Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Ten propositions on the resurrection

by Kim Fabricius

1.     I got me flowers to straw Thy way,
    I got me boughs off many a tree;
    But Thou wast up by break of day,
    And brought’st Thy sweets along with Thee.
    (George Herbert, “Easter”)

The resurrection in propositions? May the poets forgive me!

2. The most prosaic of approaches to the resurrection are those apologetics modelled on courtroom drama: the authors invite the gospel witnesses to take the stand, elicit their testimonies, cross-examine them, explain away any inconsistencies or contradictions, dismiss the counter-evidence – and the defence rests: that Christ is risen is beyond reasonable doubt. But Rowan Williams objects – and the objection is sustained: “As far as the historical question goes, it is clear that the scholarly analysis of the resurrection narratives has not yielded a single compelling resolution to the numerous difficulties that the texts pose.”

3. And (to switch metaphors from the courtroom to the operating theatre) were the operation successful, the patient would be dead on the table. How so? Because the resurrection is “a paraphrase of the word ‘God’” (Karl Barth) – and God is ultimate mystery. God is no deus ex machina who, in raising Jesus from the dead, provides dramatic closure, or, for that matter, secures a happy ending.

    It was by negatives I learnt my place.
    The garden went on growing and I sensed
    A sudden breeze that blew across my face.
    Despair returned but now it danced, it danced.
    (Elizabeth Jennings, “The Resurrection”)

4. Am I saying that the resurrection was not an historical event? That depends. If your understanding of “historical” is based on the famous criteria of Ernst Troeltsch – probability, relativity, and analogy – then, no, it was not an historical event. But why, asks Wolfhart Pannenberg, accept these criteria? Why accept a definition of history that rules out, ab initio, the singular and unique (and its presupposition of an ontology incarcerated in immanence)? Why, pace Bultmann (who here follows Troeltsch), indeed. Yet Pannenberg also maintains that the conventions of modern historiography, including its procedures of proof, can successfully be applied to the appearances of the risen Jesus, such that we can infer the resurrection from the evidence. And this is where I part company with Pannenberg and join Barth. The resurrection is historical – i.e. it happened in space and time – but it is not historically demonstrable. The resurrection is, in principle, historically falsifiable, but not historically verifiable. With Moltmann, its verification can only be eschatological.

5. “The point of the appearances is precisely the arising of faith in the Risen One. He did not show himself to everyone, he did not become an object of neutral observation. Nor can one say that the appearances presupposed faith in him. Rather, those to whom they occurred became believers.” True, “in every case knowledge of Jesus is presupposed, and that means that the question of faith has already been raised…. But the witness of faith is recognised only when one accepts his witness in faith” (Gerhard Ebeling).

6. Was the tomb empty? Of course! Not least because “no Jew would have used the word ‘resurrection’ to describe an afterlife in which the physical body was left to the grave” (George Caird). The (liberal) notion of a “spiritual” resurrection is irredeemably docetic. It is the perishable, corruptible physical body that must put on immortality (I Cor. 15:53). Nor should we miss the gnostic understanding of creation – and the new creation – that is implicit in a Jesus who is risen only in our hearts – or, for that matter, in the kerygma (Bultmann). “Let us not mock God with metaphor”:

    Make no mistake: if He rose at all
    it was as His body;
    if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
         reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
    the Church will fall.
    (John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter”)

7. I sense the same docetism in those who would elide the resurrection with the cross. It is quite true that the resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory, not the abrogation of the cross but its inner meaning. So Jüngel is quite right to say that “the message of the resurrection does not cancel the logos tou staurou but gives it its proper weight.” But he is quite wrong to conclude that the resurrection is not a discrete event subsequent to the crucifixion. Von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday stands as a warning to such a collapse of Easter Sunday into Good Friday. And so too is I. H. Marshall’s recent insistence on the importance of the resurrection, as well as the cross, in a truly biblical theology of the atonement.

8. It is characteristic for the risen Christ to greet his disciples with the word shalom: “Peace be with you!” He calms their fear – of retribution, perhaps? After all, these were the men who, despite their protestations of loyalty, had abandoned their master to his fate. Perhaps now it was payback time for their betrayal? And what of Caiaphas and Pilate and all who had connived in the murder of Jesus – might we not expect a risen Terminator: “I’ll be back – and this time it’s personal”? Christian pacifists are often accused of arguing their case from the Crucified who refuses the way of violence. But the power of pacifism equally comes from the Risen One who refuses the way of vengeance. “Jesus is judge because he is victim; and that very fact means that he is a judge who will not condemn” (Rowan Williams).

    So let us love, deare Love, like as we ought,
    – Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
    (Edmund Spenser, “Easter Sunday”)

9. The risen Christ meets no one without calling them to witness and service. The meaning is in the mission. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus leads to two missions. Did you ever notice that, according to Matthew (28:11), it is the soldiers, professional killers, who first bring news of the events at the tomb to Jerusalem – to the chief priests, who then bribe them and commission them to spread a lie about what had happened (28:12-15)? By contrast, in the closing verses (28:16-20), Jesus commissions the disciples to make more disciples, teaching them what they had learned from Jesus (in particular, Ulrich Luz suggests, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount). Lies and violence, very lucrative – that is the one mission. Truth and peace, very costly – that is the other mission. On this mission, the risen Christ said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

10. Finally eschatology (of course!) – or doxology. “Jesus,” says Robert Jenson, “is risen into the future that God has for his creatures. What certain persons saw after his death was a reality of that future.” Which is another way of saying that Jesus is risen into the glory of God. The resurrection is, as it were, the coming attractions of the Coming Attraction, the human being fully alive who is the glory of God (Irenaeus).

         In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
    I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
    This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
              Is immortal diamond.
    (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire”)

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