Monday 24 April 2006

Believing in the resurrection

In a very lively post, Mike Bird critiques N. T. Wright’s view that one does not need to believe in bodily resurrection in order to be a Christian. Wright says: “I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection. But the view I take of them—and they know this—is that they are very, very muddled.... I do think, however, ... that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational.”

To all this, Mike replies: “No!” He points out that according to early Christian belief, it is confession of Jesus as the “Risen Lord” that marks a person out as a Christian. He also notes that “the belief that Jesus ‘died and rose’ was the most basic and primitive Christian confession,” and that the resurrection is bound up with the gospel (as Paul argues in 1 Cor. 15).

On this occasion, I will have to side with N. T. Wright against Mike. I think Mike is exactly right about the centrality of resurrection in the primitive Christian kerygma. But the crucial question is whether any particular theological interpretation of resurrection belongs to the heart of the gospel. And it seems to me that the New Testament itself resists such a view. In fact, the New Testament witnesses don’t offer any precise theological interpretation of the resurrection. None of the Gospels tries to describe or explain the event of resurrection at all—rather, the resurrection is precisely the mystery at the centre of the story of Jesus.

The closest thing to a definition of “resurrection” in the New Testament is of course Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 15. But even here, Paul focuses sharply on the discontinuity between the physical body and the resurrected body, so that the precise meaning of “resurrection” is made all the more mysterious. Paul elucidates the concept only with the aid of various metaphors—and that is just the point! The precise meaning of “resurrection” remains unknown; it remains an event of the world to come, whose meaning lies beyond the horizon of our current understanding.

Resurrection is not a this-worldly reality; it is eschatological reality. We can grope toward its meaning through metaphors like resuscitation or awakening from sleep. We can grope toward its meaning through narratives like Mark’s story of the transfiguration (Mk. 9) and Matthew’s story of the opening of graves (Matt. 27). But we cannot define the concept of resurrection itself. When we speak of the resurrection, we are speaking of a mystery.

So to make any specific theological interpretation of “resurrection” an essential component of Christian faith seems to be at odds with the New Testament witnesses, and with the eschatological character of resurrection.

I myself believe in “bodily resurrection,” and I think this concept is the most faithful way of following the New Testament witnesses—but I could never tell you exactly what “bodily resurrection” means, and I would never want the term to become anything more than a metaphor. Other Christians interpret the resurrection using different terms and different metaphors; in different ways, they are still trying to affirm the resurrection of Jesus.

Needless to say, some interpretations of the resurrection are mistaken, and some are closer to the truth than others. But the one thing that matters ultimately is faith in the “Risen Lord”—not one’s ability to define this faith in correct conceptual terms.


::aaron g:: said...

Great post Ben. Your conclusions fit well with an earlier post where you posited that resurrection is, by nature, a conceptual impossibility. If that is so, how can we insist that this unnatural phenomenon by interpreted in only one way?

A good book to check out is The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue.

Rory Shiner said...

I agree that different theological emphases on the resurrection may be able to co-exist happily in the Christian community, but I think I'm with Michael Bird that affirmation of the fact of the bodily resurrection is a sine qua non to Christian belief.
What you then do with a bodily resurrection will depend on the theological interpretation the scriptures and Christian reflection give to it.
I'd be happier if N. T. Wright was saying that you could be a Christian with a muddled theological understanding of the bodily resurrection than that you could be a Christian without belief in it at all.

Rory Shiner said...

And, at risk of contradicting my last post, I imagine one could believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and not be a Christian at all. You'd have to affirm at some level at least the theological signficance the scriptures ascribe to it.
So, perhaps I'm saying that belief in the bodily resurrection and a basical affirmation of the apostolic witness to its significance are sine qua non to Christian belief.
The bar gets higher with every post! I'd better stop now.

gracie said...

Can I ask why the importance on Paul's arguments (who was not himself a witness of the resurrection) rather than the testimony, pointedly included in the gospels, of those who touched the scars on his body and watched him eat a breakfast of fish?
(just a layman's question... no degrees in theology here)

Anonymous said...

I read (or more accurately skimmed) through NT Wrights "The Resurrection of the Son of God" a few years ago. Unless I completely missed it in over 700 pages Wright himself never explains exactly what happened, or what it looked like, or its precise 'meaning.'

I find myself waffling between 'no' it was not a bodily resurrection (How could THAT happen?) and 'yes' it was bodily (In my mind it makes the most sense of all the historical and biblical evidence.)

