Homosexuality and Sexual Ethics – Program 1

By: Dr. Walter Martin, Dr. John Spong, Roger Montgomery; ©1989
Is Jesus God? Is Jesus the Savior? Can we trust what the Bible says about Jesus?

Who is Jesus?

John Ankerberg: Welcome! We’re glad that you’ve joined us. We’re here in Dallas, Texas, bringing you this debate. And tonight, my guests are Bishop John Spong, the very controversial Episcopalian bishop from Newark, New Jersey, and he’s representing the “new morality,” as he states, and calling for sexual ethics which fall outside what is believed to be the traditional moral norm. And on the other side is Dr. Walter Martin, who is representing historic orthodox Christianity and traditional Christian ethics. And tonight, gentlemen, I’m glad that you’re both here.
Bishop Spong, I want to come to you. And because television is so brief, and we have to get right down to the point, I hope you’ll pardon me if I give you one of the toughest questions right at the beginning. But we’re friends, and I enjoy your friendship and sometimes friends can disagree. And so let’s start with a tough one; but notice that I’m trying to couch it in the best terms I possibly can, okay?
I’ve read your books, and in reading your books lately, I think that the question that many people that are Christians across the country would want me to ask first off, as they have heard you on television, as they have read your books and as they’ve heard what you’ve said in print in the newspapers: you deny that Jesus is God; you deny the Bible is the literal Word of God; you deny the biblical definition of sin; you reject the biblical teaching on salvation—that a person must believe in Jesus Christ in order to have his sins forgiven; you reject the traditional Christian doctrines of heaven and hell; you reject the Ten Commandments for the most part; you deny the literal physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. For starters. Now, my tough question is this: If you deny all of those things, you are a Christian?
Bishop John Spong: Well, first of all, I’d say that about 99% of those assumptions are inaccurate.
Ankerberg: Which one would you say is inaccurate?
Spong: Well, take any one. Which one would you like to start with?
Ankerberg: Well, “Jesus is not God.” You say in This Hebrew Lord, “The simplistic suggestion that Jesus is God is nowhere made in the Bible story. Nowhere.”
Spong: Yes.
Ankerberg: Or, “The Bible is not the Word of God…
Spong: No.
Ankerberg: …if we take the Bible seriously, we will not be able to take it literally,” et cetera.
Spong: Well, let’s take the first one.
Ankerberg: Okay, “Jesus is not God.”
Spong: But what I said in the book was, “The simplistic claim that Jesus is God is not affirmed in Scripture.” By that I mean that when Jesus was the Incarnate One, He prayed to God He was not talking to Himself. He had the sense of God beyond Himself. He died; God did not die when Jesus died. God was still there with the power of resurrection. So that to make the “simplistic” identification between Jesus in His incarnation and God is not part of the Christian narrative. What the Christian narrative, it seems to me, says, is that God was in Christ; that when we meet Christ we meet God. I cannot think of God apart from Jesus Christ. I cannot think of Jesus Christ apart from God. But I think the whole doctrine of the Trinity in the Christian tradition was an attempt to keep separate while affirming the unity. I do not believe there is a separation between God and Jesus that would cause me to say that Jesus is not God’s saving revelation in human history.
Ankerberg: Alright, Dr. Martin, you’ve written a classic book called The Kingdom of the Cults, and it seems like under the chapter “The Jehovah’s Witnesses” that same kind of idea comes up in a different form. But what would you respond to Bishop Spong concerning what he said about Jesus?
Dr. Walter Martin: I think what we’re dealing with is what has been called “theobabble.” The Bishop makes a statement, clear-cut: “Jesus is not God… a simplistic idea.” Then, when asked about it, the Bishop says, “But actually that’s not what I meant.” And that would be true virtually of all the propositions which were enumerated.
