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Commentary


Nicodemus Syndrome

by James Gibson


Bishop Sprague on Chapter 4, Affirmations of a Dissenter:

"It has been surprising to me, not that neo-literalists have been virulent in their clamoring for Mary's gynecological virginity and for Jesus' bodily resuscitation on Easter, but that seminary faculty members and other well-informed clergy and laity need, teach and passionately advocate a virginally born and physically resurrected, if not always bodily resuscitated, Jesus. I find such thinking to be incredulous."

It is painfully obvious from the above statement that Sprague suffers from the spiritual disorder known as "Nicodemus Syndrome." Note the similarities between Sprague's comments above and the comments of Nicodemus in his conversation with Jesus (John 3:1-15)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. [2] This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." [3] Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." [4] Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" [5] Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. [6] That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [7] Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' [8] The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
    [9] Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" [10] Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? [11] Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. [12] If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? [13] No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. [14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, [15] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Like Nicodemus, Sprague cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit. Consequently, he cannot think of "Virgin Birth" without thinking of Mary's gynecological condition and he cannot think of "Resurrection" without thinking of bodily rescusitation. In both instances, Sprague attempts to impose a naturalistic criterion upon a spiritual reality. ["Spiritual" here means "of the Spirit," as opposed to "natural" meaning "of the flesh." It is not to be construed as meaning something other than "literal" or "physical." A spiritual truth must be conveyed in literal terms and, as in the case of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, manifest in a physical way.] When confronted by such "things of the Spirit," Sprague, like Nicodemus, asks incredulously, "How can these things be?"

Sprague's lack of faith with regard to the Resurrection has been chronicled elsewhere, so I will focus here on his equally faithless rejection of the Virgin Birth.

Mary asked a similar question to that of Nicodemus when the angel announced to her that she would give birth to the Son of God: "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34). But her question is borne of awe and humility, not hard-rational obstinance. The very fact that she is visited by an angel ought to clue us in on the state of her relationship with God. Obviously, she was a deeply spiritual woman. Her sexual purity was an outward expression of her inward fidelity to God. So intimate was her union with God that it ultimately manifest itself in the most literal and physical way possible: she birthed his Son through the Holy Spirit.

Mary is the model for spiritual formation for all believers (male and female, alike) and a particularly illustrative case study in entire sanctification for those of the Wesleyan persuasion. She did not find favor with God because she was a virgin. Rather, she was a virgin because she had found favor with God. It had nothing to do with her gynecological condition; it had everything to do with her relationship with God.

Sprague's failure to understand this spiritual dimension of the faith makes him unfit for the high office which he currently holds.

James Gibson
Marshallville United Methodist Church
Incarnational Order of St. John of Patmos

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