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Summary and Analysis of Joseph Sprague's Affirmations of a Dissenter

by Carol Noren


Introduction

Sprague intends the book to "reflect the dialectic between faith affirmation and institutional dissent." (7) He wants the church to be in step with "the teachings of Jesus and the witness of the Risen Christ." (7) He writes for those are vexed with "the attempted takeover of the church by closed minds and fearful hearts, which seek security in rigid literalism, narrow parochialism, and hurtful exclusivism." (8)

Chapter One – A Tough Mind and Tender Heart

This four-page, autobiographical chapter presents Sprague’s religious background. Of interest is his emerging definition of the Christian religion: "doing what Jesus clearly practiced and expected of his followers" and "Jesus being followed [and] his teachings enacted." (11) Faith in Jesus Christ is not mentioned here.

Chapter Two – Bible Stories We Had Not Heard

Autobiography continues here as Sprague tells about his seminary days and first pastorate. He identifies Bultmann’s theology as a formative influence. Sprague affirms "the Bible as the primary source of revelation and authority for both the church and my life and ministry," but, as the third chapter demonstrates, he operates with a small canon within the canon. (See third paragraph under Chapter Three.) Sprague denounces "biblical literalists [and] closet fundamentalists" (16), and "the god of classical theism – an essentially male, impregnating Being out there somewhere, who either started it all and backed off or who controls it by indistinguishable behavior altered occasionally, even miraculously, be certain prayers and supernatural interventions…that god [who] never really existed except in the minds of the fanciful or superstitious." (17-18)

Chapter Three – The Issue Is Biblical Authority

Sprague affirms that "the Bible, complete with its inherent inconsistencies and time-bound understandings, truths and falsehoods, myths and poetry, prose and theological evolution, is the composite of Holy Spirit-inspired human words that point to the divine Word." (25) He affirms the historical-critical method of interpretation, that is, studying the authorship, intended readership, literary form, cultural and literary context, etc. (27

Sprague divides United Methodism into two camps: conservatives (though his preferred term is neoliteratists) and progressives. He accuses neoliteralists of "inconsistent literal reading of scripture, and their caucus groups (which he identifies as Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Institute for Religion and Democracy) have assumed that they are the only Christians who are faithful to biblical authority." (21) "Neoliteralists have been allowed to pick and choose certain texts to buttress their own predisposed positions in the name of scriptural Christianity." (22) The issues he takes up are homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, the taking of human life by war or capital punishment, the role of women in the church. In his conclusion, Sprague writes that "neoliteralism is idolatry…which has made the words of the Bible the Word." (35)

It appears that Sprague’s functional canon is limited to the Synoptic Gospels, since the only texts he cites that inform his convictions on issues noted above are drawn from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On possible exception is when he cites Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:23-24. Even within the Synoptic canon, Sprague seems to operate in a Jeffersonian framework, limiting discussion to "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." For example, his understanding of Jesus walking on the sea in Matthew 14 and Mark 6, is that "a fully human Jesus does not square with the supernatural power to cavort across a sea, especially during a turbulent storm." (26) This issue comes up again in the chapter on Christology.

Chapter Four – Fully Human Jesus

Sprague is not trying to set out a systematic theology in this (or any other) chapter, but rather "to confess as candidly and vulnerably as I can, who Jesus the Risen Christ is for me." (36) He say he "can affirm the orthodox language of the ancient creeds regarding Jesus because I understand, at least in part, the symbolic nature of such religious, theological language." (36) However, creedal language is, in his opinion, "obtuse…confusing or implausible." (37) As noted in discussion of the chapter of biblical authority, Sprague’s Christology appears to be drawn exclusively from the Synoptic Gospels, on the grounds that they are earlier documents, and are focused on the person and actual ministry of Jesus. By these criteria, it is surprising that the Christology is not informed by 1 Corinthians 15, written before any of the Gospels, (Paul’s report that the risen Christ had appeared to Paul himself, to the twelve, and to more than five hundred others, some of whom were still living at the time the epistle was written), and 1 Thessalonians, which scholars have long agreed is the earliest complete book in the New Testament, written as early as 50 A.D.

The complaint filed to Bishop Ough contrasts Sprague’s writing with the Articles of Religion in The Book of Discipline, so I will not duplicate their work here. The complaint claims that Sprague redefines creedal affirmations to mean nearly the opposite of their commonly understood meanings. Since the complaint does not go through the Christological sections of the Apostles’ Creed, nor make reference to the works of John Wesley, what I propose to do is contrast Sprague’s writing with conciliar creedal Christology, noting where there is concurrence, non-concurrence, and silence.

"I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord." Sprague writes, "Jesus was very God of very God, begotten, not made in that he was different, not in substance from other humans, but qualitatively different in his relationship of ultimate trust and absolute obedience to the Holy One he called Abba." (36-37) I could find only one instance where Sprague wrote of Jesus as "Son of God" (44) or "Lord," although the most ancient confessions of faith in Scripture include one or both acknowledgments (see John 20:28; Acts 8:37; Acts 16:31; Philippians 2:11).

"Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit." Sprague writes, "He was the child of human parents, complete with belly button and genetic code. Otherwise, he could not be Liberator, let alone Savior." (37) This assertion is not explicated.

"born of the Virgin Mary." Sprague writes, "This powerful myth was not intended as historical fact, but was employed by Matthew and Luke in different ways to point poetically to the truth about Jesus as experienced in the emerging church." (40)

"suffered under Pontius Pilate" Sprague does not discuss this.

"was crucified, died, and was buried." Sprague acknowledges on page 41 that the crucifixion did happen.

"he descended to the dead." Sprague does not discuss this.