As I told my congregation on Easter, if we in fact could explain it, what reason would there be for faith? All we'd do is read the account and reports and say "Hmmmm, isn't that interesting?" and we'd go on with our lives as if nothing happened.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for your query, Gracie. Here's a quick reply, which I hope is helpful:

1 Corinthians is actually the earliest text we have about the resurrection of Jesus -- it's considerably earlier than any of the Gospel accounts. Also, in 1 Cor. 15, Paul claims that he himself is a witness to the resurrection (and this offers significant insight into Paul's understanding of the risen body of Jesus). Further, 1 Cor. 15 is the closest thing we have to an explicitly theological explanation of "resurrection" (in contrast, the earliest Gospel account, Mk. 16:1-8, says virtually nothing at all about the resurrection or its meaning)-- so this also makes 1 Cor. 15 particularly important in our attempts to understand how the early Christian movement thought about Jesus' resurrection.

I hope this answers your question!

Anonymous said...

I don't like the discourse of "You have to believe X, Y or Z in order to be a (proper) Christian", and Jenson too says that "doubts about the empty tomb are not in themselves doubts about the resurrection"; and, obviously, the empty tomb is not a sufficient conditon for resurrection-faith. But it does seem to me to be a necessary condition. The exegesis against it is laboured, counter-intuitive, unconvincing. And if a "spiritual body" may be unimaginable, and its metaphorical language verge on collapse - what else?!; while the idea of a "spiritual resurrection" is just plain bizarre. It is, in fact, gnostic - docetic - which is an inevitable characteristic of liberal (idealist) theological thought. Jesus was created blood and guts and he was re-created blood and guts; the new heaven and new earth will contain beauty for eye (visions) and ear (symphonies); and meanwhile we eat bread and drink wine.

Not (as I suggested in a previous post) that the resurrection is "easy"! Commenting on Michel de Certeau's striking image that "Christianity was founded upon the loss of a body," Nicholas Lash observes that "its power derives from the insistent recognition that the loss, the dislocation, upon which Christianity is founded, is, at one and the same time, the emptiness of a tomb and an interruption in the story of a people. The drama of the story of the early Church is the drama of a people who are no longer quite sure who they are. . . To search for the body of the risen Christ is to search for a society which would be the reconciliation, in justice and in peace, of all humankind."

Ap said...


"But the crucial question is whether any particular theological interpretation of resurrection belongs to the heart of the gospel."

Suppose someone said, "The Resurrection of Jesus means that Buddha is my savior." Now, one can make an argument for that..I don't know..pull up an extreme J. Hick theology. According to what you said, this means that just as long as you have "faith" in the "Risen Lord," although you have a theological interpretation of it as "Buddha is my savior," then you are a Christian.

Aargon said,

"Your conclusions fit well with an earlier post where you posited that resurrection is, by nature, a conceptual impossibility."

It depends on what one means by "conceptual impossibility." One can say that God is a conceptual impossibility. But one can speak of God in a meaningful way. Of course, we can never exhaust understanding Him, but it does not mean that we do not know whether He exists or that He has acted in history. So too with Resurrection. I mean, there are many things that we cannot conceptualize fully (see the heap's paradox). Take for example the proposition:

"Jesus, after his death, came back to life in a bodily form." (R)

We may not understand each words fully in that proposition, but I think the proposition itself is meaningful enough to put a truth-value to it. Now, one may object that R is too ambiguous since "bodily form" can mean either our body now or in a glorified way. Take this proposition:

"Jesus, after his death, physically came back to life and will no longer die again." (R*)

R* represents what Paul had in mind. Of course, one can add more to it, but if you say that R* is false, then you are denying an essential Christian belief. Can one *reject* R* and still be a Christian?

::aaron g:: said...

On “conceptual impossibilities” what I mean to suggest is that certain concepts we use make other concepts impossibilities. If by “death” we mean the end of physical life, than that physical life is over. “It is finished.” The concept of “death” then renders the concept of “resurrection” tenuous.

However - and here is my key point in this entry - these are just “concepts” that live embedded within language. Though something may be a “conceptual impossibility” it may nevertheless be possible in reality. Fortunately, reality isn’t possessed by our concepts. “The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” was not a concept for Paul; it was a reality.

Timbo said...

