Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Resurrection Melee

The comments section on my last post indicates that I've found a topic (or hit a nerve) that interests a great many people. Is it necessary to believe in the [physical?] resurrection of Jesus in order to be a Christian?

It was with a wry smile that I read the post of my good friend Ben Myers on Believing in the resurrection. There Ben essentially takes Wright's side on the matter. The exchange is shrouded in irony since Myers is defending Wright and I'm disagreeing with Wright - a rather odd turn of events for those who know us. Many thoughts come to mind (like et tu Benjamin?). I'm rather reluctant to disagree with Ben on anything, he's smarter than me and he's a very amiable chap too (like Iago from Othello "I'd rather die than speak ill of Michael Cassio!"). All the same, I will venture to disagree with my learned coffee drinking friend.

Ben states:

"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."

I would suggest that resurrection, conceived of as bodily resurrection, is itself the interpretation of the statement "God raised Jesus". Revelation and Interpretation are merged together from the beginning. The NT authors (principally Paul and the Evangelists) were not concerned simply with the Das ("that") of the resurrection, but were compelled to elucidate to some degree the Was ("what") and the Wie ("how") in some circumstances. The NT authors bracket out certain hermeneutical reflections on the resurrection including its denial (1 Corinthians 15), gnostics and docetic interpretations (John 21; Luke 24), and over-realized accounts (2 Tim 2.18). Moreover, the language of resurrection (anastasis, egeiro, etc.) did not include blank terms awaiting to be filled with meaning, but these words already carried theological baggage when they were imported into Christian proclamation. Any discourse about resurrection brought with it a series of eschatological expectations about creation, God, Israel and the eschaton. Regardless of how Christians redefined resurrection in reference to Jesus, they did not completely leave the theological baggage at the door of the empty tomb.

When Paul was faced with the question, "Well what kind of body?" Indeed, discontinuities and metaphors abound. Paul is trying to draw a picture of postmortem human existence that is simultaneously somatic, pneumatic and psychematic - not an easy task. The problem of the language is not due to the hermeneutical indeterminancy of what resurrection meant (it operates in relation to some kind of physicality) but is due to the other-worldly and apocalyptic nature of the subject. It is analagous to trying to explain the concept of electricity to a people who have only known stone-age like conditions.

Resurrection may well be eschatological and mysterious, but that does not make it a vacuum waiting to be filled with anything meeting the tastes of the post-enlightenment stomach. Here Ben would acknowledge that some interpretations of "Jesus is risen" are better than others. I would also acknowlege that salvation is not contingent upon our ability to conceptualize the confession "Christ is risen" any more than justification is contingent upon being able to theorize the mechanics of imputed righteousness. Nevertheless, the NT gives us conceptual boundaries and guidelines in which to operate in. I think that one of those boundaries is the physicality of resurrection, particularly when it was defined against competing understandings of resurrection - a process which has already begun in the NT but continued in the second century. Thus the NT documents have already started to privilege a certain band of interpretation and hem out others - so I am willing to admit that there can be a diversity of hermeneutical approaches to the resurrection within the orbit of certain boundaries (see Murray J. Harris' book on the resurrection as an example of one who pushes the boundaries in some way). But I do not think that Marc Borg or Dom Crossan's interpretation of the resurrection is in the zone so to speak.

I now hand over to Ben for the final word!

Perhaps Christopher Petersen has something to say on the topic too?


Chris Petersen said...

Well put, Michael. Indeed I do have something to say but it's too much to put here. I should have the post up tomorrow for those who wish to read it.

Anonymous said...


Let me add a few statements to what is already been said.

Three theological points I want to outline: First, The bodily resurrection of Jesus means that Jesus is the Son of God. Second, Jesus's bodily resurrection proves his messianic mission was approved by God, so was his work. That is, God put his very stamped on it.Third, Jesus' bodily resurrection shows that Jesus is God's Agent of salvation.

Read further...

1-The bodily resurrection of Jesus certifies God's (own words)about Jesus at his baptism, "This is My Beloved Son..." (Matt.3.16). Such manner of bringing Jesus to life accounts for his divine nature. By consequence, Jesus' bodily resurrection was a nessary historical event (so to account for him being the very God of God).

2-The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead validates Jesus' messianic claims and function. That is, his messianic mission was publicly approved and attested to many.

3-To be messiah is to be God's Agent of salvation. As Israel's Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus bring universal salvation.Therefore,both Jews and Gentiles must believe in and confess that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to become followers of Christ. Hence, Paul could forcefully declare to the Romans: " That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.." ( Rom. 10.9)

I hope that helps a bit.

Blessings to all.

Sean du Toit said...

Well Done Mike!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Like most of your commenters, I believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. But, like Wright, I prefer to leave the door open for those who disagree to still be counted as Christians.

I'm no theologian, but the problem as I understand it is this. (1) In Acts, the appearance of the risen Lord to Paul is described as non-material in nature: i.e., Christ appeared as a glorious light. (2) In 1Co. 15:45, Paul says "the last Adam became a life-giving spirit." (3) Again, in 2Co. 3:17-18, Paul says, "Now the Lord is the Spirit" and continues, "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

The point is, for many interpreters Paul is describing the risen Lord as a being of pure Spirit, which is consistent with the Acts account of the appearance to Paul. (In particular, being transformed into his glory is reminiscent of the Acts account.) They see that construction as standing in tension with the (grossly) material description of the risen Lord at some places in the Gospels.

I'm liberal enough in my views that that reading of the text has some merit in my eyes. On the other hand, it certainly doesn't account for the tradition of the empty tomb, which appears to be quite early.

I am not willing to pass judgement on someone who denies the bodily resurrection and pronounce that s/he is not a Christian.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for your excellent response, Mike. It's clear that you're the clever one in this friendship -- at this rate, I'll still be working on my second book while you're finishing your eighth or ninth!

dan said...

Somewhere in all this hullabaloo in the last week, someone (iMonk, I think), posted an extended quote from Borg on an interview on NPR from a few years back. It is clear that what he denies is the empty tomb. I don't agree with him now, but there was a time when I would have. I just don't see that move on my part, or the failure to move on his part, as all important.

dan said...

Somewhere in all this hullabaloo in the last week, someone (iMonk, I think), posted an extended quote from Borg on an interview on NPR from a few years back. It is clear that what he denies is the empty tomb. I don't agree with him now, but there was a time when I would have. I just don't see that move on my part, or the failure to move on his part, as all important.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

I certainly would not deny that there is some complexity in the NT understanding of anastasis. The now long ago flap over Murray J. Harris reading of the NT data illustrates this and I have no problem with M.J.Harris.

Take for example the story of Lazarus in John 11. What sort of body did Lazarus have after he was raised? Did Lazarus walk through walls after being raised? Did he die after he was raised? The term used is anastasis:


If Lazarus was not raised with the same kind of body as Jesus then why is the story used as a sign of the anastasis?

The squabble between Murray J. Harris and his detractors, e.g., stormin' Norman (Geisler) left a residue of north american evangelical writing on the anastasis for anyone who wishes to wade through it. I think Harris' books are particularly worth reading.

James said...

I think this debate is very insightful. I've added some of my own thoughts (with a Barthian slant) over at my blog:



David Wilkerson said...

I will add as I have elsewhere in Mark 6 that Herod thought John the Baptist was 'raised from the dead' and it had absolutely no eschatological significance and could be interpreted as his spirit being in Jesus. His bodily presence in the grave appears to play no factor at all. I posted at length and ad nauseum over at Chrisendom.