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Complaint Against Sprague Deserves Fair Hearing

by James Gibson

Old heresies never die.  They just take on new names and find new advocates in each succeeding generation.  As the twentieth century comes to a close, one of the first and most destructive of all ancient heresies has found a home in The United Methodist Church through the generous hospitality of one of our newest bishops.

C. Joseph Sprague, episcopal leader of the Northern Illinois Area, has lately been espousing a Christology which rings hollow to the ears of the orthodox.  Two public statements by Sprague, made shortly after his election to the episcopacy, ought to be cause for great concern within the Church:

Jesus was a great historical figure.  He was a teacher, a social prophet and the founder of a movement.

Yet Jesus didn't believe himself to be the messiah or the son of God. It is important to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus presented by the writers of the New Testament.

Jesus' father, Joseph, apparently died before Jesus' public life.  Jesus was a "religious seeker" who focused on God and not himself.  It was the church that made Jesus a messiah.

--Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, quoted in The Kane County Chronicle, December 20, 1996

My theological position, especially the Christology I espouse and which drives my life and ministry, is of the relational (as opposed to the substantial) tradition, which has a rich, valued place in the history of Christian thought.  Essentially, when it comes to Jesus, I believe that Jesus was fully human (how else could he be humankind's Savior?) who in his radical and complete trust in and commitment to the God he called 'Abba", experienced such at one-momentness with God that he revealed in and through himself the very heart, the essential nature of God. Thus he was fully God, fully human--not by some trans-human altering of his genetic code, but by relationship with God, Neighbor and Self.

--Bishop C. Joseph Sprague in the N. Illinois Reporter, May 1997, responding to questions about the above quote.

The bishop's statements about the deity of Jesus Christ are now the subject of a formal complaint filed against him by the Reverend Carson Daniel Lauffer of Prophetstown, Illinois.  While some even in the evangelical community have questioned the appropriateness of filing charges at this time, Lauffer's complaint has merit and ought not be dismissed lightly.  It calls the bishop to task for espousing an opinion which not only strikes at the root of the Christian faith, but indeed cuts through to its very heart.

What Bishop Sprague refers to as "relational Christology," sounds very much like what the Church has historically referred to as Arianism.  This teaching was at the root of one of the first and deepest controversies within the Church following the legal recognition of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine.  Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church, Volume III, Eerdmans, 1994, page 618) describes the main contentions involved in the controversy:

The Arian controversy relates primarily to the deity of Christ, but in its course it touches also the deity of the Holy Ghost, and embraces therefore the whole mystery of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of God, which is the very centre of the Christian revelation.  The dogma of the Trinity came up not by itself in abstract form, but in inseparable connection with the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost. If this latter doctrine is true, the Trinity follows by logical necessity, the biblical monotheism being presumed; in other words:  If God is one, and if Christ and the Holy Ghost are distinct from the Father and yet participate in the divine substance, God must be triune.  Though there are in the Holy Scriptures themselves few texts which directly prove the Trinity, and the name Trinity is wholly wanting in them, this doctrine is taught with all the greater force in a living form from Genesis to Revelation by the main facts of the revelation of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, besides being indirectly involved in the deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost. 

Also from Schaff (pages 619-20) comes this description of the roots of the controversy:

The roots of the Arian controversy are to be found partly in the contradictory elements of the christology [sic] of the great Origen, which reflect the crude condition of the Christian mind in the third century; partly in the antagonism between the Alexandrian and the Antiochan theology.  Origen, on the one hand, attributed to Christ eternity and other divine attributes which logically lead to the orthodox doctrine of the identity of substance; so that he was vindicated even by Athanasius, the two Cappadocian Gregories, and Basil.  But, on the other hand, in his zeal for the personal distinctions in the Godhead, he taught with equal clearness a separateness of essence between the Father and the Son, and the subordination of the Son, as a second or secondary God beneath the Father, and thus furnished a starting point for the Arian heresy.  The eternal generation of the Son from the will of the Father was, with Origen, the communication of a divine but secondary substance, and this idea, in the hands of the less devout and profound Arius, who with his more rigid logic could admit no intermediate being between God and the creature, deteriorated to the notion of the primal creature. 

Bishop Sprague's contention notwithstanding, Arianism, by whatever name he may choose to call it, does not hold "a rich, valued place in the history of Christian thought."  On the contrary, it is a position which, whenever and wherever it has reared its ugly head, has caused division, contention and controversy within the Body of Christ.  Its presence within the Ancient Church precipitated the calling of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.  At that gathering, the bishops and presbyters in attendance adopted the original form of what has become known as the Nicene Creed.  Included in that statement was the following summation of the Church's rejection of the Arian position:

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion--all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.  [Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14, "The Seven Ecumenical Councils," Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.]

Furthermore, the present form of the Nicene Creed continues to maintain the "substantial tradition" as the accepted, orthodox position:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  [The Nicene Creed (UMH 880)]

It is also clear from Scripture that Jesus' divine Sonship was more than a mere relationship developed over time:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made"  (John 1:1-3).

[Jesus said,] "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:5, emphasis added).

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:5-11, emphasis added)

Bishop Sprague's position is also contradictory to The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church:

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and the Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men. [Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, Article II, "Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man"]

We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united.  He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As ministering Servant, he lived, suffered and died on the cross.  He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged.  [The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, Article II--"Jesus Christ"]

"Who is Jesus Christ?" is the question at the very heart of the Christian faith.  The answer, as attested in Scripture and Tradition, is that Jesus is the Messiah, the one and only eternal Son of God, fully human and fully divine, God made incarnate in human flesh.  This is not a matter of opinion, but of divine revelation.  To deny this in favor of a position long repudiated by the Church is the textbook definition of heresy, undermining the very foundation of the Christian faith.  Bishop Sprague owes the Church, which has entrusted him with so important a leadership responsibility, a full and honest explanation of his disturbing public statements.  Therefore, the complaint against him must be given a fair and open hearing.  If nothing else, a debate over so central an issue as the deity of Jesus Christ will give a healthy shock to a denomination which has, for decades, sought to avoid discussion of basic Christian doctrines.

James A. Gibson
Marshallville United Methodist Church
Marshallville, Georgia

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