Tuesday 14 April 2009

ET and the resurrection: an Easter sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

His initials are E.T., but he wasn’t that ET. He was an earthling, and his name was Ernst Troeltsch. And he’s a good way in to understanding misunderstanding the resurrection of Jesus – which gets us about as close as we can to understanding it! Confused? That’s the point! Let me explain.

Troeltsch was a German sociologist of religion who taught in Heidelberg during the early part of last century. Top of the theological agenda at the time was the relation between faith and history. For a century-and-a-half historians had been fine-tuning their methods over matters of research, evidence, probability, facts, interpretation, and so on, and, inevitably, they had begun to ask questions about the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible. How can we be sure that the events recorded in the Bible actually happened, particularly when miracles are involved? How much confidence can we place in reports that had been handed down by word of mouth and, when finally written down, were far removed from the first eyewitnesses? And what about the inconsistencies that become apparent when comparing different gospel passages about the same incident? Can we base our faith on things so open to question? And even if our doubts could be allayed, how can so-called universal religious truth be based on historical events? And, further, how can what happened way back then and there, in a remote Mediterranean backwater, be relevant to us folk here and now in Swansea?

All these questions came to a head in the resurrection of Jesus, and ET – Ernst Troeltsch – was, as it were, one of the chief consultants to operate on the body in question. And what’s the saying? The surgery was successful – but the patient was lost, cut to pieces with the scalpel of the historical method itself.

But we must give ET his due: Troeltsch grasped that the real issue here for faith is not so much the findings of historical research, rather the real problem is the presuppositions of historical research, the way the whole project works. Because it turns out that the very methods with which historians ply their trade rule out in advance the claims that the church makes about the resurrection of Jesus. Look, Troeltsch said, this is how historians work, how they have to work: they can talk only about probabilities; they must locate events along chains of cause and effect; and events must always relate to other events, they must have analogies.

And it all sounds very reasonable. And it certainly works pretty well when you’re writing a history of the Reformation in Wales, or the rise of the English working class, or the origins of the First World War. But when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, what do you get? You get zilch, that’s what you get. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. On Troeltsch’s terms it is ruled out in principle. For faith claims that the resurrection of Jesus is unique, a one-off; that it happened out of nothing, it has no “previous”; and that, in faith, we know that out Redeemer lives.

But, yes, we must be grateful to old ET, for what he did was to sharpen the resurrection-question for Christians to the point where it tests our fundamental attitude to the modern world. The question is this: Are we to interpret the Easter event in the light of secular convictions about what constitutes “reality”, or are we to interpret secular convictions about what constitutes “reality” in the light of the Easter event? To put it most sharply: Are we going to determine what God can and cannot do on the basis of a given script, written by the Enlightenment, or are we going to allow God to determine what he can and cannot do even if it means rewriting the script? Who is in charge here? Who, in a word, is Lord?

Sceptics who argue that the tomb was empty because Jesus hadn’t actually died, or because the disciples had stolen the body, but also liberal Christians who argue that there probably was no tomb, that the body of Jesus was dumped in a common grave, and that even if there were a tomb it surely decomposed there, but not to worry, the important thing is the awesome visions the disciples had – sceptic and liberal alike view the resurrection of Jesus under the constraints of the historical method, about what can and cannot happen. And even evangelical Christians who try to explain away the inconsistencies and meld the different gospel accounts of Easter morning into a single coherent narrative, while against the sceptics and the liberals they affirm that God raised the dead Jesus, nevertheless in the very way they feel compelled to marshal the evidence, to out-argue the sceptics, they demonstrate that they too are bewitched by the constraints of modern historiography.

But as Dean Inge once famously said, if you wed yourself to the spirit of the age, it won’t be long before you are widowed. So let’s be clear. The church’s Scriptures witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. No, no one observed the raising of Jesus. And yes, there are different accounts of the seeing of Jesus. And no, a consistent harmonised account cannot be constructed from them. But that is precisely the point! If a totally history-friendly account could be constructed, then it most certainly would not be a witness to this event.

Of course everything that happened on Easter morning doesn’t fit together. Of course what has been called the “testimonies of the overwhelmed” (Helmut Thielicke) do not conform to the normal canons of evidence. Talk about astonishment, awe – and confusion! What else when you’re confronted by a reality that exceeds the limits of experience, reason and even imagination, a reality that is, in the strictest sense, indescribable, leaving language in a heap, its speakers tongue-tied. What else when you are hit by an earthquake that shatters the very foundations of human knowing, leaving scraps and fragments, and whose shock waves continue to reverberate and disturb.