"on the third day he rose again.’ Sprague writes, "I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I cannot affirm that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body." (42) "…the resurrected Jesus power or Christ Essence that infused the disciples and apostles, called the church into being…" (42) What seems missing from Sprague’s essay is any sense that the actual person Jesus was raised from the dead –or even that Jesus’ soul, if not body, is immortal. Instead, "Christ essence or resurrected Jesus power" is something that is gradually understood or experienced by people. For Sprague, resurrection is "a metaphorical, symbolic expression of truth itself." (43) This would seem to suggest that the risen Christ did not appear to, speak to, or eat with his followers any more than John Wesley did, after his death. After all, as Sprague writes, "the inconsistent reports in the New Testament of his several and initially unrecognized resurrection appearances add support to this point of view." (42) As noted earlier, this does not take into account that the risen Christ appeared to more than five hundred people at one time, as Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15.

"he ascended into heaven." Sprague does not discuss this.

"is seated at the right hand of the Father." Sprague does not discuss this.

"And will come again to judge the living and the dead." Sprague does not discuss this explicitly, although he does write that the Christ Essence "forgives sin, reconciles and renews, guides history toward justice, drives creation’s evolution, and is the foundation of the new age that both is and is to come." (42) In another forum, I believe Sprague stated that he does not believe Jesus Christ will come again – at least not in the plain sense of the creed.

A few other Christological issues addressed by Sprague merit mention and analysis:

Miracles: Sprague writes, "If Jesus did not possess trans-human supernatural powers, and I do not believe he did, what sense can we make of the miraculous stories about him in the Gospel accounts?" (40) These are myths created by the church as a way to "tell the story of his unique presence that had transformed their lives and brought the church into being." (41) This reinforces the impression that Sprague’s theology has been influenced by Bultmann, Tillich, John Arthur Thomas Robinson (author of Honest to God), Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar.

Atonement: Sprague writes, "the atonement of Jesus [is] that which is reflective of everything he did and all he was, namely, the One who was in such at-one-ness with God that he could suffer and die for others." (45) There is no explication of what it means to "die for others" except the inference that "the way of Jesus is informative for his disciples." (46) Sprague rejects the idea of substitutionary atonement in terms of "Jesus’ blood on the cross as satisfying an angry deity through one majestic sacrificial human death, much like sacrifices of unblemished sheep and goats in ancient Israel were understood to appease God and atone for the sins of all." (44) It appears to me that to some extent, Sprague and those who filed the complaint with Bishop Ough are talking past each other. Sprague explicitly rejects the idea of appeasing an angry God, but this is only one of several Christian theories of the atonement found in the Bible and church history. The complainants cite the statement about sacrificial atonement in the Articles of Religion, but this, too, is one of several atonement theories. For example, in the writings of John Wesley, we can find support for The Moral Influence Theory (which seems closest to Sprague’s viewpoint), The Penal Substitutionary Theory, and The Ransom or Classical Theory.

Five – Hope Is the Thing

The chapter, which takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, affirms that "our hope is anchored in God who appropriates faithful discipleship, sometimes against great odds, to raise up new possibilities…Christian hope is not humanistic optimism but trust in the God of the Exodus who raised Jesus and will bring to actuality the kingdom/reign Jesus initiated whenever the people of God are found faithfully living lives of committed discipleship." (55) Most of the chapter spells out Sprague’s hopes for the local church, annual conferences, general church agencies, and Council of Bishops.

Six – Leadership, Leadership, Leadership

This nine-page chapter identifies leadership as the second most important matter the church must address ("hope" being primary). Sprague dissents from "clergy shame that has so enslaved some clergy that they are embarrassed to invite others into ordained ministry; an outdated seminary system that shuns contextual education; our historic but quiet embrace of mediocrity in the promotion of clergy; the failure of high-profile veteran clergy, including bishops, to mentor and provide authentic replicable models of courageous and effective leadership for today’s younger clergy to emulate." (58-59) He sets out a four-part programmatic agenda for developing leaders.

Seven – Seamless Garment

This is by far the longest chapter of the book. Sprague discusses various themes found in the Social Principles dealing with war and violence, race and gender, capital punishment, abortion, poverty and sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Sixteen pages are duplication of past columns in The United Methodist Reporter. The theological foundation for his positions is revealed most clearly in the chapter’s conclusion, where he writes, "Baptism makes all of us one with Christ and each other…Baptism demands radical social sensitivities…I affirm baptism as immersion in Christ with all of its wondrous privileges and demanding responsibilities…faithful discipleship demands radical obedience that dares to challenge the biases and prejudices woven into the fabric of this nation, church institutions, and our very souls." (103) It was not always clear to me when Sprague’s "we" referred to United Methodists, all Christians, and/or the government of the United States.

Eight – To Forgo the Luxury

The chapter begins with autobiography, identifying events in the 1960s that made Sprague a seeker after justice and unity. He laments "the me-ism of the Nixon and Reagan years [that] seduced the religious communities to embrace the institutional sin of spiritual naval gazing," (106) and affirms that the United Methodist tent is large enough for wide differences in theology and politics to dwell together in unity with tension. We are a conciliar people, not a creedal or confessional body." (108) The "luxury" Sprague calls United Methodists to forgo is schism.

Epilogue – From Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh

Sprague notes that the General Conference in Pittsburgh in 1964 was his initial entry in matters of the general church, and he looks forward to the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh, hoping it will be characterized by "the trust and obedience of hopeful and courageous progressive and neoliteralist United Methodists who, together with others, will dare to believe that this finite ecclesiastical system can still spread scriptural holiness across the land and around the globe." (112)

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