A quick and inadequate stab here Ben, but I'm not so sure that the Resurrection is purely an eschatological reality, surely it is first a soteriological one, with eschatological consequences, of course. I think that this is what Paul argues in 1 Cor 15, in fact. Unless Christ was raised, then the gospel itself if fruitless and meaningless. Paul argues first on the grounds of the Gospel, and then moves on to speak in eschatological terms.

Timbo said...

Another thought springs to mind, to say that the Resurrection is not a "this-worldy reality" is actually a rather gnostic formulation! Surely, the Resurrection must be a this-worldy reality in order for it to make any sense at all in terms of a theology of the Kingdom of God. As with the incarnation, it is an act of God's breaking into this world, it is an act of God's future (certainly) brought into the present. Paul also speaks of the Spirit "making us alive in Christ", which is to say we have already been raised with Christ, though our physical bodies also await this (as does all creation as he argues in Rom 8). The best metaphor for Resurrection Wright argues, is actually transformation not resuscitation. I agree that it is a mystery, absolutely! But to locate it outside of this world, is to miss the point; the fact that it has happened 'within the reality of this space and time world' is in fact exactly the point!

Phillip Fayers said...

Apolonio said: Can one *reject* R* and still be a Christian?

Probably, for the vast majority of values of R.

A friend of mine, Caleb, started writing up a series of comments on Revelation, based on notes he took at a conference. In commenting on the section written to the Church in Pergamum he writes: It's interesting that the church was considered faithful even though their teaching and beliefs were wrong. You'd think that the two wouldn't go together, but the church was obviously still dedicated to Jesus even though they were doing lots of wrong things.

I've been trying to read Barth's Evangelical Theology an Introduction recently and there is a phrase he uses at the start which I keep coming back to: For the very reason that it is devoted to the God who proclaims himself in the Gospel, evangelical theology cannot claim for itself that authority which belongs to him alone.

When we start saying you have to believe X, Y or Z to be a Christian we're in danger of claiming that authority.

The most important thing I take from N T Wright's statements is that he is willing to treat people as individuals. He knows people, who do not believe in the bodily resurrection in the same way as some other people do, who he believes are Christians.

If you want to get a handle on where N T Wright is coming from on the comments on the resurrection take a look at another piece he wrote: How Can the Bible be Authoritative? N T Wright's position is well thought out, well argued and understandable and, like the rest of our theologies, probably wrong in places.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Timbo's, about the soteriological dimension of the resurrection. Protestants in particular tend to over-egg the crucifixion when it comes to the atonement, but not only in I Corinthians 15:3, but also, e.g., in Romans 4:25, Paul links the resurrection to our salvation/justification. (I. H. Marshall recently lectured at Swansea on "Raised for our Justification: the Saving Significance of the Resurrection of Christ.)

Nevertheless, the eschatalogical reality of the resurrection is primary, indeed defining (especially given the image's background in post-exilic apocalyptic). Indeed it would not be incongruous to discuss the resurrection in the context of the doctrine of God even before Christology, let alone anthropology, because it speaks, above all, of the righteousness of God.

Ben Myers said...

G'day Timbo. I appreciate your point about soteriology. But again (twice now in one day!), I'll have to side with N. T. Wright on this one. One of the great values of Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that it demonstrates, through massive historical research, that for first-century Jews "resurrection" was essentially an eschatological (rather than soteriological) concept. For a first-century Jew, to say that God had raised Jesus from the dead was to say that the end of the world had arrived.

Patrick McManus said...

"Jesus' resurrection as confessed by the church is a bodily resurrection, with or without an emptying of the tomb, Somehow there now exists a body that is the living Jesus' human body." Jenson, ST 1, 201.

Yet Jenson goes on to say:

"The organism that was Jesus' availability-that was his body-until he was killed would have as a corpse continued to be an availability of this person, of the kind that tombs and bodies of the dead always are. It would have been precisely a relic, such as the saints of all religions have. Something other than sacrament and church would have located the Lord for us, would have provided a direction for devotion; and that devotion would have been to a saint, and so would have been something other than faith and obedience to a living Lord. The tomb, we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is. We can, of course, say nothing at all about what anyone would have seen who was in the tomb between burial and the first appearances. It the tomb marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is indeed where Christ lay, then it is empty not by inadvertence but as the Temply of Israel was empty." ST 1, 206.

What do we think of Jenson's remarks?

Timbo said...

