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Commentary


Bishop Sprague Settles For Less

by Arden C. Autry


It is evident from the Sprague quotations found in Gibson's article, Complaint Against Sprague Deserves Fair Hearing, that the bishop's Christology is deficient. The deficiency can more accurately be called "adoptionism" (in which a mere human is "adopted" to be God's Son and Messiah), rather than "Arianism" as Gibson proposes. The closest thing to Arianism these days is probably the doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They say that Jesus (the human) was an angelic being before coming to earth as the baby Jesus. Arius himself claimed more than that for Jesus; Sprague settles for less!

Arius believed (as described in the Gibson article) that Christ was the incarnation of a being higher than angels. Arius believed that the Word was subordinate to the Heavenly Father, not only in obedience but in essence. Therefore, the Son was essentially different from God (i.e., not of the same substance), even though the Son was incomparably higher than mere humans or angels. In other words, Arius denied that Jesus was "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." Arius believed that Jesus was the unique Son of God, but not as eternal, not as fully God as God himself. Arius believed that Christ was an exalted being, who existed before the world was created but who nevertheless was a created being.

Sprague's view is actually quite different from that of Arius, and further from orthodoxy. Sprague's stated preference for understanding Jesus in a "relational" way rather than "substantial" should make us read carefully, for by this choice of words he candidly discounts the language of the Nicene Creed, which speaks emphatically of Jesus' being "of one substance with the Father," or "of one Being with the Father" (as found in the UM Hymnal, p. 880). So what does Sprague prefer rather than the language of the Creed? He believes that the difference in Jesus was his "radical and complete trust in and commitment to the God he called 'Abba.'" Because of this radical trust and commitment, Jesus "experienced" God in such a way that his life is a revelation of the heart of God.

On its own, and as far as it goes, this is not a bad thing to say about Jesus. On its own, it sounds so good that it would be easy to miss what's missing: How is Jesus truly unique? Couldn't someone else--even someone who had never heard of Jesus--develop the same sort of transparency? Does a person really need to know Jesus to be like Jesus? Can I be like Jesus--totally transparent to God's presence--to the point that I don't need Jesus? Is it possible that someone could even surpass Jesus in transparency?

In other words, Sprague's view of Christ makes Jesus an inspiring example of openness to God, but less than God in his being. In such a view we can be inspired to try to imitate Jesus' example. The fatal problem with such a view is that if we refuse to see Jesus as the Savior (as God himself crossing the gap to humanity, with power to save us), our attempts to imitate must be attempts to be Jesus' equal. Jesus will be regarded as the first Christian (whom we imitate) but not the divine Christ who saves us. Jesus will be part of "the church" (i.e., part of redeemed humanity) but not the church's Lord, not the church's Redeemer.

One other thing I would like to observe about the Sprague quotation in Gibson's article. Sprague presents a false alternative to his "relational" view of Jesus when he refers to "some trans-human altering of his genetic code." Of course the writers of the Nicene Creed would not know what "genetic code" means, but I think they would recognize a simplistic attempt to make the orthodox position look absurd. Nothing in the Creed or the orthodox Christology of the church down the centuries has argued for a genetic transformation of Jesus' humanity. Quite the opposite--the orthodox contention is that the eternal Word of Almighty God took on genuine humanity--our humanity: Jesus was truly God and truly human. The Word of God (loved by and loving the Father eternally) became a human without ceasing to be divine. A human could not become God, but God could become human without ceasing to be God.

I think Rev. Gibson did not diagnose Sprague's infection correctly, but he was right in thinking Sprague's doctrine is sick. This infection of adoptionism would be just as deadly for the church as Arianism would be, perhaps even more so, since our culture in its rampant humanism already encourages us to think that we can divinize ourselves by choosing and cultivating the right attitudes and dispositions. Indeed, if we see Jesus as less than fully God, we will have to save ourselves. In contrast, the Gospel tells us that Jesus is God come to save us. We don't have to elevate ourselves to be Jesus' equal, for we are saved by acknowledging Jesus as eternal Lord and Savior.

I do not know what Sprague says about Jesus' death and resurrection. I think I could guess, but I won't indulge. Regardless of what he might say about those topics, his Christology is in serious error because he has already obscured the issue of who was crucified and resurrected. With all due respect, any person who rejects a substantial Christology (as Sprague seems clearly to have done) should not be a bishop. Inability to subscribe to a substantial Christology doesn't make you evil; it just means you can't with full integrity defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Such a person is not necessarily evil, but such a person should not be entrusted with the doctrinal and spiritual oversight of the church who confesses the Nicene Creed as a faithful interpretation of the New Testament witness about Jesus Christ. Inability to subscribe to a substantial Christology should disqualify a person from the episcopacy. Indeed, if intellectual integrity is to be expected, it should disqualify one from being ordained an elder. Pray for our church.

Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.
Minister of Adult Learning
First United Methodist Church
Tulsa, OK


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