The problem is that the Episcopal doctrine “Affirmation of the Trinity” says that “Jesus is God the Son, Second Person of the Trinity.” When the Bishop took his ordination vows, the Bishop said, “I will obey Jesus Christ.” The Bishop said he was subject to the authority of the Scriptures. The Scriptures say—not simplistically but clearly—“Jesus is God the Son,” very clearly: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was face-to-face with God, the Word was God… and the Word became flesh.” [John 1:1, 14] Every time he celebrates the Eucharist in the Episcopal Church, he is affirming John 1. Even though he may not want to believe it, he’s doing it.
Jesus made the statement Himself that He was God in the clearest possible terms. In John 8 the Jews said to Him, “You’re not 50 years old and you have seen Abraham?” Jesus said, “Before Abraham came into existence, I Am.” [John 8:57-58] The Bishop knows perfectly well it’s a quotation from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew, the “King James Bible” of the day. The Jews understood it. In verse 59 they reached for rocks to kill Him. “Why do you stone me?” “Not for your good works but for blasphemy, and that thou, being a man, are making yourself out to be God.”
One of the clearest-cut doctrines of historic Christianity and of biblical theology is the eternal deity of Jesus Christ. To make such statements, outright, “He is not God,” however to equivocate afterwards, is to do a great disservice to the Lord you swore, when you were ordained, that you would defend.
Ankerberg: Bishop Spong, right along in that area, in affirming what you were saying there, it ties in also to who Jesus is and what He does. For example, you say, “Whatever brings affirmation becomes a savior and we will bow and worship before it no matter how bizarre its shape might be. Salvation is to make life whole and free, sensitive to the selves we are, the neighbor we love.” That’s not exactly what most Christians believe is said about Jesus as being the Savior. They see people as fallen from God in the sense of they have sinned deliberately, and they need forgiveness which Christ provided by His sacrificial death on the cross for their sins. He offers them a gift. But I don’t hear that in your writings.
Spong: I think it’s important that we go back and let me respond to Dr. Martin….
Ankerberg: Yeah. I’d like you to bring both of those together in terms of who Jesus is as well as His being the Savior.
Spong: Well, I think the difficulty is that we’re talking about the way people described an experience. Part of the evangelical Christian tradition that you represent is that the first, foremost and primary thing is the individual experience that a person has with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. I think we need to get that experience back into our understanding of the Scriptures. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all wrote about their experience of God in Jesus, but they wrote in very different ways, and they wrote in very different times.
It’s interesting that Dr. Martin quotes the fourth gospel in both of his references, and particularly the quotation when Jesus was talking about His origins and the Jewish people were saying, “You’re not 50 years old,…” and the Johannine Christ responds with the words, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” [John 8:57-58] I think you need to relate that narrative to the context in which John wrote his gospel; to the experience of the Christian people that was going on about 100 AD when that gospel was written; and most particularly you need to understand that when the fourth gospel was written, the Jewish Christian people had been excommunicated from the synagogue where they were still participants, and John was a part of that situation. And when he wrote his gospel, he wrote it so that Jewish people could hear him talk about the experience of Jesus Christ.
Where does that phrase “I Am” come from? It comes out of the Old Testament; it comes out of the book of Exodus; it comes out of the burning bush where the name of God was given to Moses with the Hebrew phrase that we translate Yahweh, but which is a part of the verb “to be.” [Ex. 3:14] And we translate that “I am that I am” or “I will be that I will be.” And John was claiming for Jesus in that particular quotation identity with the great “I Am” of the burning bush story. But you don’t get to that simply by taking the Scripture of John and looking at it. I’m quite convinced, and I don’t mind saying Jesus Christ is my personal Savior. I was raised in the South in a fundamentalist tradition. I understand that. I have no problems with that.
Ankerberg: Alright, I appreciate that, but you say, “Jesus could not be the substitute Savior that so many theories of the atonement seem to suggest.”
Spong: That’s correct.
Ankerberg: You have written, “A God who would crucify Jesus to satisfy an offended sense of justice is no God for our generation. A substitute savior will not translate in our day, if indeed it ever really did.” So, obviously, there’s a breakdown here, and I think, Walter, that we need to have you respond to this thing of ego eimi.
Martin: Well, the Bishop makes the statement, “the Johannine Christ.” Is the Johannine Christ different from the Matthean Christ? The Lukan Christ? The Markan Christ? Is John really the author of the book? Was he really an eyewitness? Bishop, did Jesus really say that?
Spong: I don’t think He did, no. And I don’t think that John was an eyewitness, not the John that wrote that book. Most biblical scholars would date the fourth gospel around the turn of the century. John Zebedee would have been over a hundred years old at that time. I’d say that most biblical scholars believe that that book was written by one of John Zebedee’s disciples. I would accept the authorship theory that it was John the Elder, of Ephesus, who was a disciple of John Zebedee. But I don’t know any biblical scholars of significant note in the world of biblical scholarship today that would say John Zebedee is the author of the fourth gospel.
But even more important, you see, you’ve got a time lag that is very dramatic. I read the Bible every day of my life. It is the most important book in my life. But I think it’s important that we understand it. The Pauline corpus, most scholars believe Paul did his writing somewhere between 49 and 64. If we date the crucifixion at 30, which is what is generally done, 30 AD, it means Paul is writing 19 to 34 years after the time. That means the Christian tradition has lived in some “oral” way from that period of time until Paul does the first Christian writing. Mark is dated 65 to 70; Luke and Matthew are dated 85 or so; John is the most difficult to date. And there are scholars that date John all over the book from about 70 AD to about 100 AD.
Ankerberg: Alright, I want to bring up two things concerning the dating of the books and are they eyewitness writers or not. Obviously, Luke said he was an eyewitness. He said in Luke 1:1-4, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us [obviously he is saying there are others that had written accounts about “the things accomplished among us,” the life of Jesus] just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word [he says they’re eyewitnesses and they handed them down to us], it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”
So it seems to me here, fellows, that Luke is saying he not only got it from other eyewitnesses, but those eyewitnesses were not just giving oral accounts, they had written accounts. And he didn’t even trust the written accounts; he went and checked that with other eyewitnesses of what they had said.
Concerning the fourth gospel, in John 19:35 the author says, “He who saw it has borne witness, his testimony is true; and he knows he tells the truth.” And the external documentation is, you’ve got some of the fellows that were the Church Fathers, Papias and Irenaeus seemed to be directly coming from the apostle John, and they put in their writings that it did come from John as an eyewitness. And the same for Matthew and Mark. Now, that’s external evidence that would suggest that what they claimed, namely that they were eyewitnesses, was true. How do you work that into your theory?
Spong: Well, I would say, first of all, that what you read from Luke I think proves rather conclusively that he was not an eyewitness.
Ankerberg: Even though he said he was?
Spong: He didn’t say that. He said he had consulted with those who had been and he had seen others’ documents. And I don’t know any biblical scholar, John, who believes that Luke was an eyewitness to the events that he writes about. Now, you may quote whoever you’ve got…
Ankerberg: Well, Westcott and Hort, their Greek New Testament…
Spong: Well, but they would not…
Ankerberg: …Westcott wrote a whole deal on the epistle of John.
Spong: They were nineteenth century people and I think biblical scholarship has come a long way in that period of time.
Ankerberg: How about A. T. Robertson?
Spong: John A. T. Robinson? John A. T. Robinson, when he wrote his book on the dating of the New Testament, the book did not fly. It was his only failure. And it didn’t fly because…
Ankerberg: I know he was your mentor, and he pushed the dates back to…
Spong: Very much, but those dates were never accepted in the New Testament world.
Ankerberg: I’ll give you a world-famous New Testament scholar, and that’s F. F. Bruce, who was the professor at Manchester University, Professor of John Rylands Papyrus, the classics there. And F. F. Bruce said that these had to be eyewitnesses. And he taught and he wrote a book, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?, and in that book he made the statement, it had to be reliable; because if they came out in the dates that you are suggesting, and even more so if your mentor, A. T. Robinson, if he was correct, if they are within 20 to 30 years, as Albright says, within a generation of the time Jesus passed off the scene, that meant it came out when people that were living when Jesus said it—both friends and enemies—were still alive. And if an account such as Mark 2 had never happened, I’m sure the scribes who were said to be there in the account would have been glad to point that out, because it was a hairy event. Or these other things, F. F. Bruce said, “Look, they couldn’t have gotten away with it, because it came out while the people that were living [when the event occurred] were still alive.”
Spong: Well, let me say, first of all, that there’s a difference between saying that they are eyewitnesses and saying they’re not reliable. I think they’re quite reliable. I think that what happens is that the oral tradition, the saving tradition of the Christian community, kept these stories alive in a very reliable way. And the disciples of the disciples became authors in time. But each author wrote for a very different reason, and each author slanted his gospel for a very different purpose because they wrote for a different audience. And I think that’s something that we ought to just accept. No, I’m not a biblical “literalist,” and if we define biblical “fundamentalism” to be literal belief in every word of the Scripture being without error, I would say I am not; neither is the church that I represent. But I do take the Bible seriously, and I believe that I meet the living Word of God in the words of Holy Scripture. That’s why I study this book every day of my life.
Ankerberg: John, if you say to me, “You know, I really like the phone book, and I take it seriously but I just don’t take it literally.” You know, it’s hard to get information out of something when it says a statement you don’t take it at face value to start with.
Spong: But in the first century and in the early second century, authors who felt they were true to the writings of their mentors would use their mentors’ names. I don’t know any New Testament scholars, for example, that think Paul wrote the pastoral epistles, but a disciple of Paul wrote the pastoral epistles and used Paul’s name. It’s a very different Paul that you meet in…
Ankerberg: Okay. Dr. Walter Martin?
Martin: I think it’s terribly important to realize what’s going on here. We are doing away with the authority of the apostles; we are truly subjective: pay your nickel—take your choice. John didn’t write John; Matthew didn’t write Matthew; Mark didn’t write Mark; Luke didn’t write Luke.
Spong: I think Mark probably wrote Mark.
Martin: Well, that’s a good concession. I mean, that’s one out of four.
Spong: But Mark was not one of the Twelve.
Martin: But the point still remains that you keep saying, “I don’t know any biblical scholars that hold these positions.” Bishop Spong, I don’t think you are acquainted with how many evangelical scholars there are who have as many degrees from as many good universities and schools as any that you have listed in your liberal upbringing. I was an Episcopalian. I was raised in the Episcopal Church. When the church began, in my experience, to really deviate in some of its teachings, it began to let people such as yourself and Bishop Pike and others take positions of authority where they could controvert the Scripture without being disciplined, where they could say whatever they wanted to say. In the 30’s when I was an Episcopalian we would have tried you for heresy and thrown you out of the church.
Spong: I doubt it. I doubt that seriously.
Martin: See, but it couldn’t be done today, because Bishop Pike has paved the way. But this is the point that I would like to make, a very important one: you don’t have to go to John. Paul says, “Jesus Christ is the great God and our Savior.” [Titus 2:13] In Colossians 2:9 he says, “For in Him dwells pleroma teis theotetos,” all of God, all that can be meaningful of God, “in human flesh.”
Spong: I don’t disagree with that.
Martin: No, you do.
Spong: No, I don’t disagree with that.
Martin: You do not believe in incarnate Deity. You believe Jesus is a manifestation subjectively of God but not objectively God Himself in human flesh. You do not believe that. Your books are filled with this. Your quotations are filled with this. I’m saying that the historic doctrine of the Church and of the Bible is that He is God incarnate: God in human flesh. Now, you state here, and I quote you from The Easter Moment: “Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus? The question is both naive and biblically illiterate. For the resurrection of Jesus in the Bible is distinctly not physical resuscitation, which is what the question presumes.”
Bishop! It is as clear as crystal that Jesus Christ presented Himself alive after His death by presenting His body to His disciples. And the disciples took the position that He was a spirit, in Luke 24, and they specifically said in the passage where they were frightened, “Jesus said, ‘Why are you frightened? Why are you disturbed? Handle me and see; a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see me have.’” [Luke 24:38-39] Now, if that’s not physical we’re going to have to redefine the terms “flesh and bones.”