The resurrection of Jesus – one can only try and fail to talk about it – one cannot be silent – one can only pray that the failure is a fortunate failure – the resurrection of Jesus is an event in history but not of history, an event with no “before”, a rupture, a fracture, an explosion, a big, bigger, biggest bang. As a new creation it can only be compared – as Paul compares it – with creation itself: “from the dead” with “out of nothing”. It certainly cannot be circumscribed by our so-called plausibility structures, or understood within our everyday frames of reference, rather it subverts these structures and frames and compels us to revise reality itself. Because, in short, as Karl Barth superbly and accurately put it, resurrection, finally, is “a paraphrase for God”, and God is ultimate and irreducible mystery, and the mystery of God is the hidden mystery of history, of the world itself.

“Getting inside the miracle” is a poem by Luci Shaw on the resurrection (the poets are always our best bet here):

        No, he is too quick. We never
        catch him at it. He is there
        sooner than our thought or prayer.
        Searching backwards, we cannot discover
        how, or get inside the miracle.
        Enough. Refrain. Observe
        a finished work…

As sure as (Easter!) eggs is eggs, the resurrection happened, but that it happened is disclosed – Jesus makes his presence known – and it can be known only in faith, which does not answer to historical method but is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So thanks, ET, for the clarification. And thank you, God, for the revelation, transcending time and space, for meeting us here and now in the risen Christ, with the word – because we are so afraid – “Shalom! Peace be with you.” Yes, and thank you that, if still with lingering doubt and confusion, nevertheless without apology, with boldness and joy, we can say this morning: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”


Terry Wright said...

Excellent, Kim; thanks.

roger flyer said...

Curmudgeons rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!

Anonymous said...


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tortoise said...

Nice one Kim.

Look, Troeltsch said, this is how historians work, how they have to work: they can talk only about probabilities; they must locate events along chains of cause and effect...Thus, as it says on the side of the bus, there's probably no God... but when did improbability ever get in God's way?

And thanks for the Luci Shaw poem. Apt and intriguing - I now can't shake a mental association of the entombed Jesus with Schroedinger's cat!

Erin said...

That's great, Kim thanks :)
May I ask how the congregation received it? I think it's a great explanation of some issues that most congregants might otherwise never stumble upon.

Anonymous said...

"Very good. Who was it that said: "I believe in order to understand"?"


Doug Harink said...

"Testimonies of the overwhelmed" indeed. Thank you, Kim, for yours!

Jonathan Keith said...

The very methods with which historians ply their trade rule out in advance the claims that the church makes about the resurrection of Jesus. It didn't happen. It couldn't happen. It is ruled out in principle.

Thus the methods of the historian do not merely reveal history - they create it. Ditto for the scientist and nature.

Josh said...

"For faith claims that the resurrection of Jesus is unique, a one-off; that it happened out of nothing, it has no 'previous'; and that, in faith, we know that our Redeemer lives."

What about Lazarus?

Ben Myers said...

Jonathan said: Thus the methods of the historian do not merely reveal history - they create it.Yes, that's absolutely right — and it's impossible to understand the nature of "history" if this point is overlooked.

Daniel said...

First of all I really liked the sermon.

However, I would hasten to point out that Troeltsch was, beyond being a sociologist and historian, a theologian. His theology was constructed to discourage dogmatic insistence, not to discourage faith.

When we use Troeltsch in our present day it is easy to see how his method can actually be used to construct a historical plausibility for the resurrection. First, for Troeltsch, all history is known by faith. It is certain only in degrees of plausibility. Next, any understanding is by analogy (all of this was correctly summarized in the article). Finally we understand events as interconnected - one leading to the other, etc.

The point of departure from this powerful sermon is on the "uniqueness" of the resurrection. Troeltsch thought every event in history was absolutely unique but he thought events could have analogies. For Troeltsch the realm of history also included the study of other religions (because they, like Christianity, exist in history). When determining if an event has an analogy one may incorporate personal and foreign experience. Resuscitation in hospitals and resurrection-like events described in other world faiths are not the resurrection per se, but they do make the resurrection more plausible because they are analogous to greater or lesser degrees with the resurrection. If Isis comes back from the dead and my grandpa dies for five minutes and came back to life we can see an undercurrent in history which makes the resurrection actually quite plausible.

In terms of the cause and effect relationship of historical events, its true that Troeltsch's method does not allow for historical exploration of the actual raising of Jesus. But it does allow for the historical consideration of Jesus' being raised. This because there was an event (the Church) in time and space that came about as a reaction to the risen Christ. because every historical event has a cause and an effect, the cause of the Church is therefore fair game for history. This cause is the resurrection and the related experiences of Pentecost. All of this, contrary to drawing a line in the sand, blurs what we think of in many ways as the subject of history. It also makes the resurrection historically likely given the triangulation of evidence. This not to say that the resurrection is "known" as a fact through history but, given Troeltsch's method, nothing can be.

