In his address, Spong declared Christianity's "old symbols increasingly are bankrupt ... [and] the new symbols have not yet fully arisen so that they are recognized." He compared the present day with that of Augustine, Aquinas, or the 16th-century Reformers - a moment of "paradigm shift" that "calls for the death of what has been and the birth of what is to be - and that is never a comfortable time." In particular, he said, the titles "savior," "redeemer," and "rescuer" applied to Jesus in liturgies, hymns, and sermons have "become bankrupt, useless, and even distorted ... I think all of them have got to go."
"What is the problem with these titles?" Spong asked. "They all imply a particular definition of human life, which I think is false. ... [W]e are constantly insulting our humanity out of a particular theological frame of reference. We are beggars approaching God. We are telling God how unworthy we are." Such a theological construct, said Spong, is "simply not true. ... It is therefore bad anthropology, and no one can build good theology on bad anthropology."
"Our problem is not a fall into sin," maintained Spong. "It is that we have not yet achieved our full humanity."
The source of acts of evil, said Spong, is found in humanity's survival instinct, "the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries." Because it is part of human nature, "our only hope is that we are lifted beyond it. We have to be called, we have to be merged into a humanity that somehow finally escapes survival as our driving force."
Words like savior and redeemer and rescuer "simply lock us into the old paradigm," Spong argued. Instead, telling the story of Jesus "as the source of love calling us to love beyond every boundary, to love wastefully, to give it away, to never stop and count the cost: that's a new image of what it means to be human."
I won't waste time by critically assessing any of this (others have done that work quite well with regard to Spong's published writings). But I will say that Bishop Spong is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of an increasingly post-Christian society. Instead of saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord," however, Spong declares a different message: "Catch the wave of the 'paradigm shift' by purging the Church of creedal Christianity and classic consensual ecumenical teaching. Then, exercising the authority of your own private judgment, and for the sake of being 'relevant,' create something new to replace the old, dull, dead dogma."
By contrast to Spong's project, note these words from the preface in Thomas Oden's Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology:
I wish to provide neither a new interpretation of old ideas, nor a new language that is more acceptable for modern sensibilities. Rigorous accountability to the ancient teachers themselves is a large enough task, without adding to it other heavy burdens. If that seems irregular, it can be viewed as a response to a prevailing excess, one that inordinately emphasizes self-expression, often exaggerated in current self-importance. I do not pretend to have found a comfortable way of making Christianity tolerable to vanishing forms of modernity. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no new way to salvation. The road is still narrow.
I do not have the gift of softening the sting of the Christian message, of making it seem light or easily borne or quickly assimilated into prevailing modern ideas. I do not wish to make a peace of bad conscience with dubious "achievements of modernity" or pretend to find a comfortable way of making Christianity expediently acceptable to modern assumptions. If Paul found that "the Athenians in general and foreigners there had not time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty (Acts 17:21), so have I found too much talk of religion today obsessed with novelty.
I am dedicated to unoriginality. My aim is to present classical Christian teaching of God on its own terms, undiluted by modern posturing. I take to heart Paul's admonition: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!" (Gal. 1:8, 9; emphasis added by Oden).
Truly, the difference between Spong and Oden is a difference that makes a difference!
I'm reminded of something James Griffiss wrote in his book The Anglican Vision: "I believe ... that our [Anglican] history and foundations demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change - continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require." Spong's project repudiates continuity for the sake of change. By contrast, I think that Oden's book embodies continuity in ways that enable faithful interpretation of the gospel in changing situations. (I would say the same thing about Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.)
So yes, let's shift the paradigm. But let's shift it away from "progressive" attempts to drive the Church off the Christian reservation. Instead of novelty and "relevance," let's focus on continuity and faithfulness to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. For, as Dorothy Sayers once put it, "It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama."