remember that I am asking questions of a mature, established theory that - by definition - should have stock answers to anything I could dream up. Furthermore, the evidence I present is so obvious and straightforward that it shouldn't come as a surprise to any scholar. And finally, the type of evidence I consider (internal and external) is exactly the kind of evidence that, presumably, would be used to prove that the theory is true.
Below is my account of the responses I received regarding the internal and external evidence.
Before I talk about their replies, I should say something about what I expected. I had been corresponding by email with Dr. Charles Young, who had been my Logic professor at Claremont Graduate School, about a different topic. I had some fundamental objections to the "material conditional" in traditional logic, and wanted to run these thoughts by him. He not only responded to me - it was clear that he already knew the standard objections, had considered them, and had long ago formulated responses to them. Although his emails were very short, he was able to give me little examples that helped clarify my ideas and which sometimes corrected misunderstandings regarding some aspect of the topic. I thought that Borg, Spong, and Crossan, if they responded at all, would do something similar.
On the other hand, there was also something else I was looking for. I must give two more real-life examples to illustrate this. Years ago, I ran across some documentary evidence (mostly early Mormon diaries) that conclusively proved that Brigham Young taught that Adam was God. This, being something denied by the Mormon Church, captured my interest, and so I sent a letter to Bruce McConkie (one of the top Mormon leaders) asking him to reply this evidence. His response was, essentially, "Don't look into this." He said "This is a snare and a trap." I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz saying "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
At the same general time, I read a book called "The Great Apostasy" by Hugh Nibley, the Mormons' top apologist. Nibley claimed that the first disciples believed everything the Mormons now believe, but that at some point in Church history, this belief became corrupted and resulted in Christianity as we know it. His argument depended on a complete ignorance of church history on the part of the reader, for he conflated four centuries into one generic time period. I wrote him and asked him to tell me which early Christians were apostates and which were true believers (since he claimed to know), and gave him a list of names (Clement, Ignatius, ... through Irenaeus). His answer was extremely vague, so I sent him the same question with place to check "believer" or "apostate" next to each name. He returned the checklist with a check on the border between the two categories. He refused to say.
From these two responses, I concluded that (a) Brigham Young did indeed teach that Adam was God, and (b) the Mormon Church had no coherent account of the apostasy.
So, I wondered what kind of response I'd get from Borg, Spong, and Crossan. Crossan never replied. Borg and Spong attempted to give a reply (which was truly appreciated). Would they give simple and sound answers to my simple questions, like Chuck Young? Or would their responses be more like those I received from McConkie and Nibley?
You should read the correspondence for yourself:
Emails with Borg
Letters with Spong
It is expected that they would give me brief answers to my questions. It's even understandable that some of their answers, written in haste, might not completely or accurately represent their position. But I have to reiterate that I was surprised by what I found. I was more than surprised - I was shocked.
It is not as if I had asked them difficult questions about their theory. Rather, I asked the very first questions that would come into somebody's mind, namely: (a) what does the New Testament authors themselves say about the meaning of the gospel, and (b) what did the people alive at the time say about the meaning of the gospel?
The "Prospective Mother-in-Law Test"
This inability to respond to common objections reminds me of a particularly humiliating experience I had, which I call the "Prospective Mother-in-Law Test."
I once took three semesters of New Testament Greek, all crowded into one intense, fast-paced summer. At the end of my ordeal, eager to impress my prospective mother-in-law with my prowess, I proudly related how much I had learned, how many vocabulary words I knew, and described how I could even wade through a Greek New Testament and translate it (with the help of a lexicon). Obviously intrigued with my accomplishments, she innocently replied, "That's wonderful. So, how do you say 'hello' in Greek?" Stunned Silence. I didn't know. I had to confess that 'hello' hadn't been one of our vocabulary words. She looked at me with great pity and compassion, and said, "Oh, I see."
I thought I had learned Greek, yet when it came down to it I couldn't even say the simplest thing. My knowledge was shallow and somewhat artificial. Needless to say, I was quickly rewarded with a new, and more realistic, perspective.
Now, what if this is the case with a theory that is taught with authority in seminaries, believed by the clergy, put forth in every new "historical Jesus" book? The rule of thumb to follow is: If your prospective mother-in-law can stump you with her first question (and mine would have asked these most obvious questions, I can assure you), you had better reconsider your theory. The unexamined theory is not worth having.