Brad East said...

Such good news, and not to mention a primer in preaching. Thank you!

Anonymous said...


Sir, the thinking in analogies as you describe it, in my humble opinion, is of no use whatsoever to
underpin the resurrection of jesus.
legendary events in other faiths as well as anecdotal evidence of resuscitation-like happenings in the ER have nothing in common with the resurrection of jesus.
he, at least this is my firm belief as a catholic, is present
in every eucharistic meal up to the present day and in the future
until the end of times.
this you have to beleif or not.
historical analogies are of no help,at least for me.
respectful easter greetings
kurt usar,md

Andre said...

Re: Daniel's comment: "If Isis comes back from the dead and my grandpa dies for five minutes and came back to life we can see an undercurrent in history which makes the resurrection actually quite plausible."
No, this is precisely what we are not talking about when we talk about the resurrection of Jesus, because resurrection is not a human possibility, or something that approximates to a human possibility, and it's certainly not anything like a coming back from the dead (which is not only a pagan as opposed to a Christian idea, but also a very silly and incoherent one). The notion that there are "resurrection-like" events is entirely foreign to the logic of the gospels.
However, it is worth pointing out that to say that the resurrection of Jesus is an utterly unique act of God, is not to say that it is wholly unintelligible. Rather, as Kim has so eloquently suggested, it's really a question of where we try to locate its intelligibility: i.e., within the sort of immanentist framework suggested by Troeltsch, or within the doctrine of God. If we choose the former, then we must necessarily say that there is no such thing as the resurrection of Jesus. If, however, we chose the latter, then we might say that the resurrection of Jesus does indeed make sense in the context of the doctrine of divine aseity, but precisely for this reason its intelligibility largely eludes us. All we can do is try to set out the theological context of God's act, showing, for example, its relationship to other, wholly surprising, acts of God (hence the theological significance of the passover setting of the crucifixion of Jesus), while remembering that the cause and rationality of these acts is located in God himself, and not in our own conception of rationality. At the same time, we have to show where the divine logic of the cross and resurrection impinges upon our canons of intelligibility, and what that impingement looks like. So, the Oxford Dominican, Victor White, could, in a review of Søren Kierkegaard's Journals, use a latin tag "Deus vult salvare, prius dementat (whom God wills to save, he first drives mad)", to describe God's dealings with his people.

james said...

All this theoretical talk of the limits of the "historical" obscure the more basic point, namely, it is largely just an accident of history that the resurrection occurred (or didn't occur as the case may be) at a time when someone could have taken a cell phone video of the scene and greatly improved our historical data. Of course the historical data could still never lead to faith, but it would cure the more glaring issue for historians of the basic unreliability and incompleteness of the testimony we do have. Kim seeks to make a virtue of this accident when it is really more of a troubling necessity. Why didn't God delay a few millenia? He apparently hasn't been in a hurry since.

JM said...


The resurrection of Jesus is a very different thing from what happened to Lazarus. Lazarus was brought back from the dead, yes. And continued the life he had lived for we assume a fair number of years and then died, for good. Jesus was resurrected with an eternal body. If Jesus' resurrection had been a Lazarus-like resuscitation, would death have really been defeated?

saint egregious said...

"Deus vult salvare, prius dementat' Thanks for sharing that Andre. White wasn't the first to use it, but it sure makes a lot more sense of the resurrection than a lot of the nervous metaphysical hair-splitting we get in Easter sermons (and believe me, I've preached a bucket full of "historie vs. geschichte' ballbusters. They sucked eggs.)

In regards to this maniacal parrhesia which is the heart of Christian Barth is definitely not an improvement upon Kierkegaard, and White seems to capture the heart of the difference in this little latin gem.

Anonymous said...

"And even evangelical Christians who try to explain away the inconsistencies and meld the different gospel accounts of Easter morning into a single coherent narrative . . . in the very way they feel compelled to marshal the evidence, to out-argue the sceptics, they demonstrate that they too are bewitched by the constraints of modern historiography."

This is a very uncharitable read of evangelicals who do historical work regarding the events surrounding the resurrection, especially those who do so in response to refutations of the biblical account. Surely N.T. Wright (who draws heavily on evangelicals like William Lane Craig) isn't "bewitched" by modern historiography?

Daniel said...

