Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in a book published Friday that is bound to spark controversy, speculates that the Apostle Paul--an unmarried man plagued by an unnamed weakness--was a secret homosexual.
"Nothing else," wrote Spong, "could account for Paul's self-judging rhetoric, his negative feeling toward his own body, and his sense of being controlled by something he had no power to change."
Spong said in a telephone interview from his Newark, N.J., diocese that Paul's words about "the war going on inside of him is a fairly classic description of what I have come to understand in repressed gay males."
The provocatively liberal bishop stirred a firestorm through the denomination more than a year ago when he ordained an openly gay man to the priesthood--an act that resulted in his censure by fellow bishops in a close vote last summer.
The Rt. Rev. Edmond Browning of New York, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in an interview that he has not read Spong's book, "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism" (Harper), and could not comment on its content.
But Browning predicted three types of reaction to Spong's thesis about Paul:
"For some people that kind of courage offers them a hope. (Some) . . . will find it offensive. For those opposed (to endorsing homosexual behavior), it will be more fodder for their guns."
One strong critic of liberal trends in the Episcopal Church said that he thought many Christians would quickly dismiss Spong's arguments.
"As far as I know there is no scholarly opinion that Paul was a homosexual," said the Rev. Jerome Politzer of Monterey, who recently stepped down as president of the Prayer Book Society.
Bernadette Brooten, a biblical scholar at Harvard Divinity School, said, "A lot of things in the New Testament we are never going to know. The personal life of Paul is really going to remain in the realm of speculation."
Spong said that the possibility of Paul being homosexual was raised as a question in 1937 in a book by New Testament scholar Arthur Darby Nock. "I was absolutely floored by how it opened up Paul to me," he said.
Spong argued in his book that that might explain why Paul, previously a devout Jew, might have been converted by the compassionate elements of Christianity and became the new religion's most articulate spokesman for the concept of God's forgiving grace.
Paul condemns erotic same-sex relations in his writings, but mainstream New Testament scholars have varied opinions on what he specifically had in mind, his cultural assumptions and what his words mean for church teaching today.
Although Spong's theory about Paul may dominate reactions to his book, the bishop's main thesis is that the Bible is being neglected in mainstream Christianity because of the intellectual difficulties it poses for contemporary churchgoers.
"The fundamentalist point of view is the only one in the public arena," he said in the interview. "I think there are two major movements in Christianity--one is the turn to the right to find security and the other is an exodus out of organized religion into the secular city."
Reminiscent of the work of mid-century theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Spong proposes that the gospel accounts of Jesus' virgin birth and his physical resurrection--as well as other miraculous stories--should not be taken as literally true.
"Unless somehow the meaning of the Bible can be lifted out of the context of the ancient world view, the institutional church will grow weaker," Spong said.
Meanwhile, Spong's diocese became embroiled in another controversy this week. Catholic Archbishop Theodore E. McCarick of Newark accused the Newark Episcopal diocese of "Catholic bashing" because of caustic criticisms in a task force report on ecumenical relations. Among other things, the report said that the Catholic view of women "is so insulting, so retrograde, that we can respond only by saying that women should, for the sake of their own humanity, leave that (church)."