Review: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic

TFG Spong

John Shelby Spong (born 1931), retired bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA is a very well known figure across the Atlantic. It can even be said that he is a church and theological celebrity. He has published over twenty books, every one of which has instantly become a best-seller.

For over twenty years, Bishop Spong has challenged Christianity to new, radical Reformation, because he feels we need “a new Christianity for a new world” (1).

When I first met Jack Spong at a conference in Stockholm in 2009, he was almost eighty years old and he explained that although he had been studying John’s Gospel for some time, he probably would not manage to write a book about it. Apparently, his last work was to be a book on life after death (2), which was to close his writing.

A few years have passed since then, and bishop Spong’s theological form seems to be unfailing as HarperCollins has published his work under the provocative title “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”. Let’s look at it.

As early as in the introduction, Spong notes that he approached John’s Gospel reluctantly, because in his opinion it has played a negative role in the shaping and development of both the denominations of faith and church dogmas. He feels that ‘[t]he creedal system seemed to me to have locked Jesus into a pre-modern world, to have defined God as an invasive, miracle-working deity from outer space, and to have made the work of engaging the world in dialogue not only very difficult, but almost impossible’ (3).

However, Spong has sacrificed over five years to reading the Gospel, complementing it with additional readings: 19th, 20th and 21st century important theological elaborations and biblical commentaries on the Gospel, accessible in English. The key suggested by Spong to understanding the Gospel’s message, his methodology, is reading it as a Jewish book, a description of Jesus Christ’s, or rather Yeshua Ha’Mashiach’s life, teachings, death and resurrection, penned by a group of authors and editors referred to by Spong as ‘Palestinian Jewish mystic’.

“The Fourth Gospel”, however, isn’t a cluster of scientific and exegetical facts referring to John’s Gospel aiming to demythologize God’s Revelation in the spirit of Rudolph Bultmann (4). John Shelby Spong is not an academic searching for the original form of John’s Gospel or discussing through several pages the correctness of form of the Greek Aorist.

Spong is a bishop of the Church. However, not one who thinks he has absolute power or will tolerate no dissent but a bishop who with pastoral subtleness and care searches for a new self-consciousness resulting from God’s Revelation, for transcendence and meaning, and tries to bring them closer to everyone.

Spong is a pastor who wants to save Christianity from the danger of fundamental literality and dogmatism into which it has digressed and which may lead it to bankruptcy unless it decides to reform itself according to Jesus’ Gospel. However, in order for the New Reformation to be meaningful, understanding the significance of the Gospel and Jesus’ mission is indispensable as well as dressing it in 21st century language and notions. That is why the author sees research done by Bible scholars and exegetes as a starting point, and thanks to them proposes his own interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, wanting to show the way evangelist John revealed God to the reader.

The following is an example of Spongean interpretation: ‘God was light, embracing all who could open their eyes to see. God was life, the same life which was following through the universe, but which came to self-consciousness only in human beings – indeed only in those who were willing to risk entering or being born into a new dimension of humanity”.

And the bishop continues: ‘God, for John, was love, that life-giving power that embraces all those who are willing to accept the vulnerability that love always brings. This means that for John, Jesus was not one who had come and then departed and who would someday come again. Jesus was rather a God presence inviting all to enter who he was and is, to be born of the spirit – born, that is, to new dimensions of what it means to be human – and to participate thereby in the eternity of God’.

Finally, Spong concludes: ‘The second coming was thus nothing more or less than the coming, or perhaps even the dawning realization, of the ever-permeating spirit’ (5).

I think that “The Fourth Gospel” can be wholeheartedly recommended to a reader who feels spiritual hunger, which literal and dogmatic Christianity has failed to satisfy; to a reader who still treats the Church as their home despite numerous attempts to ask them to leave or frighten them out.

Lucas P. Skurczynski

(translation Elżbieta Horodyska, proof-reading Julia Lewandowska)

John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperCollins, New York 2013.

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(1) See J.S. Spong (2002) A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, New York: HarperCollins.

(2) See J.S. Spong (2009) Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, New York: HarperCollins.

(3) Cf. J.S. Spong (2013) The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystics, New York: HarperCollins, p. 5.

(4) Rudolf Bultmann (1884 – 1976) – German protestant theologian, professor and head of New Testament faculty at the University in Marburg; theoretician of demythologization of the language of New Testament, which is according to Bultmann a mythical language that should be interpreted existentially (cf. R. Bultmann (1941, 1985, 1988) Neues Testament und Mythologie. Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung, München.).

(5) Cf. Spong 2013:195.