Thanks to all who responded to me. I love the feedback. You all have excellent points.

I do think Barth and Troeltsch fundamentally disagree and so if you sympathize with one, you are unlikely to find the other compelling. My point is not to "convert" the Barthians in the room. Rather it is two-fold: one, to show how Troeltsch might at least be taken seriously before being rejected; and two, to point to another ordering of logic that might open up a neo-Orthodox perspective.

What I mean by that is that Troeltsch depends on outside evidence (other world religions, human experience in general) to make his case for a particular doctrine. Neo-Orthodoxy relies on a priori arguments. You may fairly disagree a priori with Troeltsch - that's fair - but I encourage folks to read the great works of world religions before deciding that their own religion has nothing in common. How would you know that except from a dogmatic insistence?

Religions should not and cannot be fused together into a super-religion but we Christians might be surprised at what we can learn. I just encourage you, even if you are not surprised at all, to hold off making a claim one way or another until you have read something by a Hindu theologian or whoever and perhaps also the Bhagavad Gita. I expect it will be like traveling to a foreign country for you. You will likely see many things you have in common and many things you don't. You will probably find a greater appreciation for foreign cultures just at the same time you love your own more.


Christian Collins Winn said...

A great sermon Kim! I think this may be the first time I have heard (or rather read) a sermon in which Troeltsch is drawn in and yet the preacher doesn't succumb to ET's temptations, in either the liberal or evangelical direction. I wish I had heard this rather than what I had to endure this past Sunday!
He is risen indeed!

Anonymous said...

Some of the people who are having trouble with the sermon (Josh, James) seem to be missing an integral part of what Kim is saying (and perhaps an integral part of the doctrine of the Resurrection itself). Namely, Jesus' rising wasn't a mere coming back to life, in an average human body. The Risen Christ was the first-fruit of the eschaton; his body was glorified and transfigured. Hence the Gospel of John's accounts of him eating, yet still walking through doors. Even if there were cell phone cameras at the time, then, any picture they could take couldn't tell the whole story about the Risen Christ, just as written accounts can't--the Risen Christ is eschatological, and the rest of the world hasn't caught up yet.

The same mistake was made by Christopher Hitchens a few years back, when he kept suggesting that the accounts in Matthew of the dead rising from their graves following the crucifixion "degrades the idea of the resurrection by making it commonplace." There's a profound lack of understanding of what Christians have traditionally believed about the resurrection there.

Daniel said...


Fair enough. I suppose I should have said, 'appear to fundamentally disagree.' I think you are right that they agree in many key ways and H. Richard Niebuhr shows one way the two could potentially be reconciled/fused. I'm going to check out that book you mentioned! Thanks for the suggestion.

roger flyer said...

The more Kim I read, the more I see a man who really loves Jesus. The real Jesus. And I'm thankful for you, Kim. You lead me to a real Jesus whom I can love and worship.

Josh said...

JM & Anonymous:

Thanks for responding to my question about a concrete exegetical matter ("What about Lazarus?")--a lot of clever but abstract theology here.

Perhaps I should first clarify that I appreciate this sermon for the most part. I simply think it would have made homiletical sense to anticipate that some biblically literate listeners would ask the question I did; a line or two distinguishing the resurrection of Jesus from the resurrection or resuscitation of Lazarus would have been helpful.

Certainly, I believe there is a difference between the two (as has been said, had Jesus been raised only to die again, his resurrection could hardly be called a victory over death). I have heard the explanation that Jesus experienced resurrection while Lazarus experienced only resuscitation previously. I wonder, though, if more can and should be said.

It has often been argued that the death of Jesus can only be understood through the lens of his subsequent resurrection; by raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated him--including his death, which at first appeared to be a defeat. I am intrigued by the possibility of similarly reading the resurrection through the lens of the ascension (an under-emphasized part of the Jesus-story, it seems to me). Perhaps we can only understand the resurrection of Jesus (as much as this mystery can be understood) when we look back on it on this side of the ascension. Put simply, the ascension distinguishes the raising of Jesus from the raising of Lazarus. Had Lazarus "ascended into heaven" we would not assume (as we do) that he eventually died again and has since remained dead.

JR Woodward said...


An excellent text for this would be the International Review of Mission Vol. XC No. 358 July 2001. The topic is Ecclesiology and Mission. There are nice short articles on perspectives from various church traditions including a reformed, a roman catholic, orthodox, along with pentecostal, evangelical, quaker, lutheran, iona and missionary apostolate.

An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical and Global Perspectives by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, which I have reviewed in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III.

Then there is God's Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church by Charles Van Engen.

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