Presuppositions and the Gospel of John

Author Melinda Penner Published on 07/11/2013

John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal church and participant in the Jesus Seminar, has a new book he summarized in a recent article. He gives six reasons his book expands on for why the Gospel of John is not a reliable, historical source. J. Warner Wallace responded to it on the podcast this week.

The critical thing in understanding Spong’s view of John is his presuppositions, just as much as the reasons he gives. He claims that the book was written long after the eyewitnesses were dead by a handful of people. What he doesn’t volunteer is that he believes this because of a presupposition. John’s Gospel has a high Christology (theology of Jesus’ divinity) and has the most unique material not included in the other three Gospels. Spong thinks that high Christology must have taken some time to evolve, well past the lifetimes of eyewitnesses. And he believe that unique material in the Gospel must have come from sources other than the group that followed Jesus. So from the start, the conclusion is that the Gospel couldn’t have been written by John.

Greg explains in this article why these two presuppositions are wrong. J. Warner gives further reasons here.

J. Warner offered a couple of rules of thumb to watch out for when reading something by someone with strong presuppositions he brings to the material.

  1. Be careful of how presuppositions shape analysis of details
  2. Be careful of overstatements because they betray presuppositions.

Spong claims that Jesus never uttered the “I am” sayings or the “Farewell Discourse.” But that’s because these are unique and have no parallel in the other Gospels. He presumes that uniqueness means later authors made it up. But that’s not even consistent with our ordinary lives. People with tremendous credibility have unique remembrances. Historical accuracy doesn’t require corroboration; it requires reliability from people in a position to know.

Spong says that none of the famous miracles in John happened—Jesus turning water into wine, feeding 5000, or raising Lazarus from the dead. What he doesn’t tell us is that he doesn’t think miracles happen so, of course, these miracles never occurred. Since he doesn’t think they happened in history, he has to surmise some literary reason for them.

He thinks that figures of speech used in the Gospel prove that it’s not to be taken literally. But we use figures of speech all the time along with speaking literally. It certainly isn’t a clue that nothing is literal.

Finally, he believes that the supremity of Jesus’ miracles indicates that they’re exaggerations. Jesus makes 150 gallons of wine, not just one. Well, since Spong doesn’t think Jesus even turned one gallon of water into wine, it kind of seems irrelevant to his analysis of the historicity of this miracles that it was 1 or 150. He’s ruled out these miracles from the get go so this factor hardly counts against them.

Jim pointed out in the podcast that Spong betrays his purpose in the conclusion of the article—to update our understanding of the Gospels so they’re less offensive. That’s his fundamental presupposition—a goal that directs his analysis from beginning to end.

Jim provides further explanation how to analyze the evidence fairly in his book Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. He explains how to approach the evidence for the Gospels in a methodical and factual way.