I agree with you Ben that Wright's argument is convincing in so far as it relates to first-century Jewish expectations, but it seems to me that this again serves as a good example of the multitude of ways in which Christ's resurrection was actually an event that occured outside of what was expected. Even after Jesus had been raised the disciples were still asking him "Lord, are you now going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?" Which suggests to me that they themselves thought of his resurrection within apocalyptic end-of-world categories, and were in fact wrong to do so, or that is to say, partly wrong. Since as Wright also argues, Christ's resurrection does not signify the end of the world, but of the beginning of the new creation within this one - the breaking in of the Kingdom into the reality of this world, pointing to its ultimate renewal (not end!) when Christ returns. It is eschatological, yes, but eschatological in a way that none of the first century Jews were actually expecting.

Chris Petersen said...

"One of the great values of Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that it demonstrates, through massive historical research, that for first-century Jews "resurrection" was essentially an eschatological (rather than soteriological) concept. For a first-century Jew, to say that God had raised Jesus from the dead was to say that the end of the world had arrived."

Ben, I think you've slightly misunderstood Wright's intention in "Resurrection of the Son of God." Part of the point of his massive 'historical research' was in order to show that when the word anastasis (resurrection) was used in Second-Temple Judaism (including the NT) its referent was always concrete meaning "resurrection" was something that happened (concretely,literally,etc) to the body. All other interpretations Wright dismissed:

"Nothing in the entire Jewish context warrants the suggestion that the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 was about'resurrection in heaven', or that the Jewish literature of the period 'speaks both of a resurrection of the body and a resurrection of the spirit without the body'. Some Jews speak of eternal disembodied bliss, but this is not described as 'resurrection'; when resurrection is spoken of, it is the second stage in post-mortem life, not the instant destiny upon death. Nothing here, either, would prepare us for the use of 'resurrection' to mean 'that after his crucifixion...Jesus entered into the powerful life of God' or 'the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God'." (204)

In my opinion the important contribution of Wright's work was not to show the eschatological dimension of resurrection per se, but rather to show that when it was spoken of, from the point of view of both its detractors and supporters resurrection denoted something that happened to the body.

Furthermore, I think it is erroneous to draw a distinction between eschatological and soteriological meanings of the resurrection since soteriology is properly speaking a subset of eschatology. For example, the believer's salvation does not reach its consummation until the eschaton when they too are resurrected. (Of course one could always take the route of completely collapsing these two understandings together such that one ends up adopting a kind of 'realized eschatology.')

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for your valuable input here, Petros. I agree with you completely when you point out that "it is erroneous to draw a distinction between eschatological and soteriological meanings of the resurrection since soteriology is properly speaking a subset of eschatology." And you're right, of course, that Wright's emphasis is on the "bodily" character of resurrection.

Still, I think Wright's book also gives massive support to the understanding of resurrection as eschatological event -- and although Wright doesn't make much of the significance of this, I think his research nevertheless shows that an approach like Pannenberg's has firm grounding in the historical sources. And I myself would approach the resurrection of Jesus in a way similar to Pannenberg's -- so that Jesus' resurrection from the dead is seen to be truly and literally the proleptic eschatological event, the "end of the world" arriving ahead of time. If anything disappoints me about Wright's work on the resurrection, it's the fact that he doesn't really take any steps in this direction. (And for this reason, I think Wright's historical work is best supplemented by Pannenberg's brilliant theological work on resurrection.)

T.B. Vick said...

Ben states: "But the one thing that matters ultimately is faith in the “Risen Lord”—not one’s ability to define this faith in correct conceptual terms."

I agree with you here in this last sentence, Ben (although I am not sure that I gree with your entire post). However, faith in the risen Lord means belief that He was in fact risen - this is the resurrection - to reject it seems to be a rejection of the heart of Christianity.

If Christ has not been raised then our faith is in vain.

Ap said...

When we start saying you have to believe X, Y or Z to be a Christian we're in danger of claiming that authority.

Does God have the authority to tell us that X, Y, Z, etc are necessary to be Christian? If so, then can God speak through His Church?

The whole notion that the "theological interpretation" of X is what matters leads to theo-Babel. I'm not saying that we should take away mysteries (heresies were born from a reduction of mysteries). What I'm asking is, although the mysteries are mysteries, that the resurrection is a mystery, is there room for a child-like interpretation of 1 Cor. 15? It seems to be clear that if you don't believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then you do not hold the Christian faith.

Sven said...

Hi Ben,

Absolutely top-notch stuff. You've managed to say what I was thinking but made it far more intelligible.

You don't have trackback so just to let you know I've linked to this article and discussed it a little here

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