Secondly, “theologically illiterate” to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ?! Augustine is illiterate? Aquinas is illiterate? Irenaeus is illiterate? Luther? Calvin? Zwingli? Knox? Wesley? Everybody’s illiterate but you? I think not.
Spong: That’s a heavy sort of a response, Doctor. Let me try to put that into a context. I think we’ve got to define some terms. I believe in the resurrection; I wrote a book to demonstrate my belief in the resurrection.
Ankerberg: Would you define “resurrection,” though, for us?
Spong: Yes, well, I don’t know how you do that. I believe that Jesus was alive in a way that was experienced and beyond a shadow of a doubt after He was crucified. Now, is it physical? I would say that when I read Luke’s gospel that you’ve just quoted, I am told there was a locked and barred upper room where the windows were closed and locked and the doors were closed and locked and Jesus appeared in the midst of them. Is that physical? The last time I tried to walk through a wall I hurt my nose. I just think what we’re dealing with is something so much bigger than the human language can incorporate. In the Luke story, the Emmaus Road story, Jesus is walking along the road with these two disciples, Cleopas and the other disciple. They get to their destination. Jesus enters into a dialogue with them about Scripture. He then enters into a breaking of the bread experience with them, this is Luke 24, and then He disappears out of their sight. I don’t believe physical bodies can just disappear!
Ankerberg: So you don’t think that happened?
Spong: Oh, no, I didn’t say that. I’m just saying that I don’t know that the witness of Scripture… there are certainly some passages that say, “Handle me and see.” He eats fish. He invites Thomas to touch His hands. But those are all in what I think is a later tradition that is incorporated into Holy Scripture. There’s not a verse in the Bible that does not assume the reality of the resurrection. Not a verse. At least not in the New Testament. Not one verse that does not assume the reality of the resurrection. But there is great confusion in the gospel narratives themselves about a lot of the details of that resurrection, great confusion! You cannot harmonize Luke with John, for example. John is quite sure that the risen Lord was ascended and then appeared after His ascension and poured out the Holy Spirit all on Easter day. Luke says, no, He was raised from the dead; He appeared to the disciples; He ascended 40 days later; and then He poured out His Holy Spirit. Those are quite contradictory.
Ankerberg: I would like to recommend to you two outstanding books. One is written by another Anglican and a Cambridge grad, of all people, and professor, The Easter Enigma by John Wenham; as well as I would suggest that you take a look at J. N. D. Anderson’s Christianity and the Witness of History, a lawyer who is in England as well, who sifts the very evidence that you say that cannot be harmonized. And John Wenham actually lived in the Holy Land and walked the actual paths, timed it, and gave us all kinds of relevant details that other Anglicans such as John Stott, who holds to the fact of the eyewitness theories concerning the documents, as well as the fact that they can be harmonized without throwing your brains away. These men have written huge books, and I would recommend them deeply. Both Greek scholars from Cambridge. Dr. Walter Martin, we didn’t get to the topic we were going toward tonight, but why don’t you summarize and make a statement as we leave the air tonight?
Martin: I think the fact is that we see two diametrically opposite positions here. We see destructive higher criticism of the Bible, which originated essentially in the nineteenth century, attacking the historicity of biblical theology. And the position that I am taking is the position which the Episcopal Church held, which is the position which the Roman Catholic Church held, the Orthodox Church, the Reformed Churches, which is that the Scripture, in context, is to be taken literally, except otherwise when you have evidence of language differences, poetry, different forms of speech. You take it in its plainest sense, which is literally. It does not mean you believe every single thing literally, but you take the literal truth of what it says. I think there’s a difference between Bishop Spong’s position and the Church’s position; the historic Church’s position is very clear: He does not believe objectively the Scripture is the Word of God, and I think the Church has always maintained this.
Ankerberg: Alright. We’re going to pick this up next week and let’s get down to our topic, which is homosexuality, premarital sex, as well as what has God put in the Bible: what is morality? Those kinds of things. We’ll look at some of the Scriptures and we’ll bring out some of these theories and I hope that you will join us next week.

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